Facing Down Illness

December 3, 2015

I became a vegetarian when I was 14 years old, as a way to torture my butcher father. I had no idea what it took to be a healthy plant-based person so I lived my young life enjoying diet soda (vegan…), Oreos (yep, vegan…) and all sorts of junk food that contained no animal food that wasn’t fit for human consumption.

At age 26, I was diagnosed with stage 4 leukemia and was stunned. I ate a plant-based diet! I exercised! I didn’t drink or smoke! I didn’t consider that the food I ate, while theoretically compassionate (as no animals suffered), was robbing me of my health.

Fast forward to today, after recovering my health with food as my medicine, I work as a cooking teacher and healthy living advocate guiding people to eat compassionately and healthfully at the same time. I think a lot about being a healthy while eschewing animal products. We are compassionate activists but some of us think very little about the quality of the food we choose, except to be sure it contains nothing from an animal.

People often ask me the difference between macrobiotics (the lifestyle I choose) and veganism. For me the answer is simple. Veganism is about what we don’t do (we don’t use animal products) and macrobiotics is about what we do (participate actively in our wellness). In macrobiotic thinking health comes first and once you become a healthy human, consuming a plant-based diet of unprocessed foods, compassionate living is the next natural step.

To me, health and a life mission are not mutually exclusive. We must have personal health to have compassion. We must have strength to be an activist. In my opinion, we must look, feel and be healthy if we are to attract people to our incredible lifestyle. This is the fight of our lives. This is the fight for our future and that of generations to come. This is a fight for our planet. This is a fight for those with no voices.

As healthy humans, we are not immune to illness. After 15 years of my vegan macrobiotic lifestyle, I suffered a brain aneurysm and nearly died (again…). I had to re-examine my food choices once more. Of course, there was no question I would remain plant-based and macrobiotic. Illness doesn’t mean we abandon our principles, but illness will force an adjustment if we are to survive. In my case (and in many cases), the root cause was diagnosed by my neurologist as imbalanced nutrition. My diet was far too low in fat and protein and I was not supplementing Vitamin B-12. My diet caused my problem and ironically saved my life since my veins were not clogged with plaque from animal fats.

Now it seems there is so much confusion as to the best way to feed ourselves for health…and compassion. Should we eat oil or not? Gluten or no gluten? Carbs or no carbs? In the end, macrobiotics has provided me with a foundation of understanding food so that when illness arises (because it always will…) I don’t panic and abandon the principles that guide my life. I use those principles, adapting my food choices and lifestyle to regain health.

In the end, whole unprocessed plant foods, cooked for your health and lifestyle will result in wellness and vitality most of the time. There are no guarantees that illness will not find its way to our door, from the common cold and flu to more serious conditions. If we understand food and how it works in the body, we know that the path to regaining our health begins in our kitchen.  

These simple steps can guide you to health and wellness—and keep you there.

1. Skip the junk; eat real food. Grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and good quality fats and natural, complex carb sweeteners serve the compassionate purpose of your life. Junk food? Well, they don’t call it junk for nothing.

2. Don’t even say the word ‘soda.’ It’s liquid poison in a bottle and will rob you of your compassionate health as fast as you can say ‘soda.’ Try sparkling water with fresh fruit juice to satisfy your need for fizzy sweetness.

3. Supplement Vitamin B-12. Sublingually (under the tongue), as a liquid or in the form of an injection. It’s essential to keep healthy levels of this vitamin in your body to ensure proper function of your body’s nerves, blood cells and DNA, as well as prevent certain types of anemia. I usually recommend a blood test to discover your levels so you have a base number.

4. Exercise regularly and vigorously. For your body to rid itself of toxins naturally and be strong to fight disease, we need to sweat. From yoga to running, boot camp to CrossFit, find your exercise passion and just do it.

5. Stay hydrated. Drinking proper volumes of water and eating lots of vegetables and fruit ensures that your body has all the moisture it needs to function at its best; proper hydration supports the kidneys in their work.

6. Eat lots and lots of leafy greens. Loaded with fiber, minerals and vitamins essential to health, these flavorful foods are jam-packed with everything we need to live healthy lives. So make sure each plate you eat is piled high with kale, collards, bok choy, watercress, arugula, escarole, dandelion, beet and turnip tops…anything dark green and leafy.

7. Serve others. I have found that service to others is one of the best ways to ensure my own health and wellness. Studies show that when we give of ourselves (no matter what cause you love), that compassion translates into a healthier heart, stronger immune function and a better mood.

As we move into the season of parties and family gatherings, we also move into the season of colds and flu so use these simple steps (along with washing your hands often) to help keep your immune system at its peak function and you strong and vital.