the best thing I did for my health in 2012

We believe a lot of things just because we’re told they’re so. When these things come from those who we think know better than us, we’re all the more likely to believe them. It’s not until we have cause to challenge these beliefs that we find all kinds of new truths. This story starts back in 2006, when a doctor told me I had ulcerative colitis, an auto-immune disorder that falls under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel diseases, or IBD’s. I was 19 years old and a college sophomore.

I saw my first gastroenterologist, or digestive specialist, at my mother’s urging. I had seen blood in my stool, and had been having some stomach cramps. The doctor said that it was possible that my immune system was attacking my body for some inexplicable reason. This immune response would trigger inflammation in my colon, which would basically look like a bloody rash, causing the symptoms I’d been having. Pictures from my first colonoscopy confirmed exactly this, and the diagnosis was made: I had ulcerative colitis at age 19. I’d never heard of ulcerative colitis, but it seemed pretty scary. Apart from the fact that I had blood in my poop and painful stomach cramps, I was met with the news that I’d need to be on medication for the rest of my life, and that the likelihood of having part of my colon removed at some point was high. If I failed to take care of myself, they told me, I could completely lose use of my colon or be at high risk of colon cancer.

I immediately started taking the prescribed medication, which I was told was like Advil for your colon (an anti-inflammatory). I remember asking what I should or shouldn’t be eating- surely, that would affect what was happening in my colon, I thought. Gastroenterologist #1 scoffed at me. “What you eat won’t really have an effect on your disease- unless you have a flare-up (a period of especially bad, acute inflammation). In that case, just DON’T eat.” This seemed preposterous to me. Besides, Gastroenterologist #1 had an awful bedside manner, so I didn’t like him much anyway. I moved on to Gastroenterologist #2, and diligently kept a food diary in preparation to show her on our first appointment. But I was wrong again- #2 wasn’t interested in my diet, either. I dropped it, took my bottles full of pills, and moved on.

Fast forward to 2009, now three years into taking this medication and living my life as normal. Let me stress “normal,” because without the daily reminder of the pills I swallowed, I could have forgotten I had this disease at all. No symptoms persisted, except for the occasional gas which I’ve come to accept as part of my natural state of being. Gastroenterologist #5 (#’s 3 and 4 weren’t my favorites, either) said it was time for another colonoscopy to check on the state of things internally. The pictures came back showing a healthy colon- no inflammation at all! Did this mean I was cured?! Number 5 told me that while this was good news, I shouldn’t get too excited- this was just the medication doing its job. So I celebrated knowing my colon was healthy, but kept on the meds to make sure it stayed that way.

I realize now that had it not been for a certain turn of events, I could have stayed this way forever- believing I had ulcerative colitis, taking medication every day out of fear that if I didn’t, I could be at risk for potentially very serious health problems. But this spring of 2012, the following happened.

1. I decided to quit my job, and with no full-time employment lined up to replace it, this meant losing health insurance, too.
2. I looked into buying a private health insurance plan. The agent told me to not bother applying- ulcerative colitis fell under the category of pre-existing conditions, and I would be automatically denied once I reported that I had it.
3. I found out what my other options were; there were two. I could go on Cobra and continue my existing coverage for $400 a month, or I could go without health insurance.

I could write a book on the ridiculousness of this situation. Without health insurance, my medication would cost me more than the already crazy-high cost of my only insurance option. Either way, I’d be paying out the nose for this disease that I had. I began to question everything. How could I be forced into such financial hardship by something that was barely present in my life? I felt fine! How could insurance companies deny me coverage because I had been slapped with the label of ulcerative colitis 6 years prior? Even with the strides being made by the passage of Obama’s health care plan, I was still stuck.

Around the same time that I was presented with this frustrating quandary, I began a book for my studies in holistic health called The Body Ecology Diet. The book details the existence of bacteria in our gut, both good and bad, and how the balance of this bacteria can seriously affect our health. The authors argue that as a result of improper diet and certain environmental factors, bad bacteria commonly outnumber good bacteria; without enough good bacteria present, an overgrowth of yeast occurs that can cause digestive problems, immune-related disorders, and a whole host of other health problems. The book begins with a quiz that is supposed to tell you how at-risk you might be of your gut bacteria, or “body ecology,” being out of whack. In one section, the quiz asks your history with certain prescription drugs, particularly antibiotics. This makes sense- ANTI-biotics serve the purpose of killing bacteria that are making you sick- but as it turns out, they kill the good bacteria needed for proper gut function, too! The question that really got me thinking asked this:

“Have you, at any time in your life, taken broad-spectrum antibiotics for respiratory, urinary, or other infections for 2 months or longer, or for shorter periods 4 or more times in a 1-year span?”

