Melissa Anderson and her family recently decided to make the switch to whole foods, including purchasing locally and sustainable as often as they can. The research Melissa and her husband have put into this switch is awesome, and maybe a little mind-boggling. Be warned, this interview is long, but completely worth it if you need any convincing that processed food is dangerous and your health is suffering if you continue to ignore this fact. I like that they have come up with a clear plan on how to make sure they are following through on their food/health goals. I’m guilty of flying by the seat of my pants most of the time, but not these folks. They made a plan and went with it.
This information is anecdotal and was created for the purpose of entertainment and in no way medical advice. Please do not take this as medical advice, consult your physician if you are in need of medical attention.
Question: What made you decide to reduce processed foods and start paying more attention to where your food comes from, I know this is obvious but people have MANY different reasons for changing their diet.
Answer: I rarely eat processed foods myself since I need to be careful about salt, fat, and additives for medical reasons—too much of the wrong foods, and I get crazy bloated with terrible indigestion. However, I’ve been worrying for awhile now about the amount of processed foods in my children’s diets—especially the amount of processed junk my son Nico, who is almost four, always wants to eat. While I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of feeding our children good food, Nico definitely passes on “real” food and opts for the processed stuff every time. I know that cereal bars and snack crackers are not really nourishing and wanted to change his eating habits now so that he will develop healthier food choices for the future. I recently underwent genetic testing for a mutation in my DNA that causes hereditary colon cancer; my test was positive, which means that I have a very high (something like 85%-90%) risk of developing colorectal cancer, and my children have a 50% risk of having the mutation and a higher adult risk of cancer as well. Eating a high-fiber diet is one of the most protective things you can do if you have HNPCC or Lynch Syndrome. I figured it is easier to shape my children’s eating habits positively now, giving them a head start on good digestive health in the future. In the first several days of processed food withdrawal, Nico continued to reject whole foods and had a number of severe tantrums, many directly related to wanting certain foods. After several weeks, however, his diet is already more diverse and healthy. He still asks for some of his favorite processed snacks on occasion and has had a cereal bar here and there as a treat. Overall, however, he has gotten used to eating whole foods and doesn’t seem to miss his boxed, corn-and-sugar concoctions.
Our choice to really commit to eating locally and sustainably (organically too when appropriate and possible) started after Walt and I recently listened to Michael Pollan’s books Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma on audiobook. Of course, we already “knew” that a lot of our food was produced under very unethical conditions—Pollans’s research has really permeated culture and become almost common knowledge—but our attention became acutely focused on this social, economic, and public health problem as we listened to these books together. Walt, who was vegetarian for more than a decade and only started eating meat again after our children got older and we started needing and wanting to have a more diverse diet, was especially horrified about Controlled Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and the fact that cows and other animals are fed diets of grain and protein that they have not evolved to eat, much to the detriment of their (and our) health. He was disgusted to know that some of the protein beef cattle we eat is actually “recycled” beef product. In other words, despite regulations to prevent diseases like Mad Cow, cows still get a lot of their protein from eating cow parts and other “recycled” animals like pigs. Walt gave up vegetarianism because he no longer believed that eating animals was morally wrong in and of itself; we could both agree, however, that the way we—as a culture—process and eat animals today is very wrong. In the interest of maximizing our children’s health and immune systems, we also decided to learn more about how to avoid pesticides and other chemicals in our foods as much as we possibly can.
In the past, trying to eat more ethically and organically seemed very difficult and prohibitively expensive; we wanted to do it but felt overwhelmed and kind of hopeless. This time, we committed to really researching and exploring it. We found a good Alabama dairy, the Working Cows Dairy, which raises grass-fed cows on pasture and distributes milk to several groceries in our area. This milk is almost exactly twice as costly as more widely available milk, but we decided it was worth a try. Once we tasted it, we felt like we’d never really had milk before; it was so good. For a bit extra, we get better tasting, healthier milk that is good for us, the farmers, and creates a better lifestyle for the cows. We use this milk to make some of our own dairy products, like paneer, ice cream, and kefir. Otherwise, we try to choose the healthiest and most environmentally and worker-friendly dairy products we can from Whole Foods or our local grocery. We made the same choice for eggs and meat, choosing local products from animals raised as often as possible on their natural diets on polyculture farms. This means that we eat less meat and dairy, which we are okay with, and that we commit to paying more for a better product when we do eat it.
