How an Indian grandmother started making heart-healthy choices
I am a 57 year-old grandmother of four delightful and energetic elementary school-aged grandchildren. My husband and I visited our daughters’ families in the Bay Area recently. This visit was memorable because it was life changing. I learned to make healthy lifestyle choices based on practical advice allowing me to enjoy the time I spend with my husband and family.
I have a history of hypertension, and was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and fatty liver. I was severely overweight. Both my legs were swollen and I was bothered by tingling and burning sensations. I could not even go on walks in familiar neighborhoods with my husband, who loves his daily walk. In fact, he has always been very active and practices yoga everyday as well.
One afternoon, soon after my arrival from India, I set out behind my husband on a short walk. I had reluctantly laced up my shoes and rolled out of the house. Barely ten minutes into the walk, I tripped and fell. Filled with shame and pain, I picked myself up with difficulty and got back home with my husband’s help. I was so embarrassed and my spirits were dampened by this incident.
My daughters and husband believed that I needed to walk to help bring my weight down. I knew I had to lose weight, but was nervous about stepping out and hurting myself. I was in a Catch 22, and quite upset with my family for not understanding my plight, and empathizing with me. If I managed to walk for a day or two, it would take me several days to recover. My daughters were not very impressed with my 2 days on, 2 weeks off routine. They were also concerned about my unsuccessful attempts at managing hypertension. They were determined to help me find a solution.
I saw a doctor at the India Community Center who examined me and pointed out that my weight of 205 lbs put me in the obese category, and that losing weight would be my first step towards getting healthy. The doctor suggested that I call the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital.
My daughters signed me up for the Center’s preventive program in August 2016. Assessments confirmed that I was pre-diabetic and of course obese. Included in this program were not only advanced assessments, but also expert lifestyle counseling and weeks of personalized coaching to combat my health conditions. For the first time in my life I felt hopeful. I was able to build trust in the clinician, which was a game changer. She spoke my language and put me at ease, cared about my wellbeing, and was patient with my family members who wanted to be involved. Through consultations and webinars I learned actionable tips on lifestyle changes, which I wholeheartedly implemented.
Before enrolling in the program, I cooked and consumed traditional, mostly grain-based South Indian meals. I sweetened my coffee and tea with sugar and snacked on Indian biscuits multiple times a day. Over the course of the program, I made significant changes to my diet. First, I eliminated sugar in my coffee and tea. I started including vegetables with every meal, decreased grain portions, and stopped consuming processed and refined grains in the form of cereals and biscuits.
The lifestyle changes seemed easy and effortless to make. In hindsight, I realize what helped was that the changes were introduced in baby steps. I did not have to make drastic modifications all at once to my diet or for that matter exercise. The clinician did not mention exercise in the initial weeks at all. Movement was gradually added to the daily routine.
The dietary recommendations were easy to sustain because I did not have to give up everything dear to my South Indian palate. I was able to replace rice with a blend of minced bell pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, salad greens and sprouted channa dal. I still enjoy my vegetable-rich sambhar, rasam and yogurt with this rice substitute. I loved how my nutritionist even gave me an alternative to the pickle I missed. She taught me to prepare spicy, sprouted methi as a pickle substitute. When I had trouble with bloating with the new foods, the nutritionist asked me to sauté the salad greens, and add probiotics in my diet.
For my daughters it was a new experience as well. Unlike in the past when they were used to facing resistance, they were surprised to see me happy and motivated to comply with suggested dietary changes. My trust in the program, translated to my daughters having confidence in it as well—so they did not question me when I broke our family’s breakfast traditions and started having cottage cheese with carrot, cucumber and fruit for breakfast.
Four months after I signed up for the program, I lost 23 lbs., and my 3-month blood sugar levels dropped from 6.4 to 6.0. I went from walking 0 minutes to 300 minutes per week. I feel more energetic and light. I am now able to walk with my husband and keep up with him. I have been able to reconnect with my grandkids by playing and exercising with them. My biggest achievement was hiking a steep trail in Red Canyon in Nevada, without any support.
I am excited to be returning to India with a host of practical tools in my toolkit, to manage my weight and stay on the path to success. I am proof that lifestyle changes can be made at any stage in life.
Bakialakshmi Ramachandran lives in Coimbatore, India.
This essay has been featured in February because it is American Heart Month.