Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this first appeared.
During a recent visit to my cardiologist, I was asked, "Do you eat red meat?" An occasional burger, I lied. But a high cholesterol count had already tipped my hand. The doctor prescribed medication and recommended that I switch from burgers to broiled chicken and fish.
I protested. Cholesterol medication can cause impotence, among other ailments, according to those TV ads. To which the doctor replied that high cholesterol causes strokes and heart attacks and that, just in case I hadn't noticed, dead men don't have sex.
So it's off to the pharmacy instead of the rib shack.
When President Barack Obama talked about health-care reform on Wednesday, he made the case for those millions of Americans who are uninsured. But I'd also like for him to talk about the importance of making healthy life choices. I could sure use the encouragement.
"You drink sodas?" the cardiologist asked. "Maybe with a hot dog," I answered.
"You're a grown man, and you're still doing that?" she asked.
But everybody else does it, right? According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Americans ate more than a billion wieners during the summer.
She went on to say the food industry did not care about my health and warned, "Any processed food that you see advertised, stay away from it." The recommended food plan was not inspiring: oatmeal without sweeteners but with soy milk and cinnamon; four to six glasses of water a day to flush out some of the fat; scrambled tofu. Also allowed: egg white omelets with hummus and a choice of veggie soy patties or sardines.
I'm supposed to avoid salt and carbohydrates. No white rice, pasta or potatoes. And no daily bread, just daily vegetables, steamed, sauteed, grilled and raw. Help me, Lord.
In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, Arthur M. Feldman, a cardiologist and chairman of the department of medicine at Jefferson Medical College, wrote: "Unless Congress outlaws McDonald's, cigarettes, alcohol and idleness and cleans up the environment, no amount of 'prevention' will put a dent in the cost of keeping Americans healthy."
My cardiologist gave me a copy of a recent Consumer Reports on Health, which said that a third of American adults have hypertension and that fewer than half of those with hypertension have it under control. If they ate right and exercised, however, there would be 6.2 million fewer heart attacks and 7 million fewer strokes a year.
A third of American adults are obese, and another third are overweight. Losing just a few pounds would prevent a total of 8.2 million heart attacks and strokes a year. Lowering cholesterol would prevent 12.6 million of them.
I had a lot on my mind when I left the doctor's office. But one thing I didn't have to worry about was getting an appointment. I have health insurance. Everybody should be so fortunate. Even people who make healthy choices can get sick. High cholesterol and hypertension, for example, are just two of many maladies that can be inherited. You need to see a doctor just to know where you stand.
That said, my doctor made clear that no amount of health insurance is going to make healthy life choices for me. No insurance agent will magically appear to stop me from eating a cheeseburger. The question is: Will I stop on my own, or will the burger have to be pried from my cold, dead hands?
"The problem is getting people to do what we already know they should," said Javed Butler, deputy chief science adviser for the American Heart Association. There's just no way around it. Let's get going on health-care reform. But for people like me, self-care reform could also use a jump-start.