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!