My Journey with Food, Part 2

In my second year of college, I was eating primarily out of my dorm room, cooking brown rice, tempeh, and other macrobiotic foods with an electric steamer and hot pot. I was no longer depressed, though I was frequently hungry and had to eat heaping platefuls of macrobiotic foods just to feel full. My dependence on junk food was gone, but at the same time I was hesitant to branch out to any foods I wasn’t already familiar with.

Then I met Katy, the woman who would become my wife. She was a year behind me in college, but we had a common interest in swing dancing and were both considering medical school. As we spent more time together, I automatically assumed she would find my food (and me) weird. To my surprise, she didn’t think of me as an organic freak.  Though Katy grew up eating typical American food, the majority of it was home-cooked by her mom. She also had friends in her rural hometown who ate organic, home-grown whole foods, which tasted better than just about anything else she had tried.

The real difference between Katy and I was vegetarianism. I objected to eating meat, and she didn’t. It had the potential to be a serious obstacle to our relationship. But on our first dinner date at an Indian restaurant, Katy offered to let me order for her. I explained that I didn’t know much about meat. “I don’t have to have meat,” she said. “I’ll get what you like.” Not only that, but when Katy learned about my allergies, she applied her cooking and baking skill to making the meals she loved with soymilk or Earth Balance instead of milk and butter, so that I could have them too. Katy’s grace in meeting me more than halfway made me much more willing to try foods she liked that I had been picky about for years

Katy and I both lived off campus during our last two years of college, and did all our own cooking. We gradually ate a greater variety of healthy foods and saw corresponding improvements in our health. In my senior year, I was having a conversation with a friend about diet and was blathering on about the immune system. He promptly suggested I become an immunologist after graduation. Although I had considered becoming a doctor, the idea ultimately did not appeal to me because I felt it would entail treating the symptoms of health problems, rather than the causes. My friend’s suggestion, however, made me realize that advising people on diet and lifestyle would be an effective way to promote health.

The question was where to acquire my education in nutrition. I knew enough of certified nutritionist and dietician programs to turn them down. I didn’t want to tell people to count calories, take supplements, eat artificial sweeteners instead of sugar, and drink more milk “for strong bones.” From my own experience and from the reading I had done, I was aware that nutrition science was not always science-based, and was rarely effective in motivating people to get healthier. After a good deal of research, I located a school called the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, which taught all the major dietary theories, but had a core emphasis on whole foods, traditional diets, stress reduction, and counseling people on overcoming difficult emotional relationships with food.

At IIN, I learned that the Macrobiotic diet on which I had grown up was so effective because of its ancient roots as a traditional Japanese diet, evolving over thousands of years to meet the nutritional needs of the people who lived on it. In fact, pretty much all the solid dietary wisdom we received in school was based on what people ate traditionally, though the specifics of a good diet differed from climate to climate. What remained in common, however, was the principle of eating whole natural foods, in season, and in the right proportions.

To my surprise, I learned that for my body type, some meat in the diet might be necessary for health. Since I was in school in New York and Katy was still in college, I decided to try making a hamburger (grass-fed, free-range) myself. She warned me against it. “Just wait until I visit you, and I’ll make it for you. At least, if you have to make it, make sure it’s not gray in the middle.” I made the hamburger, and as I ate it, wondered what the big deal was all about, and why so many people loved red meat. Of course, the hamburger was gray in the middle – I had been distracted during that part of the conversation with Katy. Eventually she showed me how to cook it correctly, and I started adding more meat and fat to my diet. For the first time in my life, I felt full on a regular basis, and I noticed that the sugar cravings that had plagued me on and off throughout my life were gone.  When Katy’s mom, who had never been entirely comfortable with my vegetarianism, learned that I had gone to a hippie nutrition school and learned to eat meat, she became willing to eat kale on a regular basis (and now likes it).

At IIN, I also learned for the first time about traditional raw milk from grass-fed cows and its greater digestibility when compared with pasteurized milk. Due to my allergy history, however, it was another year until I found myself willing to try it. Since then, I’ve included raw milk in my diet on a regular basis with nary an allergic reaction. Recently, Katy mastered the art of traditional whole wheat sourdough bread, and I’ve been able to eat it as well without a problem.

Nowadays, when people ask me if I have any dietary restrictions, I say “none.”  I’ve gone from someone who always felt like the pickiest eater in the world to someone who is willing to eat anything. It’s not that I think everything is healthy, or right, to eat, but if I want to guide others in dietary matters, I have to be open to trying their food as well, just as my wife was for me on our first date.  While I’ll never be able to eat junk food like I did in college, and still be healthy, the important thing is that I don’t want to. Thanks to my education, I’ve learned how to eat a healthy, balanced diet that meets all my nutritional needs and satisfies my cravings. It’s an area of my life that is no longer a source of stress, nor is it putting me at risk for illness. And while not everyone might thrive on the exact same balance of whole foods that is suited for me, every person is capable of achieving the same type of success with diet and health. What I love about my work as a holistic health counselor is the opportunity to guide others into that place, and to see the amazing and long-lasting improvements in their health that result.

 

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!


Seasonal Allergies

Allergic reactions in spring are very common, and it’s no wonder. Since we spend less time outdoors, our immune systems are less accustomed to foreign substances, even natural ones. Other factors like long–distance traveling and invasive species continually expose us to new particles our bodies are unfamiliar with. When spring comes and the air fills with pollen, our immune systems overreact and we develop rashes, itchy, watery eyes, other forms of inflammation, sneezing, mucus, fatigue, etc. Fortunately, there is a natural, healthy way to deal with this problem: all you need to do is get your body used to the pollen by vaccinating yourself against it. The perfect vaccine is found in raw honey made by local bees. Processed honey won’t work, because all the pollen particles (along with digestive enzymes and other good stuff) has been removed in the processing. Raw honey has a somewhat stiff texture, like peanut butter, and some brands leave a layer of pollen and honeycomb on top of the honey that’s extra effective for reducing allergic reactions.

