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Musings Uncategorized

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
Children and Nature Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes Uncategorized

Stinging Nettles! Yum?

Yes, you really should try eating nettles!  And if you’re adventurous enough to try, now is the best time of year.  Foraged wild greens are often most tender, and therefore best to cook with, early in the spring when plants are still young.  Compared to many other wild greens, nettles are quite mild, with a flavor similar to cooked spinach.  They are nutritional superstars, rich in vitamins A, C, D, K, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium!  Nettles and nettle tea are believed to have many medicinal qualities and have been used as a traditional medicine by many cultures for centuries.  Most importantly, when cooked, nettles loose their sting.

nettles-growing

Look for nettles by the edges of fields and yards, along river banks, and along forest edges.  They are often quick to grow where fertile land has been recently disturbed.  I use gloves when harvesting and pinch the tender tops off of young plants.  In the kitchen, I rinse the leaves in a colander, stirring with a slotted spoon to avoid being stung.  Boil in a shallow water bath for about 5 minutes to get a deep green spinach substitute.  Be sure to save your cooking water to drink as tea or for adding a nutrient boost to soup.  Leaves can also be thrown directly into soup broth without cooking ahead of time.

Nettles-fresh-and-cooked
Stinging Nettles fresh (don’t touch!) and cooked

Make sure to sample some nettles plain, so you can get to know their mild flavor.  Then try using them as an early spring spinach substitute.  Here are some recipe ideas I’m planning on trying out this season:

Cream of Ramp and Nettle Soup: This recipe is THE annual favorite in our household!

Nettle Quiche: Use your favorite spinach quiche recipe, but trade spinach for nettles.

Nettle Yogurt Soup: The original recipe is one of our favorite ways to cook with spinach. The surprising combination of nutmeg and cayenne give it a wonderfully unique flavor. This year I’m going to try it with nettles instead.

Nettle Pesto: A delicious garlicky spread!  Use your favorite recipe for kale pesto, but use nettles instead of kale.  This paste would also made a great layer in home made lasagna or pizza.

Saag paneer: This delicious Indian dish traditionally features spinach, fresh Indian cheese (that’s easy to make at home!), and curry spices.  These flavors would also go well with nettles.

Spanakopita: This savory Greek spinach and feta pie would be great with nettles instead of spinach!

Nettle dip: Google “spinach dip” and you’ll get all kinds of mouth-watering options.  I bet they’d be great with nettles too.

nettle-harvest

ramp-nettle-soup

 

Categories
Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Drink for Good Health

elderberry-kombucha-1When it comes to drinks, I think I’ve found a match made in heaven: I call it Elderberry Kombucha Tonic.

elderberry-syrupI’ve been enjoying sips of Elderberry Syrup all winter long, especially when I feel a twinge in my throat or a tickle in my nose.  The recipe I follow, however, doesn’t have any sour flavors.  With the raw honey, it’s actually quite sweet.  Learn how to make your own by reading this past Growing Stories post.

KombuchaI’ve been brewing kombucha for a few years now and always have a jug of it in the fridge.  I think it’s a healthy, delicious, and refreshing alternative to soda or juice.  All the information you’d ever want to know about kombucha (and maybe more) is available at www.kombuchakamp.com, so I won’t go into too many details.

With elderberry syrup and kombucha sharing shelf space on the door of our refrigerator, I was bound to discover how well they mix sooner or later.  Mmmmm.  The flavors in both drinks are quite concentrated, so I like to add a few ice cubes or some club soda.  If you’re looking for a great alcoholic drink, dry mixing kombucha, elderberry syrup, and club soda with gin.

elderberry-kombucha-2

Cheers to your health in the new year!

Elderberry-Tonic

Categories
Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes School Gardens

Make your own Butter

We love good butter in our household.  We’ve believed in the benefits of eating butter from grass-fed cows for some time, and now the mainstream media is now slowly catching on.  Both NPR and The New York Times reported on the recent publication from the Annals of Internal Medicine which concluded that saturated fat consumption did not increase chances of heart attacks or heart disease.  Furthermore, butter made of cream from grass-fed cows is rich in vitamins A and D, along with many other health promoting factors detailed by the Weston Price Foundation.

butter-makingButter can be easy to make (for adults) and fun to make (for groups of kids).  Making butter is a great way for students to learn where food comes from, taste test herbs in an appealing way, use up some energy, and have fun!  Here are several different butter making methods, along with recipes and suggestions for associated games and activities.  When buying cream, remember that the best nutrition will come from organic dairy from grass-fed pastured cows!

butter-in-bowlLeast Effort: Fill your food processor 1/3 full with heavy or whipping cream (if you fill it too full, cream may spurt out the top when turned on).  Turn on the food processor and wait for the liquid to turn into whipped cream.  Continue to blend until the contents separate into milk and butter chunks.  If you stay nearby, there will be a distinct change in sound when the butter separates out after about 10 minutes.  Drain off milk (can be used for cooking) and put your chunks of butter into a cold bowl.  Use a cold spoon or butter knife to push the butter around, squeezing out remaining milk.  Mix in sea salt, spices, or herbs as desired and refrigerate in a covered container.  Homemade butter will have a similar shelf-life to milk because it is unlikely you squeezed out every last bit of milk.