I thought back through the years and my run-ins with antibiotics. As a kid with allergies and chronic sinus infections, there were many. Suddenly, one year of my life was illuminated in my mind. My sophomore year of college had been one of particularly persistent illness (probably due in large part to how little I was sleeping and how poorly I was eating). Sinus infection after sinus infection would crop up, and I would drag myself to the student health center for another round of antibiotics. Over the course of that school year, I remember counting no less than 6 Z-packs, or concentrated rounds of azithromycin. Azithromycin, as you might have guessed, is a broad-spectrum antibiotic like the quiz question asked about.

At this point, the wheels were turning. I saw myself in retrospect, at age 19, taking round after round of antibiotics, then being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, one with symptoms not unlike those of a gut-bacteria imbalance. Could it be that symptoms I presented back then and the inflammation that was seen in my first colonoscopy were mistaken for ulcerative colitis, but in fact were due to something else entirely? And if the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis that I’d been carrying around for 6 years was wrong, could I be eligible for private health insurance after all? I decided it was more than worth looking into.

This brings us to Gastroenterologist #6 and his team at UCLA, who finally listened to what I had to say. I told them my situation, and proposed my gut-bacteria theory. Number 6 was intrigued and very sympathetic to my cause, knowing how difficult it is for many with inflammatory bowel disease to be approved for health insurance. He agreed to let me do a trial with no medication for a few months; if I remained healthy and symptom-free, he would maybe be able to pronounce me disease-free and argue my case for insurance. However, #6 warned that what I was doing was risky; if I did indeed have the disease, months without medication would be damaging to my system. Understanding the potential danger, I began the trial immediately.
Four months later, I lay nervously on an exam table in the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Besides a few minor changes in my bowels, nothing alarming had happened while I lived life without medication. I felt healthy. But I knew that the true test would be a look inside; I couldn’t be free of my diagnosis until they performed a colonoscopy and saw that the disease was truly, internally gone. As I went under, I groggily asked the medical assistant to sing to me. When he wouldn’t, I apparently began my own short-lived rendition of our national anthem before drifting off.

I awoke to my parents’ excited faces and the sound of #6’s voice telling them the good news. He had seen a totally healthy, disease-free colon. My intestines were “good as new,” #6 reported. I was officially discharged as a patient from the UCLA gastroenterology offices. Number 6 wrote me a glowing report that told my story- he even included my own theory, calling my initial flare-up a likely “anti-biotic induced episode.” I attached his report, along with a letter I wrote, to my application for insurance with Blue Cross. Yesterday, I got my insurance cards in the mail. As of January 4th, I will be privately insured by Blue Cross. With my clean bill of health and zero prescription medications, I guess I made a great candidate.

This is a victory for me on more than one level. I feel personally vindicated that I didn’t just accept the medical fate that was handed to me. As a health coach, I am proud of the detective work I did to overturn my diagnosis. I am inspired by this experience on behalf of you reading this. Don’t for one second think that your health is out of your hands. Trust yourself and listen to your body. Listen to your doctor, but don’t be afraid to ask WHY. Question everything. You deserve to be happy, healthy and in control.

I wish you all a very healthy and happy 2013!


super breakfast week, day five: put an egg on it!

Please excuse the tardiness of this post- I know I promised you a new breakfast every day last week, but the week got away from me, and then so did the weekend! So today, I’ll give you the fifth Super Breakfast, which is really more of a concept than a recipe: Put an egg on it!

I like having eggs for breakfast, but they rarely satisfy me on their own.  Even with a piece of sprouted wheat toast, I’m left wanting more.  It’s the combos like broccoli eggs (a.k.a., loaded with vegetables) that really make me feel like I’ve eaten a complete, balanced meal. Recently I realized that SO many of the veggie-filled dishes I make for dinner could be transformed into breakfast in one simple step: Put an egg on it! The one prerequisite for this breakfast is, or course, that you’ve cooked the night before and have some leftovers.  Then all you have to do is roll out of bed, throw an egg in a pan, and lay that sucker on top of last night’s dinner.  Once you start trying this, your eyes will be opened to thousands of possibilities.  Honestly.  So many things are delicious with a fried egg on top!

Oh, you made a giant pot of vegetarian chili and have buckets left over? Put an egg on it!

Veggie burgers from last night’s barbeque staring you in the face? Put an egg on it!

Afraid you’ll be eating that quinoa salad for the rest of your life? Put an egg on it!

Really, guys- ANY kind of vegetable casserole/hash/stir-fry will magically turn into breakfast with the addition of an egg.  I’ll include some more recipe links at the end of this post.

While I’m encouraging you to throw eggs on everything, I should also say a little something about the kind of eggs that I buy.  I’m sure you’ve heard the terms “free-range,” “cage-free,” and “organic” tossed around when it comes to chicken and eggs.  While it’s great that an effort is being made in favor of producing eggs ethically and cleanly, it’s important to know what these labels actually mean; if they mean much of anything at all, in fact.  The definition of an “organic” egg is that the chicken was fed an organic diet, given access to the outdoors, and was not given antibiotics.  That organic feed could be a big sack of corn, though, when chickens are meant to eat grass and bugs in order to be healthy and produce nutritious eggs.  Their “access to the outdoors” could be as little as a porch attached to their giant, overcrowded barn; whether or not they actually go outside and get much needed sunshine (how do you think Vitamin D gets into the eggs, anyway?) is undetermined and not likely.  So what if the carton says “free-range” but NOT organic? Those hens had the same “access” as the organic chickens, but their feed wasn’t necessarily organic and they could have been given antibiotics.  And “cage-free” means exactly that- they didn’t have a cage.  That doesn’t mean they weren’t crammed into a dark, overpopulated commercial barn with no room to move.

All that is to say that personally, I don’t trust the labels that are put on eggs in the grocery store, with the exception of one.  To the best of my knowledge, the cleanest, most nutritious and most ethically produced eggs come from pasture-raised chickens.  This means that chickens spend most of their time outdoors, eating grass and bugs.  Simple.  The way nature intended.  These chickens are happy and healthy and, because of their natural diet and lifestyle, produce eggs with the best possible nutrient content.  Of course, these eggs are a lot more expensive!  But it’s worth it to me to know what I’m putting in my body and how it got to me.  An even better solution would be finding someone who raises chickens, or getting some of my own! A girl can dream.

To read more about the fallacy of an “organic” label on eggs, click here:

To read more about the benefits of pastured eggs, click here:

To read more about the brand of eggs that I buy at Whole Foods, click here:

And more things to put an egg on!

Curry Veggie Quinoa

101 Cookbooks Veggie Burgers

Veggie Enchilada Casserole

don’t call it a doughnut

Sometimes we must ponder life’s big questions.  Today I find myself asking, what makes a doughnut a doughnut?  Is it the white flour used to make the dough? Is it the refined sugar, melted into a sweet glaze that coats the outside? Perhaps the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in which we fry the doughnut is its very essence.  Naively failing to consider such philosophical queries, I made these yesterday, brought them to a party, and called them “doughnuts.”

They look like doughnuts, right? They’re round, they have a hole in the middle and a chocolatey sheen with fun rainbow sprinkles.  You just might think I had Googled “doughnut” and followed a Paula Deen recipe.  Much to the dismay of my partygoing peers, this was not the case.  I had made dough using spelt and almond flours, baked it, and dipped the result in dark chocolate and coconut oil, creating in my own delusional health-nut mind something that could be passed off as a doughnut.  Here’s the real kicker, though: it wasn’t any of the above doughnut criteria that made my creation unacceptable, or at least unaccepted in the doughnut category.  In fact, I don’t think I revealed any ingredients before my plate of treats was given wrinkle-nosed glances.  The only words I uttered were, “These are vegan.”

That’s all it took.  Just that one label was enough for my goodies to be blacklisted (!).  I totally get that sometimes, people just want to eat junk; I want that, too.  But it wasn’t the lack of white flour or refined sugar or trans fat that turned people away- it was the lack of animal products.  What a strange requirement of a doughnut, I thought to myself!  Of all the things that make a doughnut a doughnut, I would not have guessed that eggs from a chicken and butter made from cow’s milk would be on the list.

To be fair, 5 of the 6 doughnuts did get eaten (one by me… and then the 6th also by me this morning).  I think the main contention held by my friends was that I chose to call them doughnuts, when clearly they didn’t size up to the prototype of doughnutship that they expected. But I was surprised at the stigma that came with the term “vegan.”  A few people mentioned doubts about texture; fine, maybe eggless baked goods are denser.  Does the mere possibility of that make them so much less appealing that you don’t dare even try it? Ultimately, I think it was my doughnuts’ unconventionality that garnered skepticism.  I don’t have to convince you that humans tend to reject things, ideas, people just because they’re different. It appears we’re the same way with food.

This stinks, especially with mounting evidence that animal products (along with processed, refined, and packaged crap) play a huge role in the development of the lifestyle diseases that plague our country.  I am not vegan, nor do I think everyone should be.  But I do think everyone should be taking a good look at what they put into their bodies, and more importantly, keeping an open mind about new ways of eating that could be change for the better.

In the meantime… more “doughnuts” for me!

some thoughts on quinoa

Floating island of Uros on Lake Titicaca

Last summer, I spent 11 weeks traveling throughout South America.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if I had been majorly influenced by the traditional cuisine of the countries I visited, and came home with new, exotic eating habits?  For sure.  But it didn’t really happen.  Despite living with locals and trying my best to glean gastronomical knowledge, I have to say that South American fare left me relatively unimpressed.  Some observations: Argentinians eat boatloads of red meat at late hours of the night.  Chileans like their meat, too, and lots of refined carbohydrates (one big bonus: avocado at nearly every meal). Prevalence of stomach bugs in Bolivia drove me to eat a strict diet of Clif bars while I was there.  The one gift Peruvians gave me is quinoa; since it’s a bit of a health food fad in the states, I was already pretty well-versed in the grain.  However, Peruvians eat quinoa in a whole new dimension than Americans do.  I present to you my one South American gastro-takeaway: Quinoa for breakfast.

When you think about it, there’s no good reason that the only whole grain that’s been mainstreamed as an American breakfast food is oatmeal (I guess you could count grits, but corn isn’t exactly a grain).  Oats aren’t inherently any more breakfasty than rice, barley, millet, and least of all, quinoa.  We’ve just arbitrarily assigned them to be our hot cereal breakfast staple when there’s a variety of other whole-grain options to choose from.  And I recommend quinoa.  First of all, it’s so flipping good for you that NASA feeds it to astronauts on space missions.  It’s a complete protein, meaning it contains a balanced set of amino acids; this is super rare for plants, especially grains.  Speaking of protein, a cup of cooked quinoa gives you almost 10 grams.  Tell that to the genius who thinks you need animal products at breakfast.

There’s a caveat.  Like many foodnomena of the past, Americans have found a way to take an amazing discovery, exploit it, and produce it in a way that’s terrible for the world.  People of the Andean region (Peru, northern Chile, and Bolivia mainly) have been enjoying the nutritional benefits of quinoa sustainably for literally thousands of years. “Quinoa” is a Quechua word. Quechua, as in, the language of the Incas, who fed quinoa to their soldiers.  We’re talking old-school here. Now that every yoga-pant wearing Whole Foods shopper is hot for the stuff, the demand for quinoa in the Andes has sky-rocketed.  That’s great if you’re an Andean farmer, because, cool, more people want your quinoa.  But it sucks majorly if you’re a poor, rural-dwelling citizen that now can’t afford to eat the nutritious staple of your ancestors.  It’s fine, though, because the corporate food products of the U.S. are so pervasive that you can probably find highly processed, mass-produced crap for very cheap.  We’ll be over here in America, eating your quinoa.

Sad, ironic, true… and probably confusing.  Like, should I eat quinoa, or what?! Yes, you should, but not by the truckfull.  And more importantly, stop buying processed food products made by big U.S. corporations.  When you do this, you’re voting with your dollar to support the companies that are making our country, and the rest of the world, malnourished.  You have the luxury of making informed decisions about what you eat, but not everyone can be that fortunate.  Little Bolivian children are growing up on white bread and Coke that were produced here.  Part of the reason that I found South American food so underwhelming is that much of the traditional, culture-rich diet has been replaced with our depressing Western one.  Any given day of my travels, I could have more easily eaten McDonald’s than anything culturally or nutritionally significant; this is sadly becoming the way of our world.

Wow, I think I started this post to tell you a new delicious breakfast idea, and have ended it with a miserable rant about the state of our global food system.  Wahmp, wahmp. Sorry ’bout it.  In short, be informed about where your food comes from and what was sacrificed for its production.  Specifically, buy as locally and as in-season as you can.  Don’t support large, multinational food processing giants by buying their products.  Educate yourself! Buy this so you don’t have to guess.  And try this for breakfast:

Breakfast Quinoa
I won’t pretend like this is a “recipe” with “ingredients”… Just cook quinoa like you would normally but sub milk (skim, soy, almond, whatever- I use unsweetened almond) for the liquid. Anything you use to spruce up your oatmeal can be used here, too- I love a little bit of agave for sweetness, some vanilla, and cinnamon.  Fruit, nuts, peanut butter, etc. can add some substance. My Peruvian host family would keep sweetened quinoa in the fridge, then throw it in a blender with milk.  Kind of like Horchata!

The End.