Reflections on Health

I’ve been reflecting more and more about the purpose of this blog as I watch my personal path transition from a career-focused life in the city to growing a family in Vermont.  I am incredibly thankful to have made certain health-specific discoveries in this journey, before we started thinking about having children.  I want to share them with you.  Read on to hear the story.  It’s long but worth reading, especially if you’re thinking about having kids or are working to solve a chronic health issue…

This blog was started to answer questions frequently being asked of me while I was still living in Somerville coordinating school gardening programming.  It was 2010.  I had a thriving porch container garden and had built up considerable experience growing food in the city at my first job after college.  Rather than answering the same question multiple times, I’d write about the topic on my blog and share it with my urban gardening friends.  The blog also served as a journal, allowing me to make note of ideas, projects, and changes that seemed important at the time.

It is now seven years later.

My work transitioned away from kids and gardens.  I live in Vermont.  Many of my interests and hobbies, however, are still related to health, food and nutrition.  These topics have become even more important to me as I experience pregnancy and prepare for a growing family.  I love being outside in nature, managing (and eating from) a big garden, cooking and playing with new flavors, reading articles about nutrition, and listening to podcasts focused on food and health.  Because of all this, I now field a lot of questions about healthy lifestyles.

I rarely, however, am asked about the exact same topic by numerous people all at the same time.  In the past week or two I’ve fielded many questions from friends and family who watched the movie “What the Health.”  The movie promotes a diet free from meat and animal products.   Realizing how many people were watching the movie, I became concerned that these ideas were being promoted with cherry-picked data as a healthy life style.  My deep concern was rooted in my personal journey, which taught me that organic pastured or wild animal products are crucial for my body to be optimally nourished and able to have children.

The back story:

When living in the city ten years ago, there was not good access to pastured organic animal products.  Having grown up with backyard chickens, I thought grocery store eggs tasted disgusting.  I felt similarly about out-of-season produce, conventional meat, and many available dairy products.  And so, without realizing it, I adopted a low-fat nearly vegan diet.  I was always excited to eat “happy” animal products, but that opportunity rarely arose.  I thought I was living healthily and ethically.

And then I started having some health issues.  Most significantly, I lost my period.  Doctors tried to figure out the underlying cause without success, so I was put on some vitamins and the pill.  Prescribing hormonal birth control is a very common “solution” for a wide range of complaints including acne, depression, irregular periods, and PMS.   However, taking the pill didn’t fix my underlying issue, it just patched symptoms.  I would need to figure out the real solution to my missing period later, when coming off the pill, which would likely correspond to the time when I was thinking about having kids.  At the time, however, I accepted my doctor’s advice and moved on with my life. 

About five years ago my boyfriend and I decided to move to Vermont.  The move led to many other transitions in my diet and lifestyle.  We had access to raw dairy, homemade yogurt, garden-grown produce, pastured organic meat and backyard-grown eggs fed organic feed.  We lived around others who felt like all of these local whole foods were an important part of a healthy diet.  Without making a conscious effort, I found myself eating a lot more pastured animal fat but less highly processed vegetable oil.  I learned how to make sauerkraut and other ferments at a free hands-on workshop.  I learned about Weston A. Price’s research, which clearly illustrates the value of nourishing traditional diets for reproduction, growth, and health in all stages of life.  I was struck by the fact that traditional diets studied by Price contained ten times the quantity of fat-soluble vitamins compared to a typical modern American diet.  I ate organ meats I’d never tasted before.  I drank well water.  I spent a lot of time outside: barefoot, breathing clean air, soaking in sun, and swimming in the lake.

These changes marked the start of a transition in my nutrition and health beliefs.  I stopped trusting the recommendations from groups like the USDA and CSPI.  They just weren’t resonating and started to seem contradictory and industry- (rather than data-) driven. I started reading more about the microbiome, traditional diets, truly nutrient-dense foods, the nutrient differences between pastured and conventional animal products, health impacts of various common household chemicals, and more.  A lot of information on the internet is sensationalized and misleading, but there is also a lot that is based on data and science.  I read with a discerning eye about one of the most emotionally-charged topics out there: health and nutrition. I soaked it in.

