Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Trading Butter for All the Broccoli in China: Getting Healthy Takes Practice

Making her CHG debut, please welcome today's guest blogger, Amy Dickenson. Amy is an actor, writer, producer, and mom to the cutest baby girl in the five boroughs.

Forty. Forty is the new 30, right? Well, in my house, 40 is starting to look like the new 60. My gorgeous husband and I have recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol—hypertension and hypercholesterolemia, to be fancy, like certain cheeses which I love and will never be able to eat again.

Photo: Jami Dwyer via Flickr
Let’s jump in the Crisco Time Machine. It all started 18 years ago when our courtship took a decided slant toward biscuits slathered in butter and jam. Have you ever tasted butter? It’s like a miracle married to a unicorn wrapped in a rainbow. Much like its cousin, bacon, which is a miracle married to a unicorn dipped in chocolate, butter’s not so good for your arteries. But it was the early ‘90s and we didn’t know about cholesterol and vegetables back then. Did we?

Back in the time machine to August 2010. My cholesterol is 254. WHAT? I am not a high-falutin’, pin-stripe-wearin’ banker chugging scotch, smoking stogies, eating aged porterhouse steaks with my big wig partners, guffawing over “that deal” that made “lots of money” while flashing my newly laminated AARP card. I am a working mom. I eat veggies. I make sure my family gets a salad at least once a day. So, what gives? And why is my husband’s blood pressure 180/2 million?

My husband (let’s call him Adam) and I do not agree all the time (shocking) but we do agree on one thing: We want to be around for our baby daughter’s graduation from college. And her wedding. And her babies. And their graduations from college. Even if she doesn’t get married or go to college, we want to be around to lament those things.

She is worth all the broccoli in China. And I know they have tons, because, let’s face it, nobody ever eats that side of bright green buried under the General Tsao’s chicken. I imagine the Great Wall as an agricultural implement built to contain the cruciferous invaders from the steppes of central Asia. They must love it as much as I do.

Photo: La Grande Farmers' Market via flickr
Our daughter, however, loves broccoli (a secret point of pride), and for now, she needs us to make it for her. Time to act.

Adam’s doctor put him on the First Line Therapy diet. Mine gave me a prescription cholesterol reducer, a pharmaceutical of the most common side effects reported are headache, muscle pain, abdominal pain...variety.

One of the scariest side effects I read about is birth defects. Since Adam and I are “not not trying” to have another baby, the meds are sitting on my desk, looking forlorn while I debate whether to take it. Or I could give this First Line Therapy diet a try too.

Adam and I are fly-by-the-seat of our pantsers, not planners. I love to cook, but I have been known to open the freezer at 5 pm and stare blankly for three minutes before I reach directly above it for the takeout menus. (OK, the restaurant numbers are in my cell phone.)

How do two nonplanners plan to be healthy, live longer, and learn about nutrition on a diet that requires grocery shopping in advance of the moment we might need said ingredients?
I started by reading the cute little binder Adam got from his doctor. It has menus, recipes, and tips like pretty much every other diet book. I thought, “Hmmm. This looks really great.” And I said to Adam, “Babe, this is really great.” And then I put down the book and we ordered chicken ceasar wraps with feta from Zorba’s. Because you can have fat-free feta on this diet. (Zorba’s doesn’t have fat-free anything.)

Oh I needed a PLAN. I gave myself a goal of meal planning for three days. My mind can grapple with Sunday, Monday and Tuesday just fine. I didn’t want to get too ambitious and hope for a week.

First Line Therapy (FLT) is basically the reduced-carb, high-veggie, lean protein, healthy fat diet that we have all read about, tried, and maybe succeeded at. It’s similar to the South Beach approach or the Mediterranean diet…or Weight Watchers if you do it right.

You aim for a set number of calories per day within a certain set of food groups. For instance, Adam can eat 2000 calories a day, and this is how they break it down:

Servings per Day
3–4 “Category 1” veggies (the green leafies, the zucchinies, the tomatoes, the peppers, etc.)
2 legumes
1 dairy
3 concentrated proteins
2 fruits
4 healthy oils
1 nut
1 grain
1 “Category 2” veggie (the yummy orange ones)

You can read more about FLT here, where people are dangerously perched on two-wheels or here, where they weigh giraffes. I prefer the giraffes.

Among the many challenges of embracing FLT is that it’s kinda pricey. They recommend you eat what they call “medical food,” which includes Ultra Meal 360 Plus shakes with delicious "Selective Kinase Response Modulators,” twice a day and take a variety of supplements. You can indulge in medical chalklate, medical chalkberry or medical chalknilla flavored shakes, which you mix with cold water. Or you can get purse-friendly bars in flavors approximating fudge or apple cinnamon. (We have yet to try the apple cinnamon bars or strawberry shake flavors.) If there is a cookie variety, they are holding out on us.

