In 2011, at the age of 40, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It was the shock of a lifetime to say the least. The whole ordeal actually began several years earlier, throughout my 30’s. Every year or so I would wind up going to the doctor for one thing or another – usually back pain or a sprained ankle or something like that. And every time they would tell me that my blood pressure was high and I should get that attended to. The numbers would usually be somewhere in the neighborhood of 147/100. That was a pretty standard number to me. But of course, I was reckless with my health and didn’t really care. I also enjoyed adult beverages on a regular basis and that would always go hand-in-hand with smoking cigarettes. In 2007 I finally went to a specialist and they told me that my “ejection fraction” was low and that I was at risk of congestive heart failure. They prescribed blood pressure meds and suggested a healthier lifestyle. Did I listen? Not really. I was active – bike ride a lot, always in the outdoors fishing, but continued a relatively poor diet, the alcohol and the smokes.

In September of 2011 I had spent the day both a 25 mile bike ride and a 2-hour kayak trip on the Chicago River. Then that night, I was having a beer and a cigarette as I usually did when I suddenly felt a burning in my throat. It was so strange and came on so suddenly. The best I can really describe it was that it felt like my wind pipe was inflamed. I got scared and went to bed, hoping it would just go away. Well the next day and the day after that it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse and by day 3 it was a full fledged, dry and hacking cough. And then it started to get really bad. I couldn’t lay down horizontally without choking. Everytime I laid down the coughing would be out of control.

I went to a clinic at a nearby drug store and they said it was likely bronchitis and game me some meds. They didn’t help. A few days later, and on practically zero sleep, I went to a family practice doctor who examined me and said “I sounded a little noisy up to” (chest area), but that it was probably bronchitis that needed to run it’s course. The next few days would become even more awful. I was totally winded walking 5 feet. I couldn’t make it up the 9 stairs to my apartment without having to stop and rest after 3 steps. Finally on a Thursday night, my mom and sister came to visit ans saw what a mess I was. They said they weren’t leaving until we went to the emergency room. And so I did.

Upon arriving at the ER I wanted nothing more than to just get fixed and go home. They did xrays and found both lungs were filled with fluid and said it was pneumonia. Wow! Didn’t expect that. They said i’d be in the hospital for a day or 2 to take care of it. I was very bummed but was so tired and exhausted I just wanted to sleep. Then, one of the doctors wanted to check one more thing just to be sure. I barely remember it, but the carted me off to a cold room and were rubbing something on my chest. Which I would find out later, was an echocardiogram.

The next morning a doctor bursts into my hospital room and says “get those fluids out of him, he’s on congestive heart failure!”. I was in a bit of a haze and my family was there and the response was instant disbelief. What the hell was happening, what did this mean? The doctor did not have very good bedside manner at all and was not very friendly either. But he explained that my heart was very enlarged and unable to pump effectively and fluids had backed up into my lungs as a result. Basically, I was drowning and would likely not have lived another day had I not come to the hospital. The next couple of days after that were a blur. Doctors and family coming and going, in and out of sleep and a lot of discomfort. Apparently that ejection fraction number had gotten much worse from a few years earlier. I seem to recall 19% as the number. That’s bad. Very bad. They cut me off from all fluids, including water. I was so thirsty but they needed me to get all fluids out of my body. Over the next 4 days I slowly got some energy and my wits about me. Here was the harsh reality, I was in full blown congestive heart failure. My heart was enlarged things were bad. They wanted to try a course of medications to adjust my heart rate and blood pressure and i’d need to make some lifestyle changes. Oh, and I was to be discharged wearing a vest called a LifeVest, which is a portable defibrillator. Since my heart was so weak, I needed to wear this thing in case I started to drop dead. It was awful.

As I returned home, my entire life was flipped upside down. I looked at my dog and started to cry and didn’t stop crying for days. I was a mess with a bad heart, was on a very restrictive diet, couldn’t drink or smoke, and had this dame defibrillator vest on all the time. Everything I read about congestive heart failure was terrible and the survival rate info I found was not good. I sought out a new cardiologist who was great. He explained that numbers I was finding online were not typical for someone my age. And that he’s had many patients survive and live long lives when they stayed the course with their meds and treatment. Well I was determined to be one of those people. Aside from completely quitting drinking and smoking, I was going to keep that sodium content intake as low as humanly possible.

So began a journey of new diet with as little sodium as possible. But, it was very frustrating and challenging finding low-sodium foods and recipes. Sure, there were some resources. But sodium was absolutely everywhere! I had to do something. I bought a bread machine and made bread without salt, I bought a Foreman Grill and made meats fresh with no salt. Everything I made or consumed was with the absolute lowest sodium possible.

I learned a lot about food during this time, and especially sodium content in foods and recipes. I tried lots of recipes – some of which were good, some of which needed some serious adjustments to make tasty.

A year after being diagnosed with CHF, i’m proud to say that my efforts to get better were rewarded with excellent reports from my cardiologist and testing which revealed my ejection fraction for above 50 (the low end of normal). Also, my heart shrunk. Yep, today it’s practically a normal sized heart. CHF is a condition that is not curable, but with hard work and dedication, a lot can be accomplished. And in 2017, 6 years later, i’m still going strong. I’m able to relax my strict adherence to the low sodium diet, but I found that food is so much better without all that extra sodium. With a little creativity, one can make some excellent meals.

This recipe site does not follow any specific low sodium diet requirements. The sodium amounts, while low, can vary from ingredient to ingredient. Please check with your doctor if you are under very strict guidelines.

I hope you enjoy these recipes and I wish you the BEST of health!

Jason N.