A Cardiac Rehab Nurse on Food, Health, and What We Need to Do Differently
Here at Balanced we talk to a lot of doctors who are working to treat disease before major disaster strikes. This week, we have the enormous privilege of learning from Jennifer Nemeth, a cardiac rehabilitation nurse who helps patients recover and thrive after one of those major disasters - a cardiac event.
We can't imagine a person better positioned to share their thoughts on what we need to do differently in order to prevent and treat the number one leading cause of death in the United States - heart disease.
And if you're thinking Jennifer looks familiar, that's because you might recognize her from one of our earliest videos.
Tell us about yourself!
I'm a cardiac Registered Nurse who desires nothing more than to guide others to better health. I earned a double degree in Dietetics (nutrition) and nursing, a certificate in plant based nutrition from Cornell University, and I'm a certified Food for Life instructor through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
After spending several years in our disease-care system, I came to realize Americans are becoming sicker and sicker while trying to be “healed” through medications and surgical procedures. These cover ups only address the symptoms and not the root cause of chronic disease. I now work at UCSD in the prestigious Dr. Dean Ornish's Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, enabling patients who've experienced cardiac events to thrive through a plant-based diet, exercise, meditation and group support.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey in healthcare and how the food system has shaped the way you practice medicine today? I’ve always had the desire to help others and I knew I wanted my profession to follow suit. My first job out of nursing school was on a step-down unit taking care of post-op coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) patients. In its basic sense, the surgeon acts as a plumber and takes vessels, usually out of the leg, and makes new connections on the heart, bypassing clogged vessels.
I remember being appalled at what they served these patients directly after surgery. It usually consisted of mashed potatoes, gravy and an artery-clogging hunk of meat. Weren’t we just trying to undo this process? Even though I wasn’t completely plant-based at that time, It made me wonder why weren't healing foods promoted?
What is one thing you would change about the food ecosystem in your community that would make a profound impact on your patients' quality of life?
One huge start would be to stop serving foods in the hospital cafeteria and to the patients that are scientifically proven to promote diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It breaks my heart to see items such as meat lovers pizza and bacon, which have ingredients that the renown World Health Organization (WHO) states are Group I carcinogenic to humans, in the same class as cigarette smoking and asbestos. We need to have integrity and set the standard by being health care, not sick care. We can do that by serving healing foods.
When did you first realize your patients struggle unnecessarily hard to lead healthy lives? Human behavior change is not easy. We are so culturally conditioned to believe that eating animal products is normal, necessary and natural. Two wonderful books I read about this is “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An introduction to Carnism” by Melanie Joy, PhD and “The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness” by Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer. I think the most difficult part about diet change for my patients is they initially think they’ll never enjoy food again and they can not enjoy social events. Both are far from the truth and once they are educated more about it, those fears often vanish and they realize they can live an even more fulfilling life. What has you most concerned about your local food system? My top concerns are currently related to the growth of our food, primarily: water and bees. Animal agriculture takes so many precious resources, especially water. I learned a lot about this in the Netflix documentary “Cowspiracy.” I didn’t realize a typical cow drinks 30-40 gallons/water per day. Instead of using that water to hydrate cattle, it would be great to use that to hydrate food for people to eat. According to these calculations, It takes about 4,200 gallons of water per day for a meat-eater’s diet vs about 300 gallons per day for a plant-based eaters diet. Due to more and more pesticide use, the bee population is starting to diminish, causing a major crisis. According to Dennis vanEngelsdorp of Penn State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, "One in every three bites of food you eat comes from a plant, or depends on a plant, that was pollinated by an insect, most likely a bee”. If we don’t have pollinated plants, we don’t have food to consume.
How do you choose to impact your local food system? (either in your work through Balanced or other projects you are working on locally) I am going to try and work on getting a farmers market started on our hospital campus so our patients and staff can enjoy fresh, local produce. I am a full supporter of the work Balanced does and hope to promote it through my health system. I’d love to see more and more plant-based options offered at the cafeteria. On a small scale, my husband and I just started a small garden and are even more appreciative of the hard work our farmers do! If you could design the ideal meal for your patients, what would it be?
I like to educate my patients that they don’t have to create these complex, time-consuming recipes. Think about the plethora of whole foods out there and combine them into a meal. My mantra is create a bowl with “a bean, a green and a grain” and throw a sauce on top. For example, black beans, kale and brown rice with salsa on top. Or chickpeas, broccoli and quinoa with BBQ sauce. Use fruit as a snack. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
How can our supporters get in touch with you if they would like to know more about your practice? Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow me on instagram at @reinventingnutriton or Google “UCSD cardiac rehab” for more information on the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine™ Program for Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation. Some great San Diego community resources for classes and events are www.veg-appeal.com and www.plantdiego.com