Brandie’s tips for eating healthier and nutrition info for restaurants

By Brandie Hanson, 17, North HS (Torrance)
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Brandie says eating healthier doesn’t have to taste bad.

Last year my friends and I were out for a late night dinner at Denny’s after a long day at Disneyland. I saw a spork on a Denny’s advertisement. I wondered out loud, “Why do they call a spork a spork and not a foon?” My friend Jessica said she wouldn’t be able to say, “Pass me a foon please,” with a straight face. These kinds of kooky conversations are typical when my friends and I go out to eat, which used to be almost every day. I love to eat, I love food, and in a small city like Torrance where I live, eating out is the only thing that’s fun to do with friends. But for me eating out so much wasn’t a good idea because of my high cholesterol.

The summer before my freshmen year I went to the doctor’s office for my usual checkup. I got my blood taken because I had been sick. My doctor called a couple nights later and told my mom my cholesterol level was 186, too high for someone my age (a healthy level for adults is less than 200, but my doctor said that when you’re younger you have had less time to build up cholesterol so it should be lower). Neither my mom nor my dad has high cholesterol so it was most likely not hereditary, which means I didn’t get this condition from them.

It was a shock because I would always laugh when I saw those Vytorin commercials for pills that lower your cholesterol, in which the people look like the food they eat. But now those commercials weren’t so funny.

We talked about it after my mom got off the phone. The reason seemed obvious to us. I had been eating McDonald’s every day after school for the past six months. I would order six-piece Chicken McNuggets, large fries and every once in a while a Coke. I knew it was unhealthy but it didn’t matter at the time.

I didn’t know much more than the basics about cholesterol. I knew that it built up in the arteries. My mom told me that having high cholesterol could lead to a heart attack and heart disease when people get older. Heart problems ran on my dad’s side of the family so I knew having high cholesterol put me at a greater risk. My mom did more research on cholesterol. From her and my doctor I learned that the causes of higher cholesterol are diets high in saturated fat, found mostly in food from animals such as steak and ham, but also cheese and some oils. Also trans fat, found in many fast-food products, raises your bad cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoproteins).

I cut back on junk food and dairy

After learning all this, I decided that I wouldn’t eat out so much and I would eat healthier at home. I still loved food but I wanted to stay healthy for my family and friends.

Avoiding the fried food and steak on the menu, Brandie (right) ordered a chicken salad when she ate out with Julie Park, 17, of North High and two other friends.

Photo by Anissa Berry, 17, View Park Prep HS

Whenever I would buy or eat something I would look at the nutrition facts on the label and check to see how much saturated fat there was, if there was trans fat, and of course the amount of cholesterol. I was disappointed to find that a lot of dairy products had a lot of cholesterol so I had to cut back on all the creamy, rich goodies. I love cheese but I stopped eating it completely. It was fairly easy because cheese stays in the deli drawer in my fridge. Out of sight out of mind. It was harder to stop using butter because I spread it on many things like bread and crackers, but I did. It was easier to stop eating eggs because they had to be cooked, so no eggs meant less time and effort.

I started to bring a big fruit salad to school every day. I would eat it in third period and that would be enough to fill me up for the rest of the school day. I also cut down on snacks. Sometimes I wouldn’t bring money to school to resist the temptation to buy the unhealthy stuff they sell like Chinese food, big chocolaty brownies and all kinds of chips and candy from the vending machines.

At home instead of munching on all kinds of things, I began to snack on fruits and veggies and only when I was hungry. There were usually Tupperware containers of fruits and veggies that had already been cut in the fridge. I did have days when I would go to 7-Eleven and go crazy and buy a bunch of snack food—a Slurpee, chips, candy and Hostess cakes—because I would get the munchies. After stuffing my face on days like that I would feel sick but it didn’t ruin my diet since it was once in a while.

My mom started buying healthier snacks like baked chips, 100-calorie snack packs, fruit and veggies, and cooking healthier dinners. My favorite meat had always been steak but my mom made fewer steaks and more salads. Once the food in the kitchen was healthier it was easy.

My doctor didn’t mention exercise could help lower my cholesterol but my mom did and I stayed on my soccer team even though it wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

When I got my license my sophomore year I’d pass Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, A&W, Taco Bell, Wienerschnitzel, a Chinese restaurant and a Mexican restaurant on the way home from my friend Christy’s house. They’re all within a mile. How could I resist the temptation when it was a minute’s drive away? In an article in the Los Angeles Times, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that the average Californian lives near four times as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as grocery stores and produce vendors. I think that the number of fast food restaurants and convenience stores surrounding us is overkill but in the end it is still up to us to choose what we eat. I started driving a different way and carrying less money to avoid temptation.

Back to the doctor for a follow-up

The summer before junior year, I went back to the doctor to get my blood taken to check on my cholesterol. Every time I looked at the bandage I worried, “How much did my cholesterol change? Was it better or worse?”

A couple days later my doctor called with the results. I remember my mom listening intently and asking how I could change my diet and what I should do. My mom got off the phone and told my dad and I that my cholesterol was higher. It was 200. I felt defeated. I couldn’t think of anything I did wrong. My diet was way better.

I’d been able to keep my diet healthy but when my friends started to get their licenses we had more freedom to eat out, which made it harder to eat well. We started eating out almost every day after school because we hadn’t eaten all day. We’re hungry and bored so we go to Jack in the Box, Chipotle, Subway—almost anywhere we feel like.

One week it was Wahoo’s on Monday, In-N-Out on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning before I went to school my mom said, “Try to come home after school and have dinner at home.” She was beginning to worry about how much fast food I was eating. I thought, “OK Mom I’ll try.” After school that day I got boba and then I went home to eat dinner, which was macaroni and cheese, one of my favorites, but not too healthy. Then Baja Fresh on Thursday and El Torito on Friday. I realized I shouldn’t be eating out so often but I thought it was a phase and after a month we’d get tired of going out to eat.

The problem with eating out is that you have to ask for the nutrition facts; they’re not staring me in the face, so I’m left guessing at which options are healthier. I usually stay away from meats that are higher in saturated fat, like steak, and fried foods because oil is also high in saturated fat. Salads with dressing on the side are usually the best option. No dessert. Without a dessert menu on the table it’s much easier. Sometimes at dinner I will eat less than my friends do. I order a side or a salad instead of a meal. When I get to choose, we go to Subway or Souplantation, which are healthier.

This summer I went for another checkup and found that my cholesterol was up to 224. The doctor came to the conclusion that the problem was just in my genes. My mom and I asked about medication but the doctor said I was too young for the benefits to outweigh the possible side effects.

I’ll always eat healthy

I’m trying to lower my cholesterol so it doesn’t get worse. Every morning I eat oatmeal, which is proven to lower cholesterol. I eat a lot of fruit, which has no cholesterol. My love for eggs and butter and other foods high in cholesterol will never die, but I’ve definitely cut back. Even my boyfriend tries to keep me healthy, which is comforting. When we go out to eat he doesn’t let me order eggs. Since I can’t order eggs, he can’t salt his food so it’s a win-win situation. His dad salts his food all the time and has high blood pressure so it’s a habit he’s picked up from his family.

I’m healthier now and in better shape. I’ve been going to the gym at least three times a week since I stopped playing soccer my junior year. And you’ll be surprised to know that I haven’t had McDonald’s since eighth grade.

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