Reflections on food for healing people and planet
by Kim & Michelle Morrow
Introduction by Kim
I love the quote from Glennon Doyle, “We can do hard things.” One of the hardest things in my life has been my relationship with food. Food is a love language in my family. All holidays and special occasions feature a full spread of Southern family recipes. Overeating is a form of praise; not doing so is an affront. Celebrating? Eat a congratulatory meal with dessert at the end. Sad? Bury those sorrows under some comforting food. Making and eating food is safer than feeling. Now, at 35 years old, I find myself overweight and suffering from at least two autoimmune diseases. Things are about to change.
Early this year, my wife, Michelle, and I cast a vision for a “flourishing life,” one lived in alignment with our values and goals. So, after three years of living in California, we decided to move back to Nashville where we hope to be able to make positive and lasting changes. One important goal we identified is restoring our health. Though we’ve learned a lot about the link between health and food justice, we’ve struggled to establish new patterns and consistently implement that learning. That is what brings us to this blog series.
“The Redemption of our Bodies” will follow my journey of changing my relationship around food by using nutrition to restore the health I’ve damaged for the last 35 years. Michelle and I will both contribute posts documenting our food journey and reflecting on questions such as, “How can we utilize food to heal our body and soul as well as the earth?” We will include updates on my health, recipes we are enjoying, visits to local farms, sustainability tips, faith reflections, and thoughts on our successes, setbacks and growth. We hope that as you follow our journey, you will be inspired to reflect on your own relationship with food and its implications for health – yours, others and that of the environment.
Diagnosis by Kim
I got a crash course in autoimmune disease when I woke up on New Year’s Day 2013 with a swollen finger and no explanation. After weeks of x-rays, blood tests, anti-inflammatory medicine, and occupational therapy, nothing was working and I had no answers. At a loss, the hand specialist referred me to a rheumatologist as a last-ditch effort. I endured more bloodwork, answered questions about my family medical history, and tried different medications. I felt like the doctors were writing prescriptions and saying, “Try this and see if it works.”
Eventually, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. I say “eventually” because if you or anyone you know has an autoimmune disease, then you know that it can take a long time to get an official diagnosis. My diagnosis came from a process of elimination. Quite a few autoimmune diseases have overlapping symptoms, but we were able to rule out some based on details of my symptoms. For example, I could not have rheumatoid arthritis because my swelling was only in my left hand versus mirroring to my right hand. I also learned that the psoriasis I was being treated for by a dermatologist for the last 10 years was also an autoimmune disease. Suddenly at 30 years old, I had two autoimmune diseases, and the best course of treatment offered was an injection medicine to suppress my overactive immune system – you know, the type with the commercials that go on and on about all the terrifying side effects.
When my doctors kept noting that my bloodwork showed that I had inflammation in my body, I thought, “Of course I do. It’s right here in my finger.” What I later realized through doing my own research of autoimmune disease is that I was suffering from chronic inflammation throughout my body. I thought the problem was my finger, but in reality my finger was just a symptom of a systematic failure of my immune system.
While doing internet research on how to reduce inflammation, I found the book, Clean Cuisine, by Ivy and Andrew Larson. I was fascinated by the author’s story of controlling her multiple sclerosis symptoms through a whole food approach that reduces sugar and processed foods. Over the next four years, I read many books on the link between nutrition, gut health, and autoimmune disease. As I learned valuable new information, pieces of a puzzle came together, showing me that my eating habits affect my health in ways I never knew.
During this time, Michelle and I were inspired to change the way we eat, but struggled to break old habits and maintain the healthy changes we implemented. We would start following a food plan, but within days or weeks would go back to eating the standard American diet ingrained in us. It felt impossible to do this on our own, and we weren’t sure how to get the support we needed. I regularly visited my doctors, but they just kept doing blood tests and asking if my symptoms had gotten worse on whatever medication I was on. No increase in symptoms meant that nothing needed to be done. Even when I asked one doctor about treating my autoimmune disease through diet, he dismissively responded, “Would you really want to live without everything you’d have to eliminate? I’ve never seen anyone be able to do it.” I wanted more: I wasn’t satisfied with symptom management; I wanted to restore my health.
When Michelle and I moved to Nashville recently, we decided to use this transition to fully commit to our health and knew we needed support. Many of the books that I read were written by doctors practicing functional medicine, an approach focused on finding and treating the root causes instead of just symptoms. So I found a functional medicine practitioner, Dr. Lee Howard, founder of Compass Cellular Healing.
