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Healing Power of Physical Health 2

Posted on August 8, 2014

To continue our conversation on physical health as the basis for all social, emotional, and mental health, today I would like to discuss diet.  These topics have been personal focuses of mine over the last couple of years.  As with exercise, I’ve also realized that by not bringing up diet with clients, I am missing opportunities to address some key drivers of all other aspects of well-being.
I spent the first several years of my career in residential juvenile justice and child services settings.  I never paid much attention to the diets we served the youth in our program.  One day, someone handed me the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and my eyes opened (and a few tears fell).  With the health cost of our Western diet fresh on my mind, I realized we were feeding the kids in our care some of the worst food possible.
Corn dogs, frozen waffles, French fries, pizza, tater tots, and plenty of whole chocolate milk and Kool-Aid to wash it all down.  I was always taught in psychology class that above all, we do no harm.  I struggled whether “harm” included a steady diet of fatty, unhealthy food that lack the nutrients needed to sustain health, not to mention recover from trauma.  When I started to talk to people about improving the menu, I often got two responses: “This is better than they ate at home,” and “This is all we can afford with the funding we have.” 
We did not tolerate our staff physically or emotionally abusing our clients, but we seemed all too ready to hand them food that would decrease their energy, mood, overall well-being, and ultimately their length of life.  We also missed the opportunity to educate them and have them experience the firsthand benefits of a healthy diet.  Do you give up your right to health once you enter a “system” where food is provided for you?
There are many barriers to implementing a healthy diet, whether as inpatient facilities or in our own life.  Cost, knowledge, and geographic access are real barriers to having an adequate, much less healthy, diet.  I’ve been to several talks at conferences about how impoverished areas are often food deserts, without access to affordable healthy food.  It is hard to live healthy when your options are fast food and convenience stores. Even if a healthy option exists, few people have been educated about what it means to eat healthfully.  Even the sacred food pyramid has come under heavy fire, and if your school lunches were like mine in the Midwest, they were not much better than what we served in the residential settings where I worked (Oh, the memory of country fried steak and bad pizza!). 
I think as helpers it is important for us to have the conversation with client about diet and, when possible, help bring healthy options into impoverished food deserts.  Most clients have at least some choice in what they eat, even if that choice is limited for financial and geographic reasons.  As those that serve those living in poverty, it is important that we address diet on the individual and community levels.
Food is the energy that powers all other aspects of health, yet those that need this energy the most often have few options beyond putting bad fuel in their system.  In recent years, there has been much written on the ethical, environmental, and health impact of our diet in the West.  As healers in our communities, it is important we do not turn a blind eye to the impact of food (and its production) on the well-being of the individuals and communities we serve, and the world we live in. 
I’m wondering if anyone else has had similar insights about the food choices facing your clients.  Would love to hear your thought and any actions taken in the comment section.

Last note: As many of you know, I’ve gone to a plant based diet.  I usually don’t talk about this a great deal, but thought I would take a risk and put my reasoning in the comment section in case anyone is interested.

2 responses to “Healing Power of Physical Health 2”

  1. Matt Bennett says:

    I will try to make a story that has played out over a decade as short and precise as possible. I have honestly struggled about how to talk to other people about this choice, because it is easy to come off conceited or preachy (which is why this post is in the comment section!).
    It all started with a combination of reading Fast Food Nation and becoming a student of non-violence, through the writings of Gandhi, King, and Quakers. I started to realize that the human and animal suffering put forth in Fast Food Nation and my animal based diet was not compatible with my interpretation of nonviolence. I have only had a few life changing realizations that I will remember throughout my life. One happened ten and a half years ago when I could physically no longer eat meat.
    Another powerful realization happened on a beautiful Rocky Mountain spring day. I had just moved into my first house and spent months making it energy efficient and covering the roof with solar panels. As I laid on the hammock, I started reading Superfreakonomics by Steven Lavitt and Stephen Dubner. I was shocked to learn how cows (and, to a lesser extent, other livestock) produce more greenhouse gas than all forms of transportation put together, and that many scientists have concluded that livestock is the number one threat to environmental stability.
    While I wasn’t eating meat anymore, my consumption of eggs and dairy was taking away from any reductions to my carbon footprint all those beautiful solar panels could generate. At that moment, my wife and I decided to no longer buy dairy or eggs at home, though we might have it occasionally when we eat out. At this point, I was about 99% plant based. I did notice a change in my energy level and well as my waistline. I lost 40 pounds after greatly limiting my consumption of dairy and eggs.
    After a few months of that, my longtime business colleague (and now boss) Bettina introduced me to the China Study by T. Colin Campbell (which is well presented in the documentary Forks Over Knives). The China Study measured the impact on the Chinese people as they moved from a traditional plant based diet to a more Western meat based diet.
    They found that as this transition happened, it resulted in increases in heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, and certain cancers. It also educated me on the health risks associate with casein, the protein in dairy. The basics are that cow’s milk is the perfect food for baby cows, but not for humans. Our ability to drink the milk of other animals is a genetic mutation that allowed our species to thrive, due to having a movable source of nutrition and hydration. I had to confront my conclusion that if I valued the environment, cared about the ethical treatment of animals and my own health, that I had little choice than to adapt a full plant based diet.

