Monday, May 24, 2010

Food and Wellness

Several times last week I felt the undeniable urge to bang my head against the wall in frustration. Each time it had to do with the simple idea that food impacts health and wellness. Yes, food. Such common knowledge, one might think. Don't we all know that sugar makes our kids hyper, caffeine can give us the jitters, and junk food can result in a stomach ache? Didn't the film Super Size Me (and many others) teach us that what we eat will directly impact our health? Then why are we not getting it? Are lifestyle changes really too hard to tackle?

My first head-banging came when a fellow mom lamented her kids' ADHD. We were casually chatting on the phone about an upcoming school event and she had called because of my children's food allergies. "Oh, I tried to go gluten free for like a week" she told me. "And it didn't do a thing." In her next breath, she screamed off in the background to her kids "I didn't say you could have another Oreo. Put that back!" Bang, bang goes the head. Since the 1960s, the Dr. Feingold of the Feingold Association has been providing research and dietary advice showing how the consumption of food additives and artificial ingredients have been affecting learning and behavior. Just last week a new article in Time Magazine linked ADHD with the consumption of pesticides, further clarifying the link between diet and behavior.

The following day, a dad was talking to me about his son's asthma and the need for ongoing steroids to help his breathing. We chatted about triggers while his son guzzled a chocolate milk and picked on cheese cubes. Had he tried going dairy free? "No, that would be way too difficult!" Another bang. At what point has swallowing, injecting, or inhaling laboratory-concocted pharmaceuticals become decidedly "easier" and more acceptable than feeding our children differently and healthfully? Yes, there is controversy over whether or not diet can help all kids with asthma or ADHD, for that matter, but what about giving it a try? (Note: There is also research indicting that raw, unpasturized dairy actually reduces the likelihood of asthma, but that's for another discussion.)

The final draw came in a brief conversation with another parent who was exhausted by her child's hyperactivity. His medication did not kick in until after breakfast and that time frame was the most challenging. We talked about a variety of parenting tools. She and her husband chose a reward system. The reward? Candy. Bang.

As humans we are creatures of habit. We like our routines and we love our food. But diet should be a first and basic lifestyle change for anyone looking to improve wellness. Whether you are dealing with ADHD or asthma, eczema or autism, learning disabilities or cancer, diet is a fundamental place to start. I personally was raised in a traditional Italian-American family with a grandmother who cooked everything from scratch but as I grew up, convenience foods became all the rage and things like Hamburger Helper™ and Twinkies™ found their way into my diet. I have been a health food nut and a vegetarian, have gone both gluten-free and grain-free, and have eaten a traditional, paleolithic diet as well as having dabbled in juicing and raw foods. Each change brought with it some challenges and new tastes and also produced dramatic results for me and my family with regard to health and behavior. Like many forms of true healing, you cannot change for a day or even a week. Nutritional change is slow and modification takes time. No one is perfect but changing how you eat - how we all eat - is nothing short of revolutionary when it comes to wellness. How we have strayed so far from the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates', famous mantra "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food" boggles the mind. Health begins with what we put in our bodies and food is the obvious first place to start.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Little Bite of Heaven

Thanks to Theo Chocolate and the wonderful mamas of the Holistic Moms Network's National Team, my birthday yesterday included a fabulous, succulent bite of heaven - Ghost Chile Salted Caramels. This fantastic concoction combines buttery, rich caramel covered in organic, fair trade chocolate with a spicy hint of chile and topped with a dash of red sea salt. It plays on your tongue, igniting every tastebud and lingers with a sweet, salty heat that is almost indescribable. Those who know me, know that I am a huge chocolate lover and a foodie to boot. I love food and relish every savory, sweet moment. And now, I have even more reason to celebrate.

Let's start with what is great about chocolate. For starters, dark chocolate has some wonderful health benefits including cardiovascular benefits and stress reduction. According to Dr. van den Broek, consuming 40 grams of dark chocolate reduces measurable urinary excretions of cortisol thus positively impacting stress and anxiety levels among women. Nice bonus. But eating chocolate - or much of anything else - is more than a health balance equation for me. It's an experience, a moment, a meditation. Yes, a meditation!

Little did I know that my passion for food and moments of sensory bliss are part of a practice in mindfulness. "Eating meditation", like other mindfulness practices, helps us to stop and savor the present moment, reducing stress and strengthening our ability to focus. According to Richard Brady of the Mindfulness in Education Network, eating meditation is "is simply eating to be aware of and appreciate eating." Jay Michaelson writes in "Eat Your Way to Enlightment" that eating meditation "is among the simplest, and most profound, of mindfulness practices." Using the Kabbalistic map of the four worlds, he describes how you can experience a piece of food first in the body (looking with your eyes, feeling with your fingers), in the heart (what are your desires and feelings), in the mind (consider how the food was raised, grown, or made), and in the soul (the energy and divinity of the food). Incorporating these practices into every meal, or even a few bites, gives us a wider experience of the subtleties of food, an awareness and appreciation of the source of food, as well as a sincere gratitude and understanding of the importance and value of what we consume. A simple bite can transform a basic, mundane necessity in a moment of enlightenment, peace, and pleasure. And it is in those moments that we are most alive and most present.

As parents, it's easy to get caught up in the mundane of our daily routines and to keep our minds racing to the next task, the next job - trying to keep one step ahead of our children to ensure their health, safety, and well-being. But slowing down and being present, while eating or parenting in any other way, can create those timeless moments that we will long remember and treasure.

Excuse me while I grab some more chocolate and go meditate!

