Which is why stumbling onto Nutrition and Health Coaching has surprised me so much. You could call me “The Reluctant Nutritionist.” It wouldn’t be a stretch.
Besides scoliosis and headaches, a bout of giardia back in Hawaii, and candida here in Arizona, I’ve been healthy. I’ve eaten relatively well, been in good shape, never experienced acute illness. I’ve dealt with acne off and on my whole adult life, and have generally realized a few things over the past two decades: 1) too much dairy bloats me out, hurts my stomach, and causes me to break out; 2) as does sugar, 3) as does gluten. I’ve always loved vegetables, never had to really worry about my weight until I experienced the joy of back-to-back pregnancies in the span of 3 1/2 years.
So, cooking and being a Foodie wasn't part of my life as I fumbled through my early 20s. Until I met Brendan. A staple in the restaurant business for twenty years, he worked as a waiter in fine dining, a sous chef, a sommelier, a prep cook, a dishwasher. Not in that order. He taught me the “holy trinity” of cooking (olive oil, onion, and garlic) and how to stage a good stir fry: what veggies to cook first, second, last, and which to just throw on at the end. Before, I hadn’t a clue.
Not an auspicious start for a mid-life career change.
But, the seeds were planted when Liam become sick. I started to closely monitor his eating, making sure his food was nutritionally dense, recorded caloric intake and ratios. When I ventured out into playgroups when his health stabilized (around age 1), he finally came back around to robust eating. I noticed that the last 10 pounds of my stubborn baby weight after Audrey never left - in part, much as I didn’t want to admit it, to the fast food, stress eating, toddler-dazed, play date diet of the stay-at-home mom.
Then came Aedan. With chronic ear infections and colds his first nine months, we started to notice eczema on his skin when he ate a lot of dairy. With Liam’s autism diagnosis at age 4, Brendan started to ‘medical detective’ his way to a deep understanding of the gut/mind connection. He read study after study highlighting how the reduction of gluten and wheat and, to a similar degree, dairy, in children with autism greatly reduced the “foggy,” lack-of-awareness symptoms. Eagerly, he introduced the idea of going gluten-free to me. And I balked.
Every day back then, Spring 2008, I experienced PTSD about Liam’s first year of life: failure to thrive, a terrifying diagnosis of Bartter’s Syndrome (potassium wasting genetic kidney disorder), lymphatic hyperplasia (inflammation of his upper GI due to a severe milk allergy), then a feeding tube for six months. By the time his weight stabilized and his love affair with eating began in earnest, I slowly started to release the emotional, neurotic hold food held on me when it came to my kids. But in the process, Wendy's chicken nuggets and high-calorie, gluten-y snacks had become a staple. It just sort of happened.
Unlike now, where you can find a gluten free aisle in every store from Safeway to Albertson's, seven years ago gluten free choices were either insanely, laughably expensive and/or tasted like gooey cardboard or salty paper. Choices were limited. I resisted, sort of stomping around, fearful of another dietary limitation on my kid. But, Brendan - tenacious, smart, driven Brendan - remained determined. Soon, I started to notice a change in Liam. His eye contact increased with the reduction of gluten, his speech improved, he calmed down, in essence starting to “come back to us” from the unknown world of his unique brain.
I become a reluctant yet hopeful convert.
We identified behavioral changes in all our kids when they were exposed to red dye. (Curse you, Skittles.) We noticed Aedan’s immune system improving with coconut or almond instead of cow’s milk; Audrey’s impulsive behavior lessened without as much sugar or gluten in her diet. Our whole family paid more attention. Brendan created the “sucker punch” risotto recipe: white beans, diced veggies, the holy trinity and more in a rice cooker for a dinner that our kids loved as it filled them up with whole, real food.
The seeds, as it were, planted in my brain about how to improve my kids’ health and lives by what I served them. McDonalds became a distant memory except for road trip treats and babysitter nights. Dominos introduced a seriously delicious gluten-free crust, which has become a staple for busy weeknights.
Imagine my joy when Audrey brought home an award from summer camp a few years ago for “healthiest, most nutritious lunch.” She will regularly coach people now on the need for more protein and veggies and fewer carbs. She and Aedan read labels to monitor grams of sugar; I have adopted my aunt’s decades old trick of asking for her picky kid’s top veggie choices, writing the list down, keeping the list on the fridge, and rotating from that list a few times every damn day.
