By Dr. Joshua White
Hospital Division Medical Director
Fall is upon us again, with winter rapidly approaching. I find myself scraping frost off the windshield, yelling at the TV over football, wondering when to hook up the plow, and contemplating a handlebar mustache. You know, the usual guy stuff as winter comes to Vermont.
With the changing of seasons, astute Vermonters have undoubtedly noted various masculine figures in the community grooming a bit of facial hair in what has become an annual post-Halloween ritual. Or perhaps not, as a big beard seems to be somewhat de rigueur here in the North Woods. But at least some men are suddenly seeking to emulate mustachioed icons such as Tom Selleck, Hulk Hogan, and Geraldo Rivera. Upon reflection, that seems rather odd, but I never understood pop culture and here we are.
Ultimately, we can blame at least some of the Magnum P.I. lookalikes on the Movember Foundation, which since 2004 has been encouraging men to forgo the razor during the month of November to raise awareness of men’s health issues. Movember also raises funds to promote men’s health, and in 2012 achieved status as one of the globe’s Top 100 nonprofit organizations. I would like to count myself as a proud participant, but alas, I am unable. A highly scientific Google search reveals an apparent rule set. Lo and behold, my beard seems to render my participation invalid. Movember doctrine dictates that I need to shave down to … drum roll … the mustache only. I admit to apprehension here, as this is a maneuver I haven’t attempted in over a decade. The aforementioned mustache debacle prompted an epic spousal tongue-lashing that still makes me flinch. There were references to David Wooderson, various unflattering descriptors, and a general casting of aspersions, such that ultimately I may be too cowardly to step up to that plate again. We shall see.
Despite my weak-spined mustache game, there are issues worthy of discussion, and perhaps I can use this platform to somewhat redeem myself. The Movember Foundation focuses on prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and suicide prevention. They aim to reduce premature death in men by 25 percent by 2030. Laudable, but American men make this a particularly challenging feat in that a large percentage of us ages 20-50 linger in what might be called the lost years. To the point, we just don’t go to the doctor. Ever. Most men have a tendency to view health care as a response to crisis situations, and crisis alone. My father captured this well when he quipped, “If you can’t see bone, you’re fine.” It was hard to appreciate the significance of this statement as a bleeding child. Boys are raised to be tough and independent, eschewing vulnerability and any appearance of weakness. When feeling fine, health maintenance is about as far out of mind as it could be for most men.
Fortunately, guys, there are steps you can take that don’t actually require you to set foot in a clinic. This is not to suggest hiding from your doctor is acceptable. I completely understand how all of you feel about prostate exams and colonoscopies, but you should be gracing your primary care provider with your presence at least annually. I’m not trying to move mountains here, so for at least two or three paragraphs I will settle for low-hanging fruit. And in an incredibly roundabout fashion, this leads me to my message: diet.
I speak to you of your kids’ Halloween buckets that I know you’re sneaking into every night. Yes, I’m aware of your vigorous denials the next morning while your 8-year-old counts and recounts his Tootsie Rolls, but you’re not fooling me. And I’m predicting that fifth serving of stuffing you seek, waddling toward the buffet table on turkey day. Perhaps we might also discuss tackling the holiday cookie exchange where the annual take of chocolate rum balls and peppermint meringues measures in kilos. Oh, I know that many of you get a bit teary-eyed and verklempt in anticipation of the rapidly approaching carb coma, but I would like to introduce the concept that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t do that.
Allow me a paragraph to get all science-y and make a mildly coherent argument before I wrap up. Everybody in this country knows at least one diabetic. Most folks have at least a vague understanding of the disease and have an inkling that high blood sugar is a bad thing. A peppermint meringue isn’t going to give you diabetes, but the sugar it contains serves the point. Diabetics over the long term suffer kidney failure, strokes, heart attacks, blindness, non-healing wounds, chronic pain, etc. Long story longer, carbohydrates in high volume and on a regular basis are a problem, because they bump up your blood sugar day after day. When you tear into the pasta, the bread, the sugars on a daily basis, it’s killing you. Approach this idea like you would alcohol: One too many eggnogs at the neighborhood New Year’s Eve soiree is not going to pickle your liver. But the alcoholic who puts back a fifth of vodka on a daily basis dies young, and everybody knows why. Those endless servings of pumpkin pie are damaging you just the same, and you need to start looking at those dinner rolls a bit more skeptically. Somewhere around your third bite of pumpkin pie, your blood sugar starts to creep up. (Maybe sooner, depending on your fondness for whipped cream.) Your pancreas gets a bit angsty, recognizing your attempts at self-destruction, and it kicks out a bunch of insulin in trying to save you from yourself. Insulin makes your blood sugar plummet, and you find yourself nodding off on the couch instead of watching the Packers lose. I’m not claiming that the extra piece of pumpkin pie is going to kill you. But that extra slice of pie on a daily basis, that Halloween candy, those holiday cookies, those dinner rolls—they will catch up with you eventually. To a lot of unfortunate people, the results won’t just mean a larger pant size.
So to the men (and women) of Vermont: Put down the fork. Push back the pasta. Close the cookie jar. I don’t want to meet you in the ER while you’re having your first heart attack or diagnosing you with Type 2 diabetes. More importantly, your family needs you. And everything else you enjoy in life will be that much better if you’re healthy.
Oh yeah, one last thing: Get your butt into the clinic.