My Journey With Food, Part 1

As a holistic health counselor, I regularly give people advice on how to eat and how to develop a positive relationship with food. But my own relationship with food was once very difficult. When I was just a few years old, my parents discovered that I was strongly allergic to wheat and dairy products, and mildly allergic to citrus fruits and nuts. But instead of getting a rash or a runny nose, I would have an emotional breakdown and go into hysterics after eating these foods. Only when the foods were out of my system would I again recover my emotional balance.

Partly to avoid these allergens, my family followed the Macrobiotic diet, which was based on whole, organic foods, particularly traditional Japanese foods. As a result of the diet, we enjoyed good health and energy and rarely got sick.  However, I did have occasional sugar cravings, as well as cravings for the foods to which I was allergic. I also grew up an excessively picky eater. From childhood, I was used to brown rice, miso soup, sea vegetables and greens, and was apprehensive about trying foods outside my macrobiotic “comfort zone.” I dreaded having to eat at friends’ houses or at non-Japanese restaurants where I might be served something I didn’t like. My pickiness, combined with my allergies and my decision to be a vegetarian, meant that finding food I could or would eat was always a stressful situation for me and my family.

During my teenage years, my family stopped following the macrobiotic diet as strictly as before.  Although I wasn’t exactly a “junk food vegetarian”, I didn’t eat as many balanced meals as I had in the past. I liked to snack on rye bread with margarine, trail mix (as my nut allergy had diminished), and corn chips, and I didn’t eat many vegetables. Every once in a while, we had a big macrobiotic dinner that helped keep my health on track, but I didn’t make the connection, instead taking my good health for granted. In fact, when it came time to go off to college, I thought to myself that I would be able to get by on trail mix, energy bars and soy milk, without suffering any health problems. I didn’t even think eating the foods to which I was allergic would be such a big deal.

Unsurprisingly, the campus cafeteria had almost no appetizing vegetarian, non-dairy options. I was constantly hungry, and gravitated towards sugary foods like cookies and candy, which was embarrassing, as all my friends knew I came from a “health food” background.  But I didn’t think very seriously about the consequences of eating so much processed food, and didn’t expect anything bad would come of it. In the meantime, I enjoyed eating my junk food far better than the poorly prepared whole grains, beans, and vegetables in the cafeteria.

Everything changed, however, over the course of one Sunday in my second semester of freshman year. I was enjoying college in general and had been having a particularly good week. But in the midst of a normal conversation with my friends after breakfast, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of despair. I had no idea where it was coming from, but it got worse over the course of the day. I hoped inwardly that a good night’s sleep would banish it. I recognized this strange feeling as one that had come over me during the last few days of my first semester of college, just before I went home for a few weeks. At that time, it had not been as strong, and right after it happened I had benefited from a lot of macrobiotic home cooking. This time, however, my depression did not go away overnight, over the weekend, or even during the next week – it just got worse. There was nothing going on in my life to be depressed about, but I couldn’t shake the feeling regardless. My life – all of reality, in fact – felt empty and meaningless, and I felt terribly sad, but for no good reason. No breakups, no deaths in the family, no financial worries, no legal issues. College was hard work, but I had been relishing the challenge.

Without a macrobiotic background, I might have just chalked my inexplicable depression up to a chemical imbalance in my brain and gone to a doctor or psychiatrist for mood-altering medications. But instead I called my parents and told them what was happening. They immediately recognized the symptoms of my allergies, and I acknowledged that I had been eating lots of sugar, white flour, and dairy products in candy and baked goods, while almost completely avoiding vegetables.

Although it didn’t take away my severe depression by itself, my parents’ theory sounded plausible to me. I didn’t feel like taking care of myself, but nevertheless I forced myself to put the effort into eating differently in the hope that it would take away the horrible emotions I was experiencing. I bought a rice cooker and vegetable steamer to go with my electric hot pot, and started making macriobiotic lunches and dinners in my dorm room. Within the next few weeks I gradually began to feel better, but remained anxious that the improvement was only temporary. In the end it took several months of eating right and avoiding junk food entirely for my depression to fade away. In the next semester I borrowed some macrobiotic books and began teaching myself to cook some basic meals. Having seen the effects on myself of healing foods in action, I became fascinated with whole foods, their benefits for various health problems, their traditional usage, and how to prepare them. Mainly, I realized how much I didn’t know about nutrition and health – and how many foods I had never even tried. Even despite my lifelong allergies, I had devalued and ignored healthy food, the very thing that made it possible for me to function, and I clearly had a lot to learn.