For my first appointment, Dr. Howard met with me and Michelle for at least 45 minutes. He listened to us talk about my journey and our unsuccessful attempts at following a healthy diet. Using a white board, he broke down a lot of information, making it accessible so that I could participate in my own health decisions. He recommended doing a Dietary Antigen Test which identifies if I have an allergic or highly sensitive reaction to over 80 different foods. Despite the cost, Michelle and I decided to invest in our health and move forward. I got my results back a week and a half ago. In upcoming posts, we’ll share more about those results and what changes we are making.
Book Recommendations – These titles should be available at your local library
Clean Cuisine: An 8-Week Anti-Inflammatory Diet that Will Change the Way You Age, Look & Feel by Ivy and Andrew Larson
Autoimmune Wellness Handbook: A DIY Guide to Living Well with Chronic Illness by Mickey Trescott and Angie Alt
Creation is Groaning by Michelle
In the first two posts of this series, Kim shared personal health reasons for beginning our food journey. However, this journey is about more than our individual health. We know that the redemption of our bodies and the redemption of all bodies – human and non-human – are intimately connected. Understanding this connection, we both deeply want to align our eating habits with our values for environmental and social justice. “Food justice” is our short hand for all the interconnected aspects of eating faithfully – in other words, relating to food in ways that participate in healing our bodies, regenerating the land and promoting human flourishing.
Food justice begins with hearing the groans of creation and opening our eyes to the devastating effects of our industrial food production practices. My awareness of environmental degradation began as a teenager reading The Grapes of Wrath in a high school English class. One of the images burned into my memory is the tractor.
Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades – not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders – twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping with out passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses (Steinbeck, p. 36).
The top soil eroded and blew away during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s largely because of the farming practices that destroyed the native grasses whose extensive root systems were critical for soil stability. Steinbeck’s graphic rape metaphor is jarring, yet, so is the crisis we face. Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish climate activist, delivered a jarring message of her own at the United Nations Climate Action Summit this month.
This is all wrong… How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.
Steinbeck also points to the economics that kill the land and threaten human life.
The owner men went on leading to their point: You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.
The squatters nodded – they knew, God knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land.
Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were… But -you see, a bank or a company… breathe profits; they eat the interest on money… It is a sad thing, but it is so… The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size (Steinbeck, p. 33).
Over the years I have learned more about the effects of industrial agriculture (conventional farming) on the environment, human health and social justice. It is not a pretty picture.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).
Paul’s words are not a cute way of saying that the world is eager for some spiritual transaction to occur where “the saved” are whisked away to heaven and leave this world behind. Paul is echoing a constant and critical voice within his Jewish faith: the land bears the fruit of humanity’s relationship with God. When we break faith with God by refusing to live as God’s image-bearers, and specifically as creation’s stewards, the land is cursed (Genesis 3:17-19).
Biblical scholar Ellen Davis writes,
We are literally consuming our planet, taking our food in a way that violates its natural systems… In this situation, it is instructive to notice that the first human sin, as the Bible represents it, is an eating violation. God sets a limit, and the humans choose to override it. God responds with a question both indignant and incredulous: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat” (Genesis 3:11). The immediate result of this first violation is that the ground itself is “cursed” (3:17). It sprouts “thorns and thistles,” a clear sign of fragile land that has been mistreated. A group of young farmers with whom I studied this passaged opened my eyes to what any ordinary Israelite would have seen in it. They said, “It’s obvious: when humans are disconnected from God, the soil will be the first to suffer.”
The truth we should not miss in these passages is that adam and adamah, humanity and fertile soil, are bound together; there can be no long-term flourishing of the one without the other. As the young farmers saw, human dysfunction evidences itself in the natural order (from “Knowing Our Place on Earth: Learning Environmental Responsibility from the Old Testament” in The Green Bible).
Humanity’s disordered longing for autonomy, power, status, money, etc., is killing the earth. We live as if the environment is merely another object to “use.” Consumerism is the liturgy of our daily lives wherein we sacrifice our humanity and worship the myth of “eternal economic growth.” Creation is groaning for our redemption, for our liberation to take up our full humanity as God’s children faithfully serving and observing the garden’s vitality that is inextricably linked to the flourishing of all life. We have to answer its call.
Becoming aware of the death the creation suffers, we lament, joining with creation’s groans in eager hope for liberation. Then, we repent. As Kim and I put our learning into practice, we will have to challenge our own consumerism, reclaim our humanity, and invest in healing the wounds we inflict on the earth and others.
