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Home Arts and Culture  Crunch time
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Wednesday, August 6,2014

Crunch time

by Lawrence Cosentino
Mike Jenkins has had three heart attacks. He has diabetes. He has probably earned enough frequent siren miles for a free EMS ride to Saskatoon. Crunchy’s, MSU’s old-school beer, burger and fries joint, is the last place he should haunt.

But he likes it here. It’s walking distance from his job as director of communications for MSU’s College of Arts and Letters. One fine July afternoon last week, he settled onto the patio, poised to bite into the crunchiest lunch at Crunchy’s.

“Veggie platter, please,” he asked the server. “No pita bread.”

Jenkins has enjoyed 151 veggie platters here, by his own count. No. 152 was on the way. The dish is a Spartan oval of green pepper strips, carrot and celery sticks, cucumber slices and a thimble of hummus. Why is this man smiling?

Last year, Jenkins’ vision began to blur from diabetes. Another heart attack could happen anytime.

“He’s had a lot of scary stuff going on,” his physician, Dr. William Page-Echols, acknowledged.

Dreading the prospect of insulin treatments, Jenkins went on a high-nutrient, ultralow-fat diet and lost 30 pounds in 30 days. By diet and exercise, he hopes to kick diabetes completely and put an end to his cardiovascular brushes with death.

Page-Echols is cheering him on, even though the East Lansing physician considers a pound-a-day weight loss “pretty dramatic” compared to the pound or two a week that´s “totally safe and comfortable.”

Several of Page-Echols’ patients have radically changed their lives the way Jenkins is doing, including two heart attack patients the doctor believes would have been “history” by now if they hadn’t, but that´s not the norm.

“Unfortunately, it’s a rare event, even for me to witness,” Page-Echols said.

Medical school, he said, pays only “lip service” to nutrition.

“Our training is to use drugs or surgery,” he said. “It’s not training in lifestyle modification. ‘You´ve got diabetes. Take your insulin.’ The physician has to be motivated to go out and learn on their own.”

Even doctors who appreciate the impact of nutrition and exercise on health are fighting an uphill battle.

“There’s a TV commercial with this chubby guy, on jet skis, jumping through a flaming hoop, and he´s raving about Prilosec,” Page-Echols said. “He looks unhealthy! But with this drug, he can eat whatever he wants. What kind of message is that?”

He sees no changes in sight.

We’re in deep trouble,” he said. “Five of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies are pharmaceutical companies. They´re making money hand over fist.”

Many patients need a shock to get them on the righteous path, even after being advised to change their ways.

Watching Jenkins order lunch, you know that something must have given him religion.

Most Crunchy’s waitresses know Jenkins on sight, but this afternoon’s server wasn´t with his program yet. She suggested a hummus plate instead.

“You get way more hummus — like a cup of hummus — with the hummus plate, versus a little tiny container,” she advised.

“I´ll just take the little tiny container,” Jenkins countered with a grin. The server walked off. “I don´t know how much oil is in their hummus,” Jenkins explained. “I’m more interested in the veggies anyway.”

Jenkins’ employment history is a strange mix of hospitals and terrible food. Before coming to MSU, he worked in marketing for Wyandotte General Hospital. He did the same for Burger Chef, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza and Wendy’s.

He had his first heart attack in 2002.

“It was a total surprise,” he said. “Nobody in my family had heart problems. I weighed 215 or so at 6-foot-2 and exercised.”

He remembers everything he ate that day. He spent the afternoon jumping and rolling all over the grass, playing goalie at a kids’ field hockey game.

At the game, he had a beer, a Bahama Mama hot dog with spicy mustard and jalapeños. After the game, at a reception, he had a few more beers and shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce.

He woke up the next morning with sore leg, a sore arm and a sick feeling in his stomach.

His carotid artery started to pound. Recognizing the signs of a heart attack — “I had 6 out of 7” — he asked his wife to drive him to the hospital.

Surgeons put in a stent but Jenkins wasn’t done with the cardiologists. Six months later, on Christmas morning, he had another heart attack. The first stent was redone and two more were added. He was 52.

In 2009, Jenkins came back to MSU, where he had studied journalism as an undergraduate. One day, while walking across the campus in winter, he started having “weird feelings” in his neck, but brushed it off.

