Monday, August 2, 2010

Traditions of the Heart

I recently inherited a piece of my grandmother’s furniture. Although she passed away nearly a decade ago, this piece finally worked its way through the family to me. This isn’t just any ordinary piece of furniture, to me it is a piece of history, it is an old stand alone kitchen cabinet, complete with the grain bin, cutting board, and memories, lots and lots of memories.
When I stand in my own kitchen and look at the cabinet, I am flooded by memories of my grandmother’s cooking – which included her knack for making something spectacular out of something pretty ordinary. Memories of my grandmother’s kitchen, the walks past the Magnolia tree to check on her tomato plants, her house, and mostly, memories of my grandmother’s love.
She never skipped a beat in her instruction during the countless times I stood at her side and tried to “help” her cook. She made me my first cookbook, filled with her favorite recipes when I was only 10 years old. She taught me to shop, plan, and later in life, how to cook for my own little family. Her knack for making something spectacular out of something ordinary was something that I tried to do, over and over, and never really felt like I got there.
She was glamorous, my grandmother was. She was a model before having my mom, a traveler, and a woman who was madly in love with life. Think more Grace Kelly, less Aunt Bea. Not someone you can really picture in a kitchen passing the hours baking bread, cakes and cookies, but somehow, she managed to do both. She could make lunch on the patio seem like a five-star affair, and something as simple as a tuna sandwich seem like a meal for a princess. I always figured her extraordinary meals had more to do with her extraordinary glamor and approach to life than on technique, but I continued to try and learn.
As it turns out, it wasn’t glamor or technique. My grandmother’s little secret, the one that she let me in on shortly before she died – was love. She told me to love the ones you are cooking for, love the foods you are cooking, love the space that you’re in and its all good. Love. The secret to life, and the secret to her extraordinary culinary experiences.
As I spent the day oiling the wood and bringing the shine back to the cabinet, I felt the love that she poured into the meals she served all of those fortunate enough to know her over the years. I felt the passion that she had for whole, natural foods, and I felt an overwhelming desire to not only cook for my family – but to give them the tradition of love, and to make our meals together not just nutritional, but to make them extraordinary culinary experiences.
I was raised in a generation where cheap, mass-produced food and convenience were key, much more hip than any bothersome traditionalism, and my grandmother’s lessons in the kitchen, and in life are what are sustaining me and helping me recapture my health today. Instead of margarine replacing butter and factory-produced replicas of home cooked meals taking center stage on my table, I, like my grandmother, am seeking out fresh, whole foods, preferably local, either grown by me or someone I know. I am taking the time to cut, peel, dice, and spice, and loving the whole process. Most importantly, there is a peace and calm around the process, and I love it when people stop by to savor and enjoy the food, and each others company.
My grandmother’s love and old kitchen cabinet have taught me to keep the tradition of good food and the traditions of the heart alive…