The Plan by Kim
Three weeks after meeting with Dr. Howard, I returned to his office to get the results of my Dietary Antigen Test. He walked me through the 12 pages of results, showing me how to read whether I have no adverse response, an allergic response, or a sensitivity (inflammatory) response to the 80+ foods tested. I was very curious. I expected to see a couple of things listed as an allergy or sensitivity, such as dairy (I’ve struggled with eating dairy since childhood), but I also wondered what surprises the test might reveal.
As I expected, cow’s milk was listed with an inflammatory response. The surprise was that scallops came back as an allergic response. I have never had a noticeable response after eating scallops; however, that reaction could be mild and not obvious to me. I like scallops but do not eat them often, so that won’t be hard for me to avoid.
The results handout included a summary of which foods to limit or eliminate from my diet based on my body’s reaction. Each food was put into one of three lists: No Limitation, Limit (rotate), or Eliminate. Though I have seen many lists of the most common inflammatory foods previously, I really appreciated finally having a list specific to me.
The following are the foods that I should eliminate from my diet:
- Aspergillus Mix (fungus/mold – hidden in ingredients like citric acid)
- Brewer’s Yeast
- Candida (yeast – feeds on sugar)
- Cow’s Milk
- Egg Albumin (egg white)
- Whole Wheat
- White Potato
What does it mean that my body has an inflammatory response to these foods? Why and how does that happen? I have something called Leaky Gut. The lining of my gut is damaged and allows food particles to pass through before being completely broken down. My immune system recognizes these food particles as foreign bodies and attacks, causing an inflammatory response. Check out the post, “What is Leaky Gut?”, from The Paleo Mom for the science behind Leaky Gut.
Working with Dr. Howard, Michelle and I made a plan to eliminate the foods in the limit or eliminate lists for 12 weeks. By giving my body 12 weeks without foods that trigger an inflammatory response, I will allow my gut to start healing. After this period, I will reintroduce each food one at a time in 4 day intervals and note any reactions or symptoms I feel. These symptoms could include inflamed joints, aches, brain fog, and/or rashes.
Sometimes when you are living with constant symptoms, those symptoms feel normal and you don’t recognize them as a reaction. That is why the elimination phase is so important. You have to learn to feel good again. As my gut heals and I feel better overall, I will be able to notice if my body responds negatively when I reintroduce a food. Also, because my gut will have started healing, some of these foods may no longer create a negative reaction when reintroduced and can be added back into my everyday diet. Others may need to be either eliminated longer to allow for more healing or completely eliminated going forward. Ultimately it is my decision whether to eat a food that causes a reaction. I get to determine if the reaction or symptoms are worth it. This plan gives me the information to make that decision for myself.
Michelle and I started the elimination plan four weeks ago. For the first two weeks, we eliminated 100% of the foods that cause an inflammatory response. We made all our meals at home so that we could control exactly what went into our food and did not have to worry about unknown ingredients or cross contamination. This is a major change from our normal lifestyle of eating out several meals a week.
Those first two weeks were tough – much tougher than I expected. There was a lot of whining and even some tears. We were craving our favorite foods and restaurants. I had days that I would have done anything for pizza and wanted to completely quit the elimination. There is definitely an addictive element to food for me. I am so thankful to have an amazing support person in Michelle. Even still, I started feeling there was no way we could make it the whole 12 weeks.
During week three, we found a couple of options at restaurants that were mostly within our eating plan. We went out to eat a couple of times but still cooked most meals at home. Week four came and the eating plan went totally off the rails. We quickly went back to our pre-elimination eating habits.
During this week, I had an appointment to see Dr. Howard, and I was dreading it. As an overweight person, I have definitely felt shamed by some doctors regarding my weight. During the appointment, we discussed how the elimination was going, and I filled him in on the struggles we were having. He asked how I felt physically during the first two weeks when we stayed 100% on plan. I recognized that I had felt more energy, less aches, and less puffiness in my feet and fingers. Dr. Howard encouraged me to look at the positives from those two weeks and use that as motivation to eat back on plan. He never tried to shame me. Instead, he reinforced how hard food changes can be and encouraged me to give myself grace.
Where do we go from here?
Michelle and I recommitted to the elimination plan with some modifications. Since an “all or nothing” approach does not work well for us, we want to allow some of the less reactive foods in our diet. Some flexibility will help us stay on track more than rigid restriction will. Part of creating a sustainable lifestyle change will be finding balance. I also want to work to change my focus from thinking about what I can’t eat to the results that I am already seeing and feeling.