Wednesday 23 Apr 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: Personal chef sheds 100 pounds, gains new perspective on food

Published: 9:00 am CDT, November 21, 2013

Kirsten Helle grew up loving food. And there was always plenty to love.

“Celebrations were built around food,” she said. “Every night, dinner was a big production and you ate until you burst.”

Her parents were both great cooks. Her father even had a side business doing catering, making food an even bigger part of their lives.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, her extended family history was filled with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

“No one talked about it,” Kirsten said. “It was treated like something that was normal.”

***

The more Kirsten ate and the more weight she gained, the more her self-image plummeted.

She put herself on diets, using pre-packaged meals or shakes to limit calories. However, she didn’t exercise and didn’t see the results she wanted. Eventually, she resumed her old eating habits.

By the time she reached 25, Kirsten weighed 230 pounds. She was on medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol and was diagnosed with prediabetes.

She also was the mother of an active 2-year-old daughter, and she lacked the energy to play with her.

“I was always tired,” Kirsten said. “It hit me that if I continued this lifestyle, she could turn out like me.”

***

For the first time, Kirsten turned her attention to her health, rather than numbers on a scale. She learned everything she could about nutrition and began to see how to incorporate it into her business as a personal chef.

She focused on ways to add more vegetables to her diet and looked for ways to make familiar dishes healthier.

And for the first time, she learned about healthy portion size.

“In my family, portions were huge,” Kirsten said. “We ate huge steaks and huge potatoes.”

Kirsten also began exercising, starting with 10 minutes at a time, three times a day.

“At first, I had no energy and I would get winded very fast, but I made a commitment to myself to do it every day,” she said. “It was hard had first, but then it just became part of my life.”

Her hard work paid off. Within a year, she’d lost 50 pounds and her cholesterol and blood pressure were back to healthy levels.

The birth of a son interrupted her weight loss temporarily. But she got back into the groove. Since her weight peaked, she’s lost 110 pounds and she’s kept it off for six years.

She tries to be active with her kids, Riley, now 12, and Donovan, 7, at least an hour a day, either going for walks or playing outside.

Dinnertime is still an important family tradition. Only now, it’s also a lesson in healthy eating habits.

“I want my kids to know what a healthy portion is and encourage them to listen to their bodies,” she said. “I let them have more vegetables and fruit if they’re still hungry.”

***

Kirsten’s example has also encouraged others in her family to take a healthier path. Her mom and brother have lost weight and several cousins are also working to break the cycle of heart disease.

Now 35 and living in suburban Seattle, Kirsten continues to work as a personal chef. She also is a nutrition consultant through her company Mesa de Vida (Spanish for “Table of Life”), working with families who want to eat healthier. She teaches them how to shop, plan menus and read labels.

“I help families learn about nutrition and create new family habits,” she said.

Earlier this year, Kirsten volunteered to facilitate the American Heart Association’s BetterU Challenge in the Seattle area. The 12-week program drew 50 women who worked to learn how small changes to their daily lives can help bring their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar into a healthy range.

This fall, Kirsten is continuing her work with the American Heart Association by leading the six-week A Healthy Start to Home Cooking program, which teaches participants how to cook healthy meals at home.

“So many people are told to lose weight,” Kirsten said. “I help them to see that it’s not about losing weight. It’s about living a healthier life.”

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

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Rapper’s wife urges empowerment through fitness, knowledge about stroke