Liam gags over salads, so we always give him an alternative option. Audrey and Aedan can now confidently list 10 vegetables they love and regularly eat, and Aedan’s idea of the “best food ever” is a Chipotle Caesar salad from Costco in his blue monster lunch box.
When these kids get sick, they kick it in a day or two. I can’t help but credit this to eating 80% whole foods and about 20% “fun food.” Sometimes more, sometimes less. I never want to ostracize my kids from party food when they are hanging with their friends. I have no desire to stigmatize them as “weird kids” with kale chips in their lunch-boxes who never experience the childhood joy of sticky, sugary fingers or buttery hands from movie popcorn.
This goes for myself as well. I believe what makes me a good yoga instructor will also translate into a successful health coach: relate-ability. I am only now, after ten years of teaching, able to do a headstand or (almost) nail a forearm pose. I tell my students this, and applaud them when they show me a trick or two with transitioning into a complicated arm balance.
I will eat an organic protein and sautéed chard for dinner four nights a week, take more vitamins than I ever imagined (I used to be reluctant about too), drink mostly water as a beverage and eliminate sugar as much as humanly possible. Because my body, emotions and mind benefit with better function and clarity when I do. But I will also do a shot with a friend, enjoy a piece of pizza, and have chips, guacamole and a margarita on a date night. I don’t believe in deprivation, because it doesn’t work. And because sometimes that chocolate bar offers a joy you can’t experience from kale alone.
I have tried several diets that have gone through our clinic, am 75% gluten free and am trying to go 100% dairy free. (Damn you, Dominos.) Cheat days sometimes become two or three a week. I allow them, knowing that I may break out or feel bloated, foggy or cranky the next day, gain a few pounds, then lose them again when I return to my 80/20 ratio.
I believe a solid foundation in nutrition must base itself upon an understanding for people and their quirks. Relationships with food are complicated, and I can empathize with all of the emotions - denial, rage, guilt, confusion, stubbornness, craving, addiction, joy - that comes along with our perceptions of food. It took Brendan and me a whole year to give up sugar in our coffee. Comfort foods are dubbed “comfort” for a reason, for they connote a whole lot more than just fuel for our bodies. Whatever your comfort food, you are instantly transported back to a good memory of a person, place or time when you taste that first bite.
I am eating up (figuratively) my foundational courses as I start Institute for Integrative Nutrition in September. As soon as I realized, just three weeks ago, that going to a school like this will not only change my life’s purpose and direction but will also positively help people discover better health, the light bulb went on. I have felt directionless for years, especially this year, wondering “what it all means” and how can I make a mark. Now, I feel empowered and excited.
Cheesy as it sounds, I want to change the world a bit. I want to utilize my flaws, experience with exercise, food and wellness -- my impulsivity, stubbornness, ability to relate to people -- into one enthusiastic package. Paleo diet? Tried it. Hcg? Hell yeah: it worked, though I was a bit cranky the whole time. High fat, low carb ? Yep, and noticed a dramatic dip in my body fat percentage and energy levels. Juice cleanse? Done it a few times, but I always cave a bit on day 3. Chasing that ideal weight and body fat percentage? Something I will most likely always do, given my propensity to enjoy life and carbs (too much sometimes) as I seek out that always shifting balance of clean eating and fun living.
Failures, successes, and new realizations make for a meaningful life, just as they do for Adventures in Nutrition. I believe I can develop the knowledge base to relate to people who want to learn and better themselves through clean eating, help them find some excitement about cooking. I started from zero knowledge. I will never love grocery shopping, never be a gourmet cook, but what I can do is help moms learn how to cook for their kids. I can cook a perfect steak and understand flavor profiles when I need / want to church up what I put on the table. Not in a Martha Stewart or Pinterest way, but in a slightly frazzled, pressed for time, 80/20 kind of way that works for busy families.
The Reluctant Nutritionist is ready to take on the challenge. Only a few times in my life have I had an “aha” moment (starting yoga teacher training, finding inspiration to write my book, that first day of graduate school). But this one takes the cake.
I owe it to my counselor, who helped me unpack the clutter of my life; my mom, who made our meals 98% of the time and put a salad on the table for 10 hungry mouths every night; my complicated, love-to-eat kids; and especially my husband, who helped inspire this slightly-lazy, slightly-stubborn, slightly-directionless girl towards a more confident future. And who may just lead grocery store tours and cooking demos, start a not-too-serious nutrition blog called “The 80/20.” And maybe, hopefully, brighten real people’ s lives.