A Heart-Wise Reality Check

Mister Reality Check stopped by to see me last week when I got word that a dear friend was unexpectedly admitted into the hospital for open-heart surgery. Just four days prior to receiving this news, I had cackled with him at a party for a mutual friend, sharing our hopes and dreams, and in the short term, the plans we had in store for the long holiday weekend. Little did we know that life had other plans for him and his arteries.

The dramatic turn of events aside, the bypass was successful, and my friend is now at home, recuperating and perhaps reflecting on how quickly life can flash before our eyes.

The news knocked the wind right out of me, as it took me back 25 years when my father's heart stopped pumping and then just six weeks later, his mother's heart stopped, too. It was DNA's way of screaming from the rooftops to my mother: "Lady, this is a warning; get your kids screened for cholesterol immediately and cool it with those double cheese burgers."

For the next few years, we played by the rules, switching out hydrogenated Oreos for low-fat ginger snaps, shifting from full fat to skim milk and letting go of obvious cardiac demons such as bacon, ice cream and fries.

As an adult, my heart-minded diet has gone on a journey filled with twists, turns, peaks and valleys. During most of my twenties, I ignored the cardiologist's advice and ate whatever I wanted. Within a few years, I paid the price for my dietary arrogance and my cholesterol level was having the last laugh. Into my thirties and now forties, I continue to dance with cholesterol devil, unable to remain steadfast with a heart-smart diet.

Just a few weeks ago, I remarked to another friend that if ever I were to be diagnosed with cancer, I would immediately do a clean sweep of my diet and look at food solely as medicine.

Her response was: Why wait?

She's right. What the hell am I waiting for? And whatever happened to the notion of food as preventative medicine? And how did I lose my dietary footing, particularly as a food writer?

While strolling through the hospital hallways, my friend the bypass patient bemoaned the changes in his new diet, which would include restrictions on both fat and salt.

"No-salt Saltines," he said, with a sigh. "That's no fun."

And fun is what life is all about, right?

Eating to live or living to eat: Where do we draw the line? As I sit with Mister Reality Check, who has no interest in leaving the building, I am nervous and uncomfortable -- at long last. It is high time to find a new happy medium, and yes, it's a matter of the heart.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 2, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Kitchen Musings
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Ah, but deep down in the irrational parts of our brain a change of diet is considered a rejection of our parents, yes? After all, they loved us and fed us, didn't they?- with everything they were denied in their youth! Who said love can't kill?

It looks easy reading a book, but dietary change is monumental in scope, both physical and more importantly emotionally and traditionally.

Posted by: Paul Corsa | June 2, 2008 7:55 AM

I draw the line at fat free cheese, but otherwise tend to pretty much fall on the heart-healthy side of the spectrum -- red meat 3x a month (usually a 1x week treat, but invariably 2 weeks go by and I look up and realize I have not had red meat in a while), buying skim milk only, more egg whites than full eggs in my omelet, and lots of nonfat yogurt. Cheese is where I usually go the full fat route, but I figure with the above heart-healthy habits, the fact I eat probably 2-3 oz of full fat cheese a week is worth it ... usually a very sharp cheddar but lately i have been having a love affair with tallegio.

Posted by: Brooklyn, NY | June 2, 2008 10:21 AM

I come from a family where people live into their 90's and even 100's. Paternal grandparents lived to be 94 and 97; a sister of my grandmother just died at age 103. Another cousin died last summer at 97. These were farm people who worked farms, had eggs fried in lard for breakfast, drank coffee by the gallon, occasionally had a glass of wine to celebrate an anniversary. On the other side of the family (maternal), diabetes, cancer and stroke were causes for death. Both parents have had cancer so I'm keeping my eye on that instead of heart attacks.

I took a course in nutrition in college (nutrition qualifies as a science credit) and found it an eye-opener. I cut back on meat and enjoy seafood instead, concentrate on fruits and veggies, limit breads, and indulge in wine. Nothing is going to make me give up my chardonnay in the evening. Meanwhile my body fluids are straight down the middle -- no highs, no lows.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | June 2, 2008 11:28 AM

I'm sorry to hear about your friend. I hope he does well in recovery.

I have type 1 diabetes, which puts me at the same heart risk as someone who has already had a heart attack. I eat well most of the time (in both senses of the word I like to think), and exercise is a part of my daily life. Even if food is preventative medicine, it's also culture and celebration of life. I like to save my treats for special occasions and never waste them on food that isn't good. And certainly healthy food doesn't have to feel like deprivation. No-salt saltines sound pretty horrible to me, but homemade crackers or bread with fresh herbs sound great. There's no reason to eat diet food when so many "real" foods are healthy and taste great.

Posted by: mollyjade | June 2, 2008 11:51 AM

Yes, let's do this together. Your post comes at the perfect time, as I had a similar epiphany this weekend. I want to nuture myself and eat healthy, I don't want to die of heart disease in my 40s as my dad did, and I want my husband to be healthy and untired. We can, and we must, do this before we are forced to or are no longer here.

Posted by: Same Story as You | June 2, 2008 3:08 PM

I've been struggling with this for a while -- and the good news is that it gets easier. It has also made me a better cook too as I try new things in order to replace old unhealthy stand bys.

I actually have to say Kim, your cooking always stuck me as pretty healthy and your blog has been helpful to me as I work to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

So, eat to live, but remember that living also involves joy and there is joy to be found in food.

Posted by: Kitchen Cat | June 2, 2008 4:53 PM

I think that Kitchen Cat and mollyjade have the right attitudes towards food. The quality of much of our "standard" foods these days are over-processed and over-stuffed with things that we don't need and it's killing us.

Good luck, Kim, and best wishes to your friend for a speedy recovery. I'll be following this topic with interest.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | June 2, 2008 9:43 PM

One word: Resveratrol.

Posted by: Dave | June 3, 2008 7:48 AM

My dilema is that it is challenging, at best, for a family on a fixed income to be able to afford to eat the healthful foods we should. Yes, I watch for sales and clip coupons and pinch every penny till my fingers hurt; but it is a very depressng challenge. My husband suffered a heart attack two years ago and is a type 2 diabetic. I certainly want to do the very best I can to provide him and my stepdaughter with the proper food- but am constantly forced to choose between "not the best choice" or no food at the end of the month...any suggestions?

Posted by: Amithista | June 3, 2008 7:03 PM

I'm right there with you, Amithista. I work at a non-profit, and so I'm on a tight budget too. Have you seen the blog Cheap Healthy Good? It's got great ideas and resources for eating healthy (and delicious) on a tight budget. You might start with this entry: http://cheaphealthygood.blogspot.com/2008/03/recession-proofing-your-diet-food.html

Posted by: mollyjade | June 4, 2008 2:55 PM

it's challenging.

Posted by: Steven Lee | June 6, 2008 3:43 AM

It's challenging .

Posted by: alice | June 6, 2008 4:13 AM

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