“Medical food,” in combination with the cost of fresh produce, was looking a little forbidding until we looked at our daily Starbucks intake—$10 easy for both of us, which adds up to over $3600 a year. If we cut that out, along with our takeout habit, we could maybe swing this thing.

I comparison shopped at our local grocery store vs. the health food store vs. the farmer’s market. A head of lettuce at our grocery store costs around $3. I never used to buy a head of lettuce that I’d have to cut up and WASH and spin and hang to dry. It’s like doing laundry. Especially when have these cute little plastic boxes of cut up, triple-washed lettuce. But, they’re $4.99 a box. And, if truth be told, we usually throw away about 1/3 of it when the purple leafy things get all slimy. Hmmm… I see savings in my salad spinner.

The farmer’s market had locally grown lettuce for (drum roll please) $2! And it doesn’t come in those plastic shells which I always feel guilty about buying and tossing. So, not only am I supporting local growers, I can get my green on too? I’m sold. Or least sold on Wednesdays. Because that’s the only day the farmers market comes to my area.

To fill out the week, I decided to go for Romaine hearts at my grocery store, saving roughly $4 a week. Over a year, that’s $200. Which means I can buy those fancy Omega-3s FLT recommends we take. Or the “Medical food,” which is $50 a canister for 14 servings. OUCH, but remember the lettuce. Remember the lettuce!

Here is my 3-day plan:
Breakfast: a medical food shake, plus 2 eggs – anyway you like ‘em
Snack: fruit with a nut butter (Almond butter is pricey, but a little goes a loooong way. Plus, you can only have 1 tbsp.)
Lunch: here’s where the planning kicks in…yesterday’s dinner leftovers
Snack: another fruit
Dinner: a recipe from Adam’s cute binder and a salad
Snack: another medical food (This stuff is pricey.)*

Sunday’s dinner was turkey chili from the book (surprisingly delicious); Monday’s dinner was salad with grilled chicken breast; and Tuesday’s dinner was turkey and bulgur with peas (also yummy).

Not only did we have plenty of chili for lunch, I actually froze two servings for another day. The bulgur recipe looks like it might be another loaves and fishes story. I have never cooked bulgur, which I had to get at my health food store, but it was only $4 for a bag that will last me until the Buffalo Bills win a superbowl.**

Now I have to take a deep breath because today is Wednesday. And I have to plan again. But I did it THREE DAYS in a row. And I think I can, I think I can, I think I can… I talked to my doctor about Adam’s FLT diet, and he asked how it was going. “Well, it’s challenging, figuring out how to cook and plan and get all the food groups in.” He said, “That’s what it is. It’s practice.”

Hmmm... Practice. I can do that.

*According to the American Heart Association, in 1995, the last yearly figures they publish, there were 1,460,000 angiograms performed at an average cost of $10,880 per procedure. This resulted in 573,000 bypass surgeries at an average cost of $44,820, and 419,000 percutaneous transluminal (balloon) coronary angioplasties (PTCAs) at an average of $20,370 each. The total bill in 1995 was $50 billion, or $137 million per day―$5.7 million per hour. The total annual cost of cardiovascular disease in the United States, including medications and disability, is approximately $274 billion per year. And that was in 1995. When we were slathering butter on our biscuits. Good grief.

**Adam and I proudly hail from Buffalo, NY.

If you dug this article, you may also dig:
How to Lose Weight and Keep It Off: 10 Rules to Live By
Weekly Meal Planning for Singles, Couples and Working People
Why Weight Maintenance Is Harder Than Weight Loss, and How to Help It Along

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Marcia said...

Good luck!! Planning gets easier the more you do it.

And 40 *IS* the new 30. It IS!!

Shanbanan said...

I'm forty as well and run and eat healthy and don't have weight issues and run between 200 and 220 cholesterol. It's a genetic thing for my family.

Someone gave me a're gonna hate it...drink vinegar. I know. Really, I do. But it worked for me. I take about 1-2 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar every morning and it's brought it down to about 180. It's not great, but I think it's better (and cheaper) than going with the liver issues associated with anti-cholesterol drugs.

Sophie said...

