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Sunday, 23 July 2017

Cheese: my new health food

When you reach the wrong side of fifty, health becomes an increasingly pertinent issue. Your health isn't necessarily poor, but there's nearly always something to remind you that you're not as young as you used to be. (Trying to read menus without my glasses is a new challenge.) I'm not a hypochondriac (famous first words), but I do keep a close watch on my body, looking for anything out of the normal.

When I noticed one morning in January while spooning cereal down my throat that I had a slight pain in my chest and a matching pain in my back, and shortly afterwards a pain in my left arm, I didn't need a medical degree to think there could be something going on. As a matter of fact, pains in my torso aren't unusual because of a back condition. The discomfort in my arm was something new though.

I've watched enough medical dramas to know that this was a sign of a heart attack, but I googled the symptoms to be sure. Call an ambulance immediately, said one concerned site. But now my natural British reluctance to cause a fuss kicked in: if I wasn't having a heart attack, I'd feel a right timewaster if I summoned an ambulance. On the other hand, if I was having a heart attack, I'd feel a complete idiot if I just ignored the pain and cycled off to work. As York hospital is ten minutes walk away, I compromised with both scruples and logic, and set off there on foot.

A&E was not too busy, so I anticipated only a moderate wait before I would be seen. I went up to the front desk and described my pains.

Whoosh! I was whisked off to a cubicle. Turns out that when a middle-aged man walks into A&E and describes potential heart attack symptoms, he doesn't get to sit with the sprained wrists and pulled muscles for very long.

In the end I was in hospital for several hours. I got to see three different doctors, had two ECGs, blood tests, a chest X-ray, and an echocardiogram. At one point I was actually wheeled through the hospital, despite earnest protestations that I could walk there.

As I mentioned, I cycle to work every day, and on top of that I visit a gym sort of regularly. I'd always thought that if my heart was going to fail, it would be on a treadmill. But last October I did an online course on "The Musculoskeletal System: the Science of Staying Active into Old Age." Very interesting, and of course, increasingly relevant. Among other things I learned about how osteoporosis works. Cells called osteoclasts respond to inactivity and lack of calcium in your system by removing bone, releasing its calcium content for other uses. Eventually your bones are left weakened and fragile.

Not on my watch!

The course went on to say that you could slow this down by exercising your muscles and bones and increasing your calcium intake. Accordingly I responded by increasing my resistance training at the gym, and dramatically increasing my dairy intake, particularly cheese.

Cheeses were once a significant part of my diet, but I largely dropped them years ago because of the saturated fat scare. Recently though, the tide of scientific opinion has started to turn, and refined carbohydrates are now being seen as the real dietary villains. There was this article, for instance, or a podcast I listened to with Gary Taubes, author of books like "The Case Against Sugar" and "Why We Get Fat".

While hardly a definitive search of the literature, it sounded plausible to my normally skeptical ears. I began to snack on cheese and cut back on the sweets and cakes, hoping I wasn't clogging up my arteries even as I preserved my bone structure.

So you can guess what was going through my head as York Hospital's finest examined the state of my heart: "You're eating what all day?"

No need to worry in the end—all the tests came back negative. No sign of heart disease at all. What was that pain in my arm? Just some miscellaneous ache, I guess, like so many you get on the wrong side of fifty. It hasn't recurred.

The icing on the cake (not that I'd eat that nowadays) came last week when I had my annual cholesterol check, and every indicator was improved on last year. My cheese diet works! I felt so smug that I called in at the local cheese shop on the way home. (Yes, there is such a place.)

I do miss chocolate, and no doubt I will fall off the wagon from time to time (particularly likely over the Xmas period). Also, if I do have a heart attack in the near future, my recent bill of health will probably make me think it's just a harmless pain that I can ignore. As I fall to the ground, my last word will be, "Jarlsberg".

Oh, and one final note. At no point that day at the hospital did I have to fill out any paperwork, and nobody said anything disapproving when it turned out there was nothing wrong with my heart. Our NHS.

And another final note. I have to add that my meals do not consist entirely of cheese. It probably also helps that I eat loads of fruit and veg, and have oily fish (mmm, mackerel) several times a week. Otherwise I don't think that even a complete absence of carbs would help me for very long.