For the two week simulation, we limited our sodium intake to less than 2,000 mg per day, a regularly advised amount for heart failure patients. For the last two weeks we lived like this in order to understand the struggles patients face in retooling their diets.
One of the biggest challenges I faced as a "patient" was the social stigma and corresponding isolation affiliated with a strict and niche diet. The low sodium diet definitely isn’t one of the mainstream dietary choices like low calorie, gluten free or paleo diets.
In order to adhere to the diet, I had three choices when dining out: 1) ask my friends and family to change restaurants, 2) go to the chosen restaurant and work with the waiter to find something that would work or 3) decline social invitations all together.
One night in NYC, I wanted to meet with an old friend and decided to try tactic number two — also known as "figure it out once you get there." I told him in advance about the simulation, and he suggested a health-conscious restaurant near his place. After perusing the menu, I quickly realized that their definition of "healthy" didn’t extend to sodium content. I chose the only viable option on the menu and at the end of the meal was still hungry and frustrated.
I didn’t feel comfortable asking my friend to change venues once I sat down; especially after making us deviate from our long-held tradition of Mexican food to help me adhere to my diet. I felt like a burden since my diet was limiting our evening and was embarrassed by what I perceived as my new "high-maintenance" lifestyle. I felt isolated from the people who were able to eat and drink what they pleased and silently mourned my own dietary sovereignty.
Most astonishingly, I felt these things after only 10 days on the diet. Many heart failure patients will live for years with these restrictions, and they will have to make it work or suffer debilitating symptoms. I saw firsthand that no heart failure or chronic care patient can manage their disease in a vacuum. Living with a chronic disease requires a strong and supportive community that empowers you to not feel like a burden or annoyance due to your condition.