Sunday, March 23, 2008

Living Organically, Part One: You Are What You Eat

I know I talked way back in January when I was still posting on Finn’s CaringBridge page about how I was experimenting with raw food and then I never wrote anything more about it. Several people expressed interest in hearing more about it, so finally, here I go, but I’m approaching this in steps.

I rambled about a lot of things in that particular post, like how I don’t wear deodorant (which apparently freaked several of you out), and how basically we’re living in a totally toxic world and killing ourselves, slowly but surely. So I’m going to start with my eating transition, but then I’ll do other posts about chemical-free living. If the thought of this makes your eyes roll back in your head or disregard what I’m saying because you think I’ve turned into a crunchy hippie-type now that I live in Colorado, that’s fine, I understand. I’d probably think that, too.

But a few notes before I start with food: we started eating organically back in 2003, before Finn ever even got sick and when we still lived in Ohio, I haven’t been wearing deodorant for several years now so that also began in Ohio, and we also have been running a chemical-free household for about the past 3years, so that also started in Ohio. I just wanted to point out that I’m not a crazy hippie in Colorado. I was a crazy hippie in Ohio first.

Finally, I need to put a big disclaimer out there. I like to read and research things a lot. But that doesn’t mean that I think I know everything. I’m always interested in learning more. And more and more. Tara says I’m very high maintenance in the Need for Information Department. She’s right. But, although I have spent a lot of time researching and making the decisions we’ve made to run our household, these are the decisions we’ve made that are right for US. I don’t purport to say that they’re right for everyone and I don’t want anyone to take anything I say as medical advice. I don’t want to get sued!

If you’re interested in what I’ve got to say—great. If not—also great. Everyone has to make the decisions they think are right for their family and their budget and their health. I’m very fortunate that Eamonn supports all of my crazy research, ideas, and theories, even though they sometimes cost a lot of money. We decided long ago that in terms of health and safety, expense wasn’t going to be a reason we DIDN’T do something. However, as a result, our food bill is second only to our mortgage and we have had to economize in a lot of other ways to be able to afford to eat the way we do.

Bottom line, while I have done a lot of research, I certainly don’t know everything and I’m always interested in learning more. If there are a bunch of you out there who feel likewise and have info to share, even if it contradicts what I’ve said, please let me know. I’m definitely open to new ideas. Let’s face it—things change all the time and things I’m doing today may be proved totally wrong tomorrow. But if there are a lot of people who are interested in exchanging ideas about living organically, maybe we could start an online forum where we could all post and exchange info. Just a thought. Post a comment or e-mail me at nrooney@centurytel.net and let me know.

With that, I’ll segue into The Eating Habits of the Rooney Family which we’ll call Living Organically, Part One.

Eating. . .
My sisters are way more progressive that I am in terms of trying new ways of doing things; they were eating organically several years before we were. In fact, we used to make fun of them. When Tara would come in town for a visit, I’d say, “Do you want to eat our poisonous food or do you want to bring your own?” Eamonn and I would wonder why they would spend such exorbitant amounts of money for organic food. We thought they were totally crazy. Erin fed my niece something called oat groats. What the **** was an oat groat anyway?

Over years of hearing about organics and oat groats, it started to sink in. Right. Why would we want to eat something that had chemicals sprayed on it? At first when I started my research frenzy, organizations like Consumer Reports said things like, “If you wash your fruits and vegetables with dish soap (which I still also do because it grosses me out to think about the people/places/things that come in contact with our food), you’ll remove the pesticides from the skin of the food and it will be similar to organic food,” or something like that. OK, but what about the INSIDE of the food, I remember thinking? It reminded me of a line from a song called “Maybe It’s Imaginary” by Kirsty McColl (I know I posted this on Finn’s site before, so bear with me) that goes:

We wash all the food and we peel off the skin
But what is the point if it's poisoned within?
Now I don't know why we say OK
Maybe it's imaginary, hope it's not too late