shaking-butterKid-Powered: Remember – each of these steps could be a task for a child… no adult labor is needed!  Fill a pint Ball jar 1/3 of the way with heavy or whipping cream.  Screw on the lid very well.  Turn upside down to make sure the lid is on correctly.  If you’re with a group of kids, stand in a circle or around a table.  As the first child shakes the jar, clap and chant:

Shake butter shake.  Shake butter shake.
__(name)__ is at the garden gate, mixing up a butter cake.
Shake butter shake.  Shake butter shake.
(chant from Project Seasons)

When the verse is done, the child passes the jar to the person standing next to them.  The jar makes its way around the group, getting shaken continuously.  If you are working with a new group of students, the chant can be a great way to learn and remember everyone’s name!  A big ball of butter should separate from the milk within about 10 minutes.  (*if working with a group of students, make sure to see “herbed butter” below*)

Cultured: If you’d like to make cultured butter, you’ll need to sour your cream first.  We do this the same way we make yogurt, except use cream instead of milk.  Once your cream is sour, continue with one of the methods above.  Your two final products will be cultured buttermilk and cultured butter.

chopped-herbsHerbed Butter: Herbs have a very strong flavor, and they’re hard to get excited about for most kids.  In our school gardens, we made and tasted herbed butters to learn about different herb flavors in a more palatable way.  Washed kids scissors can be used by students to finely cut up herbs.  Simply mix chopped herbs and a shake of salt into your freshly made butter.  We often made several varieties, spread them on crackers, and had the students vote for their favorites.  Some of the most popular choices were: garlic chives, chives, dill, oregano, basil, parsley, and sage.  At home, herbed butters can add a fancy twist to your dinner table or plate of hors d’oeuvres.

Enjoy!

Want to learn more?:
Butter is Better via the Weston A. Price Foundation
Rethinking Fat: The Case For Adding Some Into Your Diet via NPR
Study Questions Fat and Heart Disease Link via New York Times
Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
My past blog post about Raw Milk, including our Yogurt Recipe

Categories
Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To

What I Eat

I would estimate that about 80% of what I do every day has to do with food.  As Gardens Coordinator my work focuses on vegetable production with students, I prepare all my meals for myself from scratch, and the news updates and listserves I receive are all about food, health, and nutrition.  This interest made me jump at the opportunity to see the “What I Eat” exhibit at the Museum of Science.

In a single room, visitors to the exhibit travel around the word and dive into the homes of individuals living with incredibly diverse professions, lifestyles, cultures, environments, and personal histories.  Because of my interests, the concept of tracking your daily food intake, calorie counts, variation in traditional cuisine, and scarcity and abundance around the world were not new.  I did leave the exhibit, however, thinking about several subjects in a different light.

First, it intrigued me that the exhibit was arranged by total calorie count, from lowest to highest.  I’ve shied away from thinking about calories in recent years, both with young students and with peers trying to eat healthily.  I believe that if one eats plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and waits until getting hungry to eat the next meal, then it’s not necessary to learn or worry about calories.  This became even more evident after walking through the exhibit. Though profiles were ordered by calorie intake, body types and visible health of each individual varied and seemed completely out of order.  Lifestyle, occupation, and other invisible factors seemed to play a bigger role in achieving health.

Rather than being shocked by the extreme high and low amounts of food at the beginning and end of the exhibit, I found my self salivating at the traditional home grown and cooked meals and sorry for the people eating packaged, processed, prepared meals scattered throughout the exhibit.  Individual biographies made it clear that diet choices were rarely actual choices.  Often highly processed foods were actually desirable as they indicated the ability to spend money on food prepared by someone else.

I then realized that there was one thing that set me apart from most of the profiled people.  I am fortunate and knowledgable enough to have a choice in the foods I eat.  Growing up, I learned the skills needed to grow my own vegetables.  I was exposed to a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains gaining a preference for these foods because of their familiarity.  I dabbled in vegetarianism in 4th-7th grade, and had a mom who knew how to prepare balanced meat-less meals for me.  I traveled and lived in other countries, experiencing and enjoying a variety of traditional cuisines (though this did make me aware of foods I really didn’t enjoy, like ugali – featured in several diets in the exhibit). Even in my current urban community with the least amount of green space in New England, I am in vegetable gardens every day of the growing season.

In the United States, our luxury and our challenge lies in the incredible amount of choices presented to us in our neighborhood stores, supermarket aisles, seed catalogues, and advertisements.  Certain communities have fewer healthy choices, making food justice and food access work crucial for our nation’s health.  Many families struggle to find time to prepare foods from scratch, even though they know it would be healthier than take-out or microwave meals.  Compared to all families of the world, however, we are fortunate to have choices.

This choice has become our biggest challenge.  As we work to make our communities more healthy, educating ourselves about how to make healthy decisions will continue to rise in importance.  Limiting choices in settings like schools and workplaces may end up creating the biggest positive impacts.  These lessons reminded me how to focus my health education for the biggest impact. Personally, I was reminded to keep my pantry stocked in foods I knew I could enjoy with a clear conscience, and get rid of the stuff that I knew was bad for me, the environment, and the folks who grew and processed it.

I hope you’ll get to see the “What I Eat” exhibit before it leaves Boston.  Even more profiles and pictures can be found in the What I Eat book by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio.  Check it out and let me know what struck you the most!