How the recession wrecked my cholesterol

Like so many others, I can pin a gloomy personal number on this atrocious economy.

But my data point isn’t pulled from a stock portfolio, a credit score or a home budget, although they’re pretty much gasping, too.

Nope, this bleak figure comes straight from my medical chart. Over the past year — while  I was trying to saving bucks by eating on the cheap — my cholesterol count chugged 46 points higher. Put another way — for roughly every 95 points the Dow dropped since early 2008, my cholesterol gained one point.

Call it Dollar Menu Disease. Or, how the Hamburglar stole my health.

My cholesterol-busting binge began with a crunch — the financial kind. I’m a freelance writer and as the market steadily snuffed one paying gig after another, I cut my spending. I sliced my grocery bill in half by dining on a tasty array of hot dogs, grilled-cheese sandwiches, chicken wings, fish sticks and the occasional $2.89 fast food monster meal.

The diet disaster wasn't immediately obvious. My weight didn't budge from 185 pounds and I maintained my regular gym habits.

But my serum cholesterol, which stood at 180 milligrams per deciliter in January 2008, shot up to 226 by my next checkup in February 2009. That put me in the “borderline high” cholesterol danger zone between 200 and 239. Doctors recommend a total blood cholesterol below 200 to help protect you against heart disease. A score in the 240-plus range doubles your chance of heart trouble.

Genetics are against me. Both my parents take cholesterol-lowering medications, even though they eat carefully. Yet, given my abrupt blood-chemistry blowout, my doctor believes this deep-fried cholesterol disaster is more about my diet han DNA. In my lab results, my physician, Dr. Judy, included a chart that cross references my cholesterol count with the number of years I’ve been alive — 45. 

“Your cholesterol ratio says you have a 5 percent chance of having a heart event in the next 10 years. Try to watch the fat in your diet,” Dr. Judy wrote in a letter. “Of course, you can’t do much about your age — except to get older.”

She’s a funny one, that Dr. Judy. But a “heart event?” That’s not an event I plan to attend. Mayor McCheese: Please rip up my RSVP.

Retooling my diet
The news didn’t frighten me so much as prompt some unmanly whining. I love what you might call “boy food.” Burgers, nachos, chips and dip — anything you can mindlessly wolf while commenting on the merits of the full-court zone press — are my staples. I wasn’t ready to embrace the Mediterranean diet, unless “Mediterranean” meant stuffed-crust pizza with olives.

I'm not alone. Since the start of the recession, health experts have worried that people would cut back on healthy but comparatively pricey foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits, and turn to cheaper items loaded with fats, calories and sugar. While Whole Foods is hurting, McDonald’s profits have boomed.

“It’s kind of a nasty [sign] of trouble to come,” said Susan Moores, a registered dietician in St. Paul, Minn., and contributor. “But I also wonder if all this somehow might get us back to thinking about how we eat, give us a reason to reload and retool what we eat.”

In fact, there are dozens of wallet-friendly items that can help lower cholesterol and serve as the foundation for a hot dish, supplement a meal, or just add healthy zest and texture. Moores and other experts suggest:

  • Beans of all kinds (if you use canned beans, rinse them first to cut sodium)
  • Nuts, especially almonds and walnuts
  • Whole-grains like brown rice, oatmeal and whole wheat pasta
  • Natural apple sauce without added sugars
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Canned fruits (stay away from high-sugar products)
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Eggs, yolks and all

“Whole eggs don’t have as dramatic an effect on (raising cholesterol) as we previously thought,” said contributor Elisa Zied, a registered dietician, New York City-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and co-author of “Feed Your Family Right!” and “So What Can I Eat?!”

Avoid individually packaged foods — wrappers within wrappers — which can hike the price. Plan your meals about three days in advance, cook double the amount and stuff the leftovers in your freezer.

“There’s a misconception that to eat cheaply means eating unhealthy. It doesn’t have to be that way,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietician in New York City and co-author of “Kosher by Design Lightens Up.”

And don't forget it’s OK to indulge on a random hot dog. If you feel deprived, your diet is more likely to fail.

“It’s all about portions and moderation,” Zied said. “But you have to save a little wiggle room for the fun stuff.”

That’s good to hear. When it comes to cutting the fat, I can go cold turkey. But I can’t go without a hot dog.

Craving the cheap eats
More than two months after getting that gut-check number from my doc, there is no bacon in my diet. Nor is there any butter, fried chicken, tacos or Doritos. My menu is jammed with whole grains, fruits, veggies, fish and healthy soups. I’ve had one cheeseburger since late February. It was glorious, like gaining the ability to fly. (Maybe I exaggerate.)

In truth, the first weeks of the healthy diet were rough. But in time, I actually started to enjoy cannellini beans drizzled with olive oil and fresh lemon or brown rice sprinkled with shaved parmesan.

And my grocery bill hasn’t jumped any higher.

I’m looking forward to my next cholesterol count. But I have to admit, whenever a TV commercial pops on pitching a $3 Ginornous Burger with a luscious side of chili fries, I get a tiny tear in the corner of my eye and a lonely gurgle in my belly.

As bad as they were for me, I still miss my friends.

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