My new diet, like my old one, was made up of whole foods prepared from scratch.  Now, however, it included a variety of pastured or organic animal parts; raw dairy from grass-fed Jersey cows; soaked, soured, or sprouted nuts, grains, and seeds; bone broths; plenty of fermented foods made at home; eggs with golden-orange yolks; vegetables grown in the backyard without pesticides; local maple syrup and honey; and sun-ripened organic fruits picked nearby.  Besides these wonderful attributes, it all tasted amazing as well.  I minimized vegetable oils that weren’t cold-pressed, white sugar, and all processed foods.

The effect on me after a year was tangible.  I felt more balanced and healthy, so I decided to try going off the pill to see what happened.  It turned out that all those lifestyle changes (or who knows, maybe just one of them) had solved whatever imbalances or inadequacies existed in my body five years earlier.  Everything that was broken before was now functioning normally.

Interestingly, I was still under a lot of stress at work.  This was one of the factors I thought might have caused me to lose my period.  As I was still experiencing considerable stress, I feel quite strongly that it was my higher consumption of fat soluble vitamins via pastured animal products that helped my body decide that I was nourished enough to reproduce.

Time went on, my boyfriend and I got married and we built a house together.  In the building process, when possible, we chose non-toxic options.  We filled our pantry with only organic foods.  We use soap, baking soda, and vinegar for most of our cleaning.  I make my own salve and picked out a new shampoo without any crazy chemicals.  Call me crazy, but we eliminated wi-fi and other sources of electromagnetic radiation from our house.  I transitioned out of a job that was full of joy but also stressful – both mentally and physically.  After doing all these things I felt ready to start a family.

I am writing this post now because I’ve realized how big of an impact small changes can make and that time is often needed before seeing significant health improvements. Looking back, I didn’t have a road map. For that reason I am incredibly grateful that this progression happened gradually and naturally for me.  It was mostly a result of personal interest and happenstance.  Mixed with a lot of luck.  I was lucky to experience near-perfect health over the last several years.  I was lucky to be able to make decisions about my living environment.  I was lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who were adopting similar changes in their diet and lifestyle.  I was lucky to live close enough to farmers that I could get to know them and their agricultural practices personally.  We are all lucky to live in an age where options exist to live a healthful yet modern lifestyle.  We don’t need to run back to caves to eat a balanced diet and live a fulfilling life.  For everyone, but especially those thinking of having kids, today is a good day to implement a small change to improve your well-being.  Similar to planting a tree, the best time to start thinking about your long-term health was 20 years ago.  The second best time is today.

Feeling good and being healthy doesn’t need to be a lesson in sacrifice.  I still enjoy trips to the creemee (a.k.a. soft serve) stand, have slices of birthday cake, and eat out at restaurants that are making dishes from food that is not organic.  But my daily life, which encompasses the huge majority of my time and eating, reflects my new health values and I feel better for it mentally and physically.

I realize that I live in a setting that makes my diet and lifestyle easier to sustain.  I realize how much work it takes to grow my own food and cook from scratch.  If those things don’t increase your inner joy there are still options, like mail-order companies, that make these foods readily available to those without enough free time or interest and those lacking access to the ingredients in their community (links below).   It might cost more in the short term, but everyone can make any number of these transitions without spending too much additional time and effort!

The time and effort I put into my family’s health feels worth it to me.  I bet your wellness is worth it too.

Almost every one of these paragraphs could be it’s own blog post, but I’m stopping here for now.  I hope you gained something from reading through to the end.  I would love to continue this conversation or go into more specific detail with anyone who is curious – just let me know!  Wishing you happiness and good health.

Sustainable Nourishing Sources of Meat Available Online: U. S. Wellness Meats, Vital Choice Seafood

Weston A. Price Dietary Principals: (Not delivered with sleek graphics, but info about dietary guidelines and nutrition that makes the most sense to me).  Characteristics of Traditional Diets, Dietary GuidelinesPrinciples of Healthy Diets, Vegetarianism and Plant Foods

Women’s Health: Learn what nutrient deficiencies are caused by taking oral contraception, and take steps to nourish yourself accordingly.  This book, and the accompanying website, would have been super helpful for me 10 years ago!  If you’re wanting to conceive in the next few years, it will make life way easier to start thinking about your (and your partner’s) fertility and health now!