Monday, July 26, 2010

Orthexia Nervosa Saved My Life - You Should Let It Save Yours Too

My name is Melissa. I am a writer by trade, a life coach by profession, a wife, and a mother… and I suffer from ‘orthexia nervosa’. This disorder came about in my early 30’s, when I least expected it, and I am afraid to share with you the fact that yes, it is contagious. Not only that, it is a disorder that can and will take hold rapidly, and once afflicted, you can bet it will more than likely stay with you for the rest of your life.
You may be wondering, what in the world is orthexia nervosa? Well, in Latin it means “nervous about correct eating” and simply put, it means if you place your focus on eating healthy foods, you are mentally distressed and most likely need some treatment that involves pharmaceuticals I’m sure and psychological counseling. The theory behind orthexia nervosa is that the fixation with healthy eating is a sign of a serious psychological disorder and left unchecked it can cause malnutrition.
Let me see if I can get this straight. Removing processed foods and focusing on healthy eating, choosing whole, organic foods, and cutting toxic transfats, deadly chemicals and additives from our diet can lead to malnutrition? Seriously? The desire to avoid foods that have been genetically modified or that contain pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, steroids, or anything artificial is a mental disorder? Wow.
I am an orthexic (the official name for those afflicted with the disorder), and even though that sounds kind of scary, in great big life-altering sort of way (it even has the big Latin name to lend it gravitas) it is what it is, and I’m just going to have to come to terms with it because it isn’t a disorder I am willing to go into treatment for, and isn’t a disorder that I am willing to take steps to “overcome”.
Why? Well for starters, let’s look at the immediate effects of orthexia nervosa in my life. Just last week I went in for my yearly physical. Now keep in mind that I am not 20 anymore, and that’s where the irony and the visible effects of orthexia come into play. I am 41 years old and my physician said I was HEALTHY.
Try as she might to come up with high blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, or blood sugar issues, she can’t. She told me to keep doing what I’m doing, thankfully orthexia didn’t enter the conversation, and I can honestly say the visit went very well. As a matter of fact, I left her office with not one prescription or test order, just the words “call us if you need us, if not, we’ll see you next year.”
Now it hasn’t always been this way for me. By the age of 24 I had undergone a major operation, had two kids, and was facing some very real problems. By the age of 30 I felt 50 and was depressed, overweight, tired all the time, sick more often than not and suffering from a host of different problems. As a matter of fact, when I was 30 I worried that I would not live to see my children grow up. I didn’t know exactly what was killing me, but I did feel like I was dying. My energy was in the toilet, my sex drive was right there with it. I would eat a “good” meal and not feel satisfied, not feel refreshed or energized, I would feel worse, more lethargic, even nauseated. My stamina was a memory and the days that I actually felt “good” were too. I felt like I was literally dragging myself through the days, putting one weighted foot in front of the other.
Instead of looking at why I was in the state I was in though, my doctor just kept prescribing, and prescribing, and prescribing what amounted to a mind-boggling array of meds to treat this symptom and that problem. And what was even worse was the fact that there were also the secondary meds, those prescribed to this side effect and that side effect. No one would tell my WHY I was in the shape that I was in, only that it could be treated. At 30 years old I was taking more medication than both of my parents combined, and there wasn’t an end in sight.
When I look back at the knowledge that I had, I can say that I really did try quite a few things on my own to feel better. I had a couple of friends who shopped in the health food stores, and couldn’t help but see them as organic, natural, nuts and berries eating fools. They were always telling me to try this, or try that, and then I would feel better. I thought at that time health food stores were filled with tofu, carob, and strange little sprouts – nothing I would want to eat. Then there were my Atkins, SouthBeach, carb counting, or carb avoiding friends. If Oprah endorsed it, it had to be good, right? I counted calories, fat grams, points, whatever was the next “cure”. I ate celery, drooled over the missing chocolate, and still felt awful.
Well, until I developed orthexia nervosa that is.
It started when I was 32, I met a certain someone. As I think I mentioned, orthexia is contagious, and this relationship provides definite proof of that. Anyway, Mr. Certain Someone is cool. And he didn’t freak me out by trying to get me to start hunting nuts and berries or convince me that carob truly is as good as chocolate. He did not tell me that tofu tastes just like chicken, he is not a carb counter, fat counter, or gram counter of any kind. When he cooks for me the food is fantastic. I feel energized, like I have done something good for my body, not the other way around.

After several shared meals and conversations, we got serious - talking about food that is, and that is when orthexia truly took hold. He doesn't eat processed anything, yet when he cooked for me there was butter, breads, meats, cheeses....even deserts. I didn't understand it, how different could a packet of taco seasoning versus the raw spices be? Cheese was cheese, right?

Wrong. He told me to trust him, taught me to read labels, and revolutionized my world. Food became my friend, not my enemy. I could eat what I wanted, when I more counting, adding, subtracting or avoiding. The point system went out the window. There were no drugs, diet pills, or secrets to it, he just simply taught me to take the process out of food and reclaim my health.

