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20 February 2012

An Organic Journey - One Year Ago

I was talking with a 14 year old boy last year, while he was eating a piece of Little Ceasar's pizza, and I was slicing an organic peach. I sliced the peach for him and his sister and listened as they told me how delicious it was. His sister said, "I just ate a peach yesterday. It wasn't this good." I said, "organic food is always better."

The conversation actually began a few moments earlier, when my daughter told me that the young boy ate a banana skin. I said that was fine, as long as they were our organic bananas.
"Why?" They all inquired.
I explained how non-organic bananas were often grown in bags filled with chemicals to protect them from pests. That if they ate those banana skins they would really be ingesting pesticide residue. I further explained that all non-organic fruit should be peeled before eaten because of chemicals and poisons.
The young boy seemed intrigued. I first wanted to give my disclaimer. The one where I explain that I'm not some radical liberal who jumps on a trendy cause and then takes it to the extreme. (Although my sister would disagree with this.) Instead, I watched my children's father die of cancer.
While he was sick, I was teaching at a local university. I had access to scholarly databases. I researched cancer from my laptop while watching my husband disintegrate from the disease.
I quickly learned that cancer is a guessing game, a waiting game, and a game with unclear rules. But what wasn't unclear were the causes.
The carcinogens and toxins we introduce to our body everyday cause disease. Some of these toxins we can avoid, and some, not so much. I learned that simple sugar (glucose) feeds all the cells in our body.  Ultimately, diet has a major impact on the growth of cancer.
I also discovered antioxidants help the body fight disease. The role of an active life and exercise in battling disease is also well understood.
I learned that not everyone exposed to toxins will get cancer, but that it is possible to decrease the risk.
My organic living is no more a one dimensional decision than cancer is a one dimensional disease.
Not long after George died, I was pretty certain my time was near. I lived in a fog of mortality. Add the stress of grief, to the stress of work, to the stress of raising two children without a father, to an unhealthy diet and lack of consistent exercise habits, and I was closer to death than life for sure. I had to make a choice.
I don't simply want to live long. I want to live healthy. I want to live.
My doctor ran some tests, to ease my mind. Instead of easing my mind, they propelled me into more research. My liver was struggling, fatty liver disease, he said. I toiled with this diagnosis; I don't drink. Aren't liver problems for people who drink?
On my way out of the office, startled, confused, and certain death was looming over me, Wendy, a most comforting English nurse, said, "Melissa, the good thing about your liver is it can heal itself, it can regenerate."
More research. This time what I learned compelled me to change. Diet, the digestive track, exercise and disease, inextricably linked. Not some food pyramid article in the newspaper, or in elementary school health class, but the role of nutrition and diet in living became lucid.
My liver was compared to foie gras (which means fatty liver in French). Feed a duck corn sugar and voila, a delicious liver, a spongy and diseased delicacy. This was happening to my liver.
Liver for dummies: the liver processes every toxin the body is exposed to. When the toxins overload the liver, disease occurs. Toxins are not only in our diets, the unnatural foods we eat, names on labels we can't pronounce, artificial ingredients, high fructose corn syrup, but also in the air we breathe, pollution, smoke, aerosol sprays, laundry soap, air freshners, etc...
My liver was compromised, and I wanted to live to take my grandchildren kayaking, biking, and hiking.
Organic living was not a single decision in a single day, but rather a series of life changes.
I began with the concept of high fructose corn syrup. What I learned is that HFCS and sugar are not all that different. HFCS is a cheaper, chemically created, sweeter version of sugar that is good for the economy. Too much of either is harmful (remember cancer cell growth escalates with too much sugar), but when I'm making my choices, I'll choose real sugar, sparingly.
The Good Human summarizes the comparison of the two fairly well.
  
While talking to the young man in my kitchen, I stressed that obviously, not everyone gets cancer or dies from disease caused by food, yet most people are living on toxic diets.
We know the link exists, and as for me, I want to reduce my chances. But trying to avoid death is not living.
The real living is in my cooking, a passion of mine, where simply by switching to organic ingredients, my food really does taste better.
The real living is in riding my bike along the beach, or kayaking out back in the river.
The real living is playing with my children and reading good books.
The real living is in teaching and learning and waking up everyday feeling alive.

And as for my health, I feel better. I'm no longer sluggish and lazy. My liver is repairing itself. My mind is less foggy. I feel stronger, healthier, and happier.
These are the cumulative choices:
I buy organic food. I use glass not plastic; plastic is toxic.  I don't use toothpaste with chemicals in it. I don't use chemical anti-persperant. I use natural castile soap in the bath. My shampoo is organic. I clean with all natural products (vinegar and baking soda) Mrs. Meyers and Dr. Bronners are in the house. Perhaps I'm buying into a trend. Perhaps it's all another big irony playing out in my life. I'm making choices.
 