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Summer Garden Bounty

The end of July and beginning of August are an exciting time for Vermont gardeners.  Finally we enjoy a huge diversity of sun-ripened fruits, berries, and vegetables from our gardens and farms.  We’ve been savoring first raspberries, blueberries, cucumbers, fennel, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, broccoli, onions, garlic, and beets.  Waiting all these months, of course, makes it all much more exciting and delicious.

garden goodies

After several long rainy weeks, we’ve been enjoying a stretch of sunny low-humidity days and cool nights.  Though it’s meant fewer lake swims, it has been perfect weather for daily weeding sessions, keeping up with the ever-growing lush green lawn, and kitchen cooking projects.

End of July Garden

In the kitchen, I excitedly pickled a batch of kohlrabi, fennel, and beets.  They flavors and colors are blending wonderfully, turning bright pink (click here to learn more about natural fermentation).

July Pickles

buckwheat pancakes

I’ve also been LOVING a newly discovered recipe for Sourdough Buckwheat Pancakes.  Buckwheat is a really interesting “grain” and  offers a unique alternative to wheat.  This recipe sprouts and sours the buckwheat, making it even more nutritious and digestible.  The pancakes were nutty and tender with crisp edges (be sure to use plenty of grass-fed butter in your pan), and a perfect vehicle for the delicious fruits and berries that are now in season. 

Happy harvesting, happy feasting!

lake sunset

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July in the Garden and Kitchen

Vermonters are basking in a string of sunny summery days after many many (many) days of rain.  The change in weather means I can finally deal with the grass and weeds that have been happily growing in our lawn and garden.  I’ve also been able to enjoy the best part of summer in VT: after-work swims in Lake Champlain.

Lake in July

Over the past several weeks I realized I’d posted blogs in previous years about many of the seasonal tasks I was busy with in the kitchen and garden.  I’ve included a recap and links below, in addition to a delicious nourishing shortcake recipe we’ve been enjoying with our freshly picked strawberries and whipped cream.  Enjoy!

Nourishing Strawberry Shortcake: This recipe involves soaking the flour in yogurt 24 hours before baking.  To learn more about how this makes flour products more nourishing and digestible, check out this article and video.  (recipe adapted from Nourishing Traditions)

Ingredients: 2 cups white flour, 1.5 cups whole wheat flour, 1 cup yogurt/buttermilk/kefir, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 3 tablespoons maple syrup.

  1. Mix yogurt and flour.  It will be a very stiff dough, don’t worry.  Cover and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours.
  2. Melt butter.  Mix butter and maple syrup into dough.  In a small dish, mix baking soda and salt, breaking up any little balls of baking soda.  Sprinkle dry mixture onto dough and mix, just until ingredients are barely combined.
  3. Divide dough into apx. 12 balls and place on baking sheet.  They will spread a bit while baking.
  4. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes, or until bottoms are golden brown.
  5. Enjoy with fresh strawberries and whipped cream!

biscuits

strawberriesStrawberry Season in VT: This year’s strawberry season was admittedly rain-drenched.  Luckily I was able to sneak in a few mornings of before-work picking.  We’ve been enjoying plenty of fresh berries in all our meals, and froze several gallons for the winter.  Check out this blog post to learn how to quickly freeze berries so that they stay delicious and easy to use in the future.

Other Firsts from the Garden: The last several weeks have brought the first crunchy harvests.  We’ve been enjoying kohlrabi and sugar snap peas in addition to plentiful lettuce, spinach, chard, and herbs.  And just a few days ago we picked the first handful of raspberries from our bushes.  It’s really starting to feel like July!

Crunchy first harvest

And Speaking of HerbsI’ve been enjoying going out to the field and garden each morning to gather leaves for my pregnancy tea blend (also gentle and delicious for other people): nettles, raspberry leaf, and mint.  ‘Tis the season to harvest herbs you’d like to freeze or dry.  Harvest most herbs now – they’re best when young and tender.  Check out this blog post to learn about harvesting and preserving herbs.

