You Are What You Eat

Long before I suffered a heart attack I had been thinking a lot about food and its relationship to health. I had good reason to learn more about food as my cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar were elevated due to a combination of genetics, inconsistent activity levels and an undying love of pizza. So I started doing research on how to naturally lower these signs of impending crisis and each time the path led back to the same place — food.

Flash forward to last night and here I am again watching a documentary about food and health, this time at a special screening of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead at a local restaurant called Pomegranate Cafe. And just like all the others, the premise involves eating fruits and veggies. Hmm. Maybe it’s true that 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong.

Here are just some of the films I’ve seen and books I’ve read over the past few years that preach the gospel of healthy eating:

I’m sure you can find tons more, but these are some of the popular ones. The thing is, so much research (both scientific and anecdotal) points to the plain fact that food can make us sick and conversely food can heal. You don’t have to believe it, or even care, but that doesn’t make it not true. What would it take for you to change the way you eat?

What of you had a heart attack? Would you change the way you eat, or would you continue the unhealthy lifestyle that made you susceptible to heart disease in the first place? It’s not an easy answer. In the months since my heart attack I have run into all types of survivors — those who don’t change because they either don’t care about living or they think it’s too hard to those, like me, who are willing to make a radical change in hopes of not only living longer but being healthy enough to enjoy that longevity. For me it’s a no brainer, but I understand the other side.

Changing my diet was really hard at first, and not just because I missed regularly having a couple of slices at NYPD Pizza. The hardest part has been eating at restaurants. I’ll tell you what’s not hard — eliminating most animal products. I have been mostly vegetarian for years (I continue to enjoy seafood) and truthfully I don’t miss the meat. Yes, every once in a while I dream about a Double Double, but it passes and those cravings happen less and less. I’m even thinking being vegan or raw wouldn’t be too hard since I’m almost there already. Limiting fat and cholesterol is simple, especially if you eat mostly vegetarian anyway.

Unfortunately for me, my heart was damaged by my heart attack and if I want to take care of it — permanently — I need to severely limit sodium. This has been the hardest thing for me, and not because I crave the taste. It’s hard because sodium is everywhere and often in places you least expect it. I won’t go into detail on why sodium is so bad for heart patients, but suffice it to say sodium makes you retain water and retaining water makes your heart pump harder. When your heart pumps harder, it will naturally enlarge and that would exacerbate my damage and inevitably lead to heart failure. How much sodium are we supposed to eat? The recommended daily allowance for a healthy person is 2500 mg. For someone like me, I need to stay under 1500 mg. I am currently eating between 1000-1500 mg per day. To give you an idea of what that means, a single teaspoon of table salt? There is around 2500 mg in a teaspoon of salt. A typical slice of pizza? 700 mg. How about a “healthy” meal at a “healthy” restaurant? A small Greek salad at Pita Jungle has 940 mg of sodium.

So you can see eating at restaurants is a challenge for me. But it’s worth the hassle given my condition. If you don’t have a heart condition, changing your diet is a breeze. But even keeping to the RDA is tough for a healthy person. A single portion of lasagna classico at Olive Garden contains 2830 mg of sodium. Holy salt lick Batman!

Why wouldn’t you change your diet? It’s so easy and the evidence is so clear. I know, you love a good steak. Enjoy, but why not consider making small steps in the right direction? Michael Pollen says it best. When asked how to dig through all the hype and misinformation he says, simply:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. 

In case you’re confused, by suggesting we “eat food” he’s basically saying to eliminate anything processed, chemical, manufactured, toxic, etc. Broccoli is food.  Methylchloroisothiazolinone is not.

AFI #46: It Happened One Night

I’m going to skip watching It Happened One Night for this exercise because truth be known I have already seen it twice in the past few months. I originally rented it because I had always wanted to see the first film that took home Academy Awards for all five major categories — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Director. It did not disappoint and a few months later I watched it again when I ran across it on cable.

Its films like this that remind me that just because a film is old does not mean it’s not contemporary. It Happened One Night came out in 1935 but the writing is witty and modern — it must have been something special in 1935! I love this film, especially the work by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Gable won his only Oscar for his role as newspaper reporter Peter Warne, who stumbles upon a great story and ends up finding love. Colbert is the sharp-witted heiress who he finds running away from her father. The on-screen chemistry between the pair is magnificent and the dialogue is ahead of its time.

You could easily argue that It Happened One Night is the forefather of the modern-day romantic comedy. It has everything you like in a RomCom including the sexual tension, something that must have been unique in the 1930s. It’s a great film and I recommend it to anyone who likes romantic comedies (I admit it, I’m a sucker for a good one!)

Next Up: Shane

AFI # 47: A Streetcar Named Desire

Stella! Stella!

