Michael Capalbo used to subsist mostly on meals in restaurants and takeouts.
“I just thought I was immortal,” says the 54-year-old Connecticut salesman. “I was literally living on burgers and wings and pizza and stuff like that.”
Then in April of 2020, while at work at Walgreens, Capalbo had a massive heart attack caused by a complete blockage in a major artery. A pharmacist gave him an aspirin and called 911. Capalbo later learned that his heart had to be shocked back to life in the ambulance.
His near-death experience forced Capalbo to radically change his diet. He gave up red meat, bacon, and greasy sausage pizzas. He said goodbye to one of his favorite guilty pleasures: garlic parmesan chicken wings. He quit all other fried foods.
Capalbo is one of 18 million Americans who have coronary artery disease (CAD). It happens when sticky plaque clogs your arteries and slows or blocks the flow of blood to and from the heart.
With his favorite foods banished, Capalbo had to get creative in the kitchen. He learned how to prepare healthy dishes faster than a meal delivery. He still enjoys pizza, but now it’s homemade with a cauliflower crust — and no cheese. The grill has become a key appliance.
When you have CAD, a heart-healthy diet — low in saturated fats and processed foods and high in fresh produce and whole grains — is an important part of your treatment.
But changing your eating habits, and convincing loved ones to go along, isn’t always easy, says Sandra Arévalo, a registered dietitian in Nyack, NY, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“A lot of people are very traditional with their meals, and they don’t want to make any changes,” she says. “And that’s the biggest barrier. You have to be willing to try new things.”
A Dietitian’s Tips
Arévalo encourages culinary experiments. Whole-wheat pasta or brown rice can bring different textures and taste, compared to their white counterparts.
“It’s like a taste shock,” she says of trying new foods. But with each bite, it “opens your mind a little bit to know that it’s something new that you’re going to taste.”
Shifting your food tastes may take as many as 30 attempts, Arévalo says. “Taste buds get what we call educated,” she says. “By tasting a little every time, that’s how you change your taste buds.”
Arévalo, who speaks Spanish, often works with Hispanic families. A common challenge is that their diet can be heavy on starchy foods, which can drive up your triglycerides — a type of fat in your bloodstream. Similarly, white rice, a staple in Asian cuisines, raises your blood sugar levels faster than whole grains like brown rice do.
“I have tons of families that, because it’s in the culture, eat too many starchy foods at the same time,” Arévalo says of her Hispanic clients. “It’s not hard to find pasta, rice, and potatoes at one meal.”
Try to limit your starchy foods to one per meal at most. If you have tacos for dinner, skip the side of rice — the starch can come from the taco shells. Skip the sour cream, Arévalo says, and retire the refried beans. Instead, boil beans until they are soft, then mash them to get the same texture.
A Foodie’s Cooking Hacks
Mike Carroll Jr., who played football through high school and into college, packed on the pounds after he left the gridiron and worked a desk job as a graphic designer. At his heaviest, he weighed more than 400 pounds.
The 52-year-old, who has coronary artery disease and heart failure, has already lost more than 100 pounds. In late 2021, he weighed around 300. Carroll, who lives in Wichita, KS, plans to shed 25 more pounds to get on a heart transplant list.
Like Capalbo, he’s a big fan of pasta. His current favorite: kelp noodles. For rice, he prefers cauliflower rice. He’s swapped mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower from the frozen food aisle.
Carroll, who describes himself as a “foodie,” sometimes posts his meals on social media. He’s become a whiz with his air fryer, as he prefers crispy foods — the crispier the better. With the air fryer, he can eat everything from chicken wings to turkey bacon without using oil.
If he cooks bacon, Carroll may use it to build a BLT, wrapping the bacon, lettuce, and tomato inside a low-carb tortilla instead of bread. Or he may air-fry some wings and pair them with vegetable noodles and corn kernels on the side. The noodles, made of zucchini, carry a similar texture to pasta after you boil them a bit, he says.
New Eating Habits
Capalbo, who is “100% Italian,” has tried pasta made with chickpeas and black beans since his 2020 heart attack. His current preferred carb is brown rice pasta.
Capalbo now mostly cooks at home and dines out only now and then. He loves salmon and often orders it, as well as making it at home. He avoids cream sauces in restaurants and suspects there’s hidden butter and other ingredients that make restaurant fish taste so good. “It’s the glazes and the seasonings, you don’t know what they are using,” he says.
Going cold turkey on his former eating habits hasn’t been easy, Capalbo admits. “I used to get bacon on everything, I mean everything,” he says. “If I fantasize about anything, it’s a bacon cheeseburger.”
But his bloodwork shows that healthier eating pays off. Within 5 months of starting his new way of life, Capalbo’s total cholesterol dropped from 195 to 105 and his triglycerides plummeted from 265 to 80. While cholesterol is only one part of heart risk, the goal is to keep total cholesterol under 200 and triglycerides under 150.
Capalbo’s cardiologist told him that had he been at home alone when he had his heart attack, “I would have been dead.” When Capalbo woke up in the intensive care unit, it was his teenage daughter who motivated him to overhaul his habits. Along with his new diet, he quit smoking and started walking almost every day.
Capalbo’s daughter has since started college, and he plans to walk her down the aisle on her wedding one day. He hopes that other people with CAD will learn from his health scare.
“I tell everybody: ‘Don’t be me. Be better than me,’” he says. “I literally had to die to figure it out.”