Today would have been my Father's 67th birthday. Sadly, he never even made it to 51. He died suddenly, ten days after my birthday, almost exactly two months after his father died and three months before his own birthday.
My father died of heart disease that we never knew he had. Our first inkling, the first warning sign, was sudden death.
He was not overweight. He did not smoke or drink. He was not depressed, or on medication, and he exercised (quite vigorously) regularly. He loved life. He loved his family, his cats, his wife, his kids, his home and his friends. He laughed at receiving his AARP card because he looked so young, but excited that he could get all kinds of discounts now!
Everyone who had the privilege of meeting my Father, loved him right back. He was the most fun-loving parent--never crossing the irresponsible or inappropriate line. He loved hanging out with my friends--especially the guys--much to teenage Allison's chagrin. He wanted to be "just one of the guys" and he was accepted as such.
I was the type of teenager who wanted to hang out with my friends and not be "embarrassed" by my parents. Yet, looking back, it's no wonder I volunteered my Father to chaperone my high school Anthropology class trip to the zoo. I had a very cool teacher, Mr. Moses, and I knew my Father would fit right in, get a kick out of going, and not embarrass me too much.
Truth is, I really liked having him around. He was just that type of person. He was funny and kind and silly. And was great and giving us chocolate treats! It was rare that he went food shopping, but when he did he always came home with Frosted Flakes and an Entenmann's cake--you know, the chocolate chip one with the chocolate filling, chocolate nuggets and powdered sugar on top? Yay Dad!
Well, in hindsight, it was some of these seemingly innocent "bad" behaviors that likely contributed to his untimely death. My Grandmother, his mother, had had 3 heart attacks. She survived every one of them. We thought it was because she had been a smoker in her younger years. We never considered this as family history. Or at least my Father's primary care physician didn't.
When my Father turned 50, he had a full physical and colonoscopy. He got the all clear. He previously had high cholesterol, but his numbers came down. His doctor never thought to do a stress test, because with my Father's love of and devotion to physical activity, "he did one everyday." In hindsight I say, "not while hooked up to a heart monitor he didn't!" We also didn't know then, that high cholesterol is not the problem, it's the warning sign that there's a problem. The cholesterol was actually trying to protect his heart. Perhaps if we hadn't lowered it, his heart wouldn't have been as vulnerable...
I took pride in having put our family on a low fat/fat free diet. I made us switch over all over our meats, milk, condiments and desserts. I was "the health-conscious one" and knew what's what. At the time, however, I was a very picky eater and did not like many fruits or vegetables--so they weren't added to the menu. We ate the standard American diet and grew up on all the standard commercial "family brands." Our fridge and pantry was filled with lots of packages, cans and jars. Produce often went bad, so we bought less of it.
Red meat was seriously reduced and replaced with chicken and turkey. A small salad with fat free salad dressing was at almost every dinner. We asked for no MSG when ordering Chinese food. We switched to a frozen yogurt type ice cream and I even got the family on 1% and eventually skim milk. We ate Lean Cuisines and Smart Ones microwave meals when in a pinch. My father drank pineapple juice, Gatorade and snacked on some nuts from time to time. He switched from having a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast to Cheerios and orange juice and found it made his wasteline a little leaner. These all seem pretty normal, right?
There were very few vegetables and therefore no macro-nutrients in our diet. There were berries in the summer--my Mother was very good about eating her fruits and veggies, but her family was too picky. No beans or mushrooms and there was very little fish or omega 3 fatty acids in our diet. There was very little good fats at all. However, there was a whole lot of animal protein and a whole lot of fat free and sugar, which means a whole lot of processing and preservatives. All of the goodness found in native foods was stripped away and destroyed before we even prepared it.
The use of GMO foods began in the 1990s. The use of hormones in milk was commonplace and accepted as normal. Whattarya gonna do? All of the commercial foods that were staples in our home and homes across America were beginning to become contaminated unbeknownst to us. The effects of this genetic engineering and chemicalization of food was one giant secret experiment.
In hindsight, and with years of education and reflection, it has become very clear to me that my Father was set up to fail. We didn't realize he had a pre-existing heart condition. We didn't realize that we were creating a dietary environment ripe for a hostile takeover of his body.
In 2000, the technology had not yet come out to asses cardio-calcium content. Two of my Father's arteries were almost 90% blocked!! He was a ticking time bomb for who knows how long. Unfortunately, it took this tragedy for us to investigate and re-evaluate what happened and what we could have done to prevent this.
It is because of, and in honor of, my Father that I became a Health Coach. I suffered from my own health problems before, during and after the time of his death. Although my heart wasn't the issue, I was able to alleviate my pain, suffering and symptoms by completely re-vamping my diet--something that I'd bet my life would have kept him here, at least a little longer.
I suppose I had youth on my side. I changed my eating habits in enough time to reverse some of the damage I had been causing myself--simply by indulging (and over-indulging) in innocent good old American treats that I was old enough and responsible enough to purchase and consume at will. I have since learned of how detrimental the low fat/fat free craze was to our health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, and yet so very preventable.
Losing my Father was not something I will ever get over. I have gotten used to it. But then again, I can never get used to it. I still think to call him for directions when I get lost, or when I have exciting news to tell him or when I'm really upset and need a hug--but then I remember he's not there anymore. How could I forget after 16 years?!? I haven't eat red meat nor pork in 20 years. I haven't had a father in 16. Why does that still sound so flabbergasting?
I have to thank him for all the gifts he's given me, and for enlightening me to the beauty of nutrition and the horrors of chemicals, GMOs and environmental toxins that are trashing human bodies all over the place. I'm not sure why this had to happen to him. There are good people who die everyday while there are people who are reckless and abusive to themselves and others, even after having had a heart attack or heart surgery. I will never understand the reasons why. But I do know that this fate is simply not acceptable, if we choose not to accept it. I cannot stress enough the importance of choosing organic, non-GMO foods, eating a variety of nutrients everyday and using green, all natural cleaning and personal care products. This stuff is no joke. What's insidious is we just don't know when we'll be effected. Is it worth the risk? I don't think so. Sure, you're probably at lower risk if you don't have the family history. But can you still enjoy treats and have a fun-filled, delicious life without all that junk? You bet!
Life is so much sweeter without physical and emotional pain. Money is much better spent on activities, vacations, weddings, home improvement projects, charitable donations and new wardrobes and gizmos than on medications and surgery for preventable lifestyle diseases.
I refuse to let my Father's death be in vain. By adding two servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and removing two servings of meat per week, you will begin to make changes in your body and for the planet at large. Of course we can do better than that, but it's a baby step in the right direction. My Father would have done anything to prevent this from happening, had he had a clue it was possible. By conventional logic, he wasn't fat, he didn't smoke or drink, he worked out and ate a low fat diet--he was good to go! And off he went.
I miss him so much everyday and if I can help one more person avoid this untimely ending, I will have done my job as the dutiful daughter (and Health Coach). As the Beatles sang, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four"--you know it Dad! I'm forever your girl.