    I’ve also realized that many people (including myself for many years) do not want to confront the consequences of their food choices. While it seems each year more people know about the unethical treatment of animals or the environmental impact of livestock, changing diet is a trigger for many people. You just have to look at how people whose diet has resulted in heart disease or diabetes continue their old diet, even though they know it will kill them many years earlier than if they changed their habits.
    My conclusion is that there are so many environmental, ethical, and health benefits to rethinking diet that we need to at least have the discussion. Even if a full vegetarian or plant based diet doesn’t work for someone, a harm reduction approach to eating more plant food is a win all the same, for the person and the world. So there it is my friends, my journey from country fried steak and king crab to tofu and rice cheese! If you are interested in some good books on the subject, I would be happy to send you some suggestions.

  2. Matt Bennett says:

    I will try to make a story that has played out over a decade as short and precise as possible. I have honestly struggled about how to talk to other people about this choice, because it is easy to come off conceited or preachy (which is why this post is in the comment section!).
    It all started with a combination of reading Fast Food Nation and becoming a student of non-violence, through the writings of Gandhi, King, and Quakers. I started to realize that the human and animal suffering put forth in Fast Food Nation and my animal based diet was not compatible with my interpretation of nonviolence. I have only had a few life changing realizations that I will remember throughout my life. One happened ten and a half years ago when I could physically no longer eat meat.
    Another powerful realization happened on a beautiful Rocky Mountain spring day. I had just moved into my first house and spent months making it energy efficient and covering the roof with solar panels. As I laid on the hammock, I started reading Superfreakonomics by Steven Lavitt and Stephen Dubner. I was shocked to learn how cows (and, to a lesser extent, other livestock) produce more greenhouse gas than all forms of transportation put together, and that many scientists have concluded that livestock is the number one threat to environmental stability.
    While I wasn’t eating meat anymore, my consumption of eggs and dairy was taking away from any reductions to my carbon footprint all those beautiful solar panels could generate. At that moment, my wife and I decided to no longer buy dairy or eggs at home, though we might have it occasionally when we eat out. At this point, I was about 99% plant based. I did notice a change in my energy level and well as my waistline. I lost 40 pounds after greatly limiting my consumption of dairy and eggs.
    After a few months of that, my longtime business colleague (and now boss) Bettina introduced me to the China Study by T. Colin Campbell (which is well presented in the documentary Forks Over Knives). The China Study measured the impact on the Chinese people as they moved from a traditional plant based diet to a more Western meat based diet.
    They found that as this transition happened, it resulted in increases in heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, and certain cancers. It also educated me on the health risks associate with casein, the protein in dairy. The basics are that cow’s milk is the perfect food for baby cows, but not for humans. Our ability to drink the milk of other animals is a genetic mutation that allowed our species to thrive, due to having a movable source of nutrition and hydration. I had to confront my conclusion that if I valued the environment, cared about the ethical treatment of animals and my own health, that I had little choice than to adapt a full plant based diet.

    I’ve also realized that many people (including myself for many years) do not want to confront the consequences of their food choices. While it seems each year more people know about the unethical treatment of animals or the environmental impact of livestock, changing diet is a trigger for many people. You just have to look at how people whose diet has resulted in heart disease or diabetes continue their old diet, even though they know it will kill them many years earlier than if they changed their habits.
    My conclusion is that there are so many environmental, ethical, and health benefits to rethinking diet that we need to at least have the discussion. Even if a full vegetarian or plant based diet doesn’t work for someone, a harm reduction approach to eating more plant food is a win all the same, for the person and the world. So there it is my friends, my journey from country fried steak and king crab to tofu and rice cheese! If you are interested in some good books on the subject, I would be happy to send you some suggestions.

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