I really do feel and look better. I really am healthier and happier. And most of all, I really am living.

Later the young man's sister sent me this text. "James just said, I could talk to her for hours."


Works Cited

All linked data connects to the original source of the information.

Donaldson, Michael S. "Nutrition and cancer: A review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet." Nutrition Journal 2004, 3:19. 20 October 2004. Web.

Healthy Living - It's easier than you think

I named my beach house Healthy Living.  After George died of cancer, my health fears multiplied.  I trudged through grief with my own physical ailments.  I learned that I had liver problems (and I don't drink alcohol).  I read about modified food products, and chemicals in plastic, and pesticides, and the toxins that my liver tries to rid my body of. I began researching cancer and learned how it is fueled.  I also learned about heart disease in the process.  I adopted the philosophy of Livestrong.com - my early motto and guide. 

My family and friends say, "everything causes cancer," and "I'm not going to be fanatic about it."  To which I respond, processed foods and modern convenience indulgences do cause cancer. Cleaning up your life in an attempt to limit illness and disease is responsible, not fanatic.  Moreover, the corrupt economic system that is poisoning our food supply would prefer we ignore the research.   My evolving life philosophy is built around not supporting a propaganda induced life of indulgence in excess food and plastic.

I've been working toward my organic lifestyle for almost 4 years now.  Looking back I remember how intimidating it was to imagine changing everything I knew about food and health and lifestyle, giving up all my food eccentricities seemed impossible. I remember thinking I would need to move off the grid, go straight Little House on the Prairie.  But in reality, I made a few small gradual changes that had really big results. I didn't change everything at once.  These are the steps I have taken so far.  I still might like to go off the grid, but that will be later.

While the process is an ongoing learning experience, I'm pleased with where I am right now.  So I want to share the key choices I made in getting healthy.  I included some articles that support what I believe, but I am constantly evolving through the process.
  • Movement is critical. Being active keeps me energized, but more importantly the inherent satisfaction of being awake and alive in the world creates a well being euphoria.  Exercise is intimately connected with well being.  I walk, ride my bike, kayak, do yoga, play football with Jake, and dance around the house with Abbey.   I take the stairs and park further away.  Move more.  
  • Meditation is mandatory.  I clear my head for at least 10 minutes a day in mindful breathing meditation.  Yoga Journal's "Your Brain on Meditation" is a good place to start.
  •  Drink water and green tea.  I freed myself of soda about 11 years ago and except for the occasional orange juice or cranberry juice, water is my healthy living beverage of choice.  Add the antioxidant power in green tea and no other beverages are needed.  Harvard Women's Health Watch says, "Studies have found an association between consuming green tea and a reduced risk for several cancers, including, skin, breast, lung, colon, esophageal, and bladder.  Additional benefits for regular consumers of green and black teas include a reduced risk for heart disease."
  • NO High Fructose Corn Syrup - this is easily the most important decision I made.  It removed so many other toxins from my pantry by default.   I buy very few foods in boxes on shelves.  I check the ingredients on bread or buy from a fresh local bakery.  The HFCS industry was so overwhelmed by publicity and people following this rule that they changed the name of the man made sugar to corn sugar.  In a gross offense to our children they air commercials on kids television attempting to convince children that corn sugar and cane sugar aren't different at all.  But I prefer this parody.                         
This research from Princeton is where I began.

The corn sugar refineries industry (cornsugar.com) has been scolded by the FDA for trying to mislead the public, but big industry is finding ways around the government agency.

