My dad was a wonderful gardener. I grew up eating crisp fresh radishes, tender green onion, luscious red ripe tomatoes (my favorite), and many other earth jewels that sprang up under his watchful eye. We had a chicken coop full of chickens who supplied our eggs and a cow or two that lived out back and gifted us with rich creamy milk for our growing family, which eventually swelled to 11 of us including mom and dad.
Our diet was composed of mostly clean, homegrown unadulterated food. My dad was always telling us that we should eat meat sparingly, in times of cold and famine. The usual pattern was to eat vegetables with boiled potatoes and milk gravy made with a browned flour rue or vegetable soup and other variations during the week. Then our meat meal was reserved for Sunday dinner.
I don’t exactly know how my dad got to be such an unrelenting advocate of what he considered healthy eating. He became the real food police. No black pepper in the house since it was hard on the lining of the stomach. Mustard was questionable. No double desserts for birthdays, only cake but no ice cream—already too much sugar. No added sugar in the hot cereal we ate each morning. Deep fried foods were another no no. Some unexplained disappearances of sweets were solved when one day we found a half eaten cake, dry and hard, safely hidden in Dad’s dresser drawer.
After graduating with a PhD in biochemistry and nutrition, Dad could lay claim to being a real professional. He became a much sought after public speaker on the Word of Wisdom and its implications for everyday eating habits. He delved into the parts of the Word of Wisdom that many had not even considered before. I emerged from all this with a pretty healthful attitude toward food and respect for trying to eat well.
Over time, the experience of two people I knew well helped deepen my understanding of the importance of diet in certain ailments. The first turned to nutrition after she became so ill that her doctor gave her only three weeks to live. The second eschewed chemotherapy and radiation treatment and went with healthy nutrition instead. Both survived their cancers with a healthy diet that emphasized lots of fruits and vegetables. Their examples made a large impression on me.
In 2011, my health was good. I had no lack of energy and no aches and pains. I really could not tell too much difference from how I felt 20 years earlier. I could not run a mile as fast as I once did, but over all I was running further and more consistently than I had ever done before. I felt very blessed. There was one thing, however, that was beginning to cause me some concern. Over a few years of taking advantage of free health screenings, I began to see a gradual increase in my LDL cholesterol count. My screenings were coming back with a marker to indicate higher than healthy counts. I tried to tweak my living habits, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The frustrating thing was that I was really doing everything that popular wisdom indicated I should do: daily exercise, healthy weight, good eating habits, not too much sugar, whole grains, fruits and vegetables every day, avoiding fried foods, low fat milk and dairy products. Yet I was still seeing the numbers increase over the years.
In addition to all the scare literature on the internet, I thought about my dad. His cholesterol counts were high in spite of his dietary prowess, and he did pass away of a heart attack in his 90’s. I began to think that some of my problem must be genetic. But regardless, I still was confronted with what to do about it. I was determined not to take the statin drugs artificially used to lower the counts. I was on no prescription drugs and preferred it that way. There are always side effects, some unknown, from tampering with our bodies with medications. Sometimes this is necessary, of course, but I just felt there must be a better answer.
Enter my special friend, Jane Birch. I had the privilege of being her visiting teaching for an extended period, and we shared our lives, interests, and passions. In 2011, she told me about some new information she was finding about being heart attack proof for life. She had listened to a TV program claiming that dietary changes could afford this marvelous blessing on whoever was willing to make the necessary revisions in their life style. As she pursued this quest for information, I was able to watch her growing excitement and involvement. She soon found me a pretty willing student.
One book Jane suggested reading was The China Study. I had heard about this book previously and thought about reading it but just never got around to it. This time, with Jane’s example, I was motivated enough to follow through and obtain the book. I found it a fascinating book and was very much impressed with the research reported there. As I continued reading related books, I soon realized that if the claims made by the proponents of a whole food diet were true, this could be a natural way to address my high cholesterol issue. I finally came to the decision that I would give it a three-month trial. If it was effective in achieving my desired results, lowing my count to an acceptable level, then I would continue following with this new way of eating, if not, then why bother?
