Updated: Jul 3
My father’s health was deteriorating. He was crippled by Type 2 diabetes. He walked with a cane. Two toes on one of his feet had been amputated. He was partially deaf and lost sight in one eye. His kidneys had failed. My mother drove him 15 miles through L.A.’s congested freeways to the hospital for dialysis twice a week. She was struggling financially and emotionally.
Though debilitated physically, my father remained strong spiritually. He was hobbled by his disease, but still active in the church where he served as minister. Then he got sicker and we ministered unto him.
I was young. I wanted to stay the course I had charted for myself. I wanted to teach abroad, travel and explore the world.
One Saturday morning, I walked into my parents’ bedroom for the phone to call a recruiter in South Korea to accept a position I had been offered. I glanced over at my father. He was lying in bed. His arms were flailing as if in slow motion. His eyes roved from side to side. He made moaning, guttural sounds.
His eyes were open, but he did not respond. I rushed to the kitchen and poured sugar into a glass of orange juice. I sat him up, tilted his head back, and put the cup to his lips, slowly pouring the juice into his mouth. Rivulets of juice streamed down the corners of his lips and down his chin. He was unresponsive. His eyes were glazed. I called 911. When the paramedics arrived, they gave him a glucose injection. Slowly, he regained consciousness.
“His sugar was low,” one of the paramedics said. “He could’ve slipped into a coma. It's a good thing you were here.” They rushed him to the emergency room.
I had to make a decision. I had to choose between my dreams and my duty. Do I follow my bliss and travel or remain home indefinitely to assist my mother in caring for my father? My dad wanted what all loving fathers want for their children- my happiness; he encouraged me to travel.
I called the recruiter in South Korea to decline the offer. Duty trumped happiness. My father was my strength, now he needed mine. Yet I resented that we had to bear a burden that could have been avoided had my father made better choices.
According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, the leading causes of death in America- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure- are largely preventable and could be avoided with the right diet, exercise and lifestyle. Complications related to poor health from osteoarthritis to respiratory impairment to the cognitive decline that accompanies old age have also been linked to lifestyle choices and diet.
Obesity rates are driven partly by sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of cheaper, processed foods. As an educator, I'm concerned with the trends I see on the ground. Childhood obesity is epidemic in America. Roughly ⅓ of children and adolescents are obese. Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years. In the inner city where I worked at the time, the statistics are worse. The disparities in obesity prevalence are higher for Latino and Black children.
Good health is a wellspring of intangible wealth. If I could encourage students to be good custodians of their health and well being, I could spare them and their loved ones the misfortune of ill health.
My job was to teach kids to eat well and live healthier lifestyles. Cycling to work, I’d see obese parents driving obese kids to school. At school, I’d see jars of candy on teacher’s desks, and sweet, processed foods handed out to children in the cafeteria by overweight employees. It was my responsibility to model and encourage what I wanted to see.
To reverse the trend, some politicians called for increased regulation, others called for cuts to subsidies. Some have suggested taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages. The Los Angeles city council banned new fast foods restaurants.
It was all outside my circle of influence. As an educator, my job was to educate. I felt I was fighting powerful interests- conglomerates, lobbies, and multinational corporations that marketed unhealthy foods and snacks to children for a profit. They hammered their messages to children daily with subtle and not so subtle marketing techniques- "through covetousness and feigned words making merchandise of you." (2 Peter 2:3) I fought these campaigns as best I could with education, but even the whole foods I recommended were not necessarily whole nor were the “natural” foods natural.
When I lived in Japan, the fruits and vegetables I purchased spoiled after just 2 or 3 days. In America, the produce lasted much longer. In America, the produce was bigger, shinier, often more appealing to the eye, but less flavorful to the taste than produce in Japan. Whether genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides, or amended with petroleum based fertilizers, I couldn’t be certain the foods I was eating were natural. We had no CSA in the inner city. But a new dialysis clinic opened up across the street from where my father pastored before diabetes debilitated him.
Our health care system is invested in disease, not prevention. The money is in pills, in procedures, in research- not in promoting behavioral change with kale, nuts, and avocados. Few doctors will ask you about your diet or exercise routine when you go for your annual physical. If you are feeling unwell, most will ask about symptoms, run tests, diagnose, and prescribe a drug- without addressing root causes. You won't be prescribed a change in diet or given an exercise regimen to follow. Insurance companies do not reimburse doctors for suggesting a plant based diet or high intensity interval training.
A doctor can save a life and extend the days of her patient. A teacher who encourages her students to adopt a healthy lifestyle may make doctor’s visits unnecessary. Good nutrition can be preventive medicine. And the prescriptions could be delicious.
I am writing from Las Vegas, Nevada, visiting my sister. She wants to improve her diet. Some of the "food" in her pantry and refrigerator is engineered by chemists. It's labeled natural and organic. Where in nature do we find soy lechtin, potato dextrin, Di Sodium Dihydrogen Diphosphate and Sodium Carbonates, Xantham Gum, Methyl Cellulose, Sodium Stearoyl-2 lactylate, calcium propionate, dextrose or "natural flavors?" These are among the ingredients of just 4 items in her pantry. They are packaged in boxes labelled organic and natural.
I have prepared a meal plan for her: Ethiopian injera with potatoes, cabbage, and lentils, a dessert of oats, walnuts, dark chocolate, coconut flakes, dates, flax, and peanut butter; iskiate, a beverage prepared by the Tarahumara made with chia seeds, lime, and honey, Salvadoran pupusas, Mexican huevos rancheros, Nepalese dal bhat, Korean kimchi, Middle Eastern falafel with tabouli, Jewish knishes, Japanese yakisoba, Jamaican ital stew, and other foods from around the world.
I will be heading to a Farmer's Market for organic produce and several international markets for spices after I publish this. Do you recognize these ingredients: sesame seeds, cucumber, onions, garlic, ginger root, turmeric root, broccoli, kale, asparagus, eggs, carrots, beets, lentils? Can you pronounce the names of these ingredients: chickpeas, beans, mushrooms, yams, tomatoes, cilantro, cauliflower, black beans, spinach? These are among the ingredients that will be going into the dishes and beverages we make this week. It is living food. Take a bulb of garlic and plant it in the ground... it grows. Scoop Sodium Stearoyl-2 lactylate in the soil. Will it sprout?
My father died from diabetic complications in 2007. Both legs were amputated. He suffered several strokes. He was partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound for his final years of life. He lost his ability to speak. The health care he received in his final days was excellent; an excellent diet would have extended his life by decades however.
My father was my mentor. I learned from his successes and mistakes. He ate the typical American diet- mostly processed garbage. He ate mindlessly. The thousands of dollars he spent over the course of his lifetime on junk and processed foods that tasted good sickened him. Not one of the food companies that engineered the foods he consumed sent him a get well card when he was admitted to the hospital. Not one of the multibillion, multinational corporations helped with his medical expenses which crippled the family's finances. Not one shared in the burden of his care. We did.
Skilled meditators know that the foods we eat affect our concentration, energy levels, and moods. Skilled meditators assume responsibility for their health. We do not cede our health over to systems, clinicians, grocers, or marketers.
I am an educator, not a nutritionist. I am committed to learning and growing. It takes resolve and discipline to commit to a healthy lifestyle. Ultimately, the choice and responsibility is ours to educate ourselves and to act on what we learn.
Choose well. May you enjoy good health and vitality.