I mean, yeah. You can’t wash away whatever it’s been grown in. Happily, a few years later, Consumer Reports has totally gone the other way and hopped on the Dirty Dozen bandwagon and now advises that there are certain fruits and veggies that we really should eat organically (they recommend meats and dairy, too). A really great Web site is www.ewg.org. It’s for the Environmental Working Group and on their site they have a grocery shopping list that you can print and carry in your wallet with you when you go to the grocery store. Personally, I can never remember all of the 12 items, so here’s a list:

• Apples
• Cherries
• Grapes, imported (Chili)
• Nectarines
• Peaches
• Pears
• Raspberries
• Strawberries
• Bell peppers
• Celery
• Potatoes
• Spinach

But I really recommend downloading and printing that list in case you’ve got a non-existent memory, like me.

I know that the FDA says that the stuff sprayed on our food is “safe,” and I don’t wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the FDA these days. These are the people who happily brought us Vioxx, Ketek (a prescription drug I actually took 3 years ago, but was recalled because it actually caused organ failure and it was known, but they released it anyway—nice), and a whole host of “oops, that drug has some big problems” issues. After spending more than 10 years around organizations that do a lot of lobbying and going to Washington D.C. myself and seeing the lobbyists work on Capitol Hill, I’ve seen enough to know how it works. Things happens, drugs approved, legislation passed, etc., because of the powerful lobbying train. Again, I don’t want to sound like a crazy freak, but the FDA is overworked and understaffed (there are lots of articles in the mainstream press about it anyway, so it’s not just me) and I don’t really have any faith when they tell me, “Um, right, that won’t hurt you. We think.”

Trying to rationalize to me that “there’s just a little bit of stuff sprayed on your food, not enough to cause any damage.” I just don’t buy it. Because what if that little bit in our food and that little bit in our lotion, shampoo, hairspray, cleaning products, and what we breathe in the air all adds up to a lot of something that our bodies can no longer handle? And it’s not just the stuff that’s getting sprayed, it’s the very ingredients of the food itself. Plus, when the FDA says it’s “safe,” they’ve only said it’s safe for adults—think about the effects multiplied many more times on the smaller bodies of our kids. And have you noticed how many more pets get cancer these days? They’re an even smaller microcosm of our world.

As you can see, our transition to where we are today has been a huge domino effect. We started off eating a few things organically and as time we went on we just went whole hog. Obviously we ramped things up significantly once Finn got sick. I don’t know if the things we do, eating organically, trying to live as chemical-free as possible, will make any difference in the end, but personally, I don’t want to take that chance. Before Finn got sick, I used to be cavalier—you’ve got to die of something right? But, I don’t want it to be cancer. I don’t want my kids to have cancer. I don’t want to see anyone else go through what Finn did. And if that means I have to go to the ends of the earth, spend my time researching and testing crazy theories, I’ll do it. Happily. Besides, I’m naturally curious that way and trying new things, with food of course, is something I consider fun. Freak.

So we started with the Dirty Dozen and it just grew from there. We had an ideal situation in Ohio—close to stores that carried lots of organic products, we belonged to a co-op where we could buy most of the stuff wholesale though; near a butcher who raised and butchered his own meat and made his own lunchmeat; pretty close to a dairy where we could buy raw milk; we belonged to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where we got inexpensive organic veggies straight off the farm.

I’m struggling somewhat here in Colorado. Groceries are crazy expensive. We joined a CSA out here, but it’s 3x the price. The raw milk is about 2x the price. I have trouble finding organic meat. Surprisingly, Costco has it most consistently. So we just have to do what we can, when we can. But some of you have mentioned that you have trouble finding organic things—I feel your pain.

The most important thing I’m trying to do now is remember to read food labels. There are chemicals, additives and artificial colorings and flavorings in everything, and there is more and more current, reliable research about what these additives are doing to us, and more specifically, our kids. Last fall a study in a British medical journal showed that certain very common food additives cause ADD-like symptoms in kids about 1 hour after consumption.

