When my father was 52 he had a heart attack. He thought he was in good health, and played sports regularly. He was actually playing racquetball when it happened. However, even though my father was active, it wasn’t enough.
Luckily, my father survived the heart attack, but his arteries were beginning to fill with cholesterol. Some had already closed. He was told that if he had any desire to grow old with his grandchildren, he had to radically change his eating habits.
Like many people however, he improved his eating only for a short time, soon reverting back to his old habits. Twelve years passed and he faced another challenge. His doctor told him that his arteries were almost totally blocked and that he needed quadruple bypass surgery immediately. He was rushed to the hospital for open-heart surgery at 63 years old. He was told that unless he changed his diet and lifestyle radically, he would no doubt suffer another heart attack.
This time, my stepmother helped to support his healthier lifestyle by cooking with less salt and fat and included more vegetables. He had to give up his favorites: salami, red meat, sausage, alcohol, sweets and cola drinks. The dietitians wanted him to include more fruits and vegetables, skinless chicken and fish. My Dad loves to eat good food. He grew up on lox and bagels, meat and potatoes, corned beef, salami, brisket and steak so it was a big change. For my Dad a bland diet of salads, vegetables, chicken, fish and fruit did not sound like enjoying life. It seemed impossible. He tried but he was too accustomed to his steaks and salami, his wine and sweets.
He reached a point where he was about to throw his hands into the air in defeat and take the consequences. My Dad just kept telling me that he was sorry. He tried but he couldn’t remember all of the dietary rules let alone follow them. That’s when I said to him, “Dad, we’re not talking about perfect. We’re talking about better.” This made sense to him. It no longer seemed overwhelming.
Reflecting on that moment 17 years later, my Dad now 80, says: “It wasn’t that hard to succeed at being better, but it was impossible for me to succeed at being perfect”. For my Dad, this one short motto helped him to be able to enjoy little indulgences of his favorite foods and drinks occasionally, and still get to better levels of personal health without having to sneak food or feel guilty about eating it. Cutting down, not cutting out was the answer for him.
For instance, when he goes to New York City, traditionally, he has always and will always eat a street vendor hot dog. The difference now is that he only takes a bite or two. He really considers this new behavior a victory. When he accidentally comes across an Italian beef/sausage combo, he will eat half of what he used to. In the past he would drink several cocktails and have dessert, but now limits his intake. If he has a drink, then he usually declines dessert. These newfound habits took several months to develop. These days it’s mostly cereal with turkey bacon for breakfast, salads or egg white omelets for lunch, fish or pasta with vegetables for dinner and occasionally a juicy, medium rare, New York Sirloin Steak.
My Dad continues to be in excellent health and manages to keep his weight down. He weight trains, plays racquetball, goes skiing and even participated in a Midwest version of Dancing with the Stars. Due to his sustained good habits, but not perfect habits, he has had the energy to pursue a new career after his retirement as the author of eight children’s books.
Now, as a health coach I share my father’s story regularly with my clients. I believe that giving into your cravings at times is a good thing. If we listen to them and give into them without derailing the train and then get back on track and stay the course of mostly good eating, then good long term health and sustained weight loss is still obtainable. In the Paleo world, there is the 90/10 principal. Eat great 90% of the time and 10% you can have some indulgences. My Dad is more like 75/25 and it has been working well for him.
Below is a poem that my Dad wrote while he was on the way to recovery. I thought it would be fun to share it with you.
I WISH I HAD JUST ONE MORE WISH
TO DWARF ALL OTHER WISHES,
I WISH I’D NEVER HEARD OF THINGS
LIKE CHICKEN FAT AND KNISHES.
I’D WISH SOME FOOD THAT SEEM TO BE
ENTICINGLY WELL SCENTED,
LIKE BACON AND SAUSAGE AND CHOCOLATE CAKE,
HAD NEVER BEEN INVENTED.
AS LONG AS I’M WISHING FOR ALL THESE THINGS,
I’VE GOT SOME OTHER WISHES,
I’D WISH THAT I’D EATEN SKINLESS FOWL
AND PRETTY LITTLE FISHES.
SO WHY DO THESE FOODS I’VE NEVER LIKED
SUDDENLY ATTRACT ME,
I’M SURE YOU’VE GUESSED, BY NOW, OLD FRIEND
MY HEART HAS JUST ATTACKED ME.
I LAID THERE ANGRY, QUITE AFRAID;
I THOUGHT I’D GOT THE CALL,
BUT RATHER THAN SAY FAREWELL TO MYSELF,
IT’S GOOD-BYE TO CHOLESTEROL.