Tea Leaves

Garden Pests: Many flying garden pests are busy laying eggs at this time of year.  If you monitor your plants closely, squishing mating pairs of insects and any eggs they’ve laid (often on the undersides of leaves), you can prevent their population from booming in your garden.  This post has more information about pest control in the garden.

squash bugs

Granola: In the summer I find myself wanting something cool and fruity for breakfast – a big swing from my savory broth, soaked oats, and egg-based breakfasts of winter.  Unfortunately store-bought cold cereals and pasteurized milk are a pretty tough way to start the day for my digestive system.  Plus, they are often loaded with crazy ingredients and sugar and leave me craving more.  Thank goodness for my favorite nourishing homemade granola, homemade kefir or yogurt, freshly picked berries, and local raw milk!  Note to self – next year make a lot of granola early in the spring when the oven heat is appreciated in the kitchen.

Homemade Granola

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Trellising and Suckers (aka Keeping Tomato Plants Under Control)

Caged Tomato

By the end of June, most gardens are fully planted and have had several weeks to settle in and start to grow.  If your rows were fully weeded when you planted, you’ve probably had a few weeks of vacation from this ongoing garden chore.  Pests can start to be a nuisance, praying on small vulnerable leaves and stems (read more about pest control here).

Right about now is a great time to get ahead of the game and create a plan to sucker, trellis, or stake any plant that will likely grow tall and may become top-heavy with fruit.  In our garden, I tie pepper plants to stakes; make sure beans, peas, and cucumbers have a trellis to climb on; and sucker and cage my tomato plants.  Most of this makes sense to the average person, except: what the heck is suckering?!

tomato sucker

Plants that are naturally bushy and sprawling, like tomatoes and tomatillos, grow new “heads” (or “suckers”) at every point where a leaf grows from the main stem.  When I worked in school gardens, I would tell the kids that suckers grow out of the armpits of the plants.  If you want a huge sprawling bush, that’s great!  BUT, if you want to be able to find all your mature fruits, keep the plant from sprawling all over the row and plant neighbors, and want to keep it off the ground to avoid disease, you’ll need to take action.

caged tomatoes

There are many trellising techniques for tomatoes.  What you choose should be based on the amount of space you have, the number of plants you want to grow, and how many extra supplies you’ll need to invest in.  Feel free to let me know if you want my thoughts on your specific circumstance!  In general, I recommend starting with a large tomato cage, and suckering your plant to keep it airy, growing up, and focused on producing fruit off its main stem.

Now that my tomato plants are over a foot high, they’ve started to grow suckers.  At this age, I can simply pinch them off with my fingers.  If suckers get very large, you’ll want to use snippers or scissors so you don’t rip the main stalk of the plant.  By removing suckers when they are small, I encourage the plant to focus on growing up rather than out.  In August, this will result in a more orderly tomato row with plants that are (mostly) growing within their cages.  This makes for easy harvesting, less spread of disease (which usually happens when rain splashes dirt up onto your plant or when leaves are densely packed together), and less breakage if there are high winds.

Suckering tomato copy

Suckering is an ongoing chore throughout the season, but is quick and easy, and fits into walks through the garden when you can also keep an eye out for maturing fruit, find new pests before they cause much damage, and take a moment to pluck a few weeds.

IMG_6824Want to get creative?  Let a few suckers grow in a strategic way.  Tomato espalier anyone?  Last year in my garden I planted a single plant at the base of a trellis.  I let one sucker grow up each wire, and then removed the rest.  I used string to periodically tie each branch to it’s assigned wire – tomatoes don’t send out tendrils or curl around wires like peas, beans, and cucumbers. My yield per plant was very high because I was essentially growing multiple “trunks” from one plant.

Happy Gardening!

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Our House Named “Greenest Building!”

house 2

More good news from the home front: our house won 2016’s “Vermont’s Greenest Residential Building” award from Vermont Green Building Network!  Two years after moving in, we still feel incredibly lucky to call it our home.

