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Don't underestimate small changes

When it comes to making health improvements, sometimes the smallest changes in the diet can make the biggest difference in quality of life.

I often work with people who don't know just how good they can feel until they remove a food that ails them, while exploring other new and interesting foods. That's what recently happened to a client and her son.

Abigail is a middle aged woman in New York City who I've worked with over the last 5 years for weight loss and arthritis. She recently came to me because her 16 year old son had been suffering from chronic bad breath, digestive problems, skin irritation, and increasing trouble focusing in school. Despite his mother being a wonderful cook and very conscious about what she makes them, he is a typical young man in that he is a bit picky and he likes going out with his friends for a burger or pizza. He was so tired of feeling lousy from these heavy foods, he decided he wanted some professional help (let's face it, sometimes we can only get so much advice from our family).

After gathering a health history and listening to his symptoms, we discussed how most, if not all, of his symptoms seemed to be stemming from his gut. Gut health might be all the buzz in the media these days, but we can trace expert wisdom of gut health all the way back to Hippocrates, who said "all disease begins in the gut". In talking to her son, inflammation was clearly the first piece we had to tackle; it was as though his body was overheating, like a car. In effort to cool down the inflammation inside, we started by removing some of the most potentially inflammatory triggers in his diet: sugar, dairy, and gluten. No known wheat allergy was reported. Aside from testing for Celiac, the gold-standard test to see if he was reactive to gluten is to completely taking it out. By the way you don't have to have Celiac to be sensitive to gluten. Research indicates that 18 million people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. To put that into perspective, that is 6 times more Americans than those with Celiac disease.

Reducing or removing a staple in the diet, like gluten, may be small in the big picture, but can feel like the world has faded to black and white.

This is where I come in as a culinary nutrition educator. I immediately show the client effective steps to take in order to make their dietary changes practical for his or her lifestyle.

1. The Flip Side

It's easy to only see what you can't have when adjusting your diet. Focus on ALL of the foods you can eat. For example, just because Abigail and her son were cutting down on sugar, didn't mean they had to cut out all sweetness from their day. We discussed her including more fiber-rich fruits and how to bring out the sweetness in vegetables by roasting them. Snacks and treats using wholesome gluten free flours, dates, maple syrup, and honey are included in my repertoire, in moderation. Once I talked with Abigail's son about all of his choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, he was much more motivated to get started.

2. Take Action

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Make a plan. In Abigail's case, I drew up a sample weekly menu plan, with recipes, so that she had a template to work from. Each weekend make a menu so you know exactly what to shop for and the fridge/freezer is armoured with health-supportive ingredients. Gather recipes from cookbooks and recipes and keep them collected in a binder, divided by breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, for example.

3. You are Your Environment

Abigail's son took it upon himself to change the way he hung out with his friends. He couldn't keep going out with his friends for pizza and burgers because it wasn't making him feel good so he decided to eat at home after school and hang with his friends at other times when their food choices didn't affect him as much. You may not have complete control of your environment, but you can certainly choose how to interact with your surroundings.

4. Self-compassion

Discovering a new way of eating comes with it's high's and low's. The most important thing to remember is to have compassion for yourself. Have kindness in whatever feelings bubble up along the way. Being perfect is not the end goal. Making more mindful choices is an evolution; discovering how food makes you feel in the body, mind, and heart puts you directly touch with your life.

Four weeks later I followed up with Abigail and her son and she had nothing but good news to report. For the first time in years his bad breath was gone, GI issues were much better, skin irritations were clearing up, and he was feeling so much more positive about his health. Not only was he happy but Abigail was excited to have lost 9.5 lbs. She was also thrilled to discover meals she could make that they'd both enjoy.

When I asked her what made the biggest difference for them, she said,

"We are addicted to sugar and not eating it has made a big difference. After a week, we do not really miss it. As [her son] eliminated foods with gluten, it made him want to try more foods and enjoy vegetables, which he never bothered to eat before."

Abigail's preparation of meals for the week: French Lentil Soup, Pesto Frittata, Lamb Kabobs, Salad, and Slaw

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