February is American Heart Month. A few years ago, that meant next to nothing to me. Sure, I knew heart health was important but like most folks, I thought heart disease was a largely unavoidable fact of life, something that came with age or was caused by genetics. My grandfather died from a heart attack. Every single person in my family over the age of 40 has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and many are diabetic. In my mind, these conditions were something that I would also have to deal with at some time or another in my life.
A few years ago, I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives and my perspective on health and nutrition shifted dramatically. It was as if the dots were connected for the first time in my life – what you eat doesn’t just contribute to good health, it is your health. For months, I consumed every bit of knowledge I could find on food and nutrition. I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watched more documentaries than I can list, and even delved into medical journals. It seems so simple now – good food equals good health – but being raised on the standard American diet in a culture of convenience, I had become programmed to think of vegetables as side dishes, supersizing as a good value, and anything with the word “diet” in it as bad.
But…despite the information being extremely fascinating to me, it still took a little time and effort to deprogram myself.
In early 2018, Angie and I decided to have our cholesterol tested at Sam’s Club. We had been eating fewer meats and more plants, trying to eliminate fast foods and processed foods, and going for more walks. We thought we were doing well – and I suppose in a lot of ways, we were – but the test results were an eye-opener (for me at least). My first healthy heart screening showed that my total cholesterol was 251. My triglycerides were 387. My LDL was 135 and my HDL was virtually non-existent. (Angie fared a lot better on her first test – 183 total cholesterol, 112 triglycerides, and 118 LDL.)
If I had been sitting in a doctor’s office instead of Sam’s Club that day, I would probably have received a prescription for a statin medication. My mom’s total cholesterol was only 208 when her doctor put her on statins. Now let me preface this next statement by saying that if you need medication, by all means, please take the medication. If it helps you, it helps you. Personally, I do not want to be on medications, especially for conditions that are mostly within my power to affect.
But, I assure it it wasn’t as easy as just making that decision.
I watched dozens of success stories in documentaries like What the Health? and The Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue and I still wasn’t jumping up and down shouting “I can do that too!” Improving my heart health was important but so were things like staying on budget with groceries and not offending my mom by shunning her meatloaf. Needless to say, it took some time plus trial and error to come to something that works for us. All these baby steps led us to what I like to call our 90/10 eating plan. We eat 90% whole plant-based foods. We eat fish and occasionally farm raised eggs and cheese (but no other dairy). We eat meat only when my mom invites us to dinner and we try to make sure that meat is local and organic (when possible).
This month, our local Kroger store is offering a free Healthy Heart Screening. Angie and I were originally going to do it on Valentine’s Day but I was in the ER with my mom that day, so we went on Tuesday instead. We’ve had several screenings since the first one and each successive one has been better than the last, but none of mine have been normal, until this one. My total cholesterol was 168. My LDL was 101. My triglycerides were still above normal at 221 and my HDL low but at least I know that what we’re doing is working. This time, I was the one jumping up and down in excitement.
I’m not a doctor and this is not medical advice. It’s just a snapshot of my journey toward better health. I’m 47 years old. I take no medications. I don’t have all the answers when it comes to what to eat and how to live, but I do know that eating well is important to me and it seems to be producing the results that I’m seeking, so I’m going to keep doing it.
(If you’re wondering about Angie’s latest results – she’s still rocking it out with 155 total cholesterol, 102 triglycerides, and 89 LDL.)
What has your experience been with eating well (or not eating well) as it relates to your health? Do you follow a particular diet plan? What is your favorite food documentary or book? We’d love to hear from you!