Monday, May 4, 2009

A Family Journey into Health

The Year 2000, a new century and the beginning of our journey into health, marked by our first crop of home grown strawberries from our first family food garden at the farm in New Zealand.

I must start out by saying that we were never really sick but we were not healthy either; for today I realize that health cannot be defined in simplistic terms, as the 'absence of illness.'

In the early days of my marriage, most of the food that lined the shelves of our pantry came from the shelves of the supermarket. My cooking skills were limited and my poor husband had his fair share of lasagnas - the sauce came out of a bottle of course, so it was not in fact, a home cooked meal. I relied on convenience foods and it would never have occurred to me to read the label, we were truly ignorant. We constantly suffered from colds and every time someone sneezed in church, you could fairly much guarantee that, within the week, we would be sneezing and coughing too. We had never made the connection between our diet and health but today I am certain that the additive-laden food we used to consume, explained why our immune systems could not cope with the overload from the colds, flu's and stomach bugs that always seemed to be doing the rounds.

Our first home had fruit trees - a lemon, grapefruit (which I couldn't even give away!) and a feijoa which my husband adored but I could not acquire a taste for, I was convinced you had to be a natural born kiwi to enjoy this fruit! There was even a veggie garden which needed to be replanted. It was a traditional huge patch at the bottom of the garden, we lived in a region where it rained constantly and trekking to the bottom of the garden did not appeal! Of course the weeds soon took over and eventually we grew tired of the work and did the unthinkable - we turned it back into lawn! (I still cannot believe we did this!)

When our children came along, our diet did not really improve, it probably deteriorated, as visits to eat out under the golden arches became a 'normal' part of family life.There were some glimmers of hope for my young family. I was determined to breastfeed and never rely on formula and I am proud to say that I achieved this goal, all of my children including my twins were breastfed for the first two years of their lives.

I am not sure when our attitude towards food and health began to change. We had moved onto a dairy farm in the South Island and were blessed to have our own milk to consume, beef from our own cows filled the freezer and fresh salmon was now a regular part of our diet, thanks to living in 'salmon country' and my mother-in-law being a keen and successful fisher woman. Oh how I miss the fresh salmon which we would have smoked and filleted.

Now that is what I call a big fish !

We had also put in our first vegetable garden, a compact series of four raised beds, easy to weed and maintain. Things were on the 'up and up' or so it seemed. Then we were brought back down to earth with a big bump when we were affected by a series of health issues. My husband had become ill, suffering from night sweats and fevers and chills throughout the day. He spent a week in hospital undergoing tests, the diagnosis - a 'mystery' viral illness. How he continued to find the strength to continue milking the cows I do not know, except to say that God provided a supernatural strength in his time of greatest weakness. Then one day, the mystery was solved when his leaking appendix finally burst and he was rushed to hospital to have it removed. His health returned to normal shortly afterwards.

Then, a year later, we were all struck down with a severe bout of flu that incapacitated us. Only my crawling toddler was spared. It lasted over a week and it felt like every ounce of energy had been drained from my body. I knew my eight year old son needed to see the doctor, he was becoming pale and lethargic, despite our attempts to ensure that everyone kept up up the fluids. I was too ill to drive but as soon as I felt the slightest improvement I was on my way to the GP with a very sick boy. He was admitted to hospital with viral pneumonia and spent a week in the children's ward recovering, which thankfully, praise God, left him with no ill-effects.
I still think back to that time and wonder, if our diet had been better would we have still succumbed to that virulent flu. We had picked it up at our pastor's house and virtually every member of our church who was there that day came down with the flu. We were all sick at the same time and could not support each other.

In 2001 my father passed away and I had to return to England for the funeral at short notice with my 15 month year old son who was still being breastfed, leaving behind my husband to cope with the farm, the house and the three older children. Some people from church decided to help him out by dropping off some meals, not the home cooked variety, but rather a huge pile of heat and serve pizzas, the no-frills variety. They pretty much taste like the cardboard packaging they come in and after a week, my husband was sworn off packaged pizza for life. We also vowed never to place cheap and nasty 'no frills' food in the food bank or take that sort of convenience food to people in need.

In England, I was faring no better. I had returned to the food of my childhood; raised in the age of convenience, most of our food came out of tins and packets, even the mashed potato! In those days there were no Jamie Olivers or Gillian McKeiths to warn parents of the perils of such a diet. Any fresh vegetables were 'boiled to death', (is this a British tradition?) removing every last trace of nutrients. I was blessed with a good metabolism and didn't put on any weight but the constant ear infections and tonsillitis which my parents blamed on the damp climate, today I attribute to my poor childhood diet. I have also resolved not to make the same mistakes as I raise my own family. My children have never suffered from ear infections.

