The Happy Diet

Embracing Eating as a Spiritual Act
Makes All the Difference

theHappyDiet
Burdock root, daikon radish, mung bean sprouts, ginger, carrot, all available organic, GMO free. Guido’s, G.B.

I know: Food is love. Food is nourishment. I pride myself on cooking for and nourishing my family and friends.

What I learned while doing a 21-day restorative cleanse with local herbalist, private chef and healer Nancy Lee changed my life. No kidding!

How, you ask? It started with a couple of simple principles:

  1. Chew your food.
  2. Thank your food.

Your next question is, “Didn’t you already know that?”

And I would agree with you. Of course I thought I knew these things! After all, food has always been the centerpiece of my existence. I am half Italian. It’s what we talk about. What’s for breakfast? What’s for lunch? What are you cooking for dinner? We always ate together as a family. Everything was cooked from scratch with the finest of ingredients.

Growing up we had a garden and now, solidly in adulthood, I have my own. Food and family were so central to my being that I created Heirloom Meals—a storytelling platform to share our connection with family recipes, heritage, stories and tips. I felt a yearning, a beckoning to return to my roots—to cook the foods that my ancestors ate, or at least the ones that I remember my grandparents eating and making.

For most of my life I ate as my grandparents and parents ate: balanced home-cooked meals with a meat protein, lots of vegetables, salad, a starch, often finished with some form of a sweet: a cookie, scoop of sherbet— nothing indulgent.

But then food-related allergies struck. My husband, Jim, developed Celiac disease. I became a student of glutenfree cooking and adapted recipes so Jim could eat everything without even noticing he had Celiac disease. All was well—until I developed some stomach issues—you know, the modern-day ones that the Prilosec industry has convinced us can be cured with a pop of a pill. Intuitively, I knew that my acid reflux could be cured by changing my diet.

But the notion of adding more dietary restrictions was daunting. I tried eliminating certain foods for a while but eventually would find cheese and crackers in my shopping cart. I love cheese and crackers. And coffee. How could I give up my morning elixir?

But I just didn’t feel quite right and I was left with this question: Since I eat almost 100% organic foods—grass-fed meats, pasture-raised chickens, wild fish, and we are gluten-free and have lots vegetables— why don’t I feel 100% great?

I was lucky to be introduced to Nancy Lee. She was exactly what I needed. I was just coming off the flu and did not have the energy to embrace a new diet and cooking regime myself. Nancy’s program included her coming to my house and cooking one meal a day with me. So I thought, “I want to do this.” And what I got was so much more than a cleanse—I learned about eating and spirituality.

LESSON ONE

My first lesson is almost too obvious to admit: We must chew our food. It seems like such a simple and basic principle of eating that I never really gave it much thought. I’ve always been a speedy eater. I love my food hot. I can’t stand lukewarm food and I have spent my entire life inhaling my meals. Nancy Lee’s first lesson to me was that digestion begins in your mouth. The word mastication popped into my head. Hmmmmm… I don’t really chew my food. Well, there is problem number one. I don’t even think about chewing my food. I just experience the flavors as quickly as possible and then swallow away.

While I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful food that I eat, I have never really taken the time to pray over it. To look at the food and imagine how it will nourish and heal my body.

In fact, I viewed food as the enemy for much of my life. I’m just as much a victim of the media’s view of the perfect woman. I strive for a lithe, fit body. So it never occurred to me that stopping or pausing before diving into one’s meal would wake me up to an experience with food I had never had. I learned I have been living a warped food contradiction—loving to make delicious food to nourish others but secretly despising that same food.

LESSON TWO

My second lesson was to honor my food.

The act of eating has become a spiritual experience. I have learned to be present with my food. I understand that food has a life essence and energy, and that certain foods cleanse and heal different organs. The practice of honoring one’s food and treating our bodies with absolute reverence is now a way of life.

Make no mistake about it: Food is medicine. The pharmaceutical industry would like us to think that only packaged products can cure our ailments. And we have become a society that seeks the quick fix. When I stepped back and analyzed my habits, it was clear I straddled both worlds, mistaking homemade for healthy.