Since I’m on the topic of the house, we have two other exciting updates.  Solar panels have been installed, and we’re moving forward with finishing the second floor!  Because we use so little energy, we’ll be sending the electricity produced up to Evan’s business to offset the electricity needed to run a busy screen printing shop.

We were so happy that Lynn at The Charlotte News captured our feelings so well in the story below.  Our main message: efficiency does not necessarily mean expensive!  Anyone building a new home should definitely prioritize efficiency for many long term savings – for the home, the family, and our planet.

Check out the article below, or click here to read it on The Charlotte News’ website:

house 1

Charlotte home dubbed greenest in the state

JUNE 2, 2017

Lynn Monty | Editor in Chief

A Charlotte home built by Ken Ruddy of Fiddlehead Construction for Tai Dinnan and Evan Webster has won 2016’s “Vermont’s Greenest Residential Building” award from Vermont Green Building Network. The only house to measure more efficient in the history of this annual award was another Charlotte house, designed and owned by David Pill and Hillary Maharam.

Rather than buy an existing house Dinnan and Webster decided to create a modest, energy-efficient home using current technology and techniques. “We hope this attention brought by this award will help others realize that efficiency can be affordable and should be part of every new home’s construction,” Dinnan said.

Ruddy has developed a streamlined and cost-effective approach to building this type of high-performance home that incorporates enhanced energy efficiency but also utilizes best building practices and focuses on durable detailing, he said.

The award-winning, single-family residence on the southern slope of Mt. Philo has walls built with air barriers, vented roofs with cathedral ceilings, wastewater heat recovery for both baths and kitchen, and ventilation driven by indoor air quality monitoring, among other special features. It’s an electric home with supplemental solar and a woodstove.

After Dinnan and Webster had been living in the house for a year to prove its energy efficiency, Ruddy applied for the award. It makes sense from both a financial and sustainability perspective to build this way, Ruddy said. Not only did investing in this new home reduce Dinnan and Webster’s impact on the environment, they also experienced short-term savings.

“Because we never needed to get infrastructure such as radiators, propane, oil or gas lines and tanks, investing in efficiency didn’t end up costing more money,” Dinnan said.

When you include energy costs along with the mortgage, these homes are less expensive on a monthly basis than a new home built to code standard, Ruddy said. “Tai and Evan sized the home for their current and future needs and no more, so it is smaller, but functional,” he said. “Efficiency Vermont’s High Performance Homes standard, which this home used as a starting point, was not only developed to hit the sweet spot with regard to cost effectiveness to reach net zero, but also incorporates safeguards to ensure the homes are comfortable and durable.”

Net Zero is a term used to describe a building with zero net energy consumption.

Lindsay Jones from Efficiency Vermont was the energy consultant on the project. The house also won Efficiency Vermont’s 2016 “Best of the Best” in New Residential Construction. “The home was built with insulation levels approximately twice that of Vermont’s baseline residential building code, has exceptionally low air leakage, and energy efficient heating and ventilation systems,” Jones said.

Efficiency Vermont initiatives allowed Dinnan and Webster to save money and receive rebates. “Their work in the state really helps encourage homeowners like us to make choices that are good for the environment,” Dinnan said.

See the original article by clicking here

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Ahhhh, The Garden is Planted

Every spring as the ground thaws, my list of things to do in the garden grows longer and faster than my weeds.  I can generally be found wondering: why does it keep on raining, making garden tasks impossible?  How are those weeds growing SO fast?!  And don’t even get me started about how much grass grows when it’s drizzly and un-mowable.

Luckily I’ve gotten some amazing help weeding (thanks Mom and Dad!) and a Memorial Day Weekend of amazing warm dry weather.  Because I’m spending most free moments outside, I’ll fill you in on the garden progress with a few photos.  Happy Gardening!

Weeded Garden

This was the moment when the last wheelbarrow load of weeds was rolled down to the the compost.  Finally I felt victorious (surely temporarily) in our battle with the horsetail forest that grows vigorously in our garden plot.  I clearly didn’t want to remember my weed forest because I didn’t take any photos.  The good news was that the grass, parsnip, and dandelions we battled last year didn’t come back nearly as much.  Slowly we will succeed in turning a fertile field into a bountiful garden!