I returned to the farm in New Zealand with a new resolve. I was going to reduce our dependency on convenience foods. The packaged pizza issue had already been dealt with but we were still buying 10 kilo bags of oven chips from the nearby chip factory . At my husband's request I started to cook more meals from scratch and incorporated more salads into our diet but it wasn't until we moved to Australia in 2002, that we started to make more radical changes; we were now truly pressing on the accelerator as we continued on our family journey into health.

If there is one person I could thank for turning us in the right direction, it would be Jordan Rubin, author of the 'Maker's Diet' and 'The Great Physicians Rx for Health and Wellness'. We had just made the decision to overhaul our diet when I came across his books. His vision to see churches full of healthy, vibrant people resonated with us, we wanted to be part of it. He opened up our eyes to see the Bible, as not only our source of spiritual health but also an inspirational handbook for physical health and well being. It was now 2005, we had already introduced some changes but with some specific guidelines and Jordan's advice, we decided to implement the seven keys to unlock our health potential. Probably, the most useful key for us was the first - 'Eat to Live', some of the changes we made were:-

1. We stopped eating pork products and shellfish - we understood that we were not under law and were not obliged to do this but we knew that bacon was treated with nitrates and that this was not good for our health. We were aware that pork, ham and salami were often sources for food poisoning, the same applied to shellfish- the 'bottom feeders of the sea'. Today I do not miss bacon or ham, meat is not excluded from the 'Maker's Diet' and we enjoy lamb, free range chicken and fish.

2. We excluded all artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. We became avid label readers and educated ourselves to know what aliases manufacturers used to disguise harmful additives such as MSG - flavour enhancer, yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein and the like.
An excellent book for Australian shoppers is 'Read the Label' by Judy Davie. I t is a comprehensive guide to labelling, it is quite alarming to discover how many additives banned overseas are still permitted under Australian food laws. I had to change brands and switch to buying organic in many cases- for coconut for example, I couldn't find any without preservative.

3. I stopped buying packaged breakfast cereals, even cornflakes which are high in salt. The only packaged cereal I buy is Weetbix. The younger children make themselves porridge each morning and my husband and I have our own homemade muesli made with oats, nuts, seeds, fruits, honey and coconut oil.

4. We started growing our own organic vegetables and herbs and planting fruit trees suitable for our region. We are blessed to be able to grow some tropical varieties and look forward to the time when everything comes into full production. We also began to shop at farmer's markets buying organic whenever possible, unless the cost was prohibitive. There are certain non-organic foods we avoid at all costs, the ones we know are heavily sprayed such as strawberries, onions, carrots and broccoli.

5. We introduced new superfoods into our diet. It was Jordan Rubin who put us onto wholegrains such as quinoa, good oils such as coconut oil and natural sweeteners such as rapadura. These foods are now pantry staples.

6. I began making my own sourdough bread (see my previous post on 'Baking Bread with Heritage Sourdough') My twin girls have practically been raised on this life giving bread.

7. We stopped eating out at junk food outlets. Greasy pizza ads make us groan and the children exclaim 'Yuk!', today for lunch my daughter made a beautiful pizza base topped with homemade relish and a sprinkling of cheese, it was delicious! We did not put into place an immediate blanket ban on eating out. We began to cut down the number of visits we made and as we began to eat a more wholesome diet at home we found that we lost our appetite for burgers, even the children started to complain that they tasted like 'plastic'.
We still occasionally, enjoy a Chinese takeaway (no sweet and sour pork though!) and for fish and chips we try to visit restaurants where they offer a variety of fresh fish and chips cooked in fresh oil or we take a salad and just buy the fish. A local fisherman's co op offers fresh ocean caught fish, you can choose how to have it cooked, it's worth paying a little extra for fresh produce.

8. We stopped consuming all soft drinks, sugar-laden juices, cordials and flavoured milk. We bought a 'Samson' juicer and began to juice our own vegetables and fruits at home. There is an Australian obsession with cordial that I have yet to fathom. I have to make special requests to people not to give my twins cordial after church. We call it 'hyper-juice' and it is never served in my home. Water and milk are just fine.