At a routine checkup, Jenkins mentioned the incident. The doctor called EMS immediately. Surgeons found an 80 percent blockage.

Last year, Page-Echols found Jenkins’ blood glucose levels were too high. He had to lose weight. “Dr. Will” started Jenkins on medications Metformin and Januvia for diabetes, but they didn’t seem to help.

He lost a few pounds here and there, but it wasn’t happening fast enough.

Jenkins ended up in the hospital April 15 this year and was told he needed to go on insulin. He knew full well that diabetes can lead to strokes, heart attacks and even amputations. Jenkins’ cousin went blind from diabetes. It was crunch time.

After the depressing news, his wife, Jan, took his straight from the doctor’s office to Schuler Books and sat him down in front of the fireplace with a stack of diabetes books. One of them was “The End of Diabetes,” by nutritionist Joel Fuhrman.

The book claimed that with proper diet and exercise, a person can “kick diabetes to the curb in 60 to 90 days.”

Jenkins’ regimen from April 15 to May 15 was pretty much the same every day. Breakfast: A salad. No oil.

“But I found this white balsamic vinegar, very fruity, that I love,” Jenkins said. “As many seeds as I want, an ounce and a half of nuts. That´s where you get your vital fats.”

Animal protein (meat, cheese, fish) was almost completely forbidden, and so are oils, even olive oil. Salt is strictly rationed.

Lunch: Another salad, made of lettuce and cabbage, with spicy chili beans heated up and put on top.

“You can have all the beans you want because that’s where most of your protein comes from,” Jenkins said. To bulk up the meal, he mashed up half an avocado with dill and a thin slice of turkey and rolled the mash into collard greens for a wrap.

For dinner, he could have all the cooked vegetables he wanted, followed by all the raw vegetables he wanted. For dessert, he had a bowl of mixed berries, a pear, a mango or an apple.

“Frozen mixed berries are great,” he said. “Being frozen, they take longer to eat and they´re more satisfying.”

Fuhrman’s program also called for Jenkins to walk briskly 30 minutes before every meal to drive down glucose levels and speed up his metabolism.

Page-Echols doesn´t put his patients on quite as drastic a diet as Jenkins has embraced, but his prescription for a healthy life is still a far cry from the SAD, or Standard American Diet.

“Basically, starchy carbs need to go,” Page-Echols declared. “Hunter and gatherer diet. No processed foods, no dairy, very little meat. If your niece is having a birthday party, enjoy the cake and ice cream, but for the other 20 meals of the week, go back to being rock solid with what’s been proven over and over to be a healthy diet.”

After losing 30 pounds in 30 days, Jenkins shrank from a size 42 waist to a 34.

“I bought my first pairs of Levi’s skinny jeans in my life,” he said.

Far more important, the crucial numbers plunged as well. When Jenkins was in the hospital April 15, his blood glucose level never went below 264 and shot up as high as 308. (A normal level, two hours after eating, is less than 140.) Now, after his evening walk, it ranges from 85 to 105. The daily and weekly averages don’t go above the 120s.

He has eased the diet since mid-May, adding chicken and a few more foods, but isn’t straying far from the Fuhrman regimen.

In early August, Jenkins will go over the latest numbers with his doctors. He may be able to slacken the diet, or he may not. The holy grail is a 1 AC number, or three-month average glycogen level, of 7 or less.

“He’s probably labeled as a diabetic, once and forever, but once he gets there, he’s in good shape,” Page- Echols said.

Doctors like to say there is no substitute for a motivated patient. Jenkins is not only pleased with his waistline and overall health, he is treating the change in his life as a grand adventure.

On trips to Chicago, San Francisco and New York, he challenged several restaurants to meet his needs and was always pleased at the results. “I found that they will work with you if you´re not an idiot about it,” he said. “Just explain to them what you need.”

On a trip to Toronto, a chef made him a sauté of seven different mushrooms. Back in East Lansing, the staff at Pepino’s Sports Grille devised a well-seasoned veggie scramble made from pizza toppings.

“It tastes like you’re eating a pizza without the crust, without the cheese and without the meat,” Jenkins said. “It´s wonderful.”

To some, that might sound underwhelming, but Jenkins prefers to pull the focus back to what´s important in life.

“I’d like to be here for my wife, for my daughter’s wedding, for grandbabies,” he said. “I´m not ready to check out.”

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