A high fructose corn syrup free life was one of my first steps.  My 8 year old son Jake helped by going to the pantry and throwing away anything that had HFCS in it.  While he was doing it, I told him to ask about any ingredient he had never heard of or couldn't pronounce.  We Googled those ingredients and learned a lot about the processing of our food.  When he was finished our pantry had one silo of oatmeal left in it.  It was because of this experience that we started the next step, fewer ingredients on the list.
  • 7 ingredients or less is a good rule.  Read the nutrition labels. 
  • Hormone free and antibiotic free meats are better.  I like organic grass fed meats when I eat them, but I try to eat less meat.  This article from Stanford is a good start.  Organic chickens taste better; every guest at my house agreed with this.
  • Join in on Meatless Mondays.  Trying to imagine life without meat is difficult for a girl raised in a blue collar meat and potatoes town, but Meatless Monday taught me that meals that are vegetable centered are satisfying and delicious. 
I'm a sugar junky which also makes me a candidate for diabetes.   I like cookies and cakes and puddings and pies.  I like fruit and dips and desert.  So it was very difficult to implement this next step. 
  • Avoid added sugars, dextrose, sucrose, glucose and their aliases, molasses, or corn sugar, honey, fruit juice concentrate, malt syrup, rice syrup and evaporated cane juice -- all extra sugars.
  • No Nitrates or Nitrites - Recently published research shows direct links to cancer, and this rule is not so terribly difficult to follow. No lunch meat, bacon, hot dogs, or sausage (processed meats), that have nitrates added.  Applegate Farms has nitrate(-ite) free hotdogs and cold cuts. 
The EPA issued this report on nitrates and nitrites.   And this article from Environmental Health News  helps clarify the role of Nitrates/Nitrites and cancer.
  • NO Red Dye #40 or 3 or 5 or Blue dye #... (any of the dyes really, but this was sort of my training wheels rule.)  This was hard because I had to say goodbye to M&M's.
  • Shop on the outside of the grocery store aisles.  The periphery of the store has fresh produce, dairy, meat and grains.  Frozen is second best.  Foods designed to live a long time on the shelf are filled with preservatives.
  • Shop at farmers markets, buy local.  Less travel time, fresher, you know the source of your food.
  • The words All Natural - do not always mean all natural.  Try to buy foods in their most natural state.  
  • Anitoxidant rich foods are deliberately in my diet now.  My favorites are:  walnuts, almonds, blueberries, spinach, sweet potatoes, oatmeal and dark chocolate.  Here's the Mayoclinic's list of antioxidant rich food sources.
Organic.  For me organic foods are about buying pesticide free food.  I don't want poisonous chemical residue on or in my food (again, just thinking about my liver). I'm at a point now where I prefer everything to be organic, but initially I focused on these things, the dirty dozen.
  1. Apples - last summer I bought a non-organic apple, wiped but did not wash the skin, took a bite, and panicked as my mouth and throat tingled with an allergic reaction.  Thankfully Benydryl halted the symptoms.
  2. Strawberries
  3. Celery
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Nectarines
  7. Grapes
  8. Sweet Bell Peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Blueberries
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale
I also prefer organic meats, milk, yogurt and eggs.

I shop mostly at EarthFare or Whole Foods.  Harris Teeter, Publix and BiLo all have small organic sections, fine for staples, but EarthFare and Whole Foods share my philosophy.  I don't have to worry about compromised quality, especially with produce and meat.

I cook at home more than I eat out (which requires planning ahead).  And when I eat out, I try to find restaurants that share my philosophy.  Of course the two named grocery stores above have wonderful hot bars.  Also, Black Bean Company, Three Little Birds, Bull Street Gourmet, Queen St Grocery and Aluette's are great healthy restaurant choices in Charleston.

Spices for health have also become more important to me.  These promote digestive health:  cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger.

I like to make a pitcher of water with lemon and ginger.  We call it spa water.

I also keep a small herb garden with rosemary, basil, oregano, cilantro, chives, and thyme. 

Staples.  My pantry consists of these items:  oatmeal, walnuts, pecans, almonds, dried cranberries, Udon noodles, Newman's Own Tomato Basil Sauce, Peanut Butter and Ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips.  I keep beans and brown rice too.  My newest super food staple is Quinoa.  In the perishable department, I always have organic yogurt, blueberries, bananas and apples on hand.  We rarely are without spinach, carrots, and eggs.  These foods create meals for the whole week. 

Cost.  The most common argument I hear regarding organic living is it costs more.  An organic whole chicken indeed costs more than a non-organic one, this is true for eggs, and milk, and strawberries too, but the money I save not buying prepackaged processed foods is well spent choosing organic over conventional produce and meats.   My real hope of course is that I'm saving money on the cost of fighting disease.  As my eating habits have changed, I spend substantially less on groceries in general.  I buy only what we are going to eat.  I'm not storing food for the apocalypse anymore.

Greatest obstacles:
Eating healthy isn't always convenient.  It definitely requires planning ahead and a philosophy for living.  Without the supporting philosophy, it would be hard to convince myself to go out of my way for food.

Clearing my house of sugary boxed cereals was difficult.  This was my go to comfort food.

Packing lunches for my children needed a makeover.  No more quick prepackaged snacks.  Letting them join in the process and removing bad options from my house have helped, but this has been a slow change.

Travel has its problems.  I pack a cooler and a bag of dry staples.  I use my iPhone to find organic restaurants.  Thai food is a fairly consistent healthy dining out option.

Social events - family gatherings and social events are only organic if I host them.  This makes celebrations a real obstacle to healthy living.  Honestly (because I am by nature socially distal) I avoid these gatherings, but when I do attend (obligation), I indulge in moderation.  But honestly, I dread the feeling unhealthy food leaves me with both physically and psychologically.

This is still a learning process for me and my children.  But we talk about it in my house.  We read about it in the news.  And most importantly we try to make choices for Healthy Living.  My greatest fear is that I did too much damage in the first 37 years of my life to ever recover, but that's not going to stop me from trying, more importantly from teaching my children about a healthier, sustainable lifestyle.