I was only 21 when I had to take a physical for my life insurance policy and I found out that my cholesterol is through the roof. I thought that I was on a diet! But the turkey bacon I thought was so good for me was my daily serving of cholesterol in two strips! If I were to suggest any changes that helped me, I would say look at the farmer's market more! And look into CSA (Community supported agriculture)! And look into thow as seen on tv vegetable bags. I get a huge box of misc produce for about $20 per week. I bag it and I feel much worse wasting it than store bought stuff, which is silly considering I spent more on the store bought produce. I just eliminated stuff from my diet that I used to think I had to have and they just went away without much thought, and now I look back and don't miss them too much. Including, bread, red meat, pork, butter, sugary treats, coffee and lattes. Now I just have them occasionally and mostly homemade or on special trips out. It's changed my budget and my healthy for the better. It is hard to be creative and not reach for take out, but somehow with a fridge full I couldn't resist! That's not to say that I don't 30 second slam some salads because I'm sick of greens, but I do get creative once in a while.
Best of luck to your healthy goals! I had to bring my weight and health under control to get pregnant and I'm hoping this is a lifestyle that sticks in the long run!

LC said...

I know this is another expensive item to add but ... have you thought about seeing a nutritionist? Maybe your health plan would cover at least the initial visit. They could help with meal plans and small changes that could add up big over time. I just don't know that I would trust my health to this diet binder.

Good luck and good for you and your husband for making this change! It's HARD!

kitty said...

I enjoyed reading your post. Good luck!

Anna said...

Nice article, I hope Kris keeps you around. ;)

Broke in Memphis, TN said...

I became a vegetarian thirteen years ago due to my family's history of heart disease, cholesterol, and diabetes. All I know is my cholesterol and blood pressure are normal. I attribute this accomplishment to reading up on how to have a balanced diet and injesting wheat grass shots. I tried the chalky shakes from the health food store and they are truly foul. Powdered stuff with water mixed in is just wrong. I wish you and your husband all the best in trying to get the numbers down. Please keep us, your readers, informed. Your blog is truly a revelation. I enjoy reading your posts.

Anonymous said...

If you drink diet soda, stop. Please Read the article on Diet Soda in the American Heart Association publication "Circulation" July 23, 2007. It can cause the symptoms you describe.

Diane said...

I'm not sure you need to go the whole "medical food" diet - it sounds like a fad/scam just out to take your money. Why not try a macrobiotic diet or some other kind of diet low in saturated fats first? I know people who have had good luck doing that. That said, I think your meal planning and prep are excellent strategies.

Overall, I wish you both luck and success tackling your medical issues.

Georgie said...

I still reckon butter's healthier than margarine. *shudder* Everything in moderation.

wosnes said...

I'm 60+ with a history of heart disease, though my cholesterol was never an issue. Over the last 15 years I've done a lot of reading and thinking about this and I've followed some fairly strict eating plans. While my numbers were good on these plans, I never really felt good.

I went back to all real food -- including meat, dairy, butter and so on. No low-or no-fat foods. The only thing I've omitted is most processed foods and most restaurant food. I rarely eat out anymore and when I do I try to pick restaurants that make nearly all of their food from scratch. About 10% or less of my eating out is done at fast or chain restaurants.

The results? All of my numbers, including my weight, are less than they were before. My cholesterol, which was already normal, dropped even more. A surprising side effect -- I eat less.

I do eat a lot of vegetables, fruits and beans. Not many grains because I just don't like them (and they don't seem to like me, either). The grains I do eat are refined. I don't eat a lot though, except for bread, which shows up in small amounts at most meals. I make my own bread.

Anonymous said...

Great article- how can I find out more about this diet?

chacha1 said...

Very good article. It's going to be my "link of the week" next Wednesday. :-)

I am not a fan of engineered foods, but I appreciate it can be hard to get exactly the right nutrient mix and sometimes "medical foods" are just so much easier than doing it all from scratch.

The daily meal plan is hard to fault otherwise. I'm a dairy girl though ... don't know if I could survive on just one serving a day!

midwinter-az said...

I've been reading a cardiologist's "Heart Scan Blog" ( for a while now. He's in favor of radical changes in diet and vitamin/supplement intake, but his advice is the best I've read to date. The first premise? Eliminate wheat from your diet. Entirely. Then add in fish oil and vitamin D supplements. I'm too much of a pasta lover to give up wheat, but I've greatly reduced my intake (and upped the veggies) with very positive results.
I can't imagine any need for the medical food - nothing there you can't get from fresh foods.

Amanda on Maui said...

I'm actually following Nourishing Traditions quite a bit and I'm okay with butter. The author says that butter isn't bad for you, but of course everything is in moderation. So, I stick with the real deal. I'd rather have butter than any substitute.

We do use olive oil and coconut oil in my house too. I really like coconut oil, and being that it is a medium chain fatty acid it is actually quite good for us.

I don't want to get too into the nutrition bull because I prefer to just see food as being something real and whole and everything about it is good for me in some way, as long as it is in moderation and as long as I have a variety of foods in my diet.

Don't kick the butter just yet!

Check out what Kitchen Stewardship has to say about it: