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.

Reading My Way to Eating Smart

“I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily.” — The Clash

Do you have any idea what to eat? It used to be so simple, you just opened the fridge and cooked up something that looked good. But nowadays it seems like every day there are new warnings about certain types of foods and new specialty diets that swear they have the answers. Eat like the Japanese. No, eat like the Greeks. No, eat like grandma told you. Aargh! Eating isn’t as fun as it used to be, despite what Anthony Bordain thinks. If you’re like me, you’re concerned about your health but you’re just not sure what’s right anymore.

I have a family history that predisposes me to adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. I’m healthy, but I’m a ticking time bomb. A few years ago, in his early 60s, my father had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. In order to stave off a similar fate I went to a cardiologist who ran some tests, told me I was fine, suggested I pop an aspirin every day and come see him again in five years. Thanks doc, but that still didn’t help me understand what to eat. So I started reading.

I haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s since reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. In Defense of Food gave me some good ideas and a manifesto (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants). The South Beach Diet was a bust (have you ever tried to eliminate carbs?). All that reading led me to think seriously about eliminating red meat but I did not. And of course it made sense to increase my intake of fruits, veggies and super foods (whatever they are). Then I saw the film Food Inc. and that pushed me over the edge — I walked out of the theater having sworn off all meat except seafood. Yep, I became a pescetarian. That was two years ago, and in that time I think the only meat I’ve had (aside from fish) is half a grass fed beef cheeseburger and a few bites of turkey at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately I am exactly the same weight and bored to death at mealtimes. And I eat way too many carbs!

I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an ethical vegetarian — I’m a Darwinian so that would be hypocritical (survival of the fittest and all). I’m just confused and hungry. I saw an interesting documentary a few weeks ago called Food Matters, and that made me go out and buy multivitamins and a juicer. I’m still unsure about meat though. There are all those chemicals, antibiotics and all that darn corn. Corn huh? Maybe that’s the key?

So last week I picked up Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and started reading. He’s the unofficial spokesperson for eating healthy, and he eats meat. The book begins by posing the question — what should we have for dinner? I’m halfway through the book and have no idea what to eat, but I definitely have a new opinion of what it means for a food to be “organic” and now I’m not even sure that means anything. I am also convinced that corn is evil and grass is good. But I hope the second half of the book actually helps me answer the “what to have for dinner” question because frankly I could really sink my teeth into a big juicy steak right about now! I’ll keep you posted. And if you know what the hell I should eat I’m all ears.