You Are What You Eat

fatsickandnearlydeadLong 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.

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

pill_box_with_pillsOne result of my heart attack is that I now have a crapload 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.