Carrie Fisher’s death at 60 came as a shock. Known as Princess (and later, General) Leia to generations of Star Wars fans, she was considered too young to die. Having suffered a heart attack on a commercial airplane — not a private jet — she died four days later in a Los Angeles hospital. What an inauspicious finale for an actress and best-selling author born into Hollywood royalty.
And, yet, I am hoping that Fisher’s sudden passing serves as wake-up call.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of deaths from coronary disease, possibly including Fisher’s, are preventable. While there is nothing you can do about factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, and family history, there are lifestyle changes that will greatly reduce the risk of a fatal heart attack.
The Women’s Heart Foundation estimates that 8 million American women have heart disease. Forty-two percent will die within one year of their first heart attack, a rate that is twice as high for women as men. To put it into perspective: Twice as many women die of heart disease as breast cancer. The clearly defined lifestyle changes recommended by the AHA — controlling weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure — save lives. So, what stops women from adopting them?
This is what I hear: “You don’t understand. It’s my metabolism. Diets don’t work for me.”
This is what I know: Most of my female friends who struggle to lose that extra 30 to 50 pounds — as opposed to women who are obese — are emotional eaters. They turn to fatty and salty foods or carbs for comfort and solace. When they experience anxiety or depression, they do not discuss these issues with their physician. They talk it over with a tub of hot buttered popcorn, a slice of cheesecake, or a pizza. These foods not only make it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a healthy weight, but they also wreak havoc on cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
For them, food is their best friend and lover. It never lets them down. Until it kills them.
Until recently, these same friends accused me of having a hollow leg. Supposedly, I could eat all the high-fat foods I wanted and never gain an ounce. I put that to the test by adding up my daily caloric intake and discovered it wasn’t a trick done with mirrors or even metabolism. Even with my addiction to Tastykake Kreamies, I only consumed 1,300 calories a day, which kept my body mass index within a healthy range. BMI has been correlated to risk for heart problems, but it’s not a perfect measure.
You don’t need a medical degree to figure out your BMI. You just need a calculator. Multiply your weight by 703, divide that number by your height in inches, then divide that by your height in inches again. I know it sounds bizarre, but it works. If the number you get is under 25, you are good to go; 25-30 is considered overweight; 30 or higher is obese.
That said, many consider it a crude tool. “BMI ignores the thing that’s really important, which is fat mass,” writes Cornell University professor John Cawley in the Journal of Health Economics. A muscular gym rat with six-pack abs and evenly distributed body fat might have a high BMI — because muscle weighs more than fat. The key is proportion of fat to muscle and where that fat is on your body. The worst place to carry excess fat is around the waist. It’s a sign of risk for heart disease for both men and women.
Even though my weight wasn’t a problem, all those Kreamies eventually caught up with me. When my doctor told me that my cholesterol was “dangerously high,” I initially refused to take statins. I was determined to drive those numbers down by making lifestyle changes. This was no easy task, especially for someone who never thought twice about stopping at Dunkin Donuts or Dalessandro’s. I consulted with a nutritionist who helped me identify heart-healthy foods to be added to my diet, in addition to everything that I had to eliminate. It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to the buttery croissants and pastries that had been at the top of my food pyramid.
While I got my numbers down by swapping avocados, bok choy, and quinoa for mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, it wasn’t enough. I’m on statins now and, like a newly married playboy, I look but don’t dare touch when tempted by high-fat foods. This is especially difficult during the holidays when cookie trays zoom by as frequently as cars on the expressway. I know I will continue to be challenged by potluck parties, visits to restaurants, and my cravings for cheesesteaks, fries, and apple pie. But when those urges strike, I will think of Princess Leia on her final voyage out of solar system and wish her godspeed.