Monday, May 10, 2010

My Life is Not a Hallmark Card

If you listen to the media, motherhood is a giant Hallmark card filled with flowers, hugs, and sweet moments. And, in some cases, it is. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the overwhelming joy and love that I have for my children. I could never have imagined the indescribable beauty of a little one nestled in my arms whether nursing or sleeping, the uplifting power of a child's laughter, or the playful curiousity you see in the eyes of a babe. But I could also never have imagined the challenges of years of chronic sleep deprivation, the anxiety of hearing my child cry, or the uncertainty of losing myself and my identity through motherhood.

My motherhood experience has not been an easy one. But in each event, I have learned, grown, and discovered new abilities - and failings. My first child was (and is) intense. From birth on, he has presented challenges and gifts. Unwavering passion and spirit guide him. As a two year old, that meant tantrums, screaming, and aggression. He has struggled with food allergies and sensory issues, yet displays social ease and an intelligence that boarders on remarkable. We never slept (despite bed-sharing) and he nursed with a ferocity that shocked me. We woke at 4 a.m. for nearly a year, gave up naps at 18 months old, and by age three we were spending our days reciting scientific trivia about dinosaurs and pondering the mysteries of outer space. Attachment parenting saved us, but through it I lost the boundaries between self and child and my identity collapsed. Motherhood was lonely, frustrating, and exhausting. Family members exiled us for our holistic choices and pointed fingers at our lifestyle options whenever something "wrong" happened. My marriage suffered and at times, I felt like I was drowning.

By the second child, I had started to regain identity and realized that motherhood was the hardest job I would ever love (to borrow a phrase). I could never have imagined moterhood being more challenging than I had experienced with my first child. But the universe had another plan. I was blessed with a child with special needs, presenting new mountains to climb from a near-death crisis right a birth to ongoing developmental challenges that have added a while new vocabulary to my world (IEPs, OT, PT, and more). I simulateously found a new respect for allopathic medicine and an amazing distrust of it, as my child's life was saved and then misdiagnosed and mistreated with arrogance and callousness. I learned enormous patience from my children and a sense of connection and empathy that far surpassed what I had known before. I became aware - aware of the power of the choices that I made every day for the health and well-being of my family, whether it pertained to what we ate, how we lived, or what we did. Motherhood helped me learn to stand my ground in tough times and find a way through, rather than out. I stood with vomit in my hair, with strong-willed children, and through many days of preschool to ensure that separation anxiety was not part of our life. There were Hallmark moments, to be sure, but there were more painful, powerful, transformative moments as well. Moments that shook my core and took me to a new level of beingness. And moments where being connected to other moms and knowing that they were out there made it all possible.

This Mother's Day had its "Hallmark moments" and made me smile. But reflecting on the harsher side of motherhood made me truly, sincerely grateful for the experience and filled me with excitement for how much more I will learn in the future. Okay, in all honesty, a bit of dread there too for what may come, but mostly excitement. Motherhood has redefined me - for good and for ill - and has helped me grow in ways I never thought possible. Motherhood isn't all sweet smiles and roses, and having other mothers confirm that sentiment is life-affirming and reassuring on many levels. Having the tenacity and passion to find your way through is what makes motherhood worth celebrating and honoring - not just for a day, but every day. Happy Mothering!

Monday, May 3, 2010

When the Means are not Justified

There are times in the life of every business or organization that you have to make conscious choices about how to achieve your desired goals and what your priorities are. Sometimes the means justify the ends, but sometimes the means are so remarkably out of line with the core mission and purpose of the organization that they eat away at the very fabric and integrity of an organization.

I cannot think of a more appalling example of this than the new campaign from the Susan G. Komen Foundation's "Buckets for the Cure" effort. Partnering with KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), the Foundation is receiving donations of 50 cents for every pink bucket of fried chicken purchased in order to further their objective of finding a cure. The Foundation states: "As the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists, we’re working together to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures." News of this new campaign has been eating at me (pun intended) for a week now. And then the coupons arrived in my mailbox. Just for me - their "Breast Deal." A coupon for a fried chicken breast, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a biscuit - all for $2.59 so that I can "Join the cause." So that I can help empower myself to help find a cure by consuming products that put me at risk. Seriously?!?

How, in good conscience, this partnership arose is hard to fathom. The link between cancer and diet has been established time and time again through volumes of clinical research. Even the American Institute for Cancer Research's Expert Report entitled Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer advises against processed and salty foods. The report notes that "salt and salt-preserved foods probably increase the chance of developing stomach cancer."

High fat diets have been linked to breast cancer - and for several generations. Science Daily reported on a study from the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center demonstrating that pregnant women who ate high-fat foods had daughters and granddaughters who had higher incidence of breast cancer. Women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer may be able to stall their cancer recurrence by consuming a low-fat diet, according to the American Cancer Society.

And who is going to be most inspired to help find a cure for breast cancer? Likely women. Women who may get pregnant and have children. Women who have had breast cancer. Women who want to end breast cancer - the very same women who should avoid salty, processed, high-fat foods. But instead of finding a cure, we are increasing their own risk by participating in this fundraising campaign.
My lovely "Breast Deal" coupon will buy me 130 calories from fat (3.5 grams of saturated fats) and 710 mgs of sodium just for the chicken breast. Mashed potatoes with gravy adds another 4 grams of fat (1 g saturated) and another 530 mg of sodium. Let's not forget my biscuit, with 6 grams of saturated fat and 530 additional mg of sodium. A lovely lunch for 519 calories, 10.5 grams of saturated fat, and 1,770 mgs of sodium. A sedentary female between the ages of 31-50 years old should consume less than 16 grams of saturated fat a day according to the American Heart Association and between 1,000 and 3,000 mgs of sodium per day according to Rutgers University. Let's not even discuss the lack of vital foods and nutrients promoted in this deal (not a fresh vegetable or antioxidant in sight) - these numbers already tip the scale out of balance.

Thank you, KFC, but I will not be joining you. And to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, I will definitely think before I pink!