A heart scare motivated one family to switch from processed and packaged foods to whole and homemade.
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Home: Rochester, MN
Background: Professional chef, husband and dad to 7-year-old Ocean and 5-year-old Ella.
When Eric Pater met Ellory, his wife of 11 years, two decades ago in high school, his heart skipped a beat. In the years since, it has skipped so frequently that eventually Eric paid it little attention. After they were married, Ellory herself began to notice these changes in his heart rhythm. A grimace passing across his face, a sudden breathlessness or a brief pause in the middle of a sentence suggested his heart palpitations weren’t simply a romantic reaction. Still, Eric insisted it wasn’t anything to be concerned about, until one morning in the spring of 2006.
“I said to Ellory, ‘You know how my heart beats funny?’ and next thing I know I’m in the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester,” Eric says. “They threw me down and stuffed baby aspirin in my mouth, thinking I was having a heart attack.” Fortunately, it wasn’t a heart attack. Instead the cardiologists diagnosed atrial fibrillation. Even after a great deal of testing, however, they were not able to determine the cause. “When they released me, they told me that the only thing I could do for it was to try to minimize the episodes by eating a clean diet and exercising.”
Starting from scratch
Although Eric had always been a healthy eater – “I hadn’t eaten fast food in a decade, and I’d already cut out soda” – and at that point had been a professional chef for eight years, the emergency room visit and official diagnosis served as a catalyst for further change. “It forced me to really examine my diet in a new way.” He started by reading labels, and what he found convinced him to completely overhaul not only his own but his entire family’s eating habits by eliminating all processed food from their diet.
Pre-packaged and convenience foods may offer relief to many overworked parents, but they are highly processed to maximize their value on supermarket shelves. “If you look at the ingredients on the labels for most of them, you’ll find that they’re full of high fructose corn syrup,” Eric says.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a processed sweetener that manufacturers use in place of sugar because it’s cheaper and its liquid form makes it easier to blend. There is growing controversy over the use of HFCS for its potential link to obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance. Eric decided to avoid HFCS entirely, and he started with bread. “We’d always bought pre-packaged whole-wheat breads, thinking they were healthy, but they have all these extra ingredients that aren’t,” he says. Thus, their dietary makeover officially began with the purchase of a bread-making machine.
Now three years into the process, Eric has discovered some simple ways to keep his family’s eating habits, well, simple. If he must buy something in a package, he checks the label not only for HFCS but for the total number of ingredients. “If there are 14 listed or I can’t pronounce some of them, it’s probably not worth it,” he says. Most weekends in the summer, he rides his bike to the farmers’ market and spends an hour and $50 to $100 on seasonal produce with the shortest possible farm-to-market time for maximum nutrient value. He buys meats and other organic ingredients at the supermarket and then spends Sunday cooking an entire week’s worth of meals. “I’m always struck when I finish unloading all the shopping that there’s nothing to eat,” he says with a laugh.
Although Eric – who was honored as his city’s Best Chef in 2008 – creates dozens of complex entrées every night for his customers at the City Café in Rochester, Minnesota, he typically prepares three or four main items for the family. Big, hearty soups such as chili or chicken with vegetables, something “with substance” like a lasagna, and a cold option such as a quinoa salad are among their favorites. For lunch they love sandwiches, and to avoid the packaged deli meats Eric roasts pork tenderloin or turkey breast and slices it thinly to go between pieces of homemade bread.
Because Eric spends his days at home, his daughters, Ocean (7) and Ella (5), are often with him in the kitchen. They’re not only adventuresome eaters but budding sous-chefs who like to chop their own vegetables. “They’re so much more willing to eat something if they’ve had a hand in the prep,” Eric says. Interestingly, it’s Ellory who has been the toughest to convert. “I think she was raised on circus peanuts. She still craves jelly worms and Cheetos, but she’s gotten a lot better.” Desserts are allowed – even daily – as long as they’re made from scratch.
Eric commutes to work via pedal power now and is lighter on his feet in the restaurant kitchen after dropping 20 pounds in the first 10 weeks of switching to a purely homemade diet. His heart still falls out of rhythm on a daily basis, but the doctors agree that the right protocol is to monitor it and continue to eat well and exercise regularly. “I can accept my condition now,” Eric says, “because I know I’m doing everything I possibly can to keep myself healthy.”
Chef Eric’s Secrets to Menu Makeover Success:
Read the ingredient list on anything that comes in a package.
Bake your own bread using an automatic bread maker. Check out Eric’s Clean Whole-Wheat Bread recipe here
Choose local, fresh ingredients over anything processed.
Make each dish with just six to eight ingredients and let the natural flavors emerge.
Indulge in the occasional treat. Desserts are fine as long as you make them yourself with CE-approved ingredients.
See also: Marcie Calvert’s weight loss story.