After a scare, health hits the table

June 05, 1996|By Joe Crea | Joe Crea,KNIGHT-RIDDER TRIBUNE

Had it not been for the numbness and tingling in my left arm, our routine run for provisions might have gone like any other swing through the grocery store, and this column would have provided a far more conventional approach to food.

Fortunately, it was wake-up time in the canned foods aisle.

That odd, eerie sensation in my arm wouldn't go away. It angered me, initially. "Aw, come on," I groused to no one in particular. "I don't have time for this."

The irony was, I'd been standing there comparing the nutritional contents among different packages of convenience foods. Various thoughts were mingling: awareness of my own high blood pressure, a desire to trim down, a renewed resolve for our whole family to eat more intelligently, and a whole lot of frustration.

Much as I applaud the Nutrition Facts labeling, it's still easy to be confused by differing portion sizes and nutritive profiles on otherwise comparable products.

Compound my confusion by the distracting sounds of my raucous 3-year-old scampering exuberantly down the next aisle, his mother in exhausted pursuit.

Stress? Ya think!?

But gradually it dawned on me. This wasn't standard-operating procedure for my body. The persistent sensation of deadness through my arm and a heavy sensation in my chest were an eerie reckoning. When my wife read the anxiety in my expression, her face went white with alarm.

Ten words later, she was urging what I didn't want to hear. Even as I expressed my determination not to head for the hospital, my buddy Jack's face flashed in my mind.

Not quite 50, he and his wife had enjoyed a wonderful week in Vegas, right down to great seats for the Stones' concert. Granted, Jack smoked like a chimney, ate anything fried he could find and was a high-tension kinda guy. But when he stepped off the plane and experienced a sudden, searing pain shoot through his leg, who knew that his wife would soon drive home a widow?

"OK," I finally conceded. "I'll go to the hospital -- but I'm driving."

Days of testing and apprehension later, the reports were better than anyone expected. I was nowhere near dying. Still, all of a sudden a whole spectrum of details and information came into focus.

Medication, frequent monitoring, stress reduction and other lifestyle changes were central to a positive prognosis. Chief among those changes? Diet and exercise.

In discovering the trembling possibility that I might not have too many more meals ahead of me if I didn't pause and take a fresh look at how I feed myself and my family, I realized that for everything I know about food and cooking there's a whole lot about smart eating left to be learned.

Yet just how do you maintain ahealthful diet, cook more from scratch, intelligently choose convenient ingredients and products, leave room for indulgences and the occasional splurge, fit it in to busy days and not go crazy trying to juggle all those goals?

This is what I've learned:

1. You need to seek an assessment of your own state of health.

Although one dietary size does fit all -- at least in general terms, such as the value of controlling the intake of fat, consuming more fresh produce and grains, fulfilling calcium requirements and so on -- medical conditions may be going undetected. You may be in urgent need of a low-sodium diet, severely restricted fat, changes in protein or carbohydrates, etc. Don't overlook your individual and undisclosed needs. Insist on the appropriate tests.

2. Discover the latitude open to you.

This is really critical in determining what and how you'll eat. Talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian. In my case, the only severe restriction has been for sodium. Although an accompanying goal is to reduce fat, tests showed that I could still leave room for occasional splurges without extreme risks. Those once-in-a-while diversions go a long way in making an otherwise Spartan regimen a lot more tolerable.

3. As much as possible, embrace the positive.

It's a drag to be told "no more red meat, ever" or "that was your last spoonful of Haagen-Dazs, period." However, it beats hearing "no more animal protein of any sort," or "absolutely no dairy products." You can focus on what you're losing, or develop renewed appreciation for all that can still be included in your diet.

4. Get a few good books to help you develop new and better ways to eat.

"The American Heart Association Cook Book" is one of the most sound starting points, for that book (now in its fifth edition) helps you to relearn basic skills and set a new course. AHA's "Quick & Easy Cookbook" is a fine next step, for its emphasis on simple, tasty dishes for time-pressed people. "Eating Well is the Best Revenge" by Marion Burros not only serves up savvy ideas for those with contemporary tastes, but the eminent New York Times columnist neatly capsulizes key nutritional know-how. Finally, the quartet of cookbooks in Williams-Sonoma's "Healthy Collection" series provide sophisticated recipes for those who want elegance along with healthfulness.

5. Plan on cooking a bit more. One of the unfortunate realities of eating in America is that it's not nearly so convenient to eat truly delicious and healthful foods as it is to grab something from the drive-through and go. And even though fast-food producers deserve applause for the strides they have made in offering more sensible options, many temptations are still laden with preservatives, excess sodium and a whole lot of fat. The more you cook from scratch, the more control you exert over your health destiny.

For most of us, life's saddest reckoning is the sobering realization that you won't get out of it alive. Yet if you're lucky, you get a second chance. Maybe some of us need the severe reminder of just how fragile life is before we change courses. And, having accepted that, there's no reason that a well-lived life can't still taste mighty good.

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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