Planted Garde

Planted Garden2

And then, we got to work planting.  It’s now warm enough to plant nearly everything, especially if you keep your eye on the forecast.  What a relief to see those seedlings happily settling into their homes!

asperagus grilled

Since May is coming to a close, I shouldn’t forget to mention that we’ve been enjoying our first harvests of the year: young greens, tender asparagus shoots, and a variety of rhubarb desserts.  Evan’s determined to have as many grill days as possible this summer, and I’m certainly not going to get in his way!

sunset

Of course, good things do come from all those spring showers.  We’ve been blessed by many rainbows this spring, including this one: the most vibrant double rainbow I’ve ever seen.  We live in a truly beautiful bountiful place!

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Snack Attack

snack food!

If you’re anything like me, you try to cook from scratch and eat whole foods.  When you do end up buying packaged food from the store, you check out the ingredients list and try to find something that’s pretty simple and made from things you can pronounce.  Well, last week I just really wanted goldfish!  Or some other cheesy crunchy orange snack from the middle aisles of the grocery store.

goldfish ingredients

The ingredients in goldfish certainly aren’t the worst, but for someone who eats organic, savors grass-fed dairy, avoids highly processed vegetable oils, and soaks her grains and flours before baking, they’re pretty far from what I’d like to be eating on a daily basis.

What do do?  Make my own!

Here are a few recipes I’ve tried recently to add some fun snacky homemade foods into our lives:

homemade cheez its

Homemade Cheeze-Its
-The recipe I followed: Serious Eats Cheez-Its
   -Thoughts: Addictive!  Totally met my craving for goldfish, but probably wouldn’t want to have around the house all the time.
-How I tweaked it: I used whole plain yogurt + 3 tablespoons of melted butter (1 cup total volume) instead of cream.  I then mixed the yogurt, melted butter, and flour 24 hours ahead of time, allowing it to soak covered at room temperature (read more about soaking grains here).  When I was ready to bake, I mixed the dry ingredients first, dumped them into the wet ingredients, and kneaded the (very wet!) dough on a floured surface.  I followed some advice from the recipe’s comments and rolled out the dough directly onto my silicone pad (which I use instead of parchment paper).  The wet dough on the pad was super easy to slide on to a tray, cut into squares, and put in the oven.  I baked at a lower temperature (325) for a longer amount of time (until they were golden brown) to get them crispy without burning.  I put the tray back in a warm oven later that night (after I had baked something else) to help them dry out all the way.

homemade kind bars1

Homemade “Kind” Bars
-The recipe I followed: Fruit and Nut Bars from The Nourishing Home
   -Thoughts: It totally worked!  Mine are slightly more fragile (crumbly), but they do stay together as bars and have a great balance of salty and sweet.  Perfect for keeping at work for days that I didn’t pack quite enough for lunch.
-How I tweaked it:  I used maple syrup instead of raw honey – my preference when baking (raw honey loses its benefits when heated).  Molasses would also be a sweetener that would add an interesting twist to the flavor.  I also splashed in some vanilla.  In need of more “glue,” I added a bit more nut butter+coconut flour.  It would definitely be possible to change the ratio of fruit to nuts (or add something else, like chocolate chips or granola), as long as the total amount comes to just under 2 cups total.

homemade gummies

Homemade Sour Watermelon Gummies
-The recipe I followed: Sour Watermelon Gummies from Meatified
   -Thoughts: Not as good a match to the real deal as the recipes above (adding more honey would likely get it closer), but a great way to enjoy a fruity snack and get some pastured gelatin into your diet (your skin, hair, nails, and joints will thank you).
-How I tweaked it: Didn’t!  I did end up adding a heaping tablespoon of honey.  This was the perfect use of the extra watermelon we threw in the freezer last summer.   If you don’t have silicone molds, it totally works to pour liquid into a flat-bottomed dish and then cut into squares when gelled.  A note: If you taste your liquid before cooling, it should be super tangy and sweet – it will become much more bland when cooled.

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