The 12-Month Widow-maker Diet
One year ago today, I was slathering butter on a piece of toast when my phone pinged. My lab test results were back. I clicked into the Allina Health app and opened the note from my doctor:
In this case, “top 5%” is not a good thing. It basically meant that if I didn’t take steps to correct course, I stood a much higher chance than, well, 96% of men my age of having an “event” (a polite way of saying “heart attack”), in the next few years. I finished my piece of toast and that was the last time I consumed butter.
I remember the date of my lab report because that day was also when a pair of pants I’d ordered online was delivered by UPS. They were a size 36 waist and I tried them on right out of the box. They just fit, perfectly actually. I weighed myself that day too and made a note of it: 221 pounds. This was actually down about 15 pounds from my heaviest. I had lost a bit in response to the mysterious abdominal pain that, turns out, was caused by my necrotic gall bladder. I simply cut back my eating because whenever, and whatever, I ate, was causing wrenching cramps. That problem was ultimately solved, and it was the preceding ongoing efforts towards its diagnosis that led to the discovery of my clogged pipes. But something more needed to be done to reduce my chances of an early death.
This is not a health and fitness blog, nor am I an expert, and I’m highly averse to dispensing any advice to anyone about their weight or health. But it’s been a significant year for me, one in which I’ve lost over 40 pounds, lowered my cholesterol significantly, and, ironically after that scary news, now feel better than I ever have in my life. And that’s at age 52. I figured that was worth memorializing in an article. Plus, I’ve had more than a few people on Instagram ask me how I got fit. So here it goes. This is what worked for me.
I am someone who admires and craves self-discipline, and a needed course correction was something I dove into with relish. I now had a good excuse to eat more simply and healthily and I took to it with gusto. After a lifetime of active pursuits, which included climbing high mountains, open water swimming, running, cycling, and hiking, I had gotten lulled into a sense of invincibility. I looked reasonably fit, could bike 40 miles with no problem, swim across the lake near our house, and run a couple of miles. I also never ate fast food, drank soda pop, or consumed a lot of meat. So when my heart scan put me among sedentary Burger King aficionados, it was a shock.
In addition to cutting out butter, I also gave up cheese, milk, desserts, most eggs, and meat besides fish and, on rare occasion, chicken. This may seem extreme and I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads. Eggs aren’t evil! Everything in moderation! Yes, but remember, this is what works for me and that’s what’s important. I tend to be an all or nothing person. Bike rides are rarely casual. They’re full spandex with cleated shoes. I don’t hike without a pack. And when someone suggests a swim, I show up in goggles expecting laps. So it’s easier for me to plot a course and just stick to it than try to dabble or go half measures. I love this sense of discipline. It invigorates me. I feel smug instead of sorry for myself when I’m out to dinner and watch others eating dessert while I opt for a cup of fruit.
It must be human nature to offer advice. Either that, or my rather spartan eating habits make others feel uncomfortable. Because I’ve never gotten more input on what’s on (or not on) my plate as I have this past year. People defending beef, lobbying for eggs (the verdict is still out, so I choose to limit my intake to one a week), and cajoling me to “live a little” (how ironic) and have a small piece of cake. It’s funny that people seldom seem to offer the same amount of feedback to those who aren’t trying to eat more healthy. I never really comment on others’ choices. But I digress… In any case, I feel better than I ever have and that’s what counts. My joints don’t hurt, I can run and ride further, fit in clothes better, and don’t live in fear of dropping over from a rupture in my “widow-maker” artery.
Also, crucially, I don’t miss all those foods I used to eat regularly. I realize I’m lucky in this regard. I entirely lack a sweet tooth, so cookies, cake, muffins, and the like do nothing for me. I’m just as happy eating dry toast with a dollop of jam, hold the butter. And though I figured I’d give in to my former love of pizza on rare occasions, I haven’t had a slice since last April. I don’t need a “cheat day.” This is not to say I have trouble finding things to eat. I’m fortunate to be married to someone who enjoys cooking, eating healthy, and can make a curry out of just about any vegetable. We’ve always gravitated towards Asian foods that lean on rice, vegetables, pulses, and ample spices, as well as fish, so it makes it easy to eat heartily and healthily. In Sri Lanka, this type of cuisine is called “village food” (gamme kama) and on our recent trip there, we ate like this for the whole month.
At home, I’ve fallen into a routine of eating two big meals a day, with grazing throughout. I start early with a bowl of cereal with oat milk, and coffee, plenty of strong coffee. Then, mid-morning, it’s avocado on toast with fresh greens and smoked salmon, something I cannot live without, followed by some berries and cut banana with honey and slivered almonds. Then midday, I’ll eat some crackers with mixed nuts and an apple, a cup of tea in the afternoon, and a decent sized dinner of rice and curry, a soup, pasta of some sort, grilled fish, or whatever else suits our taste that day. Sometimes we get takeout Ethiopian or Thai, sushi or vegetarian Indian. One area I’ve yet to throttle back is alcohol. I’ve never been a big drinker, but do enjoy a single malt, good beer, the odd glass of wine, or, in summer on the patio, a gin and tonic. Don’t take my booze away from me. It’s my last holdout of indulgence.
If all of this sounds a bit extreme, I’m sorry. I told you I’m not dispensing diet advice. Friends have asked what I did so they can lose a few pounds, and when I tell them, their enthusiasm to follow suit quickly vanishes. And I don’t blame them. Most people can do perfectly well, and be happier, with a more moderate diet. My wife, for example, has taken up many of the same changes as me, but with more personal allowances and has still been dropping weight and feeling better while being able to enjoy butter on her fresh sourdough and the occasional dessert.
I’m also lucky that I’ve always enjoyed exercise, typically of the outdoor variety, be that running, cycling, cross-country skiing, kayaking, and swimming. So to continue that while also changing what I eat has been especially rewarding. With less weight, not only has my cardiovascular fitness vastly improved, my knees and feet don’t hurt when I run, and hills seem less steep on the bike. I do suspect that I lost a fair amount of muscle mass but my strength doesn’t feel diminished, or maybe I simply maintained the same power to weight ratio, with less muscle, but also less bulk. I don’t keep to a strict exercise regimen since exercise has always been simply a means to get outside. I go in all weather and love the feeling of dressing for conditions and being out in the elements, no matter what. These days it’s running once or twice a week, a few midday bike rides, and some evening walks. I also try to do a few sets of pushups a couple days a week to keep up my strength.
Looking back to a year ago, when the news seemed so bleak, I couldn’t have imagined how it changed my life so much for the better. All subsequent blood tests have shown precipitous drops in all the scary categories, to the point where my doctor has halved my dosage of statin medication. I no longer fear “an event” and those pants I bought? They’re way too big for me, so that just a couple weeks ago, I ordered a new pair, one size smaller. They fit me well and have become a sort of touchstone or marker of progress from one year to the next. The fact is, my goal was never to lose weight. That’s simply been a side effect of a rather significant change in my eating habits. I don’t really even weigh myself anymore. Those pants are a good enough indicator, but I’d say my lab tests and the way I feel are even better ones.
As I said at the top, I am not a fitness or nutrition expert. I only know what has worked for me. So the only bit of advice I’ll offer is to not avoid getting checked out, even if you think you’re healthy. Ask your doctor for a heart scan, whether you’re old like me, older than me, or in your thirties. And if the results are less than ideal, don’t be scared. You dodged a bullet. The discovery of my coronary artery calcium buildup came largely by accident, and was a complete surprise to a lifelong athlete and presumed healthy eater. After all, it can’t hurt to know, but it can certainly hurt to not know. Take it from me.