For produce, we signed up for a local grocery service through Grow Alabama. Every week, we get a box of locally grown (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, or Tennessee) produce that is usually “no-spray” (no pesticides sprayed) or certified organic. This week, for example, we got a ton of peaches, tomatoes, a head of cabbage the size of a newborn baby, bok choy, basil, and corn. We also get a fruit box that is made up of southeastern produce whenever possible. We usually process a good bit of this food ourselves as soon as we get it.
Some of the things we process include:
- dry fruit in the dehydrator,
- make homemade applesauce (which I then can put into reusable, squeezable-snack pouches),
- bake banana bread,
- make pico de gallo to eat all week,
- and slice and freeze extra fruit as well.
We are eating a lot of fruits and vegetables every week, and our menus are dictated more by what is available and in-season in our area. On the whole, we feel like we’re making positive changes toward healthier and more ethical eating. We do, of course, make compromises based on time, cost, and convenience, which I think is appropriate for our stage of life and our food budget. When we started to change our shopping behaviors, I was really afraid that our grocery budget would balloon out of control. What I’ve found, however, is that the more expensive purchases that we are making for local, organic whole foods are largely balanced out by the savings that we have from not buying processed snacks, cereals, and beverages.
Question: Have you noticed any changes in your body thus far?
Answer: I can’t say that I feel particularly good as a general rule. I have three kids five and under; they are really active and are always disrupting my sleep at night; I work from home and am always short of time; I frequently deal with depression and anxiety, and I often drink more wine than the recommended 4 ounces a day for women. I do sleep pretty well when my children will let me, which I attribute to exhaustion and melatonin—a very effective sleep aid for me. My weight tends to fluctuate a bit from month to month, as I think is the norm for most people.
Finally, I eat a very-high fiber diet (25-45 grams/day), which keeps me regular. I used to have terrible problems with constipation because I tend to carry stress in my gut and never paid attention to how much sugar/how little fiber I was eating. In addition to being very uncomfortable, being stopped up contributes to my risk for colon cancer, so I try to keep everything moving along. When I was pregnant each time, my constipation, bloating, and subsequent reflux became acute and miserable. As such, I had to learn which foods are high in fiber and have a laxative effect. Here are some of the foods that help get things going:
- oat bran
- brussel sprouts
After a time, eating these foods became second nature, and now I have no trouble getting a lot of fiber and having a good, healthy BM most every day.
Question: What do you personally do to stay healthy?
Answer: In addition to eating a high-fiber, whole foods diet, I take a number of vitamins that I think are helpful to me. I take a multivitamin, of course, and also zinc and magnesium, vitamins D and C, and a B-complex. I chose these supplements based on blood levels showing that I tend to be somewhat deficient in them naturally. In addition to wine and cocktails, I also drink a ton of water—usually 160 ounces or more per day.
Finally, I have always been really active—some might say hyperactive. I used to do a lot of high-intensity exercise, including mini-triathlon workouts, though I haven’t done very much of this since I started having children. When I was diagnosed with GERD, I had to stop running and doing any other sort of “bouncy” exercise because it shakes up the digestive system and relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (the muscle that keeps your gut closed and your food from coming back up). I learned then that runners are actually at a significantly increased risk of developing GERD over a lifetime, even if they don’t have any other risk factors. When my GERD became a problem, I had to limit my activities a good deal and had to choose only low-impact exercise. I began a regular yoga program that includes home practice and classes. I really love yoga for the physical, mental, and emotional benefits that it provides. I feel accomplished and attractive doing it and am always significantly more at ease and more generous of mind and spirit after practicing. I think that yoga has done as much as anything else to move me back to health. During the summer, I also swim as often as I can and ride my bicycle occasionally. My cardiovascular endurance is sadly lacking at this moment, so I may try to run a bit again now that I am healthier.
Thank you to Melissa for taking time out of your busy life raising kids, working, and being an awesome warrior for health in your family. Foodie Mama Talks wouldn’t be what it is today without amazing people like you willing to share your stories. I’ll be doing a second interview with Melissa in the coming weeks about homemade kefir and the reasons for making it at home versus buying it, as well as step-by-step instructions.