This was an all or nothing deal. It had to be a clean break to achieve any reliable results, my own special little research project! I was determined to observe the low fat whole food diet. Probably the hardest challenge for me was giving up milk. I had a friend who earlier had proposed that milk is bad for you. I adamantly rejected this stance. Of course milk is healthy for us! A few may have lactose intolerance, but for most of us, it is a wonderful, healthy food. After all, hadn’t I been Utah’s Dairy Princess and spent a year going around the state for the Utah Dairy Association expounding on its benefits? But as I studied the literature, I slowly and begrudgingly had to change my stance. Fortunately, I discovered the great milk substitutes available, especially almond and rice milk. This may have just been the turning point between success and failure for my new project.
This is not to say that the rest was easy. The first two weeks I felt like I was starving all the time. When I started the diet, I was afraid to eat almost anything for fear it would have oil, high fructose corn syrup or residual dairy products in it. I wondered how much lettuce and bananas I could eat. In preparation, I had studied McDougall’s 12-day program, but it was still hard. There were strange combinations, too large proportions, and even worse: the time it took to prepare the food. I found that I was almost resentful of time it took to prepare the dishes. I realized I was programmed to cook for others but certainly not just for me. Another issue was that everything tasted bland and uninteresting. In general I love to cook (for others). It was disappointing not to be able to season and make things delicious as I thought was my standard.
Through it all Jane was an amazing friend and support, always there to answer my questions and lend a listening ear. She even invited me over for dinner so I could see what she was eating. She opened up her library and let me borrow her DVDs and cookbooks. Anything she thought would be helpful, she would share. I still have the Internet materials she printed out for me.
The clincher to my efforts was that after a dedicated three months, I was completely delighted to find that my cholesterol count had dropped 77 points! So now I had to be committed for life. Going back to my old way of living would of course just revert me back to where I was before.
Now, from the vantage point of three years, it is interesting to take stock of my gastronomical adventures through the quagmires and vistas of a whole new approach to food consumption. In addition to trying to focus on acquiring the right combination of nutrients was the need of reinserting food as a pleasure. Of course right away I could greet some of my former dishes as steadfast friends that could hold my hand along the way. Minestrone soup, garden fresh tomato sandwiches, and zucchini patties fit right in. It didn’t take long to discover some other combinations that make me happy. A visit to a restaurant in Los Angeles dedicated to healthy food cuisine opened my eyes to just how delicious plant-based eating is.
So now I am ever trying to unlock these delicious culinary codes for my own pleasure and then for others who have chosen an eating path similar to mine. It is such fun to take something I recently concocted to one of my fellow whole food friends to see if it meets their approval. The true litmus tests, however, is if it impresses the taste buds of my omnivorous friends. When I can achieve this end, then I know I am truly making headway in my new cuisine adventure. While I still may be only taking baby steps, I am excited for the possibilities ahead in a whole new world of cooking.
As Latter day Saints, we have been provided with an amazing physical and also spiritual gift in the Word of Wisdom, a key to maintaining good health and physical vigor. This inspired formula was provided before the knowledge of men could confirm it. Now nutritional research has validated much of it. I firmly believe it will stand the test of time. As new fad diets arise and one camp hotly disputes another, I am convinced that using the Word of Wisdom as a guide is the best way to orient ourselves to a healthy life style. If the prescriptions of men fly in the face of the Lord’s proclamation, which would you choose? I am grateful for this revelation. I also thank my father for opening my eyes to the many aspects of this revelation beyond the prohibitions we so readily learn even as children.
Elon Mangelson lives in Provo, Utah. She has 7 children and almost 16 grandchildren. She loves cultures and peoples and enjoys reading, cooking, and exercising. Jane Birch thinks she is an amazing visiting teacher!
P.S. Elon sent her application in to serve a full-time mission after posting this story. Despite being in her mid-seventies, the doctor gave her a complete health pass, the same as for young, healthy missionaries! She was recently called to the Australia Melbourne Mission. Go Elon!