When we think of heart disease, we often picture a certain type of person—someone obese, perhaps. Someone who smokes, eats sweets and fried foods and isn’t physically active. We use this image to reassure ourselves when we are symptom-free, that we can’t possibly be at risk.
At a glance, I look the picture of good health. A 43-year-old serial entrepreneur, I run a startup company in Silicon Valley. At 6 feet tall, I weighed 164 pounds and was at an optimal BMI of 22. I don’t smoke, nor do I consume alcohol or soda. I’m very active, and play soccer in a competitive league. When my primary care physician mentioned that as a South Asian I should get my markers for heart disease checked, I did not feel compelled to follow through. After all, how could I possibly be prone to heart disease when I had done everything right? A year later I went to El Camino Hospital’s South Asian Heart Center, where my wife had made an appointment—still a little reluctant and skeptical, because I looked and felt perfectly healthy.
The results shocked me. The first advanced, comprehensive risk assessment showed that I was at a high risk for heart disease and the clinical educator at the Center recommended a set of therapeutic lifestyle changes. A subsequent Calcium CT scan revealed that I had coronary artery disease already, and that the level of calcification was at an incredibly high 98th percentile for people of my age and gender.
I immediately made arrangements to meet with a cardiologist, who explained my risk and recommended that I start statin therapy in addition to making the lifestyle changes recommended by the Center. Knowing that I wasn’t as healthy as I had assumed, was a rude wake up call for me. I now had to come face-to-face with my own mortality.
My perspective on lifestyle choices changed. I realized that although I had a problem, I also had a solution. I met with the registered dietician at the South Asian Heart Center to create an individualized meal plan that made modifications to my diet.
For years, I enjoyed a breakfast of sweet cereal (who could resist Banana Nut Crunch?), and was religious about getting a Chipotle rice bowl for lunch. With the help of my dietician, I’ve moved away from these not-so-healthy favorites and made better choices for breakfast and lunch. She showed me how I could still enjoy the traditional Indian foods I loved, while adjusting them to be healthier. For instance, she helped me migrate from a dinner of wild rice, dal and chivda to whole grain brown rice, and a more satiating chili-like mix of dals, beans and green leafy vegetables (masoor, moong, thoor, black eyed peas, and channa with spinach), had me replacing my plain dosas with stuffed moong dosas (stuffed with savory preparation of spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and any left over vegetable sabjis), supplementing my idli sambhar meals with a green salad or stir fried vegetables and using fresh cucumber and nuts instead of chivda to satisfy my craving for a crunchy topping.
I learned new, yet easy ways to change my surprisingly sugar-rich dietary practices, such as the high intake of fresh fruit juices and fruits which I thought were good for me. I never realized how much sugar I was consuming. I now drink water instead of juice and eat some fresh fruit every day. Just a couple of weeks after making these changes, I began to notice that I was sleeping longer. While I am not at the disease prevention ideal of 7-8 hours yet, I am already waking up feeling much more energized and refreshed.
Four months after my initial assessment, I was retested to see if the changes in my diet and sleep patterns had impacted my markers. My cholesterol and triglycerides have dramatically improved (50% and 75% drop in those markers respectively) and I have lost 18 lbs. I was thrilled with the results, which proved that my choices had, in fact, improved my health. I finally feel that my insides have caught up with my outward appearance, and I can truly say that I am as healthy as I look. And, I am motivated to sustain the behavioral changes I have made.
The reason I am telling my story is that no one, including myself, would have ever known that a serious health problem was lurking underneath my seemingly healthy exterior, without a comprehensive risk evaluation. Regardless of our level of health, it is my belief that we are all capable of making smarter lifestyle choices, and that through this we can minimize our risk for heart disease and in the process, lead better lives.
Nickhil Jakatdar is CEO and co-founder of Vuclip, a mobile video service and a participant in South Asian Heart Center’s AIM to Prevent™ program.