Fat was never an issue for me. I ate whatever I wanted — stacks of pancakes drenched in syrup, mountains of bacon, acres of French fries — and never gained an ounce. Hate me? I understand.
On my 50th birthday, I wore the same size as in high school. Exercise? No, thank you. The only negative comment I ever got about my weight was that I was “too thin,” even as I wolfed down a corned-beef sandwich and strawberry cheesecake at the Famous Deli.
When friends, who viewed every forkful as the Battle of the Bulge, asked, “How do you do it?” I blithely credited my hummingbird metabolism to heredity.
“Want to be thin? Choose skinny parents,” I’d say.
“Someday, it will catch up with you,” they warned, as if every Oreo I’d eaten in my lifetime would someday find its way back to my thighs.
Then, last May, when I went for my annual checkup, my doctor dropped the F-bomb. “Your cholesterol is dangerously high,” she said.
Impossible. My blood pressure is so low it’s reptilian.
“It has nothing to do with your blood pressure,” she explained. “It’s how your body processes FAT.” She gave me a choice. Take statins (drugs used to lower cholesterol levels) or change my diet. I, who had a bag-a-week Double Chocolate Milanos habit, embarked upon my first diet.
Friends thought I was nuts. Why give up “all the good stuff” when you can just pop a pill? Part of my reasoning was curiosity. The other part was rebellion. I addressed the fatty globules in my blood stream with Rocky Balboa bravado. You wanna piece of me? Bring it on!
I replaced all the high-fat foods in my kitchen with non-fat substitutes. Admittedly, there are foods for which there are no substitutes. Gooey cheesesteaks, meatball parm hoagies and my beloved BLTs. Could I live without these fatty favorites? According to the American Heart Association, not only could I live, but a helleva lot longer, too.
I didn’t starve. Breakfast was oatmeal with brown sugar and cinnamon. Lunch was turkey on rye with a juicy apple. For dinner, I alternated between chicken, salmon and pasta. There was just one high-fat item they’d have to pry out of my cold, dead hands: dark-chocolate-covered cranberries. Hey, they’re full of anti-oxidants!
Dining at friends’ homes was a bit tricky. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be on the payroll of a heart surgeon. Bacon-wrapped wieners, mac ‘n cheese, pie a la mode. I turned it into a game. How could I get through this maze of artery-clogging foods without insulting my host? I quickly learned: The less said about my diet, the better. Every guest was probably on statins, and to suggest that there was a better way would be as antagonistic as walking into Chickie & Pete’s in a Saints t-shirt during the Super Bowl.
Six months after my doctor first read me the riot act, I went back for a blood test.
“Congratulations,” she said. “Your cholesterol is down thirty-two points. You don’t need statins.”
In my mind, I victoriously ran up and down the Art Museum steps. “But this is as low you can get your cholesterol by diet alone,” my doctor said. “From now on, if you want to lower it, you’re going to have to exercise.”
Exercise? Me? The Devil whispered in one ear, “Take the statins.” My Better Angel said, “Walking won’t kill you.”
I headed for the mall. Shopping is a heart-healthy, wallet-emptying, weight-bearing exercise. As long as I speed-walk past the food court.