Once orthexia nervosa took hold, all I can say is that the disorder progressed rapidly and the effects were dramatic. I had immediate and extreme weight loss, increased energy and stamina, and suddenly this medication was no longer needed, and the next one, and the next one. Within two years as a matter of fact, I was RX free!  It hasn’t come without cost though, I had to give up a LOT of things – wonderful, convenient on the go things because guess what, not only was I learning that they weren’t good for me, the longer I avoided them, the more they made me sick when I decided to “cheat”. I promise you that a trip to McDonald’s or a quick Domino’s Pizza would level me for days. Anytime I deviate from my healthy eating neurosis, physical sickness is imminent.

Gone are the days of Pop Tarts and PMS, General Chicken takeout, and sub sandwich on the run, topped off of course with an evening of frozen custard. But you know what? Even with full blown orthexia nervosa I feel good, really good, and if I had it to over again I can definitively say that yes, I would risk exposure and take the plunge because being an orthexic has been without a doubt one of the best things that ever happened to me. And as I sit here 11 years beyond the point I thought I was dying, I think I can safely say that orthexia nervosa has saved my life.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Stop. Breathe. Focus on What’s Right.

Sometimes we get caught up in things outside the moment - bad decisions we’ve made in the past, worries over what might happen in the future – the shoulda, coulda, woulda kind of crap - and before you know it you’re caught on a spiral of what’s wrong and trying to find what’s right is completely out of reach.

How much of your day do you spend on worry, stressing over this and that, or in outright fear? Are there health concerns at play? Money problems? Job issues? How much time do you spend focusing on those concerns? Taking stock of how you feel in each moment? Are you not only concerned about your immediate problems but now also becoming concerned about the health and well being of your loved ones, your community, your nation, or the world? How much time do you spend in these thoughts, in the “What’s Wrong” place? How many minutes, or in some cases hours, do these concerns run a background dialog in your day? And if these thoughts go away, what triggers the return…. because I know they return. What does it take to get those thoughts rolling again, enough to get you back into a “What’s Wrong” place?

What we focus on expands – that has been proven time and time again.

So the question is, what do you want to expand? Problems, worries, stress, or drama? Or maybe, just maybe you can shift your thinking and focus on what’s good in your life - at this moment - what’s going well, what you more than likely are taking for granted. Think about it, how much time in any given 24 hour period do you spend in the moment, focusing on what’s right?

Easier said than done I’ve been told, and I get that. It’s hard to disconnect from the “What’s Wrong” because we, as individuals and as a society, have been focusing on it for so long that it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. But guess what, it might be easier said than done but it is not impossible, not by a long shot.

The key to being fully present in the moment is gratitude.

Now I know that gratitude might seem like a simple concept, but how much time do you actually spend there? Dan Baker, Ph.D. and author of What Happy People Know writes what is perhaps the best definition of gratitude I have read, “Appreciation, or gratitude is the first and most fundamental happiness tool. Gratitude is the purest, strongest form of love. It is the outward-bound kind of love that asks for nothing and gives everything. Gratitude is the antidote to fear. Fear is strong but love is stronger.”

To fully step into the moment you have to first stop thinking about what has happened, or what could happen, or what you shoulda, coulda, woulda done. Stop. Breathe. And think about right now.

What are you doing?

Where are you?
What’s around you?
What in this breath, and the next are you grateful for?

Repeat as necessary.

That’s the key, just stop, breathe, and focus on what’s right.

If you can’t just go there mentally, go there physically. Work in a garden, clean your house, or your car, go for a walk with someone you love, pet a cat, get a dog, fly a kite, go out and eat ice cream – something that makes you happy – something that will make you focus on the moment. And when you are in that moment, stop, breathe, and think about what’s right.

Do this at least five times a day and watch – as you change your focus – you also change your world.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reducing Environmental Cancer Risks Starts With You...

