I come from a poor family. Although my mother did her best for us when we were growing up, there was never a lot of food in the cupboard and there was certainly not a lot of healthy food available.
Back then, we added butter to everything as it was so cheap. It was the staple of my life. It was also pretty common for other Aboriginal families I knew to eat lots of butter too.
Instead of having spreads like peanut butter or Vegemite on bread, we would lay the butter on thick. If I had a packet of two-minute noodles, which are fatty enough, I would add two tablespoons of butter to it.
Back then, we added butter to everything as it was so cheap. It was the staple of my life.
As a young adult, I used to eat up to four packets of two-minute noodles with butter in one meal. I would have two-to-three packets of noodles for breakfast, then the same amount again at lunch and dinner. After dinner, I’d eat ice cream. I just kept going back to what I knew I guess.
I only really stopped eating butter at around 40-years-old.
My battle with cholesterol
For as long as I remember, doctors have been warning me about my cholesterol levels. I was on prescription medication for cholesterol at age 20. Throughout the years, it’s gone up and down but it’s always been an issue.
I started trying to cook healthily in my 20s but I was never really able to stay the course and eat food that was good for me.
I’ve always been really good at training and exercise – I’m a boxer. There have been times throughout my life that I’ve put on 50 kilos and worked it off. Recently, I worked out that I have put on 800 kilos and taken it off again throughout my lifetime. That was no good for my heart.
But at the time, I believed that you could eat whatever you wanted to as long as you trained and did lots of exercise. I’ve realised now, that’s not the case.
I was 48-years-old when I had a heart attack.
I was at home, preparing to fight in a boxing tournament, and about to go for a road run. I felt lightheaded and hot, even though it was cold outside. So I called 000.
The paramedics and ambulance turned up and told me I was having a heart attack. They put the sirens on and took me to the hospital. I had a stent put in but there were complications so I remained there for over five weeks.
Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are admitted to hospital with heart conditions 2.6 times more often than non-Indigenous Australians. Cardiovascular disease is also the biggest killer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are dying up to 10 years younger than other Australians.
When I had the heart attack, I was so embarrassed and felt ashamed. I thought, ‘I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs. I do so much exercise. How did this happen?’ When I got out of hospital I didn’t want to do the cardiac rehab. I was also in denial and upset that I had to take medication for the rest of my life.
But, with time and the help of the cardiac rehab team, I came to terms with it. I also learned how to eat better.
Over time, I have also come to realise that to maintain a healthy diet, you have eat foods that you like that are also good for you.
Covid and cholesterol
When COVID hit earlier this year, I returned to my old eating habits.
I put on another 25 kilos. My cholesterol, which I had managed to get down to three from around 10 since my heart attack, went up to five. My doctor warned me of the dangers of my rising cholesterol levels, so I have returned to eating healthily and keeping my weight down.
These days, my doctor and I are working together to get on top of my eating pattern. I am praying that I finally nail this.
I’ve learned to find healthier food alternatives – that means doing some research as well and reading the nutritional index on the back of food packets at the supermarket.
Over time, I have also come to realise that to maintain a healthy diet, you have eaten foods that you like that are also good for you. I love eating egg white omelettes with one slice of low-fat cheese in it for dinner. I also enjoy corn and peas – I have around 100 grams of each and eat it with lemon, pepper, basil and chilli flakes.
I use olive oil for cooking if I have to and use a paper towel to pat out the excess.
Instead of choosing coke or lemonade, I will now have sparkling mineral water. I always have a piece of fruit a day and if I have jelly, it’s sugar-free.
These days, I don’t have any butter. When I see it, it makes me sick.
If you're 45 and over, or 30 and over if you're of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, the Heart Foundation recommends you have a regular Heart Health Check with your GP. Your doctor will help you understand your risk of a heart attack or stroke and manage your risk factors. Visit www.heartfoundation.org.au for more information.