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 closed 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 him we had to go to the hospital immediately. She obliged.
The rest of the morning was a blur. Much of it is etched in my head, other parts are a mystery. For a long time, I wish I had forgotten everything, forgotten the trauma of having a heart attack at 41. Forgot how, in a matter of hours, I went from snuggling up with my kids 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% blocked.
My last memory before that was in the ambulance, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, tears streaming down my face. I was afraid. I was alone. I was afraid that my wife would become a widow and that my children would be fatherless. Paramedics shocked my heart with a defibrillator four times between that memory and when I woke up in the operating room. I agree with some unsolved mysteries.
How I ended up in such a precarious situation is no mystery.
I have inherited high cholesterol. Even when I was taking 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 below 200 and an LDL below 130.) My dad had a heart attack in his late 50s and later had bypass surgery. My mom needed a stent in her 50s. These incidents reminded me of my own mortality. Both of my parents are still alive, but seeing what could happen scared me to the point that I had a few panic attacks in my 30s that sent me to the ER, fearing it was of a heart attack.
But none of this scared me.
My relationship with food has become unhealthy – but is it really a surprise? As the host of “Restaurant Hunter,” part of my workday was deciding what to eat (on camera) at the best restaurants in the New York suburbs where the show was airing. And I ate a lot under the name of “research”. But to blame my job for the way I ate would be dishonest.
We live in a society that celebrates food excessively. Before the pandemic, many of us were planning vacations around food, booking months in advance for 20-course tasting menus, and planning food tours that involved eating multiple meals in one afternoon or so. an evening. We post pictures of over-the-top milkshakes with slices of cake and lollipops coming out of frosting-covered glasses and assorted candy on Instagram, begging people to love us while drinking (eating?) A dessert with the same amount of calories. like 16 cans of beer. We eat less to feed ourselves and more to exercise. The fun is worth it, you tell yourself. We do it for the ‘gram.
I, too, ate for the gram. My Instagram account started to feel like a second job, and the pressure to post pictures of what I ate (in exchange for likes and follows) was constantly on my mind around mealtime. Salads, unfortunately, don’t get as much taste as a tower of Japanese pancakes with whipped butter and maple syrup.
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 this is what I wanted. I started to cook this way at home. I cared less and less about nutrition and more and more about finding flavor. “Butter makes everything better”, doesn’t it? Well, the Parmigiano-Reggiano too; I have used both generously. Salt was also my friend, because to under-salt something is to be rust. I boiled pasta in sea water that would make a person weightless and made a rainy winter wonderland on nicely marbled steaks, which I started cooking every week (with lemon, more butter and herbs in a cast iron skillet). I would introduce pancetta into dishes that didn’t require it because, as another saying goes, “fat is flavor!” I convinced myself that I wasn’t that bad because the products I used were of the highest quality and usually served with a vegetable (a much smaller and insignificant vegetal side – but it was there). I had gone far into this rabbit hole of delight, and I couldn’t escape. I put on at least 30 pounds during the show.
I ate three burgers in the week before my heart attack. I don’t blame these burgers for my near-death experience, but they show how little respect I had for my health. If it weren’t for burgers, it was something else: a post-work milkshake in the car one week, four big slices of “Pizza Friday” the next. It doesn’t do much at the moment, but it all adds up. And make no mistake, people die slowly from what they eat; 1 in 4 deaths in America can be attributed to heart disease, with obesity and poor eating habits being two of the risk factors associated with heart disease.
I haven’t had a burger since this week. I may never have a burger again. In the weeks after my heart attack, I was a little too scared. I now had an intimidating pill case full of medicine. I have become deeply in tune with the rhythms of my body; I questioned every muscle pain, adrenaline rush, and random sensation. I lived in a constant state of panic, drowned in waves of anxiety as I realized that I had lost confidence in my body. This anxiety affected my diet. I was now afraid to eat, lest any lump of fat would send me back to the hospital.
For the most part, 2020 was the year of covid-19; for me, this was the year I found myself breaking away from what made me happiest, my favorite recreational activity that also gave me financial stability and critical acclaim. It was a break that was difficult to deal with and was not clean. Food has been my career, and with a popular food-focused podcast and food TV projects still going on, that might not change. But my way of doing things will not be the same. It can not be.
I have lost about 35 pounds in the year since my health scares, not through dieting (a word I hate) but as a byproduct of an overall lifestyle change. I have stopped eating red meat and pork, very rarely eat cheese and other high fat dairy products, barely touch alcohol, cut down on portions and sweets and j stopped the cold turkey fries. I still eat carbs, but now I eat a lot more fruits and vegetables. My favorite places to go are the Middle East; I ate a lot of grilled chicken and veggie kebabs, fatty salads, tabbouleh, hummus, and baba ghanoush. Combined with the advice of a cardiologist and the right medications, my cholesterol has come down to 142 and my LDL is 78 – by far the lowest it has ever been.
Over time, with therapy and meditation soothing (but not erasing) my anxiety, I allowed myself small indulgences here and there, aware that I was falling into messy eating patterns. But I haven’t figured out how to translate this balanced diet to a TV audience yet. Much of my success has been my honest relationship with my viewers; when i eat in front of the camera i don’t pretend. I still find adobada burgers and tacos to be two of the greatest bites in the world, but would they make me moan with pleasure if I ate them on TV now? Reflexively, it would be a difficult habit to break; the mouth wants what it wants. But there is too much baggage, too much guilt, too much conscience on my part to truly succeed. I would care to validate a health risk.
I always believe that there is a place at the table for all foods. Some of our most unhealthy foods are also some of the most culturally important in the world and should continue to be passed down from generation to generation. But these are often festive meals – and a random Wednesday in March is no cause for celebration.
We shouldn’t be eating for the gram.
Food will always be very important to me, but it’s no longer an obsession. It always 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 comfort that the food these foods provide will help me live longer (I have the ‘intention to be there for my wife and daughters for a very long time). My heart attack forced me to balance and moderate my diet. And as a by-product, I have found a balance in my life.
Petrone hosted and was the executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning television series “Hunter RestaurantFor nine years. It now hosts the podcastHot taken on a plate.