By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
Irony is the main entrée in the news this week: An unofficial spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas died of a heart attack. John Alleman, 52, who scoffed at healthy heart warnings by waving in customers outside the downtown eatery while dressed as a hospital patient, is the second unpaid mascot to die in two years.
Alleman was taken off life support after suffering an attack last week while waiting at a bus stop in front of the diner. Though never on the payroll, Alleman came to the restaurant daily and encouraged passing tourists to try calorie-heavy offerings such as extra-fat milkshakes, Flatliner Fries cooked in lard and a Quadruple Bypass Burger that contains 9,982 calories.
The diner flaunts tongue-in-cheek health warnings and casts customers as patients. Eaters are given surgical gowns as they choose from a calorically extravagant menu.
The restaurant also uses the tagline: “Taste worth dying for.”
Nobody is shaking their head over the death more than Jason Belland, the executive director of the Las Vegas division of the American Heart Association.
“It’s a dark, cautionary tale,” Belland told the Los Angeles Times. “Heart disease is still the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. Nutrition and what we put into our bodies plays significant role in the heart health of an individual.
“It’s difficult to see heart disease strike anyone, even those encouraging bad eating habits.”
But maybe, Belland said, Americans can see in Alleman’s death a wake-up call to recognize some startling statistics regarding heart disease.
For one, someone dies of a heart attack every 34 seconds in the United States. Heart disease kills nearly 1 million people a year. Still, many Americans are in denial about their heart health, he said.
“The American Heart Association recently defined the ideal cardiovascular health and found that less than 1 percent of Americans fell into that category,” he said. “Still, in surveys, more than 40 percent believe they are heart healthy. These are people who say ‘I know I’m overweight and I smoke, but continue to do it. They think ‘I’m OK,’ but they’re not OK.”
Belland, who is a vegetarian, says he has never been inside the Heart Attack Grill, even out of curiosity. One reason: The American Heart Association recently assisted in a documentary that reported some of the more outrageous menu items in the burger joint.
“People eat free there if they’re over 350 pounds,” Belland said. “They sell unfiltered cigarettes. They sell milkshakes containing an entire stick of butter.”
Alleman and other regular customers chose not to heed the warnings, he said.
Owner Jon Basso told the Las Vegas Sun that Alleman “never missed a day, even on Christmas.” He eventually became an unofficial mascot for the restaurant, which features waitresses in nurse garb. His caricature as “patient John” became part of the restaurant’s marketing campaign.
Alleman wasn’t the first spokesman to pass away while promoting the grill. In 2011, 575-pound Blair River died at age 29, but friends say pneumonia may have been the cause of death.
In 2012, a man in his 40s was hospitalized after he began sweating and shaking while eating a 6,000-calorie Triple Bypass burger at the downtown Las Vegas restaurant, The Sun reported. Other diners thought the incident was a stunt and began taking pictures.
Basso said Alleman weighed about 180 pounds, and his death showed that heart attacks can happen to anyone. He told The Sun that he would continue serving his high-calorie menu as long as the public has an appetite for the food.
Jennifer Merback, a spokeswoman for the Nevada and Utah chapters of the American Heart Association, told The Times that she hopes Americans take heed of Alleman’s death.
“Our hearts go out to his family,” she said, “but the bottom line is that a heart-healthy lifestyle is a day-to-day thing.”
This article was written by John M. Glionna and published in the Los Angeles Times on February 13, 2013. Photo by Scott Henderson/ Flickr