Sugar is sugar whether it’s in packaged goods or homemade cookies. And, when I got a headache, I reached for the medicine cabinet. So my quest was to see and experience whether a clean, mostly vegetarian diet could really change my life.

My cleanse and restorative regime focused on my digestion, my heart and my hormones. Among the many and varied foods that we ate, we also drank three infusions: nettle, red clover and oat straw. I learned to fear nettles for the burning sensation they create if you touch them, and red clover is certainly the bane of the green grass purist. But these two “weeds” have powerful healing qualities.

Imagine drinking an infusion of red clover, nettles or oat straw every day and allowing them to pack a vitamin and nutritional punch in the most soothing way. Red clover is good for the blood as it both purifies the blood and lowers bad cholesterol. It also is a great source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin C. Oat straw is known to reduce cholesterol, increase libido and strengthen nerves. I believe it is where the saying “sowing your wild oats” comes from.

According to Susan Weed, a noted herbalist, one cup of oat straw infusion contains 300 mg of calcium. And if those benefits aren’t enough, swigging your nettle infusion will strengthen your bones, thicken your hair, clarify your skin, ease your seasonal allergy symptoms and cure your acid reflux.

How do you like them weeds?

To this day, I swear by my nettle infusion for my seasonal allergy symptoms. I would much rather sip a nettle infusion than take an antihistamine.

I now begin my mornings sipping a warm glass of water with a squeeze of lemon juice, followed by a green juice. The green juices are geared toward what’s in season or what’s ailing me. Most mornings, my juice is a combo of celery, green apple, parsley, kale or cilantro, ginger and carrots.

I do suffer from occasional severe headaches. On those days, I begin with a juice of celery, spinach and oranges, which works just as well as an aspirin. Celery, I have learned, is a vasodilator and spinach provides magnesium, which is frequently recommended for migraine sufferers. Check out the book Juice It by Robin Asbell (Cronicle Books) for recipes.

After my morning walk, I make a smoothie with blueberries, a banana, coconut oil, Green Essence powder, a cup of kale and spring water. Lunches consist of such dishes as kichari which is an ayurvedic dish consisting of mung beans, basmati rice, coriander and vegetables, or rice biriyani (basmati rice, coconut oil, cilantro, curry powder and cashews) or mulligatawny soup with sides of steamed carrots, burdock root and daikon radish, and some form of salad.

I sip one of the herbal infusions all day long. Dinners are simple—a light protein such as fish or chicken, a giant salad and vegetables. Nancy said to me that people call this the happy diet.

Like anything that takes you away from your habits, or your “normal,” there are adjustments to make. And I have learned that being rigid about diet and food is just another form of stress. The goal with eating clean is to find foods that nourish your body and help you with your specific issues. If it’s sleep, then research foods that help you sleep.

This is not a one-size-fits-all routine. But I can attest that the lemon water, green juice, smoothies and infusions are pretty easy to add to your regimen. Then try eating a vegetarian lunch a couple of days a week and eating a simply prepared protein for dinner. Your body will reward you by feeling better.

If I am away, I scan the menu for the cleanest, healthiest choices. I will have an occasional cheese and cracker and I do not beat myself up. Because I have experienced the negative effects of ice cream and sugar on my system, I tend to pass those.

All I have is my personal experience to share but I thought the results were worthy of writing about. I can report that I am off coffee, people comment that I look years younger and my energy is even throughout the day.

I am grateful for and thank my food for its nutrients and healing power and I chew my food. Eating has become the spiritual experience I always knew it should be. And yes, I can confirm it is the happy diet.

Carole Murko is a home cook, writer and host of “Radio Heirloom Meals” on Robin Hood Radio (NPR) at 91.5 FM in Sharon, Connecticut. She has hosted and produced TV specials for PBS. HeirloomMeals.com

SAMPLE MENU

Steamed carrots, burdock root, daikon and squash with brown rice and a pressed cabbage salad with sesame seeds.

Tempeh (fermented soybeans) fried in coconut oil over finely minced kale, steamed burdock and carrots, polenta with finely minced rosemary and scallions.

Rice biriyani with beet salad and beet greens salad.

RECIPE

Cleansing Green Juice for Two

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