Tales of a Ghetto Diet

One of the first houses I remember growing up in was located across the street from a drive-thru Winchell’s donut. You had to drive through a big brown stucco hole to pick up your doughnuts.

Now that I think about it, this fortuitous locale perhaps foreshadowed my lifelong love of chocolate old-fashioned doughnuts. My love of all sugary drinks was no doubt foretold by the huge vats of Cherry Punch Kool-Aid I consumed until I shamelessly rocked a red mustache, thinking it a sort of pre-adolescent lipstick. And if I press further, I believe the roots of my fried chicken obsession were planted by frequent trips to Church’s Fried Chicken after church on Sundays.

So I guess it’s no big surprise that I have a terrible diet. If you were to look at me, you’d probably never guess it. I’m not over-weight and I’m pretty active so I am trim or in the parlance of online dating profiles everywhere: athletic.

Although I have been told that “athletic” can mean stocky, I am not fat. I am, however, what Cosmo magazine would refer to as an Apple. Most of my fat accumulates in my belly. Still, as I never saw much evidence of this on my body, I gave it nary a thought. That is until my mother died.

My mother died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 63. In the aftermath of her death, I learned that my family has a history of heart disease and stroke. So half-heartedly, I got a referral to a cardiologist. My appointment was first thing in the morning and I was the youngest in the waiting room by decades. Long story short: a routine EKG came back abnormal. Next thing I knew I was being rushed into all sorts of tests. Three hours later my life was changed. I had a cardiologist and an electro physiologist, an arrhythmia, and high cholesterol.

My cardiologist gave me six months to get my cholesterol down to normal levels or he would have to put me on Lipitor, a statin. As I was already an avid exerciser, my doctor suspected the issue was genetic but challenged me to see what I could do to bring my numbers down via my diet. He outlined some ground rules: red meat no more than twice a month; no fried foods and no more than 8 grams of saturated fat a day.

The main way to radically reduce your cholesterol is to severely limit saturated fat in your diet. The TLC diet suggests limiting saturated fat to no more than 7% of your total calories. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5% of your total calories. 

In point of fact, your belly fat can tell you a lot about your risk for heart disease. Doctors recommend that you regularly measure your waist at belly button level. Women with waists greater than 35 inches are at high risk for heart disease.

Shortly after my appointment with the cardiologist, I walked through my local Whole Foods and checked the saturated fat content on everything from cheese to chips. I learned quickly that Vegan or Organic does not necessarily mean low in saturated fat. That pretty much left me with fruit, vegetables and fish: a tall order for someone who thinks fast food is slow.

My diagnosis was two years ago and it is still a daily battle to choose the right foods. I get regular checkups and I have managed to bring my cholesterol down only to see it shoot up again when I got lax with my diet. It’s not easy. Friends often push food without realizing the struggle it is to decline it. There are days I want to cry I want something fatty so bad but hold out, and there are other days that I throw caution to the wind and consume whole bags of Hershey’s Almond Kisses.

I’m working on the balance. I still dive into the skin on a rotisserie chicken first but at least it’s not fried chicken anymore. And this Apple is finally eating more of them.