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those films I’ve always heard about but never saw. And of course, the famous scene with Marlon Brando screaming for his wife Stella has become a meme and a staple of any Hollywood montage sequence. I also must admit I have never read any Tennessee Williams plays nor have I seen any other films based on Tennessee Williams writing, so I’m not expert on the guy or his genre. My guess is that the play was better than the film and the written work was better than the play. I say this because the screenplay is clearly the highlight of the film and as if you need any proof the acting ensemble all took home Oscars or Oscar nominations — good writing!

Let’s get this out of the way first — I really didn’t like the film. In fact, I fell asleep for a few minutes in the middle of the damn thing. But I did like the acting and the screenplay. Vivian Leigh was amazing as Blanche DuBois and it seemed as if the part was written for her. For anyone who thought her turn as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was a clinic on overacting, she certainly redeemed herself 12 years later as DuBois. She won the Oscar for both, but without question her portrayal of DuBois was a tour de force. It’s never easy to play someone who is mentally ill without going over the top, but in this role she slowly starts to come apart from the beginning of the film until she completely loses it by the end. Brilliant work. Karl Malden was also very good as poor Mitch who falls for Blanche and watches as she comes undone. It’s funny how we think of an actor like Karl Malden for one particular role (for me Karl will always be Detective Mike Stone from The Streets of San Francisco) but he has quite a film career prior to his television success. Malden won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film and was nominated again a few years later for On The Waterfront. Kim Hunter was also nominated for an Oscar, for her role as Stella. I had no idea who she was until I looked her up on IMDB and found out she made a name for herself as Zira in The Planet of the Apes series!

And then there was Marlon Brando. What can we say about Mr. Brando? The man was nominated eight times for an Academy Award and won twice (for On The Waterfront and The Godfather). He was nominated for his role in this film as the brutish Stanley Kowalski and frankly I could barely understand a fucking word he said. What is it with this guy? Why is a guy who mumbles like this considered such a great actor? I don’t get it. He’s the film equivalent of Bob Dylan (the greatest mumbler of all time). I get that he’s a method actor who gets into the head of his characters, but why the hell can’t he annunciate? Whatever.

Maybe I’m just not a Tennessee Williams fan. We’ll see as he gets another shot later in the AFI list.

Next: It Happened One Night

AFI #48: Rear Window

The second Alfred Hitchcock film so far on the AFI Top 100, Rear Window stars Jimmy Stewart as a professional photographer who is laid up with a broken leg with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors out his window. When he thinks his a neighbor has killed his wife he tries to put together the story along with his girlfriend, his nurse and a detective friend. The result is really less of a suspense film and more of a commentary on society.

In terms of suspense the film is a little slow and not nearly as action packed as other Hitchcock films like Psycho, North By Northwest or The Birds. But I enjoyed it for its statement about human nature. Stewart’s character Jeff watches over his neighborhood and judges each neighbor. There is “Miss Lonelyhearts” who dines with imaginary friends, and the songwriter who struggles with his art but throws parties with lots of people. There are the newlyweds and of course “Miss Torso” who dances around in her underwear and appears to have many men chasing after her. But of course Jeff becomes obsessed with the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, who slaves over his ill wife until one strange night she seems to have disappeared. Jeff watches Thorwald’s strange behavior and rushes to the judgement that he has killed his wife.

Frankly I’m not sure why Rear Window is considered a great film by so many, including the AFI. Aside from the interesting characters in the apartment complex it’s a pretty silly film, especially the end in which Thorwald goes a little crazy. The whole premise that Thorwald would kill his wife with the shades open and then continue to prance about his apartment packing up her belongings is far-fetched. So too is his reaction when Jeff lets him know that he is on to his scheme. Thorwald’s behavior is so unbelievable that it borders on ridiculous.

On the other hand, Jimmy Stewart does a nice job as Jeff. His character has the best lines (along with the sharp-witted nurse). On top of that, any film with the gorgeous Grace Kelly is worth watching. Still, Jeff doesn’t seem to want to marry Grace so he’s really not that bright after all.

Next Up: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

One result of my heart attack is that I now have a crap load of pills to take each day. There are two ways to look at this: on one hand I am very lucky I live in a time when science has brought us so many amazing medicines, and on the other hand I am a little freaked out by how many foreign substances I am putting into my system each day. On top of that, during my recovery I have done some reading and watched some documentaries that not only question the use of drugs but provide scientific evidence for natural ways to bring about the same positive results. What to do, what to do?

