Kristin Biedermann’s doctor had been telling her for a while that her cholesterol levels were on the high side. But with three kids, a husband and a job as an event planner keeping her busy, her health often took a back seat.
Last spring, though, everything changed. Biedermann’s older brother, Matt Kolsrud, of Cedar Rapids, had a heart attack. He was 38 and had none of the typical risk factors for heart disease when he visited his doctor complaining of a burning sensation in his chest. What Kolsrud thought was bronchitis turned out to be several serious blockages requiring quadruple heart bypass surgery.
“It was shocking,” recalls Biedermann, now 35, of Marion. “He really lives life by the rules, and you’d never expect something like that to happen to someone so apparently healthy.”
Biedermann couldn’t help but put herself in her brother’s shoes. They share the same genes, after all, and she worried that she would find herself in the same situation in the not-too-distant future. So once Kolsrud was safely through surgery and on the road to recovery, Biedermann began looking for ways to reduce her risk of heart disease.
“I just really took his experience to heart,” she says. “I was so thankful to have him, and at the same time, it really was a wake-up call that gave me the motivation to make my health a higher priority.”
She made an appointment with her brother’s cardiologist, who checked her cholesterol levels and recommended a heart scan, a screening that identifies plaque in the arteries and assesses heart health.
“My results weren’t as good as we’d hoped they would be,” Biedermann says. “That was like the final gear coming into place. I needed to take action. I needed to move in the most positive direction I could.”
So she began overhauling her — and her family’s — lifestyle. Nearly a year later she has shed 40 pounds, plus the weight she had gained in her last pregnancy. (Her youngest daughter was just 3 months old at the time of the heart attack.) And she’s reduced her cholesterol by more than 25 percent.
She credits a healthful, lower-calorie diet and exercise.
“My diet wasn’t that unhealthy to begin with. I didn’t drink soda. I didn’t eat a lot of chips or junk food. The typical obvious changes weren’t there. So I started looking to incorporate more ‘superfoods,’ like nuts and avocados and other foods with healthy oils that are beneficial to your heart,” she says.
She also added some supplements recommended by her cardiologist, as well as cut calories overall, with a focus on reducing the amount of refined carbs and sugar in her diet.
She brought her kids on board by getting her older daughters, now 6 and 8, involved with cooking and grocery shopping — allowing them to pick out new fruits and vegetables to try each time they visited the supermarket. They also worked together to reinvent some kid favorites, like chicken nuggets, to make them more healthful.
“It’s taken a lot of planning to come up with the best menu choices that work for everyone — my kids have food allergies, so not only are we trying to follow a heart-healthy diet, we’re working around the parameters of their food allergies,” Biedermann says.
To make it easier to eat healthfully, Biedermann sticks with simple recipes and takes advantage of convenience foods like pre-cut and washed produce and single-serving packages of nuts.
She also made exercise a priority, and that led to a new favorite family activity: bicycling on the area’s paved trails.
The past year has not only lead to better physical health, it’s also given Biedermann and her family a new outlook on life.
“Going through something so scary just made me realize that life is so precious,” she says. “You might feel too young to be affected by something like heart disease, but there is no guarantee. You just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
This story originally appeared in The Gazette's American Heart Month special section, published on Feb. 2, 2014.