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.

Take this With a Grain of Salt

I promised I wouldn’t be preachy about heart disease awareness, so take this post for what it is — a cautionary tale. I have been on a very strict diet since October as I try to ensure my heart has the best chance it can to remodel itself following the damage of my heart attack. As you can probably guess, I’m seriously watching my cholesterol and fat intake. You may also know that there is a pretty clear link between salt (sodium) and heart disease, but I bet you didn’t know how clear.

Excess sodium can increase blood pressure which increases the risk of both heart disease and stroke. My cardiologist and the American Heart Association recommend heart patients limit daily sodium intake to less than 1,500 mg per day. One teaspoon of salt equals 2,300 milligrams of sodium. One Original Rubios fish taco has 450 mg of salt. A Big Mac has 1,040 mg of salt. A six-inch Subway Spicy Italian sandwich has 1,520. Get the idea?

Yesterday I made what I thought was a pretty healthy decision at lunch. I had mahi mahi tacos with nothing on them from my company cafeteria. A few hours later I went to cardiac rehab and my resting heart rate was elevated — with medications these days it’s usually around 60 bpm and it was close to 80. What caused the jump? The friggin tortillas! Two small flour tortillas together probably had about 700 mg of sodium and there was probably some seasoning on the fish I wasn’t aware of. I’ve been doing a really great job of sticking to around 1,000 mg per day so my lunch was way out of line — and it instantly affected my heart. That salt is some scary shit.

Ironically, yesterday was also the day that the CDC came out with a new report that most Americans were getting far too much salt in their diets. You can read the article online, but here’s a fact:

Americans eat on average about 3,300 mg of sodium a day. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day, and about 6 out of 10 adults should further limit sodium to 1,500 mg a day.

I can tell you from experience that limiting salt is a pain in the ass. Eating out is nearly impossible and so many food items you bring home from the grocery store are also overloaded with it (ever looked at the nutritional values on a typical “healthy” frozen lunch?) This has become the hardest part of my post heart attack lifestyle. Salad bars are even dangerous. Leslie has done an amazing job of cooking for me and is even baking sodium-free bread from scratch. It’s still tough to stay on target.

It’s not that I miss the salt or the taste…it’s just so hard to find true low-sodium foods.