I was watching TV with my kids one morning a little over a year ago when I felt a strange sensation in my jaw. Alarms went off. I ran to the bedroom, where my wife was still sleeping, and shut the door. I told her I thought I was having a heart attack. She told me to take a moment and lie down. I told her we needed to go to the hospital, immediately. She obliged.
The rest of that morning was a blur. So much of it is seared into my head, other parts a mystery. For the longest time, I wished I had forgotten it all, forgotten the trauma of suffering a heart attack at 41. Forgotten how, in the span of a couple of hours, I went from snuggling with my children on our couch to waking up in a cold, sterile operating room. I now had a stent in my main artery, which had been 95 percent blocked.
My last memory before that was in the ambulance, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, tears running down my face. I was scared. I was alone. I was afraid that my wife would be widowed and my kids would be fatherless. EMTs shocked my heart with a defibrillator four times between that memory and when I woke up in the operating room. I’m okay with some unsolved mysteries.
How I wound up in such a precarious position is not a mystery.
I have hereditary high cholesterol. Even when I was on statins, my total blood cholesterol was often over 300 milligrams per deciliter and my low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — commonly known as “bad” cholesterol — was over 250 milligrams per deciliter. (Doctors recommend a total cholesterol level under 200 and an LDL under 130.) My father had a heart attack in his late 50s and, later, bypass surgery. My mom needed a stent in her 50s. These incidents reminded me of my own mortality. Both my parents are still alive, but seeing what could happen scared me, to the point where I had a few panic attacks in my 30s that sent me to emergency rooms, fearing they were heart attacks.
But none of that scared me straight.
My relationship with food became unhealthy — but is that really a surprise? As the host of “Restaurant Hunter, ” part of my work day was selecting what to eat (on camera) at the best restaurants in the New York City suburbs where the show aired. And I ate out a lot in the name of “research.” But blaming my job for how I ate would be disingenuous.
We live in a society that celebrates food in excessive ways. Pre-pandemic, many of us planned vacations around food, booking reservations months in advance for 20-course tasting menus and mapping out food crawls that involved eating multiple meals in one afternoon or evening. We post pictures of over-the-top milkshakes with slices of cake and lollipops sticking out of glasses covered in frosting and assorted confections on Instagram, begging for people to like us drinking (eating?) a dessert with the same amount of calories as 16 cans of beer. We eat less for nourishment and more for sport. The pleasure makes the pain worth it, we tell ourselves. We do it for the ’gram.
I, too, ate for the ’gram. My Instagram account started feeling like a second job, and the pressure to post pictures of what I was eating (in exchange for likes and follows) was constantly on my mind at mealtime. Salads, sadly, don’t get as many likes as a tower of whipped butter and maple syrup-topped Japanese pancakes.
Restaurants know this. Chefs are rarely worried about your health. They know what catches your eyes and trips your taste buds. They give you what you want.
I know it’s what I wanted. I started cooking this way at home. I cared less and less about nutrition and more and more about chasing flavor. “Butter makes everything better,” right? Well, so does Parmigiano-Reggiano; I used both liberally. Salt was my friend, too, because to undersalt something is to be a rube. I boiled pasta in seawater that would render a person weightless and made a winter wonderland of the stuff rain down on well-marbled steaks, which I started cooking weekly (with lemon, more butter and herbs in a cast-iron pan). I’d sneak pancetta into dishes that didn’t call for it because, as another saying goes, “fat is flavor!” I’d convince myself that I wasn’t being that bad because the products I was using were of the highest quality and usually served with a vegetable (a much smaller, insignificant vegetable side — but it was there). I had gone far down that rabbit hole of deliciousness, and I couldn’t escape. I put on at least 30 pounds over the course of doing the show.
I ate three burgers in the week leading up to my heart attack. I don’t blame those burgers for my near-death experience, but they show just how little regard I had for my health. If it wasn’t burgers, it was something else: a post-work milkshake in the car one week, four large “Pizza Friday” slices the next. It doesn’t feel like much in the moment, but it all adds up. And make no mistake, people are slowly dying from what they eat; 1 in 4 deaths in America can be attributed to heart disease, with obesity and unhealthy eating habits being two of the risk factors associated with heart disease.
I haven’t had a burger since that week. I may never have a burger again. In the weeks after my heart attack, I was scared a little too straight. I now had an intimidating pill case full of medicines. I became acutely attuned to my body’s rhythms; I questioned every muscle ache, adrenaline rush and random sensation. I lived in a constant state of panic, drowning in waves of anxiety over the realization that I no longer trusted my body. This anxiety carried over to my diet. I was now afraid to eat, afraid the slightest bit of fat would send me back to the hospital.
For most, 2020 was the year of covid-19; for me, it was the year I found myself breaking up with the thing that made me happiest, my favorite recreational activity that also provided me financial stability and critical acclaim. It’s been a difficult breakup to process, and hasn’t been a clean one. Food has been my career and, with a popular food-centric podcast plus food TV projects still in the pipeline, that may not change. But the way I go about it won’t be the same. It can’t be.
I’ve lost about 35 pounds in the year since my health scare, not by dieting (a word I loathe) but as a byproduct of an overall lifestyle change. I stopped eating red meat and pork, very rarely eat cheese and other high-fat dairy products, barely touch alcohol, cut back on portions and sweets, and quit fried foods cold turkey. I still eat carbs but now eat way more fruits and vegetables, too. My favorite takeout spots are Middle Eastern; I’ve been eating lots of grilled chicken and veggie kebabs, fattoush salads, tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush. Combined with a cardiologist’s guidance and the right medications, my cholesterol is down to 142 and my LDL is 78 — far and away the lowest they have ever been.
With time, therapy and meditation easing (but not erasing) my anxiety, I’ve allowed myself small indulgences here and there, aware that I was falling into disordered eating patterns. But I have yet to figure out how to translate that balanced eating to a television audience. A large part of my success has been my honest relationship with my viewers; when I eat on camera, I don’t fake it. I still find burgers and adobada tacos to be two of the world’s greatest bites, but would they make me moan with delight if I ate them on TV now? Reflexively, it would be a hard habit to break; the mouth wants what it wants. But there’s too much baggage, too much guilt, too much awareness on my part to sincerely pull it off. I would worry about validating a health risk.
I still believe there’s a place at the table for all foods. Some of our unhealthiest foods are also some of the world’s most culturally significant and should continue to be passed down from generation to generation. But these are often celebratory meals — and a random Wednesday in March is no reason for celebration.
We shouldn’t eat for the ’gram.
Food will always be very important to me, but it’s no longer an obsession. It still brings me joy and comfort, but in different ways. I enjoy how the foods I eat in my healthier diet taste, but I also take solace in the fact that the nourishment these foods provide will help me live a longer life (I plan on being around for my wife and daughters a very long time). My heart attack forced me to bring balance and moderation to my diet. And as a byproduct, I’ve found balance in my life.