Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eating Medicinally. Again.

"You eat medicinally!" a distant co-worker announced ten years ago, with the inflection of a scientist making an important but distasteful discovery.

He was right. I ate for the most basic of reasons: to fuel my body and improve my health. And, once I got past the carb cravings, I enjoyed eating that way. I liked my thinner self. I liked the way we can detect the sweetness in so many foods when we don't allow sugar to confuse our taste buds. Most of all, I liked knowing I was foiling the nasty combination of predispositions I'd inherited.

My family has a strong history of diabetes and heart disease. My paternal grandfather died of a heart attack at 61. My maternal grandmother died of a heart attack at 46. My theory—and I'll never be able to prove it—is that she had a tendency toward high triglycerides, and the German desserts she loved to bake were her undoing. I have the triglyceride problem, which can be a serious heart risk for women, and the only way to keep it in check is to severely limit carbohydrate consumption. They didn't know this, of course, in my grandmother's day.

I inherited something else, too: my dad's unusual fat-clearing (or, more accurately, fat retaining) gene. Well, I don't know if there's a specific gene for this, but it's the way I've always thought of it. Here's the story.

My father was 40 when I was born. He and my mom had met on the tennis courts, and he remained actively athletic until he was practically crippled by angina. This happened when I was quite young. I remember that he couldn't walk up a subway ramp without stopping to put a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue. Any kind of exercise was out of the question. Back then nobody heard of cholesterol, but my dad's doctor was ahead of his time. He said saturated fat was the culprit, and advised my dad to give it up. All of it. No more cheese. No more ice cream, hot dogs, or juicy hamburgers. No more sausage. No more eggs. No more butter.

So he did. I grew up in a saturated-fat-free home, where polyunsaturated and cholesterol were household words. My dad stopped having angina pain, and was able to quit the nitroglycerin. He was able to start playing tennis again. He bought himself a bicycle, too. Over the years he found he could eat eggs without a problem. But if he ate fatty meat, or butter (this would usually happen at a restaurant), he would be in trouble the next day. Several times the resulting heart pains were strong enough to land him in the hospital.

For years he was told that it doesn't work like that. Cholesterol builds up gradually in the arteries; ingesting saturated fat doesn't clog them instantly. But in some people it can. A research study proved this a few years ago, but I had my own proof earlier than that.

It was about 20 years ago.....a cardiologist was preparing to perform a test in which my blood would be drawn and shaken in a test tube. When he shook the blood, he was appalled to find fat floating in it. He said he'd never seen anything like it. (And I think I just lost my more delicate readers.)

So. Whatever we want to call my father's odd fat metabolism, I share it. For that reason, and for the triglyceride issue, about 15 years ago I began eating medicinally. I got very strict with my diet, giving up saturated fats for one side of the family, and most carbohydrates for the other. It worked well for a good decade.

But at some point I started easing up on it. I was good about the fats, but I began allowing bread "if the restaurant is good and the bread is warm." Pasta once in a while. Some "whole grains," because they sound so healthy. That type of thing. But never, ever any sugar. And never ever any butter. Until the week before this Christmas.

My granddaughter and I had gotten together to bake cookies. I don't know what possessed me to taste them, but I did. I had just a few, but with cookies it doesn't take much. Cookies have got to be one of the most deliciously unhealthy things going. I had joked that our baking efforts were supporting the butter industry. And now some of that butter was coursing through my veins.

The next day I was standing in front of my washing machine, calmly folding laundry, when I experienced what felt like a dead-serious angina pain, traveling down the left side of my neck and into my chest. It was brief, but scary as hell. I've had little twinges where the arteries join the heart, but never anything like that. Being Harry's daughter, my first thought was, What did I eat? It took me a few minutes to remember the cookies of the day before. And then I remembered the goat cheese, of all things, from the day before that. Yes, I ate some of the goat cheese that a restaurant served with my lunch salad. I never do, but I did that day. Call it temporary insanity created by the merging of the Christmas season and my last day at work.

It was clear what had happened, and it was clear what I had to do. That day, three days before Christmas, I started eating medicinally. Again. As for all the foods I've had to turn down since then, I'll leave that to your imagination.


crystal said...

I've read that for hours after eating a fatty meal, the chances for heart prolems are higher.

I do this too - try to eat foods low on the glycemic index. Can't give up toasted cheese sandwiches, though :) My cholesterol is high but I guess the good part is balancing the bas part, so far.

How are your fingers holding up this winter?

Susan said...

Hi Crystal - Happy New Year!

The glycemic index is my friend, too. I have it posted on the side of my fridge. I'm often surprised by some of the numbes--both the low and high ones.

My fingers are a mess, thanks. That is, my right hand is badly affected. On my left, only my pinky has sores. Between the damage taking place during the winter and the resulting misshapen nails in the summer, I have about one month when my hands look normal.

At least my hair still looks good. :-)

Eulalia Benejam Cobb said...

Do take good care of yourself, and be glad that Christmas comes but once a year!

crystal said...

Oh, sorry to hear that. Your hair is very pretty :)

Helen said...

Your hair is indeed pretty, even though your digestive tract may not be. Happy 2011 Susan!

Indigo Bunting said...

It's interesting when cause and effect seem so clear.

It's great that you are able to be so [usually] disciplined.