Lifestyle Changes Reverse Chronic Conditions

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Heart disease came knocking on Holland nurse Sara Armstrong’s door when her partner came face to face with some serious heart health reports. With abnormally high cholesterol, the 52-years-old also had a family history of heart disease, and he decided, with Sara’s help, to make a change in his eating habits.

“(He) started on July 1, and twenty-seven days later, all his labs were nearly normal. For the first time in his adult life. Also, his doctor approved him going off the blood pressure medications that he had been on for ten years...It really opened our eyes,” Sara says.

His cholesterol levels went from 196 mg/dl to 146mg/dl and his triglyceride levels went from 555 mg/dl to 188 mg/dl in one month.

So what was the miracle cure that Sara’s family implemented? Eating a low-fat vegan diet.

As a veteran nurse, Sara was leery of the claims that eating vegan could boost heath so drastically, but she did her research and thanks to her partner's dramatic health improvements, she swears by the diet. Sara has been in the healthcare field for twenty years, and seven years ago settled into the Center for Good Health.

“I have a desire to help people avoid ending up in the hospital,” Sara says. “I have a passion in helping people prevent the progression of disease or the on-set of disease.”

The focus of a vegan diet is the elimination of animal fat. Animal products are the number one source of fat-blocking insulin, and once the fat is out of the cells, the insulin produced by the body can do its job once more, Sara says.

On this diet, eat as much as you want as often as you want, and you’ll never be hungry, Sara says. By eating whole foods, counting calories no longer matters, and making the transition into a meatless diet is easier than most people think.

“Six months before I thought I could never eat vegan, but six months later, this isn’t so hard...Just pretend you’re going on vacation for three weeks in a different country, and see,” Sara suggests.

At the moment, she says she spends more of her time on a diabetes management program, which consequently goes hand in hand with this approach. The diet works for patients with diabetes too.

Sara’s aunt suffers from type two diabetes, or did suffer before she started eating vegan. Following the diet “to a T” prevents her from having to be on insulin, Sara says.

“Diabetes diets all talk about moderation. Moderation is fine, but it’s not going to reverse your heart disease. It might be a fairly healthy diet, but even moderation can be an easy slippery slope,” she says.

In addition to her work at the Center for Good Health, Sara gives presentations on health and wellness and goes into workplaces to train people on the benefits of physical activity and lifestyle changes that can help them prevent chronic illness and maintain a healthy livelihood long-term. Take a class on "Tackling Chronic Conditions" Thursday, May 17 at 6-7:30 p.m. at Holland Hospital. Registration is $5. Call 616-394-3344, or click here to find out more!

Here are some of Sara’s favorite recipes. Is your family eating vegan? Share your recipes and stories with West Michigan Woman! 

Three layer Tortilla Casserole

Supposed to serve four but double the batch because you WILL want seconds!

Vegetable oil cooking spray (optional)
One fifteen ounce can of black beans, drained and rinsed
Half a cup vegetable broth
Two garlic cloves, minced
One teaspoon dried oregano
One-fourth teaspoon cayenne pepper
One large red onion, chopped
Two cups chopped zucchini
One cup frozen corn, thawed
One-teaspoon ground cumin
Two tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Three eight-inch whole wheat or corn tortillas
Three-fourths cup prepared chunky salsa 

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a ten-inch pie plate with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. Add the beans, one-fourth cup broth, garlic, oregano and cayenne to food processor or blender and blend until smooth but thick. Set aside. (May want to make extra for dip or spread later!)
  3. Heat the remaining one-fourth cup broth in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for five minutes. Put in the zucchini and corn and sauté for three minutes. Add the cumin and cilantro and sauté for one minute. Season with salt and black pepper.
  4. Place one tortilla in the prepared pie plate. Spread about one-third of the bean mixture over the tortilla. Using a slotted spoon, add one third of the vegetable mixture on top of the beans. Add one-third of the salsa over the vegetables and top with a tortilla. Make two more layers in the same fashion, to make a total of three layers.
  5. Bake uncovered for about thirty mintues. Cut into wedges to serve.

Recipe from The Get Healthy, Go Vegan Cookbook by Neal Barnard and Robyn Webb

Classic Lentil, Tomato & Potato Stew

Three tablespoons olive oil (we omit)
Two tablespoons dry sherry
One yellow onion, diced
Three cloves of garlic, minced
Six cups vegetable stock (no sodium)
One cup dried brown lentils
Two bay leaves
One tablespoon dried basil
One can whole tomatoes, chopped with juice
One pound russet potatoes, scrubbed & dices (we use sweet potatoes or yams)
One-half cup minced Italian parsley
Half a teaspoon of salt (if desired)
Several grinds of black pepper
One tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Six lemon wedges 

In a large stockpot, heat the oil (if used) and sherry over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, stir to coat, and cook for several minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the stock, lentils, bay leaves, and basil. Increase the heat to high, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for thirty minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, along with their liquid, and the potatoes. Continue to cook for fifteen minutes, until the potatoes and lentils are tender.  Stir in the parsley, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Serve piping hot, with lemon wedges on the side.

Recipe from The Complete Vegan Cookbook by Susann Geiskopf-Hadler and Mindy Toomay

Banana Cream

One ripe banana per person; the riper the banana is, the sweeter the “ice cream” will be.

Peel and slice the bananas, place on baking sheet and freeze. Remove from freezer and slightly thaw enough to remove from baking sheet. Place frozen bananas in a strong blender or juicer with half a teaspoon vanilla. It comes out creamy and delicious.  Sprinkle to your liking with nutmeg or cinnamon and sliced berries.

This works equally well with frozen mangoes or frozen berries or a combination of fruit.  Experiment to see what you like. If using a blender, it may be necessary to thaw the frozen bananas a little longer than in a juicer. 

Recipe from Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn

Written by: Erika Fifelski is the West Michigan Woman magazine editorial coordinator. She was born and raised in West Michigan, and after a brief stint on the sunrise side, she's home and loving it. Erika enjoys cooking, vacuuming, and discovering new ways to live sustainably and support local businesses. Photo: stock.xchng

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