Saturday, January 14, 2012

Food as Medicine

Did you start a new diet this month?  Make some New Year’s resolutions to eat more healthfully and exercise regularly?  So many of us start the new year off with the best of intentions to take better care of ourselves, and if we’re lucky, we not only reach a few of those goals, but create healthy new habits that continue long term.  But many of us also know the feeling of “falling off the wagon”; a skipped workout or an occasional treat snowballing into a backwards slide right back into our old, comfortable patterns.  Change can be difficult, even when we know we’ll be better off in the end.
For a long time I started every January with a list of specific diet and exercise goals, striving to eat “perfectly” in order to be that ideal size and weight I felt compelled to achieve.  This annual tradition probably started as a young girl in ballet class, where I was a healthy, curvy girl surrounded by stick-thin aspiring dancers.  My ballet teacher was a former prima ballerina retired from the Boston Ballet, and didn’t weigh much more than 100 lbs. herself.  She constantly found subtle opportunities to “reward” the smaller, thinner girls while making the heavier ones feel their extra pounds were an obstacle to be overcome.  Shortly after she took over the ballet school, we were not only measured for recital costumes, but weighed as well.  This experience had a profound effect on my view of food and the connection between diet and appearance which lasted well into adulthood.
My preoccupation with how my body looked on the outside only intensified during the many years I worked in the fitness industry.  You only have to look at the covers of women’s health and fitness magazines to realize the pressure society places on women to look “perfect”.  As a group exercise instructor and personal trainer, I felt a responsibility to “look the part”, and strived to be a role model for my clients.  For a long time, I was obsessed with my exterior appearance and how diet and exercise benefited my body primarily on the outside.
Until my diagnosis in 2007, I took for granted how healthy I was on the inside.  Despite my body looking perfectly fine on the outside, internally was quite a different story.  Learning that I had an invisible disease which was attacking my organs quickly put things into perspective.  I joke with Steve that the day I heard I needed chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant was the last day I looked at my butt in the mirror.  My diagnosis was a serious wake-up call which quickly shifted my focus from my exterior appearance to my inner health and wellness.  I could no longer take my health for granted just by looking at the size of my jeans, how good I looked in my workout clothes, or how many lunges I could do.  A dietician I had worked with once told me, “We think more about what we put on our bodies than what we put in our bodies.”  I agreed with her, but at the time was more concerned with losing five pounds.  Her words came flying back to me, and I knew I needed to look at food in a whole new way.
Being unexpectedly diagnosed with a life-threatening disease out of the blue is a shock, to say the least.  Particularly for those people who were health- and fitness-conscious to begin with.  Learning about the aggressive treatment and the ways my life would be drastically changing in the near future led to a sinking feeling that I was completely losing control over my body and health.  I thought I had done everything “right”, but suddenly I felt helpless and powerless over my well-being.
One of the first recommendations my doctor made was to control my cholesterol and sodium.  The disease was causing my body to produce excess cholesterol, and too much sodium would only worsen the severe fluid retention I was experiencing.  In addition to the medications prescribed to help control these issues, they encouraged me to follow some dietary restrictions.  I welcomed the opportunity to take an active role in my treatment, and went one step further, setting up a consultation with a registered dietician.  I already knew a lot about nutrition , but now I food was an integral part of my treatment regimen, and I needed to consider food as important as the medicine I was taking.
Sticking to my new low-cholesterol, low-sodium plan empowered me and helped me feel more in control.  Suddenly I felt compelled to investigate other ways I could take charge of my health, optimize the success of the treatment, and make my body as strong as possible to not only withstand the chemotherapy, but to recover afterwards.  I did some research on homeopathic remedies, and with the help of the very knowledgeable staff at my local health-food store, added some natural supplements to complement the medications I was on (be sure and check with your doctor first before taking any over-the-counter or herbal vitamins or supplements to avoid adverse reactions or side effects).  I started reading everything I could about optimal nutrition, and the relationship between food, environmental toxins, and disease.  I watched TV programs and documentaries, and started integrating some new foods and healthy habits into my plan.  For the first time I learned that it’s not only what you eat that’s important, but what that animal ate, or how that food was produced that has just as much impact-if not more-on our health.  I also noticed that I was adding and incorporating more new and healthful foods into my repertoire more than I was limiting or avoiding them, as I had traditionally.  The simple act of telling myself what beneficial foods I could have rather than what “bad” foods I shouldn’t have was a dramatic shift in my old thinking.
