What is the role of food in your life?
Do you plan or think about what you eat?
Do you just grab whatever's handy because your schedule is crazy and you were supposed to be someplace else five minutes ago?
What is the link between your groceries and your long-term goals?
Health advocate Kathleen DiChiara has launched a community movement (rhodetohealth.com) to get people thinking about the connection between what we eat, how we feel and the overall quality of our lives. She believes real health care reform begins in our own kitchen, when we discover what our individual bodies need to thrive.
Diet is personal. And there is a clear, consistent connection between what we eat and what we do, DiChiara said. It's the difference between confidently directing our actions each day, and dragging ourselves from one task to the next.
"If your goal is to change the world, you need vitality of the body and energy of the mind. The body is a self-healing mechanism," she explained. "But we've taken this process of how we nourish ourselves and turned it into a convenience. And let's face it, it's hard to feel alive" hauling around a pound of fast food.
It's also hard when you're living with chronic pain or illness. DiChiara knows. Prior to August of 2007, she was a self-described 'workout machine.' The rigors of her high-pressure job at a Fortune 500 company were accentuated by the rigors of training for the triathlons she competed in — biking, swimming, running. She was all muscle. "If you threw me into a pool I'd drop like a rock," she joked.
Then she suffered an injury which set into motion the disorders that would ultimately change her life and the lives of her family, from the inside out. A herniated disc progressed into neuropathy and fibromyalgia. (Both conditions can be brought on by repetitive injury, trauma, infection, food intolerance or exposure to toxins.) She was wracked with fatigue and degenerative arthritis. Her body was falling apart.
Shuffling around her house, unable to return to her profession or be fully present to her young boys, she struggled to accept this debilitated version of her health and body. She lay awake at night, feeling disconnected and lost.
"Every time they [her doctors] said there was no solution, I felt strongly — strongly — that this is not the way it's supposed to be," she said.
She began to study the human body and the various disorders of which inflammation is the prime characteristic. Her determination to find and treat the root causes of her illness led her to certification as a health and nutrition coach, and extensive training in functional nutrition and raw food preparation.
"There is so much information but it is really difficult to navigate — even the literature breaks the body apart — the brain is separated from the gut, for example… it is difficult to find research that takes a whole body approach," she said.
For example, human stomach lining regenerates every three days. But for someone with a gluten intolerance, that healing simply doesn't happen.
"When I comes to our immune system, most people think of white blood cells, lymph glands or even vaccines" she explained. "They would be surprised that our intestines contain more immune cells than the rest of our entire body. The gut plays a critical role in immune function."
The microbiota in the gut helps us digest food but it also stimulates the immune system as needed. "Eighty percent of our immune system is in the gut," she explained. Symptoms appear when the chronic stress of eating the wrong foods — something as harmless-looking as a box of pasta or a loaf of bread — wears damages the away the stomach lining. The body in turn, creates antibodies to counter what it sees as a foreign toxin (antigen).
"The right diet for me could be a complete disaster for someone else," she stressed.
Food intolerances, she said, reveal themselves in different ways. Because it's potentially fatal, the allergic reaction that gets the most attention is anaphylactic shock, but individual reactions can be as limited as eczema or migraine headaches, or as comprehensive as autism, which DiChiara describes as a "whole body disease."
The challenge in changing the status quo, DiChiara said, is that most people come to accept chronic symptoms as "normal." She stresses that chronic illness may be "common, but it's not normal.'"
A critical distinction, she emphasized, and one she saw play out in Stephen, her eldest son. A "bright, sweet, thoughtful" boy, he was diagnosed with autism at age 4. Everything from getting dressed to reading and homework were a daily struggle, consuming hours of his life.
"He had a very comprehensive IEP," she recalled.
DiChiara again felt instinctively, that the diagnosis described a set of symptoms. But it did not define the boy she and her husband knew.
"After a neurologist's recommendation to medicate our son, we had to ask ourselves, 'Are we so completely blinded by love that we don't see what these professionals were seeing?'" DiChiara said. She began to implement diet and lifestyle changes.
"Our intention was not to fix him, just to help him have the best life possible. I could see he was struggling. So I said, 'OK, what can I do to ease the burden on his body?'"
With consistency and determination to stay the course, Stephen "emerged." Today, at age 10, he is an engaged, happy, straight-A student.
"What's interesting is that we never spoke about his conditions in front of him," DiChiara says. He simply knows that he has to be selective about what he eats.
"The way we explain it is, 'When you ate certain foods, there were some things that were difficult for you, like homework, and talking with your friends…"
They adopted this approach because the real danger of a diagnosis is that "it can be used to justify behaviors and limitations."
Hope, she says, is what conventional medicine has stripped from the process of healing.
"Nobody wants to be hopeless," she emphasizes. "When you remove the burden from the body, the soul can shine."
She acknowledges that it's difficult for whole families — at first — to overhaul their eating habits. It's socially inconvenient to eat healthy, especially with dietary restrictions like gluten. Guilt can be another hurdle for parents.
"People think we're depriving our kids, but we believe what they're actually doing is projecting their nostalgia [for certain food] on kids."
Now that her family has been practicing whole foods eating for a few years, her sons instinctively know to read labels, she says. One of the kids saw "Blue #24" listed as an ingredient on a wrapper the other day and remarked "That doesn't sound like food. That sounds like a chemical."
And once you're tuned in to the alternatives — like almond flour in place of grains; dates and honey instead of processed sugars — life takes a delicious turn.
Visit the Rhode to Health page on Facebook and you'll find recipes for buffalo chicken sweet potato skins, dairy-free almond flour pancakes, roasted tomato soup, frittata, and flourless chocolate cake.
And don't be intimidated. These recipes do not require intense preparation. The cake, for example, has just five ingredients.
Kathleen DiChiara will speak about functional nutrition at the third annual Ignite event on March 29 at 7 p.m. at the Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main St., South Kingstown, R.I. Call 401.218.0282 for ticket information.