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.