Somewhat lost in the media spotlight, due to the horrific situation in the Gulf of Mexico, has been the 2008–2009 Annual Report from the President’s Cancer Panel, REDUCING ENVIRONMENTAL CANCER RISK  What We Can Do Now, published by Suzanne H. Reuben in April 2010 in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute.

According to the report, the entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals, some of which also are used in residential and commercial landscaping. Many of these chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties. Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic. Many of the solvents, fillers, and other chemicals listed as inert ingredients on pesticide labels also are toxic, but are not required to be tested for their potential to cause chronic diseases such as cancer. In addition to pesticides, agricultural fertilizers and veterinary pharmaceuticals are major contributors to water pollution, both directly and as a result of chemical processes that form toxic by-products when these substances enter the water supply.

Opportunities for eliminating or minimizing cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures must be acted upon to protect all Americans, but especially children. They are at special risk due to their smaller body mass and rapid physical development, both of which magnify their vulnerability to known or suspected carcinogens, including radiation. Numerous environmental contaminants can cross the placental barrier; to a disturbing extent, babies are born “pre-polluted.” Children also can be harmed by genetic or other damage resulting from environmental exposures sustained by the mother (and in some cases, the father).

This is where we, as a people, need to not wait for the government or corporate America to save us, we need to work diligently to save ourselves AND our children. The fact that the government is recognizing these issues and presenting them to the President to open national debate is a step in the right direction. The panel recognizes the burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel them to act to protect public health, and recognize that even though they may lack irrefutable proof of harm, action is possible.

Possible? Yes. Quick? Doubtful. For decades environmental health, including cancer risk, has been largely excluded from overall national policy on protecting and improving the health of Americans. And while there are many opportunities for harmful environmental exposures, ample opportunities also exist for intervention, change, and prevention to protect the health of current and future generations and reduce the national burden of cancer. It just isn't happening quickly. And it might not happen at all.

Personal responsibility is key, choose what you will and will not allow into your home and into your body, and just keep hoping that maybe, just maybe some of these known carcinogenic agricultural chemicals and pesticides can someday be completely removed from our experience, here in the U.S., and around the world.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

There's An App For That! Navigating the Ingredients in Foods

I pay pretty close attention to what I eat and that means I try to take note of each and every ingredient in the foods I buy. I mean think about it, ingredients are a given and for centuries, they have served useful functions in a variety of foods. You can't very well have a cookie without some flour, butter, eggs, sugar, salt...well you get the picture, the list goes on and on. Ingredients are everywhere and unless you are eating something in it's raw or natural state, ingredients are essential.

Something went awry though in the second part of the last century and today those ingredients aren't always essential. Actually sometimes they could be detrimental and in the scheme of things they often play no role in the quality of the product at all. Today we have additives, many, many additives. Many of which we can’t identify, or even pronounce, and as a thoughtful eater, and consumer, I can’t help but wonder what many of them are for.

Additives are something added to our food supply for a number of reasons – some of them are natural, some are not. Consider this, there are currently 3,000 chemicals added to our food supply – that covers everything from the seed to the table. 10,000 chemical solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives are used in food processing, and over 1,000 new chemicals are introduced each year. When you look at that in conjunction with the increasing numbers of cancers, immune system disorders, neurological problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities, allergies, and hormonal disturbances, it is hard not to take notice.

Navigating the ingredients list in the foods found on our grocery store shelves is important – more so now than ever. But truthfully, with over 1,000 NEW additives, preservatives, and chemicals added to our food supply each year, how on earth can the average consumer hope to keep up with it all.

For example, let’s look at Xanthan Gum – sounds safe enough, right? Wrong. Xanthan gum is produced from fermented corn syrup and used as a thickening agent. This substance is most likely made from genetically modified corn as in the U.S. over 80% of the corn crop has been genetically modified. High fructose corn syrup worries aside, concerns about GMOs range from the unknown long term health effects on human and animal health to the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds. Only products labeled 100% organic contain no genetically modified substances.