Here are some of my favorite tips and resources from the health gurus I respect the most.  As with any program, check with your doctor first before making any changes.  If you can, start with small shifts you can incorporate as a family.  Getting everyone on the same bandwagon creates a circle of support, and also teaches kids healthy habits early on.
Go organic:  I know what you’re saying:  “But it’s so expensive!”  But so is the cost of medical care due to illnesses caused by the chemicals sprayed on our food.  Save money by shopping at local farmers’ markets (plus you’re supporting family-owned, small businesses), shopping in season and on sale.  Go to and download the Clean 15 and The Dirty Dozen lists as a starting point.  Consider organic milk and dairy products, which don’t have growth hormones.
Become a “less-meat-atarian”:  I admit it, I like meat.  I can’t completely give it up.  But I do believe there are benefits to a vegetarian or vegan diet.  Instead of shunning meat, I make one vegetarian dinner a week, stock the fridge with cut veggies for snacking, and make produce the center of most meals.  Don’t want to eat all those fibrous veggies?  Kris Carr is the queen of detoxifying green juices.  After her own stage 4 diagnosis of a rare, incurable, untreatable cancer, Kris adapted a radical new diet, which she shares in her documentary and book, Crazy, Sexy Cancer.
Know what you ate…ate:  Cows are not supposed to eat corn…they are made to digest grass.  You don’t even want to know what chickens are fed to make them bigger than normal, faster than normal.  Aside from all the health reasons to eat grass-fed meat, wild fish and organic, free-range poultry, here’s my reason:  I’d rather eat an animal that was happy and cared-for, and put good karma into my body.  The documentary Food Inc. and the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan completely changed the way I look at meat.
Cut the crap:  Read labels and steer clear of high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, nitrites, nitrates, sugar in the double digits (4g = 1 tsp, so that container of yogurt might have over 4 tsp of sugar!), sodium, and any processed food that can sit on a shelf indefinitely (could that Twinkie still be floating around in me?!)-these ingredients have no positive impact on your health; in fact, they are detrimental.  I read Master Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels twice.  Surprisingly, it is not a weight-loss book, but rather an eye-opening look at how chemicals in our food and environment wreak havoc on our hormones and immune systems, causing metabolic problems and disease.  This is a must-read…and there’s no screaming.
Trade up:  Don’t just give up certain foods…make a healthy swap so there’s no deprivation!  JJ Virgin is the master at this; she frequently posts great alternatives on her Facebook page.  For example, whole wheat bread for white bread, quinoa for rice, hummus instead of mayo, avocado instead of cheese, sparkling mineral water with a packet of Emergen-C rather than soda, pureed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes…you get the idea.  Find better alternatives for your favorites.
Sleep:  No regimen in the world is going to benefit you if your body doesn’t get enough rest to metabolize all this healthy food and repair itself.  All the experts agree, 7-8 hours of proper sleep is essential for optimal hormone function and health.  I don’t need to be told twice to get a good night’s sleep!
Eat those “Superfoods”:  Dr. Oz sings their praises—oatmeal, berries, flax seeds, dark chocolate, Greek yogurt, green tea, nuts and legumes, wild salmon—these are just a few of the nutrient powerhouses that seem to come up again and again for many health experts.  Check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet Pyramid for a comprehensive list of superfoods to incorporate into your diet.
Want to learn more?  Check out more of my favorite resources, and start using food as medicine.  New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be all about what NOT to eat, and you don’t have to be facing a major health crisis to start making choices that nourish and energize you and your family. 
Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster by Peggy Huddleston
Food Rules and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter C. Willett
You: On a Diet by Dr. Mehmet Oz