CR mom takes entire family's health to heart

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By Katie Mills Giorgio/Correspondent

Crystal Tjeerdsma, 32, of Cedar Rapids, lived a typical American lifestyle. She worked out occasionally, ate a lot of processed foods and ate out with her family — husband Craig and their two children — pretty regularly.

We did what was quick and easy,” she says. “And as a mom with two kids, you try to make things the kids will eat, which is not always what’s good for them.”

Though she’d never really addressed the issue, Tjeerdsma suspected she had high cholesterol given her lifestyle and a long family history.

“My mother is 51 years old, has run marathons for the past 10 years and can’t get her cholesterol under 200 even with medication.”

When she moved to Cedar Rapids about two years ago, Tjeerdsma heard about Mercy Medical Center’s Heart 2 Heart Risk Assessment program. The program offers a full cholesterol screening and consultation with a nurse for just $35.

“It was so affordable, it prompted me to do it,” she says.

Through her screening, Tjeerdsma found out she had a high risk cholesterol level.

“It’s all about the wake up call. I got those results at the first visit and I saw it coming, but it still hits you out of no where.”

Her next step was visiting a doctor for medication to address her high cholesterol issues.

But Tjeerdsma decided that, for her, medicine wasn’t going to solve the problem. It was simply a band-aid.

During a trip to the Cedar Rapids Public Library, Tjeerdsma came across some books on living a plant-based lifestyle and how it can improve your overall health. She was intrigued enough to stop taking her medication and try being a vegetarian for two months.

“I just remember thinking this was meant for me,” she says.

She then decided with her husband that they would challenge themselves in February of last year to try going vegan.

“We started on Feb. 1 because February is the shortest month,” she recalls. “We wanted to challenge ourselves for that month, and we both absolutely loved it. Craig even says he could do this forever.”

So that is just what Tjeerdsma and her family did. They now eat a completely planted-based diet.

Tjeerdsma just had her Heart 2 Heart screening again in January and is proud of her results.

“My triglycerides have gone drastically down and my glucose is down. I am really excited about that.”

At her first consultation, Tjeerdsma’s total cholesterol was 269. She’s now down to 196 (her target zone is 196 to 182) without medication. She’s convinced food was the best medicine for her.

 “My entire life has changed so much for the better,” she says. “I’m more in control of my life than I ever have been. A year ago I didn’t have a full understanding of food.”

Of course, it’s been a learning curve. She admits to spending hours in the grocery store reading the labels, and she knows the Health Market Managers at various Hy-Vees in town by name.

---- “It’s all about educating yourself because when you educate yourself, you don’t want to put things in your mouth and body that are bad for you,” she says.

And now, she also genuinely enjoys cooking for her family.

“Before I was a terrible cook. I had nowhere to go but up,” she says. “I have to plan meals more thoughtfully, but with planning it was easier to do the cooking. Plus, you get excited about food when you know where it’s working for you.”

Tjeerdsma’s children have “done amazing” with the food transitions she says.

“We used to reward our kids with McDonald’s and I could just kick myself now,” she says.

Her 8-year-old son reads labels and talks with her about the ingredients in products.

“He knows he has to read me the ingredients if he wants me to buy him something,” she says. “It’s such an eye opener for him and he’s really starting to get it.”

The lifestyle change for the Tjeerdsma family hasn’t been without challenges, of course. Besides having your own taste buds and body adjust, she says, Tjeerdsma has to field a lot of questions from friends and strangers.

“When people find out I live a plant-based lifestyle, they ask a lot of questions and they expect you have the answers. I’m not a doctor or a dietitian, but I do try to put it in the simplest terms. I do this because I believe that if you don’t understand the ingredient list, why would you eat it?” she says.

She also gets a lot of questions about her children’s nutrition.

“There are constant social questions, like are your children getting the right nutrition,” says Tjeerdsma. “My response is the same. Are yours?”

Heart health

Several Eastern Iowa hospitals offer heart screenings similar to the one Crystal Tjeerdsma took advantage of. Find out more online:

Healthy snacks

Getting kids to eat healthy is a challenge every parent knows well. In Crystal Tjeerdsma’s book, “to qualify as a healthy snack ... it must be free of preservatives, artificial colors, made from actual fruit, whole grains and the first ingredient can never be sugar.”

Here’s a list of her top 10 go to snacks for kids:

  • CLIF Kids ZBars
  • IZZE Sparkling Juice
  • Fruitables Juice boxes
  •  Banana Chocolate Peanut Butter smoothie (frozen banana, chocolate soy, almond or coconut milk and peanut butter)
  •  Granola (1 cup raw rolled oats, 2 tablespoons peanut butter, 2 tablespoons real maple syrup, dairy free mini chocolate chips or dried fruit)
  •  Larabars
  •  Ciao Bello Sorbet
  • Endangered Species Dark Chocolate Bug Bites
  •  Whole Grain toast with peanut butter and sliced bananas and drizzled with honey or agave nectar
  • Popcorn (kernels popped in an air popper) 


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