Here’s a link to the article from Time magazine if you want to read it.

Unfortunately, these additives are in almost everything we eat, even the snack foods that the kids at Declan’s school can purchase. How much sense does this make? We let them eat these snacks, they go out to recess, and then right when these additives are kicking in, we ask the kids to come back inside and learn. Totally counterintuitive. We’re asking the impossible of them. No wonder there are behavioral problems in schools. I’m currently working with our school to replace the things like Doritos and Cheetos, etc., and all of that crap, with healthier alternatives. Tara has already succeeded at Garvin’s school. My hero. We don’t want to be snack Nazis—there’s a time and place for fun food—but not as a matter of course and definitely not at school.

One day last fall I took the kids to Costco and we were sampling our way around the store, as usual, and we tasted Activia yogurt. Declan liked it and asked if I would buy it for him to have as a snack at school (they have snack time in the morning). Yogurt? Of course! What a healthy choice, right? Only I didn’t read the label until we got home. High fructose corn syrup. Ugh. One of the worst and most unhealthy sweetners. Another thing we sampled that day was these single-serve containers of grapefruit (don’t get the wrong idea, my kids will choose junk over health food every single time, but Declan happens to love grapefruit). Again, what a great snack idea! Not. When I got home and read the label, it had one of the preservatives in it listed in the British study. Dang it! In grapefruit? Is nothing sacred?

But I say these things to point out that for all of my “watchdoggedness” I get tripped up all the time and I need to do better, too. It’s frustrating because most processed grocery store food is full of all kinds of stuff that manufacturers use to make things taste “good” and make things shelf stable, but we really have no idea what the effects on our bodies are going to be.

Personally, I think that we’re now starting to see the results—definitely higher rates of obesity and diabetes, but in my heart, I feel like the higher rates of cancer are all a part of it. How can it not be? Our bodies just weren’t designed to deal with all of this.

Do I think I’m going to cure the world of cancer and all of its other ills by ranting on like this? No. Do I think that anything is going to really change in my lifetime? Probably not. Do I realize that even back when people were eating only natural foods grown on their farm and not putting chemicals on their bodies that people still got cancer? Yes. Do I think that some people, no matter what they do, are just more susceptible to cancer? Yes. Do I think that Declan and Finn, or maybe Declan and Finn’s children will look back and think, “Holy cow! I can’t believe the things they used to put into food!” Yes.

There are so many things in life that we can’t control—the quality of the air we breathe, and obviously the water we drink after that totally gross report of prescription drugs in our drinking water, the kinds of toxic waste that are dumped into the ground to filter back into our lives, etc. So my feeling is that we need to control what we can and protect ourselves that way.

Last fall I heard a woman speak about nutrition and women’s health. Her style and manner of speaking totally turned me off—she had a really in-your-face presentation style and I sat there thinking, “Who the hell do you think you are talking like this to me?” Well, who the hell she is is a two-time leukemia survivor (same type as Finn) who after her illness has gone on to get her PhD and become a nutritionist specializing in women’s health issues. And as I sat there listening to her, I realized that the reason she presents the way she does is because Americans need a huge kick in the ass. We just aren’t getting it! What do we need? A whole bunch of people to start dying of cancer before we wake up and smell the coffee? Um, hello! We have eaten like crap for about a generation and now we’re paying the ultimate price—literally with our lives. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, just matter of fact. We. Are. Killing. Ourselves. And unfortunately, we're killing our kids, too.

During the presentation the woman spoke about how she has a certain way of eating and takes certain supplements, as does her young daughter. She said that people often ask her how she gets her daughter to eat in this healthful way. And what she said next really resonated with me: “What kind of steward would I be for my child if I didn’t?” Zing. That hit home on so many levels. We are our children’s stewards and I will do anything to carry out that mission.

