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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!

Categories
Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

A Lardy Afternoon

Most people have pretty negative associations with the word “lard.”  According to a recent story by NPR, we have Procter & Gamble’s marketing team to thank.  “…Unlike lard, Crisco was made in a lab by scientists, not necessarily an appetizing idea back then.  Procter & Gamble turned all that to its advantage. It launched an ad campaign that made people think about horrible stories of … lard. The ads touted how pure and wholesome Crisco was.”

It seems, however, as though tides are turning.  Mainstream media are publishing articles “Singing the Praises of Fat,” “Ending the War on Fat” and “A Call for a Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat.”  Furthermore, nutritionists agree that Trans Fat (like Crisco and Vegetable Shortening) should be avoided entirely.  A final key piece of information: animals raised outdoors on pasture consume more vitamins through consumption of fresh green grass, other foraged food, and from the sun.  They store important fat soluble vitamins (A, E, D, and K) in their body fat.  Lard from pastured pigs is especially high in vitamin D and in the same monounsaturated fat (oleic acid) that gives olive oil and avocados their heart-healthy characteristics.

Perhaps it’s worth revisiting the original shortening: Lard.  On a frigid afternoon I decided to finally “deal with” the grass-fed lard leaf I’d purchased from a small farm in our neighborhood.  If you know any local farms with pastured pigs, call them up!  Leaf lard will likely be the cheapest item they sell.  With a crock pot, my leaf lard turned out to be very simple to render.

warm-lard

crock-pot-lardHow To Render Your Own Lard
-Ground leaf lard
-1/4 cup water
-Crock pot

1) Grinding the leaf lard makes everything very easy!  If you don’t have a meat grinder, try asking a local butcher to help or pulse it in a food processor.  You can also cut it into small cubes if you don’t have access to any processing equipment.

2) Put your ground leaf lard, along with 1/4 cup water, into your crock pot.  The water will keep things from burning and will evaporate by the end of the cooking process.  Set crock pot to low, and cook (covered) for an entire afternoon.  You’ll notice the fat cooking out of the solids.  I gave mine a stir every once in a while.

warm-lard3) When the cracklings (the little pieces of solids) sink to the bottom, it’s time to strain.  Pour the contents of your crock pot through a strainer, sieve, or cheesecloth into a bowl.  Then pour the strained lard from the bowl into jars.  It will look yellow, but will turn pure white when it cools to room temperature

4) Finish off your cracklings!  Toss your cracklings in a frying pan with some salt, and cook as you would bacon.  Like bacon, my cracklings browned better when I poured off the excess fat (I poured it into my half-full jar of lard) mid-way through.

cracklings

lard5) Store lard in the refrigerator or freezer so that it keeps its fresh mild flavor and doesn’t go rancid.  Cracklings can be used like bacon bits.  I like to heat them back up again in a frying pan to get them extra crispy.  I then sprinkle them over foods like guacamole, nachos, salad, or black beans as a special garnish.  Lard is a great fat to use for frying, pie crusts, and baked goods.  It is quite mild, so unlike bacon grease, it won’t add its own flavor to the foods you are cooking.

Want to add another traditional grass-fed animal fat back into your diet?  Check out my post on making your own butter.