A few years ago I started eating “Really Raw Honey,” the brand that’s produced nearest to me, in Baltimore, Maryland. Each spring I ate about a pound of the honey, as soon as my allergies started, sometimes more if necessary, until they went away. Each year I’ve needed to eat less, and this year I haven’t needed it at all—I’ve had no symptoms. This is a really inexpensive, tasty, and permanent way to cure your allergies, so give it a try. The honey has many other health benefits as well. Look in your local health food store to see what brand is produced nearest you, and give it a try!

Allergies: Entering the Land of Milk and Honey

At this time of year, many people are afflicted with seasonal pollen allergies. I first wrote on this topic a couple of years ago, and I think it’s worthy to revisit it for all those who have signed on since then. This time we’ll talk about not just pollen allergies, but allergies as a whole. Allergies are simply hypersensitive reactions of the immune system to specific kinds of food or environmental substances (collectively known as allergens). Allergies are becoming more prevalent in our society, with the most common allergens being foods such as milk, wheat, corn, soy and peanuts, and substances such as pollen, dust, dog and cat hair, mold, etc.

I believe that there are two sides to what causes allergies. One lies with our own immune systems; the other with the allergens. To begin with the latter, we do live in a more toxic environment than ever before, and synthetic, chemical substances are mixed up with the organic matter in our environment in such a way that there’s much more out there for our immune systems to find threatening, if they happen to be sensitive systems. As for food allergies, it’s no accident that the most common allergens are the most prevalent, and processed, foods in our diets. Pasteurized milk, white flour, corn syrup, soy protein isolate, and heavily sprayed peanuts are all difficult to digest and can set off warning signals for the body as a result. Too much of these foods will provoke an immune system reaction.

Speaking of the immune system, it gets a lot less work these days than it ever used to. Just as we’re more exposed to toxins, we’re less exposed to natural substances like bacteria, pollen, dirt, viruses and other things that would have provided training ground for our immune systems. As we get less exposure to these natural threats, we have more sensitive immune systems that will overreact to more benign substances. It’s been found that people in Europe who were raised on farms (with all that dirt) are 1/10th as likely to have asthma and allergies as their urban and suburban counterparts.

So what can you do if you have allergies? Playing in the dirt is a good idea (for you and your kids), especially if it’s organic dirt. But more practically, the best thing is to get your immune system acquainted with the allergens in a way that lets it know they’re not dangerous. For pollen allergies, eat raw honey by the spoonful. This is honey in its natural, unprocessed state, with little bits of pollen still included. Simply eat a few spoonfuls a day until the allergies diminish. It’s vitally important to get raw honey that has been harvested close by, otherwise you won’t get the local pollen. For those living in the Washington, D.C. area, Really Raw Honey is a good company to get your honey from. Raw honey also treats stomach ulcers, skin burns and rashes, cold sores, and sore throats—a highly medicinal food indeed!

Another way to build up immune system strength is to drink raw, unpasteurized milk. This is what those farm kids are drinking. Unpasteurized milk still has all the beneficial bacteria and immunoglobulins that make your immune system strong. It even has some pollen—since the cows we get raw milk from are fed on grass. If you have milk allergies (like I do), you will probably have no problem with raw milk nevertheless, since raw milk is so easy to digest. Raw milk can heal by providing sustenance and nourishment to anyone who feels weak, sickly, diminished and underfed. If you need assistance in finding a source of safe, healthy raw milk, let me know and I will give you a hand.

Whole milk and raw honey (by the spoonful)—two foods that have signified abundance and health since biblical times. Who knew that eating right could be so much fun?

Sneezing Like Crazy: Pollen Allergies

I’ll just come out and say it: I have a loud sneeze. Something about my constitution causes me to really let loose when the wrong thing gets in my lungs. Like pollen. (Thanks to this peculiar characteristic of mine, I’ve been able to do a lot of accidental research on the psychological conditions under which people stop saying “bless you”: usually by the third sneeze).I’ve always had lots of problems with pollen, problems that manifest themselves very visibly as teary eyes, a runny nose, and a general bleary, cloudy feeling of fatigue that on most days last summer left me wading through the pollen-thick humid air half-blindly like a swimmer without goggles in an overchlorinated pool. I prefer not to take conventional medications like Claritin, so for many years I’ve just sneezed my way through the summer with some help from homeopathic medicines. But this year those allergies have been gone. Totally gone.

What did I do differently? Around May, when I started giving sugar blues workshops, I brought along some raw local honey as an alternative sweetener. After a while it occurred to me that, hmm, I’m recommending this to other people, maybe I should try it too. I started eating it right after a workout, the best time to consume refined carbohydrates. Then I started wanting to it more (yes…sugar is like that). After a few weeks I felt like I’d had enough, however, and it was then that I noticed that my allergy symptoms were gone.

Why did this happen? Raw honey contains all the pollen, dust, and molds that cause the allergies – local honey has the specific pollen that’s causing your specific allergies. Eating a teaspoon a day will cause you to build up immunity. I think it’s best if you combine this with some aerobic exercise so that the sugar gets put to some use. Honey also happens to be good for ulcers, bronchitis, coughs, and asthma. But I repeat – don’t get the filtered, processed kind – get the raw honey or honeycomb that is almost solid, and see if you can get some that is made in your state.