For more than a year, Finn has been taking a whole food supplement, approved by his oncologist, of course. He takes a “gummy” version of it, but the company also makes chewables and capsules. I felt like I saw results with Finn and so we all started taking it (I’m a big fan of it and if anyone wants more info about it, I’m happy to share it via e-mail, but it’s one of those network marketing things and I don’t want to be pushing products on my blog, so contact me separately if you want more info). The only person who wasn’t taking it was Declan because he didn’t like the taste. Boo hoo. They also make capsules, but I hadn’t thought to offer those to Declan. Anyway, after I heard this woman speak, I realized I needed to take charge in my own house. I came home and the next morning I lined Declan’s options out for him. I said you can choose from the gummies, chewables or the capsules, but you’re going to take this. He said, “OK, I’ll take the capsules.” I nearly fell over. But I felt like it was a hugely important thing in my attempt to be a steward for my children. And that’s what I’m determined to be from now on.

I’m not kidding myself. I know that doing all of these things doesn’t guarantee that I, or Declan or Eamonn will never have cancer, or that Finn will never get cancer again. Or that we won’t have some other serious illness. But I want to know in my heart that I did everything I could to prevent it. And if something would happen, I’d like to think that nutritionally, we have a leg to stand on and maybe mitigate some of the effects of medicines we have to take, or recover faster.

As a comical aside and preparation for my next post, which will be more about food, specifically raw food, if you get BBC America on your TV, watch a show called You Are What You Eat. You’ll be grossed out. A nutritionist confronts people with horrible eating habits and then helps them revamp. Even though it takes place in England, their diet isn’t too far from ours—not enough fruits and veggies—and way too much processed food that doesn’t provide any of the nutrients we need, and in fact, leaches them from our bodies. You’ll learn how your tongue, your fingernails, skin, and hair are all windows into your inner health. I find it so interesting. Plus it’s inspiring when these totally overweight people start eating and exercising and lose weight.

OK, so that’s the first part of your homework: Watch You Are What You Eat if you can.

The second part of your homework is take a look at what's in your cupboard. I think you'll be unpleasantly surprised at what's in there hidden in things that are marketed to us as healthy--things like high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, sulphur dioxide, and a whole lot of things that shouldn't be eaten. Check out your fave snacks and see. Maybe you're more with it than I was and you've already figured this out. If so, yay you!

If you feel like it, post your results about what you found. Sharing info is the only way we'll all learn more.

I’ll be back in a few day with more about raw food.

Oh my word. This post is so long. Is anyone still awake?


MakesMeSmile said...

Great post, Natalie. I wish I could say I live organically and never did anything bad for my body, but alas, I can't. I do try from time to time and feel that it must help a little. I am not a processed (prepared) food user. One question...can we trust when supermarkets label their meat as organic? I just don't know the answer to that. For all I know they are standing behind the counter snickering at us. Looking forward to the next post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

We are terrible snackers, here. But, I am inspired to change. Baby steps.


utahsweeney said...

Natalie, I am so overwhelmed by your post I have to admit I started skimming it about halfway through and promise to come back and read it again when I'm out of my late afternoon haze! Wow, I thought Erin was a purist, but now I have another one in my life! So basically, the Cadbury chocolate eggs, jellybeans and Milky Way bunnies I had for breakfast weren't good choices, huh?

1dreamr said...

Great post and terrific food for thought (no pun intended). I just heard a report on NPR this morning concerning organic food imported from other countries -- specifically in terms of who exactly is policing these imports to be sure they meet the US standards/requirements for carrying the "organic" label. Interesting stuff.

I'm eating a lot better these days, and am much more of a label reader, but I've got a longgggg way to go. Look forward to reading more from you on this topic!!

Good-Dees said...

I love organics too! One, they don't make you glow in the dark, Two, they taste so much better! Great info in your post!!! One of the books I've read on this subject is "Skinny Bitches"- the writers have quite the potty mouths but lots of good info about the FDA and organics. Looking forward to your RAW adventure- i need to see if I'm up for the challange!