 

To be continued next week!


Food as Medicine

You’ve heard that eating a healthy, balanced diet can help you lose weight, increase your energy, and reduce your risk of disease. But did you know that some foods have such strong healing properties that you can use them as you would medicine? And that these foods don’t have the negative side effects of man–made medications? Relying on medicinal foods to combat health problems such as stomachaches, headaches, chronic pain, fatigue, colds, fevers, sore throats, sinus problems, constipation, diarrhea, and many more, is not only effective against those individual problems, it also makes your body stronger and healthier than it was in the beginning. When you start to feel under the weather, make medicinal foods your first remedies, and you may not even need to resort to medications.

Ten Great Medicinal Foods

1. Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans, which can be dissolved into hot water to make a salty and flavorful broth. Miso broth can be used to flavor a soup or just drunk by itself. It has a warming and grounding effect (due to salt and the long aging process), and contains beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes (the result of fermentation). Miso’s digestion–enhancing properties help relieve stomachaches, inflammatory bowel and intestinal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Because it is so warming, it is effective against colds and congestion. Its grounding nature can help reduce headaches from ice cream, sugar and alcohol, and it helps to calm down nervous and anxious people.

2. Brown Rice is a whole grain that contains an excellent balance of complex carbohydrates, nutrients, and fiber. It is the perfect food for getting back on track when you haven’t been eating well, whether you’ve been having too much sugar, fried food, meat and dairy or whether you’ve been missing meals and haven’t eaten enough. When you really need to make up for a week’s worth of poor food choices, go with a bowl of brown rice and you will feel so much better afterwards. Even better, eat it fairly regularly and you won’t find yourself in that position!

3. Garlic is, strictly speaking, an herb, but as a widely–used culinary herb I think it’s almost a food. Garlic is a very powerful antibacterial and antifungal agent. If you are starting to come down with any kind of virus or bacteria–related illness, even if it’s just a simple cold, garlic can help immensely. Garlic also breaks up congestion and helps us detoxify. It is most effective when eaten raw. If you do choose to eat it raw, you will undoubtedly experience a burning sensation in the mouth, a tearing up of the eyes, and a general feeling of being on fire. What you’re feeling is the sulfuric compounds in the garlic doing their work. Even though it’s a little unpleasant, it doesn’t last long and is far better than being sick for three or four days. If raw garlic is too much for you, though, simply increase your consumption of cooked garlic.

4. Leafy green vegetables, or Greens, are everyday foods that nevertheless have strong healing powers. Their high fiber and nutrient content make them very effective in healing any digestive problems (such as stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea), and they have been showing to have a very healing effect on the lungs and sinuses. Eat them to help reduce stuffy noses, coughing, sneezing, and mucus discharge. Greens also help reduce the fatigue that is a result of malnutrition. Usually when we get malnourished it’s a result of eating foods like white sugar and white flour that contain no nutrients and use up the nutrients we do have stored in our bodies. So eat greens as a way to recover from these foods.

5. Raw Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization kills the beneficial bacteria that make sauerkraut as healthy as it is. These bacteria populate the digestive tract, and help us digest heavier foods such as meat and fat, thus reducing stomachaches, ulcers, heartburn and all digestive health problems. They also eliminate candida and other parasites, bad bacteria and fungi. Raw sauerkraut contains, in addition to bacteria, enzymes that aid the pancreas and reduce or eliminate pancreatitis.

6. Ginger is a root that is commonly eaten in its powdered form, as a spice, but can be purchased fresh and whole. Like many other healing foods, it relieves gastrointestinal pain, reduces or eliminates gas and bloating, and reduces symptoms of motion sickness such as dizziness, nausea and sweating. Like miso, it is very grounding and will help you recover from too much alcohol, sugar, and white flour. Ginger’s anti–inflammatory effects also reduce pain and swelling from arthritis.

