"This was about breaking a family legacy of heart disease and feeling good."
Michelle Emebo before and after
Credit: American Heart Association

Michelle Emebo's doctor was just as shocked as she was to discover she had high blood pressure during her third trimester of pregnancy. Emebo says she was pretty healthy before becoming pregnant and had been exercising pretty regularly. She was motivated to prevent gestational diabetes and pass her glucose test at the end of her second trimester. However, once she passed the test, eating healthy became less of a priority.

"Once the test was over, my diet just went down the gutter," Emebo says. "I was eating Starbucks breakfast sandwiches on the way to work and then just kept eating once I got to work. I work at an academic center where there is always some kind of celebration, so it would be a donut here, a cupcake there." Emebo said she gained a healthy 10 pounds during her first two trimesters but put on almost 15 pounds in a matter of weeks leading up to her high blood pressure diagnosis. (FYI, healthy weight gain during pregnancy is typically between 25 and 35 lbs, but every woman is different.)

Emebo says her doctor was reassuring that her blood pressure would go back down to the 120/80 she was used to having after giving birth. She tried to cut back on the sweets, but between anxiety at work preparing for maternity leave, moving into a new home and her husband finishing residency, there was a lot of stress going on in her life that continued to impact her health. She said all she had the energy to focus on at the time was delivering a healthy baby and making sure her blood pressure didn't continue to trend upwards.

Turns out, Emebo's blood pressure didn't go down after giving birth or after breastfeeding. Her doctor put her on blood pressure medication after several months, but that didn't seem to have much of an impact.

"That's when I realized I'd had enough, that I was going to have to do something as far as exercise and diet," Emebo says. "I knew it was possible for me to get back to normal since I was there before pregnancy. Finally, a year and a half later, I started making a change."

Taking Control of Her Health

Emebo was a collegiate athlete and the natural first step towards a healthier lifestyle was bringing exercise back into her routine. The local mom's group she's a part of had a meetup at OrangeTheory Fitness one day, and she knew she needed to come back for more.

"I got my butt kicked that first class, but I thought, 'I need to be in here' and signed up for a membership that day," she says.

Changing her diet wasn't as simple, however. Emebo was attempting to eat the way she did when trying to lose weight for her wedding several years prior, and her methods just weren't working for her. She had her doctor refer her to a nutrition professional.

Emebo admits that nutrition was the hardest part for her. She says, "You don't realize how much convenience food is a part of your life when you have to change your schedule to cook and grocery shop."

As difficult as it was to start cooking more often, she says this is when she saw the biggest change in her health—and blood pressure. Emebo says her dietitian played an important role in teaching her portion control, cutting back on added sugar and sodium and learning new cooking methods. She started using spices and DASH seasonings to bring flavor to her meals without salt, and learned to caramelize sweet potatoes, so she no longer needed brown sugar to enjoy them.

Choosing a Lifestyle Over a Diet

Emebo was able to normalize her blood pressure and lose 20 pounds within six months, which inspired her to keep going. She lost 75 pounds and has kept it off after three years. Emebo says that while she could have lost weight faster, she was pursuing a healthy lifestyle—not a restrictive diet or a number on a scale.

"I didn't have a goal weight," Emebo says. "Everyone would ask what size I wanted to be, but it wasn't about that. I would tell them 'whatever weight gets me off my medications and keeps me healthy.'"

Emebo continued to dial back on sodium and added sugar while increasing her intake of vegetables and other high-fiber foods. She also began meeting with a trainer to help her meal plan around her workouts as she was growing stronger in the gym.

"I never felt deprived in that year and a half, and that's probably why it took me a little longer to get to where I needed to be," Emebo says. "I enjoyed birthdays, holidays and my family's favorite foods, but if I could stick to healthy eating 80% of the week, I could feel good."

Both of Emebo's parents have struggled with high blood pressure and survived strokes, so she knows her family history of cardiovascular disease puts her at increased risk.

'I really wanted it to be about my health, and not just physical health but mental health—this was about breaking a family legacy of heart disease and feeling good," she says.

Emebo also cut back on alcohol after participating in Dry January in 2018. She now reserves imbibing for special occasions and feels more energized than ever.

"I don't have anything against [alcohol], but I began to notice drinking a glass of wine at night made me sleepy in the morning and hungrier during the day. Once I cut out my glass of wine or two each week, it helped me get up in the morning and I wasn't having food cravings at night anymore."

Trust the Process

Today, Michelle is eating more carbs and calories to keep up with her workouts, while still being mindful of her intake of salt and added sugars. She says this health journey has really turned into a way of life for her and her family and has left her feeling empowered.

"There was a time where I didn't know what I needed to do to get healthy," Emebo says. "It wasn't until I realized i had to take control of my health—and it had to start today— that I was able to realize it was possible to get healthy and that I really could do this. I've never been as fit as I am now since being a student athlete."

Emebo says she is surprised by how many people say they don't like their doctor, as finding the right provider who can encourage you in the right direction is extremely important for getting healthy. If you don't know your numbers, ask about your cholesterol, glucose and blood sugar levels and other metrics to figure out a game plan. She says if you don't start knowing where you are, you won't be able to move forward. She also says to be patient, as a health journey should be just that—a journey.

"It's not an overnight thing—especially if you're a new mom trying to figure your job, marriage and parenting out," Emebo says. "A lot of people do not believe them when I say there was no secret potion. I just ate healthy food and did the exercises. Slow progress is still progress and that's what matters."

Michelle Emebo is part of The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Movement. She is a member of the 2020 class of Real Women, who are sharing their stories to raise awareness of the number one killer of women in the U.S.—heart disease. Learn more at goredforwomen.org.