So did it work? I have to say yes, a resounding yes. The health of our family improved dramatically. My husband lost weight and had to buy new jeans. Apart from the occasional sniffle, mild cold and a bout of chicken pox which gave the twins the tell tale rash but no fever, we have suffered no illness. We haven't been to the doctor (as a result of illness) in years. When tummy bugs and colds start to do the rounds we find that, although we may develop some of the symptoms- a sore throat or sneezing, we don't go the full course and bounce back quickly. Last winter when the flu was prevalent in our community and knocking people for 'six' we were not affected, such a different story to ten years ago. We also used to suffer from sinusitis until we began flushing out our nasal passages using a 'netty pot' - an advanced hygiene practice that has been my miracle cure!

We are still on our journey, we are not health food gurus who consume lentils with passion and never 'fall off the wagon'... there are a few compromises I make.

I sometimes use organic unbleached white flour for the occasional dessert for which my freshly milled flour is just too heavy. (It works fine in most recipes.) I also use raw sugar for some baking where honey or rapadura just doesn't work out. I occasionally dust some desserts with a light sprinkling of organic icing sugar. Pasta is still on the menu for dishes such as cannelloni but I make a lot more use of healthier grains such as brown rice and quinoa, rather than relying on pasta alone.

And with apologies to Jordan Rubin, I just couldn't stomach the cod-liver oil. I persevered for a week but suffered from terrible regurgitation throughout the day. I knew that taking this supplement was going to make my life miserable so I found an alternative. It has different health benefits but Olive Leaf extract has been very helpful, I think this may have also helped eradicate my sinusitis. It is really all about what works for you and your family. You don't have to eat every 'healthful food' but choose the ones you can obtain easily, that are in season or you can grow yourself. You don't have to like everything! I'm not a huge fan of nori, pickled cabbage or tahini... all very good for you but I have tried to incorporate as many of the good foods as possible into my family's diet.

There are some wonderful resources out there to help you as you start on the journey into health. So many blogs, many dedicated solely to the subject of health and growing your own food.
Inspirational books... I found Jordan Rubin's to be the most balanced overall, we had already decided not to become vegetarian and we had some concerns about the raw food diets, so his approach was in tune with our thinking and desire to pursue a Biblical approach to this important area of our lives. I've just finished reading his book written specifically for children's health. The chicken soup recipe in there is the best soup I have tasted in my life. It is on our autumn menu and it is our flu defence strategy as winter approaches. I cook it in my slow cooker and the smell that fills the home is something just wonderful!

The other resource I found very useful was the DVD put out by Franklin Springs Media 'Inherit the Land' which introduces you to different Christian families across America who are pursuing an agrarian lifestyle. Some are on small blocks having started to grow their own food and reduce their dependency on the supermarket, others are more established homesteaders and farmers. All are in agreement that this type of lifestyle has huge benefits for families and not only for physical health and well being. It is very inspirational and was a source of great encouragement for my family here at eight acres of eden.

I would encourage you if you haven't yet set out on a journey into health.. just try it. Start by taking an inventory of your lifestyle, the foods you eat- open up your pantry and fridge, what is really good for you? Of dubious benefit or just plain bad for you in there? Start to read labels. Be a conscientious shopper. If you know it's bad (the sugary cereals for instance) just stop buying it. Begin to take baby steps, then bigger strides as you start to add in the 'good stuff'. Remember, as a parent you set the example. What your children see you eat for snacks will be what they will want to eat too.

I love Nancy Campbell's (of Above Rubies) exhortation to mothers to become nutritionists seeking to learn as much as they can about food, health and well being, in order to provide their families with the healthiest food.. I search for foods which strengthen their bodies, which contain optimal nutrients, assisting them to concentrate in order to learn and supplying sustained energy (the good carbohydrates) to cope with the demands of life in a busy, active household. I have resolved to do this wholeheartedly, the health and well being of my family is just too important to overlook and it's why it is part of our family vision statement which I believe nicely summarizes this post.

'We will eat to live on wholefoods, fruit and vegetables - God's gifts to us, we want to be full of health, vitality and energy to be able to serve His purposes today and in the future.'

In my next post I will share my experience of the food I was served during my stay in hospital following the birth of my twins in 2005, having requested meals without artificial additives. You may be surprised to find out that what is served in an institution that is supposedly a health provider!

Until then,
With love and joy,


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A Bite of Country Cupcakes said...

I so love the passion and conviction in your writings Ann.
I read over this post yet again this Morning,
It is truly impassioned and informative.
You go girl!

SF said...

What a wonderful post! I am going to plant some more seeds in my garden tomorrow. :)
Thank you for your sweet comment on my blog today. :) I just might come to you for advice from time to time! So nice to find you,
Saminda xo


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