I got caught. There was no way to refute the evidence.
It was all in a blood test.
I have high cholesterol, and my doctor was the first to know it.
But the evidence wasn’t just in the writing. There were the cookie crumbs on my kitchen floor. There was a large jar of mayonnaise in my refrigerator. Next to it was some creamy salad dressing.
And there were smudges of dried food in my Betty Crocker Cookbook on pages describing how to make tasty beef gravy.
It wasn’t that I was an unknowing consumer of fat; I have friends who constantly talk about it. I just thought I was immune to medical issues concerning what I eat.
Cholesterol — a fat-like substance made by the body and found naturally in animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products — is one of the top items when it comes to issues of the heart, especially for those of us over 40 years of age.
Cholesterol can build up in arteries, leading to serious, even fatal heart disease.
There is more information on the Internet about cholesterol than about the Red Sox. According to Google, more than 53 million sites on the Web include the word cholesterol, compared to 33 million Web sites with the words Red Sox.
Inside any Vineyard library are books on life changes for those interested in better health. One of the books in the Vineyard Haven library is Fit Over Forty, written by James M. Rippe.
He gets right to the heart of the matter: “The linkage between heart disease and such nutritional practices as overconsumption of saturated fat and cholesterol is well-established.”
Like a lot of my old Vineyard male friends, I know how to do a little home plumbing and electrical work. I could, if I had to, change the oil in my car. But making a shift away from mayonnaise, gravy, greasy hamburgers and French fries is entirely new ground. My doctor, Michael Jacobs, has issued me an ultimatum. I have a couple of months before my next blood test to reduce my cholesterol. If I don’t significantly lower it, he will prescribe a daily pill. And I hate pills.
“It means giving up everything you really, really like: fried fast foods, greasy hamburgers, mayonnaise, steaks and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream,” Dr. Jacobs told me.
Without getting too scientific, and bringing the facts down to my level, he said I have to stop eating those store-bought pastries and prepackaged baked goods. I sensed I would have to manage my addiction to Chips Ahoy and Oreo cookies.
On the plus side, it means shifting to fresh green food that already grows in my garden and to fish that already swims in my favorite waters and is on ice at my local fish market. Add to that chicken and pork without the grease and fat-filled gravy. If I must have red meat, Dr. Jacobs said, it must be the high-quality, low-fat kind.
Dr. Jacobs didn’t stop there. “You need a diet that is low in saturated fats and higher in unsaturated fats. And you need to exercise,” he said.
Friends, many of them my peers, are quick to share stories about controlling their weight and cholesterol level. On occasion they misbehave. In contrast, I’ve been misbehaving all the time and now have to reform.
Some reading I did at the library about cholesterol was intimidating. It was loaded with charts and graphs and sesquipedalian terms. By the end of the day, I was scared. At the dinner hour, I felt more comfortable sitting under the dining room table than at it.
I turned to the Rev. John D. Schule, 77, of Edgartown. I consider him my expert on dealing with a lot of life’s issues, including the sins of the dinner table. He has watched his culinary indulgences for longer than I have been a parent.
Years ago, I had lunch with him at the Plane View restaurant at the airport. I remember him giving specific instructions to the waitress when he placed his order, to bring out a special helping of mayonnaise in a side dish.
So I called him the other day for his thoughts.
The minister reminded me about his years of effort, including the use of exercise.
“I think I walk about three or four miles a day,” he said. He has a long path that starts and ends in his backyard, one he has walked for years.
“I do it not just for the physical but also the spiritual health,” Reverend Schule said. “Walking through nature is just magnificent. I can’t get enough.”
I reminded the him of my memory of the mayonnaise. What about guilt, I asked.
“Who feels guilty?” he said. “I remember having lunch with Ray Ellis. Both of us love mayonnaise and have to watch our cholesterol. Neither of us had our wives with us, so we each ordered an extra portion of mayonnaise. We felt like two kids.”
Indeed, lowering your cholesterol doesn’t has to entail strict abstinence.
Mary Gross, the dietician at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, makes a living giving sound advice to people who need to modify their eating habits. She suggests clients ask for a referral to her services by a physician, so insurance will cover it. She sees herself as a coach, not as a teacher wielding a big stick.
“Most people really need some straightforward guidelines,” Ms. Gross said.
She said the first meeting, usually 45 minutes, involves going over what a person normally eats.
“Everyone knows about mayonnaise,” she said. “They know there is fat in it. They know the buzz words like transfat.”
But with some review, she said, decisions can be made that are workable.
She’s also familiar with the guilt people feel about their eating.
“When I go to the agricultural fair, I see it all the time,” she said. “People that know me, they hide their food from me when they see me coming. Seriously, they are embarrassed.”
But that is not what healthy eating and living is about.
For those interested in checking their cholesterol, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is hosting a health fair on Saturday, March 15 from 8 a.m. to noon. Cholesterol screenings will be available for a fee of $5. For those interested in giving blood for this test, it is recommended that you eat no food or dairy eight to 12 hours prior to testing. Juice or clear liquids are okay.