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My doctor diagnosed me with hyperlipidemia in January. Presumably my blood, run through the lab, resembled the disagreeably pond-scummy claret illustrating that condition’s Wikipedia page. Doc gave me a deadline: If I couldn’t fix this situation through diet and lifestyle changes within one year, then I’d have to accept a lipid-thinning drug regimen. Heart disease crippled my father and killed my father’s father, so I knew that would submit to statins that if I had to. But I would really rather not have to. This cut my work out for me.
I took another blood test last week, about six months after the first, and received the results the following morning. I can report that all my blood-numbers have adjusted, for the first time since I began having them measured, to generally acceptable levels. I feel pretty happy about that. While I naturally cannot point to any one thing I did as the cause, I can summarize the salient changes I made in my behavior since the winter.
Honestly, it comes down to two factors: I significantly cut back on processed sugars, and I started visiting a professional dietician.
More to the first point, I stopped eating sugar mindlessly. Better phrased, perhaps, as I started eating more mindfully. But I really do feel I set myself up poorly through decades of eating sugary treats whenever I felt like it — and, often, when I didn’t feel like it, but something sweet lay in reach so I ate it anyway because eh why not.
Like, when I went out to get my morning or afternoon coffee, of course I’d get a little something to nibble on too, a frosted scone or a big cookie or a chocolate bar or whatever. I wouldn’t even think about it. And I did this for years and years.
For the last six months, though, unless I feel very sure that my body requests a sugar hit — not never, but also not more than once a week or so — I just get the coffee.
I brought my experience from earlier food-quantifying experiments to bear, here. I had already learned both the possibility and the benefits of simply acknowledging what I eat. With those earlier efforts, I didn’t tune my intake in any particular way, other than capping my daily calorie-ingestion.
This time, I left the food-diary closed, instead just paying attention to my sweet-toothed fingers, willing them to hey maybe not automatically pick up the donut just because it’s there and it’s morning. It worked — over the course of mere months, one could cater quite the gala celebrity wedding with all the treats I didn’t eat.
And, friends, processed sugar is very bad for you. It’s so very bad. I have known this for some time. I think I was ready to let it go at last, but I needed a greater push than scary news articles to get me to act. So that’s what I got in January.
I must admit, though, that I arrived at this place indirectly. When I shared the diagnosis and my fears about it on Twitter, a friend — and, it happens, a stroke survivor — recommended the book Grain Brain to me. I ate up its confident insistence on a low-carb, high-protein diet, and it launched me into an extremely enthusiastic and very brief gluten-free phase. While I couldn’t maintain that more than a couple of weeks, it gave me an wholly unexpected side-effect: my “sweet tooth”, my lifelong shrugging excuse to myself for eating sugar all the time, vanished.
The happiness that lovely breads and cereals and pastas give me triumphed over my experimental rejection of them. But somehow in that struggle my always-on background-desire for sweets, left unfed for just a couple of weeks, simply guttered and died. When I realized this, and recognized the significance of the life-improvement I had stumbled into, I drew up a peace treaty with carbs and ordered a pizza. More than enough territory gained, for one war.
This mood for accepting modest gains over radical redefinition continued to help when I started seeing a dietician, beginning a couple of months after the diagnosis. Every other change I made flows from this activity. I didn’t need to shop around or anything; I scheduled an appointment with the dietician that happened to base their practice in the same building as my primary-care physician, and we took it from there.
I have sat down with this dietician twice, so far. First, we sketched out my current lifestyle as seen through the lens of the food I eat — what, when, how often and how much — and established what about myself I wished to change through changes in my diet. (In this case: righting those terribly askew blood-numbers.) They gave me homework, thus:
Instead of eating breakfast out literally every morning (as I did indeed do), try cutting that back to every other morning. I received a shopping list of nutritious and filling breakfast components, and friends I have really learned to unironically enjoy mixing up my own greek yogurt parfaits.
Create and keep a big container of oat bran and flaxseed mix in the fridge. Sprinkle a spoonful onto all those homemade breakfasts, and also any other meal where I could get away with it.
Start taking over-the-counter plant-sterol supplements with my meals.
Maintain course on the good habits I’d managed to pick up myself: my still-regular dives into the seven-minute workout, and my aforementioned shunning of sugar. Continue my frequent appreciation for fibrous greens, cultivated by prior reading.
For two weeks prior to my subsequent visit, keep a food diary.
My second visit began with my handing in that latter assignment. On the dietician’s instructions, rather than carefully measure out amounts and calorie-estimates, I simply wrote down what I ate, and when I ate it, every day, for days. We reviewed it together, and the dietician circled things here and there — oh dear, still eating one or two sugary treats per day, I see — and we fine-tuned my habits a little further.
I have a third visit coming up later this month. My homework this time: take a six-months-on blood test, and bring in the results. So here I write, with an LDL of 124 mg/dL — down from January’s 151, and for the first time thrillingly below the good-range ceiling of 130. (My triglyceride and HDL measurements also both find themselves sitting pretty.)
I think I may have a hard floor of one sweet treat per day. Given the undeniable reality of my progress, I enjoy that single big buttery oatmeal-raisin cookie with my 4 PM coffee, and apologize to nobody. We’ll see where we stand next January.
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