Updated: Aug 4, 2021
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 ended up ministering unto him.
I was young. I had just returned home from a 2 year teaching assignment in Japan. I wanted to stay the course I had charted for myself. I wanted to live 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 the 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 would’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 job I was offered. 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 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)
Disgust is often deemed a negative emotion. Used skillfully, however, it could be a powerful ally. The machinations of those possessed by greed disgusted me. The indifference of those who profit off the suffering of others disgusted me.
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. Suppose you eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After several months of this, you begin to develop any one of the symptoms associated with the Western diet: low grade inflammation, oxidative damage, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or hypertension. The doctor will treat the symptoms and the prescription will work... for a while. But, you won't be prescribed a change in diet or given an exercise regimen to follow. Insurance companies do not reimburse doctors for suggesting plant based or whole food diets, high intensity interval training or meditation. Neither mindfulness nor nutrition, as far as I know, are embedded in medical school curricula (e.g., Harvard's Medical School Course Catalog, 2021).
Despite advances in evidence-based research on the benefits of certain diets, there is a dissemination gap of about 17 years for research to be integrated into clinical practice (Brownson, 2006). I can't wait that long for the paradigms to shift and for the institutions to change.
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 largely unnecessary. Good nutrition can be preventive medicine. And the prescriptions could be delicious.
I am writing from Las Vegas. I'm 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, ginger tea, and other foods from around the world. Every meal is prepared with whole foods. They're all delicious and nutrient dense- including the drinks: protein shakes with a coconut & oat milk base, banana, blueberries, acai, strawberries, ashwaghanda, spirulina, flax and chia seeds, mucuna pruriens, kale, and gingko.
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? Your body knows what to do with a bolus of spinach. How does the body react when it does not recognize something you ingest that you yourself can barely pronounce?
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. His doctors were exemplary and caring. Our family remains deeply grateful to all of his clinicians.
Sadly, a simple diet of whole, mostly plant based foods would have extended his life by decades and made doctor's visits unnecessary.
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 of the lobbyists or lawyers who promoted and defended the interests of the conglomerates shared in the burden of his care. We did.
Skilled meditators know that the foods we eat affect our concentration, energy levels, and moods. We connect with the body and observe sensations as they arise. We develop interoceptive awareness. If we eat poorly, we feel that. If we eat well, it aids in concentration. Our gut has its own nervous system, sometimes called the enteric brain. It has over 100 million neurons and 35 neurotransmitters. 70% of serotonin, the neuromodulator that contributes to feelings of calm, is produced in the gut. The foods we eat affect the milieu of our gut flora. This microbiome plays a vital role in both our physical and mental well-being. 95% of the information received in the gut goes to the brain; its not the other way around. What we eat, in other words, can change our body, mind, and mood.
Skilled meditators assume responsibility for their health. We do not cede responsibility for our health over to systems, clinicians, grocers, marketers or anyone else. We commit to learning and growing, to studying and applying what we've learned. 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. The 90 year old grandfather and athlete I hope to someday be is depending on the choices I make today.
Choose well. May you enjoy good health and vitality.