Dr. Andrew Kolodziej discusses lifestyle changes through diet, exercise
In recognition of American Heart Month, we recently spoke with UK HealthCare cardiologist Dr. Andrew Kolodziej about how to improve your heart health through diet and exercise.
Dr. Kolodziej is board certified in internal medicine and also certified by the National Board of Echocardiography.
You’re a vegan and a cardiologist. How does your diet impact or improve your heart health? Is this something you think about a lot?
My genetics and upbringing have not been conducive to healthy eating habits. Since my father passed away due to a heart attack, I have become more health conscious, and my 12 years of medical training have exposed me to many lifestyle-change options, including dietary approaches to improve overall health – especially cardiovascular health.
I have come to appreciate the power of a proper lifestyle change, especially the incorporation of different dietary approaches, all of which have a similar premise: less animal protein and more plant-based products.
Since the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet was introduced in 1990s, it became more apparent that those following this approach not only improved their blood pressure but also other cardiovascular risk factors. From my experience, those following this diet, and to a certain degree pure plant-based or even vegan diets, have significantly improved their cardiovascular health. Those people tend to lose more weight, be more energetic, and even improve their diabetes as well as their cholesterol and ultimately their cardiovascular health.
I truly believe in the scientific and anecdotal data showing significant positive health impacts on those who have switched to a plant-based or vegan diet. I practice what I preach and advocate for this dietary approach as part of lifestyle change. I have noted improved stamina so that I actually can run 14-hour IronMan races and recover very quickly.
How long have you been vegan?
I have been vegan for the past six years. My wife and I decided to change our lifestyle and bring our kids along for the journey. We mostly cook at home and it has become much simpler as we have discovered a whole new world with many easy recipes. We have noticed that our palates have changed so that we appreciate vegetable-based meals.
I have come to love different foods, which I learned have even more protein and nutritional value than animal-based foods. I have come to discover that most diets around the world are plant-based with only limited animal products. This dietary lifestyle has become significantly more attainable over the last 20 years with vegan products more readily available in stores.
You’re also a triathlete. How does your diet impact your exercise and vice-versa?
As an IronMan triathlete (swim, bike and run), racing upwards of 12-14 hours per race along with endless hours of preparatory training, a plant-based diet has proven to be essential to my recovery and sustained energy.
I have noticed a significant change in how much I can push myself and recover quickly when I do not consume animal or even processed products but rather simple plant-based meals. I can sustain a high level of exercise for much longer.
Give us an update on your year. What races have you participated in? How’d they go?
In addition to endless virtual races, 2021 was filled with in-person races. I was lucky to be able to race at two separate in-person races and travel the United States. I took part in a half-IronMan race, which in total is 70.3 miles, including a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
I also raced a full IronMan race, which incorporates a total of 140.6 miles, including a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, all in one day. Despite unexpected and unavoidable technical difficulties with my bike, I was blessed with the physical and mental health to be able to finish both of those. I already signed up for more races this year and am excited to continue to race and push my limits.
What are some easy ways anyone can eat a healthier diet?
Unfortunately, growing up in a society and household where meals are animal-based, it is usually difficult to make the change, especially when it involves only one person. Any lifestyle change is more sustainable when the majority of the household changes or at least appreciates and respects the fact that plant-based diet works.
Given my experience, and the medical community in whole, this usually only becomes important when someone faces a medical urgency or emergency. The best way to treat a medical condition, such as cardiovascular disease, is to prevent it. Therefore, we should look at our own and our household’s ways and change before anything major happens.
The best way to incorporate a plant-based diet is to change slowly by phasing out animal-based products, both meat as well as dairy as much as possible. The slower the change, the more sustainable the habits.
Of course, this is in setting of disease prevention. But once a disease is discovered, this change should be more aggressive with the most important aspect being that the family participates.
What are some easy ways to incorporate exercise into a busy schedule?
Exercise always takes time. Starting off with a short brisk walk and ultimately increasing exercise time every week or two is the best way. The keys are will and time management. Again, just like with any lifestyle changes, doing this with a partner makes anything more enjoyable and attainable. I often begin coaching patients by asking them to briskly walk for at least 5-10 minutes daily with the goal to do this for at least 30 minutes daily, five days per week.
What are some things you like to eat to fuel your body for exercise?
I love peanut butter and almond butter. It is packed with protein and nutrients as well as unsaturated fats that have been shown to improve heart health. For something that can be taken to go, there are many plant-based bars and snacks. One in particular I love is a lemon poppyseed bar called Bobo’s Oat Bar.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about becoming vegan but needs guidance?
The best way to approach this is not to think of this as a diet but rather a lifestyle change. Clearly, it is easier when the change is approached with a partner. It is also important not to get tangled up in the weeds of what the person would be missing but rather exploring new flavors.
Any change done gradually is more sustainable and so the person should avoid any sudden changes to their lifestyle. Start with healthy choices.