Here’s a little taste of what I swallow each day just for my heart:

  • Plavix — Keeps the platelets in your blood from clotting to prevent blood clots after a recent heart attack or stroke.
  • Carvedilol — Used to treat people whose hearts cannot pump blood well as a result of a heart attack. Carvedilol is a beta-blocker that works by relaxing blood vessels and slowing heart rate to improve blood flow and decrease blood pressure.
  • Lipitor —  Used together with diet and exercise to reduce blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (”bad cholesterol”).
  • Altace —  Used to reduce the risk of heart attack and to improve survival in patients with heart failure after a heart attack. Altace is an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor that works by decreasing certain chemicals that tighten the blood vessels, so blood flows more smoothly and the heart can pump blood more efficiently.
  • Aspirin —  Used to prevent heart attacks in people who have had a heart attack in the past or who have angina. Also used to reduce the risk of death in people who are experiencing or who have recently experienced a heart attack.
  • Warfarin — Used to prevent blood clots from forming or growing larger in your blood and blood vessels. Warfarin is also used to treat or prevent swelling and blood clot in a vein and it works by decreasing the clotting ability of the blood.

Last night I finished watching a documentary about Ray Kurzweil called Transcendent Man. Ray is the proponent of something called The Singularity, which he thinks will take place within the next 30 years. The Singularity is “a proposed advancement that will occur sometime in the 21st century when progress in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics will result in the creation of a human-machine civilization.” Until this time, Ray is trying desperately to keep his biological body alive and as part of this process the man swallows more than 150 supplements per day. That seems like a lot of effort, but if you honestly thought it would extend your life wouldn’t you at least consider it? That’s sort of my conundrum with all the pills I’m taking. I definitely believe in science and my cardiologist is highly trained and has seen results with pharmaceutical treatment. I’d be stupid not to do what he says. I know there are some of you out there who think taking drugs is a scam and all the hype is just a way for big pharma to make money, but that’s easy to think until you are faced with a life or death situation. Mike Tyson used to say “everyone has a plan until they get hit.” That’s how I feel.

I will say this — I have made a pretty solid recovery in the seven months since my heart attack and I have to believe the reason for this is because I did the three things my cardiologist asked of me. I did cardiac rehab and continue to exercise regularly, I drastically lowered my intake of cholesterol, fat and sodium, and I’ve taken my meds. As much as it freaks me out to take all these drugs, it appears to have made an impact. Of course, if I follow this logic I will be on tons of drugs for the rest of my life. But at least I’ll have a rest of my life.

AFI #49: Intolerance

I’ll be perfectly honest, I wasn’t too hip on watching a three hour silent movie from 1916. I gave Intolerance 20 minutes or so and figured…well…I tried. But this is my journey through the AFI Top 100 and I get to make the rules. I got the gist.

Intolerance is D.W. Griffith’s response to criticism that his 1915 landmark film The Birth of a Nation was racist. I actually saw The Birth of a Nation in a college film class — it’s part of any decent history of film class — and it was definitely racist! Hell, it had the KKK in it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. Still, Intolerance seems like an obvious answer to critics: let’s make a film that shows the downside of intolerance.

I’ll give the film this much — it was an epic undertaking. I can’t imagine it was easy to film with all those locations and extras. The costume budget alone must have been overwhelming. Still, life is too short to watch three hours of it. 🙂

Next: Rear Window

AFI #50: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I’m going to be critical of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings being on the AFI Top 100 list, so if you’re a big fan forgive me. I’d like to begin by saying I enjoyed this film, both this time and the first time I watched it when it debuted in 2001. I read the Tolkien books as a kid and I love the story. I also think this film and the other two films in the trilogy are wonderful and ambitious adaptations of the stories. Peter Jackson does a tremendous job bringing Middle Earth to life and the CGI and cinematography are great. I think it’s a good film, but it definitely does not belong on the list of the Top 100 films ever made. Here’s why…

The Fellowship of the Rings is not a complete film. It’s only one-third of a film, and while that’s not Jackson’s fault it does, in my mind, eliminate it from contention for this list because it really can’t stand on its own. I know, you’re thinking The Godfather is also a trilogy and surely I won’t argue against both parts one and two being on this list — and you’d be right. But The Fellowship of the Rings does not stand on its own as a story — it ends with a cliffhanger and that means the story is not complete. Sorry if you think I’m being ticky tacky, but it’s just not a complete film.

The fact is you can’t have a real discussion about the film without discussing the full trilogy. The characters are not fully developed and several important characters aren’t even introduced until the second film. I guess I wouldn’t have argued if AFI put the three films together and called it one of the Top 100. But they didn’t do that. Hell, the Oscar committee screwed it up as well. Fellowship got a best picture nomination and it shouldn’t have. Two Towers got the same treatment. Then the Academy went ballistic and threw the whole kit and caboodle at Return of the King and gave it 11 Oscars including best picture. If Return of the King was so good, why didn’t AFI give it the recognition? Bottom line for me is that Fellowship doesn’t deserve to be on this list. That being said, I enjoyed it and it’s a great fantasy film (er, piece of a film).

Next: Intolerance