Drop that cholesterol


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Category: Health Care Date: 29 Mar 04


I heard an unforgettable statistic about Trinidad several years back. That the one or two mile area of St James had one of the highest incidence of death from heart disease in the world. It hits me periodically - when a young man drops dead of a heart attack while exercising, when a woman in her 40s suffers from angina attacks, when you hear of a doctor telling someone who clearly can’t afford the $150,000 dollar triple bypass heart surgery, “take it easy, don’t walk too fast”.


Dig too deep and we could argue about the science of statistics, how numbers can be manipulated, but that would be beside the point.


The point is that heart disease has always been the Aids of this country – a lifestyle disease, spreading like bush fire, a silent killer leading to hundreds of quiet burials.


We associate it with middle aged or elderly men who are to put it bluntly, fat – just like we associate HIV/Aids with homosexuality.


The fact is just as HIV/Aids now affects more women and children than men worldwide, heart disease is an equal opportunity disease, attacking women sometimes more fatally than men, since women rarely survive a heart attack.


If you consider a random sampling of employees the office where I work in Port of Spain you would believe that almost all of us are steadily munching our way towards our first heart attack. On the suggestion of their employer, eight office workers between the ages of 25-40 took a blood test called a "lipoprotein profile" to check their cholesterol levels.


Three out of the five women tested, ranging between the ages of 28 to 39 had high cholesterol ranging from 200-239. Two out of the three men tested also had high cholesterol. Only two out of eight people had desirable levels of under 200.


Imagine the mess we are in if these numbers are reflected in offices and homes throughout our country.


You doctor will tell you high blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. In fact, the higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. In the US heart disease is the number one killer of women and men. Each year, more than a million Americans have heart attacks, and about a half million people die from heart disease. If we watched our statistics as closely as we ought to I am pretty sure that with diabetes and Aids as runners-up, heart disease is the number one killer in this country.


I asked the 29 year old with a blood cholesterol of an unacceptable 210 what she ate. “Nothing”, she swore “just a little food”.  That “food” on examination turned out to be all the stuff that raises cholesterol, hardens arteries, and leads to a fatal heart attack. It was thickly buttered bread, coconut bake made with butter and sugar, sweet drinks, frequent treats of KFC, fries, roti, fried vegetables, cookies, packets of processed snacks, sweets swimming in fatty oils. Another person was partial to pork and cake and ice-cream. One of the young men – only 39 years old, a non smoker and compulsive exercise fanatic was surprised to discover that his cholesterol was as high as 240, already in the danger zone. He is particularly at risk as he comes from a family where men develop the disease in their late 30s. A diet high in fat will take him over the edge easily.


Our daily diet is poison. We may as well drink gramaxone and put a quick end to ourselves rather than subject ourselves to a slow and torturous build up to a traumatic end, to a health system that cannot fix us unless we cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars, to half a life. We are all at risk.


You may understand cholesterol. I think it needs repetition, simplification. Here's the deal on cholesterol, how it makes the silent bomb waiting to explode in our bodies.


When there is too much cholesterol (a fat-like substance created mostly from fatty foods) in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries. Over time, this build-up causes "hardening of the arteries" so that arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart is slowed down or blocked. The blood carries oxygen to the heart, and if enough blood and oxygen cannot reach your heart, you may suffer chest pain. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by a blockage, the result is a heart attack.


High blood cholesterol itself does not have symptoms, so many people are unaware that their cholesterol level is too high and doctors say that everyone from the age of 20 should have their cholesterol measured at least once every 5 years. This blood test is done after a 9 to 12 hour fast and gives information about your total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol - the main source of cholesterol build-up and blockage in the arteries; and HDL (good) cholesterol, which helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries. Hopefully the first thing you’ll do after reading this piece is speak to your doctor and hit the lab to get your cholesterol levels checked out. Odds are, if you eat a “normal” Trini diet, man or woman, young or old your cholesterol is too high. If you’re overweight, smoke, are post menopausal or over 45, or if you’re a man, your risk factor shoots up.


Like HIV/Aids, Heart disease is preventable.  Like HIV/Aids, it leaves behind grieving children, parents, siblings. It shatters lives. Countries lose productivity, already stretched health systems buckle under its needless weight.


Take charge. Drop your cholesterol.


Fried chicken, pizza, the cheesy, buttery, meat packed meals from well known eating places, are all out. The only milk that you should be drinking is skimmed milk (children do not need fat from milk). No full cream cheeses, no butter. Acceptable meats include chicken or turkey (without the skin) and fish (no shrimp). No lard, no more than a teaspoon of oil to cook any meal (buy a non stick pan instead), No pholourie, no chips, macaroni pie once a month, no processed meats (sausages or bacon). No packs of chips (for you or the children) no cookies, no buttered popcorn.


In addition to eating healthy, look at the size of the portions. The rule is eat half of what you normally eat, then wait for 20 minutes (that’s how long it takes for the signals to get from your stomach to your brain) and then decide if you want more.


Replace lard with olive, soybean or canola oil.  Think callallo, bodi, cauliflower, broccoli; think roast chickens, grilled fish; think peas, beans, channa, dhal. And if you are longing for sweets there’s fruit, low fat yoghurt, fresh fruit juices. All of these are packed with nutrients to strengthen your immune system and make you glow.


Don’t be a statistic. Take charge. Drop that cholesterol.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur