Several years ago I shared our story in a guest post over on Lexie's Kitchen, and I feel the same way about food now as I did then. I hope that by giving this story a home here as well, I might offer some ideas and inspiration to other families who wish to change the way they eat to improve their health.
Six years ago, at thirty-five years old, I had long considered myself a healthy eater. I ate a balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit and veggies, made many meals from scratch, and tried to avoid a lot of the foods that I knew weren't good for me. However, it took an unhappy period of illness for me to notice that there were more processed, unhealthy foods than I realized in my cupboards, fridge, and freezer, and that I still had quite a bit of room for improvement in the way I cooked and ate. This discovery was the beginning of a food journey that has been inspiring and rewarding for our whole family.
In the time just before I made some really significant changes to my diet, I went through several months of feeling very unwell. I was constantly tired, anxious and foggy-headed, had inflammation and pain throughout my body, and my digestive system was stressed. After visiting my family doctor's office many times and trying out different medications to no avail, I finally, out of desperation, decided to see a naturopathic doctor to see if I could find a solution. With her help, I discovered (among other things) that I had several food sensitivities, and I followed her suggestions to remove dairy, gluten and cane sugar from my diet. You can imagine how overwhelming it must have felt to suddenly realize that many of the foods I had always eaten and loved were best avoided if I wanted to feel better.
I would be lying if I said that it was easy to make such a drastic change in my diet. I went through a period of mourning, if you will; I missed my breads and pastas and chocolate and ice cream, and felt very self-conscious when eating at family and friends' homes when they asked me, "So what do you EAT, then?" I admit that I felt quite lost at first and sometimes felt quite sorry for myself.
It's not in my nature to sit around wallowing for long, though, so one day I pulled up my socks and set about meeting my food challenges head on. I started thinking about my situation as an opportunity not just for me, but for my whole family to find a better way to eat, a way that was healthy for all of us and would not make me feel ill. I read and was inspired by Michael Pollan's influential books about food; I sought out blogs written by others with modified diets and learned how to cook and bake delicious foods with wholesome, alternate ingredients. It was suddenly an exciting project, one that is still ongoing as we continue to seek out new food discoveries.
Some of the changes my family has made along the way are ones that would be beneficial for many families, whether food sensitivities are an issue or not. We started our own little garden so we would have easy access to as-fresh-as-they-get vegetables in summer, and the boys and I also make a regular adventure out of visiting our colourful local farmer's market in the warmer months. We found a local organic farmer from whom we could order pasture-raised beef, pork, and chickens to freeze in bulk every fall. I discovered some wonderful health food stores in our area where I could buy the nutritious ingredients I needed to prepare meals and bake homemade snacks, avoiding refined sugar and highly processed flours. (I often make large batches of healthy meals and muffins to keep in the freezer for days when time is short.) My husband Matt and I have truly enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen and on the grill, eliminating popular store-bought seasonings, dressings, or mixes and instead flavouring foods with healthy oils, lemon juice, fragrant herbs and interesting spices. Finally, we started making a habit of packing our own whole food lunches and healthy snacks for school, work, outings, and travel, to avoid both hidden sources of gluten and the temptation to eat junk food that we're better off without.
Going through this process of change with our food in the interest of making me well made things much easier when, a year after my illness, we discovered that my youngest son Will also has food sensitivities (to dairy, gluten, eggs, and peanuts). Will had had skin issues for years, and that winter he experienced too many ear infections to count in a period of a few short months, which were treated with as many rounds of antibiotics. When our family doctor suggested we'd soon be looking at a referral to an ENT specialist and the possibility of tubes in Will's ears if things continued down the same path, I took Will to see our ND, too, and once again began the process of food eliminations, which proved to be very beneficial to him. The dietary changes didn't seem such a monumental task this time; I knew what to feed him because I had been eating many healthy, delicious foods myself that didn't contain any of the things he needed to avoid.
Our whole family has happily grown to love the switch we've made to a very healthy, real food diet, and we've all benefited in various ways. When I eat well, I feel full of energy (necessary for keeping up with my two busy boys!), and free of aches and pains and tummy troubles. Will's ears, nose, and skin are clearer than they'd been in years, and his mood and behaviour are improved when he avoids the foods that cause his body to react. My oldest son, Noah, has learned to make his own wise choices about which foods are best for him to eat as an active competitive swimmer. My husband Matt has been a wonderful partner on this food journey with me, and we're both very enthusiastic to share what we've learned with anyone who asks about what we eat and how we prepare it.
Due to my health circumstances, it was necessary for me to make sudden, drastic changes to my diet, something which I realize may not seem very appealing or manageable to many people. If you're not at the point of a health crisis, but want to make some positive changes in the way you eat, start small. Invest in some good cookbooks that provide nutritious, tasty, and relatively easy recipes and commit to trying one new healthy meal per week. (Two of my favourite family-friendly cookbooks are Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and The Good Food Book for Families by Brenda Bradshaw and Cheryl Mutch.) Become aware of what is in the foods you eat; give up one food or habit that you know you'd be better off without and replace it with something that's good for you. Your success in these small shifts, and the physical and emotional benefits you'll likely feel as a result, just might encourage you to continue down a path of change that will improve your overall well-being.
I feel very proud of what our family has accomplished by deciding to take our health into our own hands, and by making a shift for the better in our eating habits. It's abundantly clear to me now that the old saying, "You are what you eat" is a valuable truth. Perhaps the most compelling reason for making the switch is evident every time I look at my two healthy, smiling boys' faces. In an age where so many children are being raised on a diet abundant in highly processed convenience foods full of salt, sugar, and chemicals, I am teaching my sons what real food looks and tastes like, and where it comes from. In my mind, that's one of the best gifts I can give them.