Then look at Decanoic Acid – sounds scary, right? Well, not really. Decanoic Acid is a flavoring substance found naturally in anise, but can be produced synthetically for use in food and other products.

It’s a jungle out there because no longer is a cookie just a cookie.

To stay informed, me and my iPhone that I love oh-so-much happened across a FANTASTIC App called “Don’t Eat That!” This App, which cost $1.99, put in the palm of my hand a database that can be the key to understanding the ingredient maze and help me shop smarter.

The App, which is downloaded to your iPhone (or iPod Touch) gives you access to 1500+ food additives, ingredients and chemicals, including those that are carcinogenic, unhealthy for children, or are commonly known allergens. The database is stored on your iPhone so no wi-fi or 3G access is necessary, just download, hit the grocery store and investigate.

The ingredient search can be done several ways, and users can look at:
All Ingredient Names
Problem Ingredients
Harmful to Kids
Banned Ingredients
Genetically Modified
Additives/E numbers for food additives named in Europe

If I was on the fence about buying an iPhone, or even an iPod Touch, this App alone would cinch the deal. In the palm of my hand I have the power to choose the foods that will serve me, and my family, and put the foods that can harm us back on the shelf. Loved my phone before the App, but now – wow – it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever had!

Friday, April 23, 2010

School Lunch Now A National Security Threat

School lunches have been called many things, when my kids were young GROSS was the phrase of choice. However, MSNBC reported this week that a group of retired military officers are giving the school lunch a new label: National Security Threat. That's not a reference to the mystery meat served up in the cafeteria line either. The retired officers are saying that school lunches have helped make the nation's young people so fat that fewer of them can meet the military's physical fitness standards.

Now whether you are pro military or against, those are some frightening statistics. The report MSNBC is referring to goes further to say, “more than 9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too overweight to join the military. Now, the officers are advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation's school lunches healthier.”

Add to that a study conducted by the CDC that found that 9 out of 10 school kids are not meeting the suggested daily allowance of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. Type 2 Diabetes and obesity are nearing epidemic proportions in our schools.

First of all, our responsibility not only as parents, but as members of the community, is to help kids make healthy choices. Anyone who has ever been around a child, tween, or teen should know better than to expect them to make the right decisions about health if they don’t have the education to do so, and especially if they don’t have healthy options to choose from. While the ultimate responsibility for that lies with the parent, there are changes that can and should be made in the schools, because bottom line, for many low-income children throughout the country, the school lunch program is a vital source of their overall nutrition.

Think about it though, it’s difficult for a child to turn down the hamburger and fries, chicken nuggets or greasy pizza from the cafeteria if the only other alternative is wilted salad that no one eats and has been sitting around for two days. And while many government agencies and school districts are contemplating change, and even the Obama administration is working to expel junk food from the nation’s schools, what can we as parents and community members do to either help that process along, or get something started?

Well, one great example would be in Nashville, where a new wellness program established by Metro public schools in December now has an enforcer: parents. Organized by the Healthy School Food Team, a grassroots group of parents promoting wellness initiatives in Nashville, gathered at the Farmer’s Market Thursday morning to discuss healthier food options in the city’s public school cafeterias. In addition to working to promote healthy lifestyle and eating habits in the schools, the group’s long-term vision includes food coming from local and regional farmers, and offering a variety of fresh fruit and produce instead of Fritos and the stuff that’s offered currently.

Not only are changes starting to come in thanks to the grassroots efforts of parents and educators, there is also some star power behind this push as Jamie Oliver is using fresh fruit and vegetables to try to win the hearts, or at least the fatty arteries, of a West Virginia city in his show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and if you haven’t seen the show, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Rachael Ray is also working to reform school lunch, and Paula Deen, queen of Southern fried goodness, recently taught an auditorium of kids how to cook and eat healthy.

