Growing up, I was a "latchkey kid." My mom and dad worked outside the home; they left before I woke up in the morning, and returned late in the evening. Needless to say, we kids were generally on our own when it came to feeding ourselves and we got no training about nutrition or healthy eating.
In college, I continued to eat without any regard for my health. After I got married, I rejected my wife's healthy eating habits by classifying her meals as "woman food." She ate her salads, I ate my steaks, and it wasn't until I was almost 40 that I realized I wasn't eating "man food"--I was eating "people-who-are-about-to-die food."
When I turned 39 years old in 2003, I made an appointment for an annual physical exam-- I hadn't had one in years. The doctor informed me that my triglyceride levels were at 290--smack in the middle of the "high" category. I was very ignorant about cholesterol and its related numbers; now I know that blood work shows the levels in our bodies of LDL ('bad' cholesterol), HDL ('good' cholesterol), and triglycerides (fats carried in our blood from food we eat). My LDL and HDL numbers weren't what caused my doctor alarm, but my high triglyceride levels greatly increased my risk for coronary artery disease.
I had no idea that I was living an unhealthy lifestyle, and I was afraid-- I knew I had to make some big changes, and I was fearful of how these changes would affect my life. I thought I was going to have to give up everything I loved; that I had to say goodbye to my favorite Southern comfort food and restaurants, that I'd never feel satisfied after a meal.
Learning to Eat in a New Way
I relearned what foods are good for you; instead of a cookie, I started reaching for celery sticks with a dab of peanut butter. I began paying attention to what my wife had been telling me about nutrition. Luckily, she was already a pro at cooking healthy, and soon we filled up the fridge with fresh veggies and leaner meats. My biggest hurdle to overcome was finding the time to prepare this new, healthy food. I have a busy schedule and I thought I didn't have time to slice a bell pepper, chop celery, or skin a cucumber. I realized, though, that it doesn't take as much time as you think it will. I grew more knowledgeable about what was good for me and what wasn't, and learned to add more fresh foods to my mental grocery list.
The other important part of reducing high cholesterol numbers is focusing on exercise. Fortunately, that step wasn't difficult to take since I'm a long-distance runner and enjoy participating in marathons. I run about six miles four times a week, and I'm probably exercising as much as a person can. For me, it was really all about turning my dietary habits around and maintaining my exercise pattern.
I continued to see my physician for annual exams, and my hard work paid off: my triglyceride levels decreased. Unfortunately it didn't last.
A Dangerous Triglyceride Spike
In 2010, my numbers went from 208 the previous year to over 500. A triglyceride level that's 500 or higher is dangerously high, and my doctor said that we couldn't play around with only diet and exercise anymore. He told me I needed to take omega-3-acid ethyl esters and prescribed a fish-oil medication. Omega-3-acid ethyl esters are used together with diet and exercise to decrease production of triglycerides in the liver, which reduces levels of triglycerides in the blood. It was frustrating after all my hard work to have to turn to a medication, but at my last check-up, my triglyceride numbers were 180, so I know it's working.
It's unfortunate that I was so ignorant about how my eating choices affected my body for such a long time. I wish that I had started seeing a doctor annually when I was 25; if I'd made better diet choices earlier in my life, maybe I could've gotten my numbers down without medical intervention.
Because my parents' lack of nutritional guidance so affected my adult dietary choices, my wife and I have made it a priority to teach our kids how to be healthy. We talk with them about the types of foods our bodies need and the importance of finding a balance between fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. We haven't completely eliminated 'bad carbs' from our pantry because we want to encourage our kids to make healthy choices; to gauge what's available and then decide what their bodies need. Although life seems to get busier and busier, I've learned I need to take the time to pay attention to what I'm consuming and to make healthy living a priority.
Andre Riedlinger is a pastoral counselor. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Laura, and their four children.