February is American Heart Month, which helps raise awareness about risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Find out how one man recovered from a heart attack, significantly improved his health, and is helping others reduce their likelihood of developing heart disease.
Joel Erickson and his wife, Jill, of St. Paul, Minn., have always tried to take care of themselves, with exercise, a healthful diet, and a strong faith. But in 2012, when Jill’s mother was stricken by colon cancer (she has since recovered), they determined to do even more to improve their diet and, hopefully, stave off cancer. Not knowing where to begin, they watched Forks Over Knives, at the time a relatively new film claiming that chronic diseases can be controlled and even reversed by rejecting animal products and processed food.
The plant-based eating pattern went relatively well but, for lack of know-how and consistency, fell by the wayside after several months. The couple maintained a mostly Mediterranean diet, which they felt had them on the path to wellness. Their confidence was shattered, however, in 2016 when Joel suffered a “widow-maker” heart attack, so called for its survival rate of just 12% when it occurs outside of a hospital setting.
After suffering for more than two days with pain in his arm, which he attributed to sleeping on it improperly, Joel went to the hospital. At age 46, he had a 100% blockage in his left, anterior descending artery.
The heart attack came as a shock to Joel. Though several pounds overweight, he ran and exercised regularly, had what he considered a healthy diet, maintained fair to good cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and had no history of heart disease in his family.
“I asked the doctor what had caused my heart attack, and he claimed it was, ‘bad luck,”’ Joel says. “When I asked how to avoid future heart attacks, he suggested a Mediterranean diet, which we were basically already following.” Joel knew from the research presented in Forks Over Knives, however, that there was something that he could do to reverse his heart disease and reduce the likelihood of suffering another attack.
In fact, a relatively new study published in Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that a low-fat vegan diet has better outcomes for weight, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol levels, compared with a Mediterranean diet.
The Ericksons became more determined than ever to stick with a whole foods, plant-based diet. Joel’s ace-in-the-hole was Jill. “After the heart attack, I said that I wanted to go 100% plant-based, and she was all in,” Joel says. “I really give Jill all the credit, because all I had to say was that I wanted to do this, and she made it happen.” In 2019, Jill became a licensed instructor with Food for Life, a nutrition education and cooking class program sponsored by the Physicians Committee.
For some people, transitioning to a plant-based diet is simple. But others need education, support, and community. This is what Joel and Jill have tried to create within their own family, in their community and with their business, Rooted Green Wellness.
“I had a traumatic event and don’t ever want that to happen again,” Joel says, “That was a turning point for me but, keep in mind, I had the years since 2012 where we had already tried a plant-based diet. We had lots of practice so when friends ask us how we can possibly do this or say that we make it look so easy, I remind them that we’ve had lots of time and practice.”
Through Rooted Green Wellness, the Ericksons share information about their upcoming Food For Life classes, one-on-one nutrition counseling and other events co-hosted by local organizations. They also enjoy hosting informal gatherings of friends so people can try plant-based recipes in a supportive atmosphere. Joel especially likes when guests discover the amazing flavors and enjoy the tastes of foods they thought they didn’t like or had never tried.
“We talk a lot in our classes about knowing why you want to go plant-based because it often isn’t until people really have a full understanding of their why, what I call their stake in the ground, that they grasp why they want to [commit to] this,” Joel explains.
Joel often helped Jill with classes and, in December 2021, earned his Food for Life instructor license. He and Jill are “learning the rhythm of the dance” of co-teaching, he says. He also maintains full-time employment with a behavioral health app company.
One of his goals is to get more men involved in plant-based eating and cooking. “Especially as we get older, from disease prevention to sexual health, plant-based eating helps with all of it,” Joel says. “Many of my male friends are big athletes and I explain to them that recovery is so much faster on this diet. There’s less inflammation.”
Sign up for an in-person or virtual class, find out more about what’s coming up for Joel and Jill, and get some of their favorite recipes at RootedGreenWellness.com.