7. Raw Vinegar is a remarkably versatile healing food that has been shown to help with low energy, chronic pain (from anywhere in the body—back pain, arthritic pain, eye pain, joint pain, etc), colds, sore throats, infections, type 2 diabetes, and more. The reason for this is because the acids in vinegar are highly effective at promoting liver function. The liver is what controls the detoxifying and cleansing process in our bodies, and many of the symptoms that we feel, especially symptoms of pain, are a result of the struggle to detoxify. Vinegar is sort of like a power food that kicks the liver into gear and encourages rapid detoxification. However, do not rely on it for your health—first and foremost, eat a balanced diet and try not to build up toxicity in the first place. Note that the raw vinegar you purchase should be listed as “unpasteurized,” “organic,” and “unfiltered.” The commonly available distilled white vinegar does not have the same healing properties, due to the way it is processed.

8. Chicken Broth has had a reputation as a healing food since ancient Egypt. Why is it so effective? Broth made from boiling a whole chicken contains nutrients leached from cartilage, tendons and bones, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains glucosamine, which helps reduce arthritis (and is sold as an expensive supplement), and also has gelatin, which facilitates digestion, treats ulcers, improves joint health, and even helps treat infectious diseases. Chicken broth made with herbs and garlic is an especially warming, decongestant food that helps the immune system fight sickness.

9 & 10. Raw Milk and Raw Honey round out my list of medicinal foods. But rather than discuss them here, I’ve devoted an entire article to them—see below.

If you have any questions about how to employ these remedies, or have a specific health concern not mentioned here which you’d like to treat using medicinal foods, feel free to send me an email requesting more information.

What is Yin and Yang?

While we’re on the topic of Chinese medicine and of balance, we have a good opportunity to discuss the concepts of Yin and Yang. Yin and yang is a system of complementary opposites; although they are antitheses of each other, they are not in conflict like, for example, good and evil. Rather, both are necessary in a healthy existence. The value of this concept is using it to balance your own life. Yin and yang can be applied to nature, lifestyle, and diet. The original terms mean essentially “shady” (yin) and “sunny” (yang). While it’s hard to define them any more than that, yin is associated with darkness, nighttime, passivity, femininity, the moon, winter, negativity, coldness, receptivity, softness, grace, etc. Yang is the opposite—light, daytime, heat, summer, masculinity, positivity, aggression, growth, objectivity, hardness, etc. These distinctions apply to human activity as well. Most kinds of work, physical activity, and creation are considered yang. Sleep, rest, reading, and other passive behaviors are considered yin. Men and women are not exclusively yin or yang but contain some balance of each. The whole point of yin and yang is that one is not better than the other, but that they are perfectly equal and mutually dependent. Any time there is too much of one or the other, an imbalanced and unsustainable situation is created.

In American society, yang is emphasized much more than yin. Americans work long hours and take few vacations, and they usually work during their vacations. Our economy is based on constant growth and fears recession. In politics, an aggressive attitude is generally seen as the best. Sleeping, relaxing, reading, mediating, praying, and other passive or submissive activities are seen as ones that we “don’t have time for.” Since yang cannot exist without yin, though, yin still shows up where it can: in television or movie–watching, internet surfing, and drugs: cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and hard drugs. Drugs are probably the most extreme of all yin substances—they help us to release all the tension built up during the day. However, because they are so extreme, they leave us worse off than before. They exhaust the body rather than soothe it. Not as serious as drugs, but similar to them, are very yin foods, especially sugar and sugary foods like candy, doughnuts, cookies, and ice cream. These foods relax us for the moment by flooding us with energy, but they mess up our blood sugar and put us on a yin–yang pendulum swing. To be healthy, you need to be in the middle of yin and yang—not swinging back and forth.

Many people who have uncontrollable cravings for sugar, snacks, coffee, and so on, would probably find those cravings reduced if they slept more, meditated more, and found other ways to relax. Another strategy is to try moderately yin foods like the aforementioned sweet vegetables and natural sweeteners. Note that one source of yin cravings can be too much yang food (highly salty snacks, deep–fried foods, excessive red meat). Simply observing and acknowledging your cravings and behavior as being guided by a need to create yin–yang balance can be very helpful in all areas of your life.