A heart-healthy refrigerator makeover

Kimberly Garrison (right) talks with Gene and Karen Fatula and their kids, Haley, 9, and Luke, 8, about healthy substitutes for the foods in their refrigerator and pantry.

Highly motivated, Gene doesn't want to be shackled to cholesterol-lowering drugs for life and would prefer to shed those excess pounds.

That's why he and his family - wife Karen, 10-year-old daughter Haley, and 8-year-old son Luke - courageously agreed to let me raid their refrigerator, eliminating the diet-busting foods hiding there.

Already a fitness buff, Gene plays gym hockey in a competitive league, so he has good cardiovascular endurance. The entire Fatula clan trains and studies karate. Gene, who does the family grocery shopping, has already cut back when he goes out with the guys for beer and roast-beef sandwiches.

But although the number on his scale is now 10 pounds lower than it was the day he saw the doctor, it's stuck there, with 10 pounds left to go.

Part of his problem, Gene said, is that his wife is a great cook. "My wife's a nurse, but she makes chocolate-covered pretzels.

"For me, it's food intake," he laments.

"He's a snacker," the naturally svelte Karen chimed in.

I nodded sympathetically. Then I opened the Fatulas' refrigerator. I could see many food traps that were sabotaging Gene's efforts toward better heart health.

Before I could say a word, Gene diagnosed one problem: "We're condiment junkies."

Indeed, they seemed to have every condiment known to man. So that's where I began:

Instead of the high-calorie creamy Caesar dressing, I recommended a bottle of balsamic vinegar, which could be reduced to a balsamic-syrup reduction. Simply boil the vinegar in a double boiler until it becomes syrupy, then cool.

Instead of their high-sodium barbecue sauce, substitute a lower-salt version. Or, simply slather on less.

Then I moved on to the other shelves:

Instead of the full-fat flavored coffee creamer, stir in low-fat milk plus sugar-free coffee syrup. Gene's been a fan of toasted-almond-flavor creamer. A high-quality sugar-free Italian hazelnut syrup should hit the same flavor notes without all the calories and fat.

Instead of the sugar-sweetened yogurts, choose fat-free Greek yogurt and add fresh berries.

Instead of the gigantic carton of sweetened iced tea, consider a sugar-free tea. Better yet, drink water.

In the cupboard I found Manwich, the sloppy-Joe sauce. I suggested the family consider trying a recipe for a lower-fat, lower-sodium homemade version of this classic. I shared one from Eating Well magazine. You can link to it at www.philly.com/sloppy.

Snack foods were a problem for Gene, too. Take chips, for example. The "crowd-pleaser bag" is not a serving. What is? About 12 chips. And for cheese, a single ounce constitutes a serving.

Look at fruit as nature's candy, I told the family. Make water your primary beverage.

I passed along some other tips for reducing calorie intake. Eat your dinner on a salad plate and your salad on a dinner plate. For foods like pasta, use 4-ounce ramekins to help remind you of the proper portion. (Works for ice cream, too.)

I also recommended that the family follow some of the great tips from the American Heart Association's "Life's Simple Seven" program, to keep Gene on track. You can find them at www.heart.org. Scroll down and click on "Live Better With Life's Simple 7."

Finally, Gene confided that he'd once lost 20 pounds using Lance Armstrong's online calorie and exercise calculator (it's at www.livestrong.com/thedailyplate/), although those pounds came back.

I encouraged him to go back and use Armstrong's calculator again, not only for losing but also for weight maintenance once he's lost the pounds. Whatever you did to lose weight is what you need to do to maintain it.