My dad is awesome*. Out of all of my family members he’s the one that I’m most similar to. In fact, if it wasn’t for the striking physical likeness (draw a beard on a picture of me and I’m a dead ringer for him circa 20 years ago), I’m so different from everyone else that I would have sworn there was a mix up in the hospital when I was born and my parents brought home the wrong baby. Dad and I share similar tastes in music (Captain Beefheart aside), enjoy whiling away time in secondhand bookstores and a love of big portions at dinner. Our regular Saturday evening meal was splitting 500g packet of spaghetti to have with a tomato based sauce and a supermarket French stick made into garlic bread. Between two people! However he has (for the most part) always been very slim and quite fit. I got my running genes from him too. He won the Lifeboys cross country event when he was 11 years old and jogged a bit when we were growing up as necessary stress relief. Despite being the least out of everyone in my family in need of health advice, he’s the one that has always been most interested in learning about health and nutrition from me. The only one to say ‘tell me more’ and mean it when I start banging on about something new I’ve learned, or a frustration I have with how something has been portrayed in the media.
While Dad has always been in pretty good health, there have been two notable changes he’s made in the last 25 years that I think really ensured that he remained that way. The first is related to stress. Nowadays Dad is very patient and laid back – in fact, in our family we joke that if he was any more laid back he’d probably be dead. That wasn’t always the case though, and we remember Dad being someone best avoided a lot of the time due to the effect his job as a bank manager at Trustbank had on him. The demands and stress of the job affected not only his work life, but permeated into the home as well. It can’t have helped that he had five children to contend with after a long day working in a job that he despised, and it’s no wonder this grumpy disposition was his default personality. No amount of jogging or deep breathing (which he also regularly did) would have offset this. However it reached a point where enough was enough and, as he’d been in his job since he was 19 years old, he was eligible for retirement at 37 years old and took it. What a change. Even though money got a whole lot tighter, there was a monumental shift in his personality and state of being that is almost indescribable. There is no doubt in his mind (and mine) that continuing on in the role would have taken a massive toll on his health over time, particularly given what we now know about the relationship between stress and health. It was such a brave thing to do given that he didn’t have a job to go to, and certainly not one that offered a similar salary. But we finally got an opportunity to have the type of father all children would want, which wasn’t possible while he was in that career.
The second major change he made was around eight years ago. Despite his active job as a cleaner and a relatively healthy diet, he had steadily gained weight over the years. No one would have called him overweight by any stretch of the imagination, but the 67kg he weighed was about 6kg more than he should have been carrying. Most would have called this weight gain an inevitable increase due to age. The visit to his doctor revealed his cholesterol was a bit high – his total cholesterol was around 6.2 mmol/L and his HDL cholesterol (the lipoprotein carrying cholesterol that is responsible for breaking down the plaque in your arteries) was below 1 mmol/L. His cholesterol wasn’t high enough to warrant medication, but the doctor thought it prudent to keep an eye on it. His job as a cleaner split his day into two shifts of 8am-12pm and 5pm-10pm, which dictated the timing of his meals. He would start the day with muesli, fruit and yoghurt, and come home to have toast with cheese, onion and tomato, with some handfuls of honey roasted peanuts or roasted salted peanuts. His main meal would be eaten before heading back out to work at 5pm and while this always included vegetables, it was predominantly based around pasta or rice. When he got home from work at around 10.30pm he would have four slices of toast with cheese, onion, tomato and a smoothie with fruit yoghurt, banana and milk. He wouldn’t be that hungry when he woke up the next morning due to the large amount of food he ate just before bedtime. Dietary intervention was required.
Major changes we made at this time was to reduce the evening snack to just the smoothie, replace a lot of the cheese with tuna or salmon, and substitute a large portion of the get rid of the potatoes, pasta and rice that was included in the evening meal with more green vegetables. He also swapped the full fat milk for trim, and started using a margarine spread that contained plant sterols to help reduce cholesterol absorption. This reduced quantity of food resulted in a weight loss of around 6kg. However, despite his weight loss, his improved diet along with an increase in exercise (we had re-introduced a half hour walk) and overall better lifestyle, his total cholesterol did not shift. More inquiry revealed lower levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (a fatty acid that is influenced by the amount of carbohydrate in the diet), with a significant increase in HDL cholesterol. I would say this was the first illustration of someone close to me being in near perfect health, yet this wasn’t reflected in their cholesterol level, and it made me question the concept of using total cholesterol as an indicator of heart disease risk. He has maintained this lower weight for the last eight years relatively effortlessly.
Unsurprisingly, Dad’s diet has also shifted in the last year based on my increased understanding of nutrition. He hasn’t gone paleo, but has taken on board the whole food message and has started looking more at ingredient lists on products and less at fat content on a nutrition information panel. I noted definite glee when I told him full fat milk was fine in the context of a minimally processed diet and to switch out that Flora Proactive for butter. He removed a lot of low fat, processed dips like hummus, sugary condiments and low fat fruit yoghurts and has replaced them have been replaced with homemade versions such as the salsa found on my recipe page and Greek yoghurt. He is a willing recipient of my recipe ideas (such as the flourless muffin in a cup, also new on the recipe page). Cheese is now enjoyed as part of a vegetable snack instead of on crackers and his intake of bread has reduced. He got a slow cooker earlier this year and has started enjoying eating more of the animal that I would normally have encouraged him to remove. Despite this increase in fat and saturated fat, his weight hasn’t changed at all and neither has his cholesterol profile.
While Dad has never experienced major health issues, I believe that at critical times in his adult life he made lifestyle decisions that helped prevent the progression of health issues related to stress, diet and exercise. Of course, this might not have been the case at all, as the only ‘evidence’ is the absence of chronic conditions that are prolific among our population, which he may never have experienced anyway. At least we won’t look back and wonder. The most recent changes haven’t altered his immediate health at all but I firmly believe that less processed food and sugar will ultimately keep him in the good health he’s enjoyed over the last eight years. And because his interest in what I bang on about means he has learned a lot over the last year also, he thinks so too.
*You are also awesome Mum. I’ll be writing about you soon x