Hopefully these reports, and if nothing else this star-power, will help to further compel parents to find ways to make changes in their communities and schools. Because changes need to happen, they need to happen at home, and they need to happen at school, and truthfully, they can’t happen soon enough.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Natural Ways to Combat Spring Allergies

Pollen is off the charts in most of the US this week, and spring is in full force, in an almost crazy, accelerated way. Maybe your symptoms started early, when trees started blooming? Right now, for me, that continues. Pollen is my problem and the trees are letting it fly.

Spring allergies are common, and according to The Weather Channel, they are a result of pollen from trees, which can start pollinating anytime from January to April, depending on the climate and location. Trees that are known to cause severe allergies include oak, olive, elm, birch, ash, hickory, poplar, sycamore, maple, cypress, and walnut. Generally this time of year there is more rain, here in the Midwest anyway, and the rain helps by reducing pollen counts.

Daniel More, MD, FACP, a board-certified allergist and's allergies guide, says that it is difficult to avoid exposure to pollens, but he does have some tips to minimize exposure:

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* Keep windows closed prevent pollens from drifting into your home
* Minimize early morning activity when pollen is usually emitted between 5-10 a.m.
* Keep your car windows closed when traveling.
* Stay indoors when the pollen count is reported to be high, and on windy days when pollen may be present in higher amounts in the air
* Avoid freshly cut grass and mowing the lawn

Personally, I take enzymes to help me combat the woes of pollen, which believe me, have caused me plenty of difficulty in the past. A high amylase enzyme (a carbohydrate digesting enzyme) is what the immune system uses to fight airborne pathogens. When the body is low in amylase, in many cases allergens such as pollen, pet dander and other histamine inducing substances cause an immune system response, i.e. the creation of histamine. Histamine production is a reaction by the body to a perceived pathogen with the symptoms of watery, itchy eyes, runny nose, coughing etc in an effort to expel said pathogen. Amylase taken therapeutically on an empty stomach may relieve a person of such symptoms.

A few other tips I found while searching for some natural approaches to allergy relief today also included some things I could/should integrate in all year round, but especially during the weeks that my allergy symptoms can really take hold.

* Local honey. We’ve all heard the benefits of regularly including local honey in your allergy arsenal. But what many people don’t know is that many nutritionists recommend that you start eating about 1-2 teaspoons of locally grown natural honey BEFORE the allergy season starts. Why? Well, bees collect pollen from local plants, and their honey is known to have some low levels of pollen. Taking it before the season helps your body to get use to some pollen level in advance before the full-blown season strikes.

* Wash your hair at night. Rinse the pollen out, especially if you’re a gel or mousse fan because these products can trap pollen. And if you spend a lot of time outside, shower. Pollen and mold spores can fly into your hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and skin. Be sure to wash your hands when you come inside and if your allergies cause a lot of watery eyes and itching, rinse your eyes out too.

* Eat foods to help your body fight allergy attacks. Green tea contains antioxidants that may help stop your body from reacting to allergens like pollen. Marshmallow Root is also a good decongestant. Onions, garlic, citrus fruits contain natural antihistamines. Prevention Magazine also recommends you drink plenty of fruit juices, because fruit juices are rich sources of antioxidants that help reduce inflammation, but read the label to make sure that it's real juice and not a bottle of corn syrup.

*Wear natural fibers. Reason number 5,769 to wear natural fibers is that by doing so, you are avoiding a personal pollen build up. When synthetic materials rub together, they can cause static electricity that makes like mini-magnets for pollen. Who knew your clothes could help you keep your allergies under control!

* Soak up the calm. In one study, seasonal allergy sufferers had a more extreme reaction the day after performing a stressful task. Stress raises cortisol and that can lead to a more extreme allergic response. Since pollen may be keeping you indoors, a few minutes of meditation or a soak in the tub should help.

If allergies aren’t a problem for you, go out and enjoy all that spring has to offer, and when the pollen count gets a bit more manageable, I’ll feel brave enough to meet you on the trail. In the meantime, I’ll just be here hoping for a nice spring rain!