When Libby McClaren was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor recommended immediate surgery to remove the tumor from her bladder, followed by chemo and radiation treatments. Libby doesn’t recall how she reacted but she needed quiet time. “I don’t like to be rushed into things,” she said. After talking to her husband Clancy, and her two sons, she unplugged the phone and rested over the weekend. That was seven years ago, and Libby is still alive, thanks to a diet loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit. And love.
Libby and daughter Mamie (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)
While this is Libby’s story, I’m sharing other personal crusades with hopes that they will inspire you, your family or friends in times of need…
It’s not headline news that to maintain a healthy lifestyle we need to exercise regularly and eat right. But sometimes we shun healthy choices or we ignore the signs of a downward spiral, as in Libby’s case. “You take some childhood trauma, genetic weaknesses, 13 mercury fillings, a questionable water source, a poor diet, a few parasites and amoebas from that trip down south, add 45 years of stress and voila! Your weakest organ takes a bullet.”
“The funny thing,” she said, “Is you don’t even know it. You’re just tired. All the time. By the time I wised up I was 53 years old.”
Uh, Oh… The Western Diet is Broken
The information is out there to help us make healthy choices. Trouble is, in the so-called Western diet, says Michael Pollan (author of many bestsellers including Omnivore’s Dilemma), “Food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion–most of what we’re consuming today is no longer the product of nature but of food science.”
The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American Paradox: “The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.” Thus, his manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by “nutrients,” which are not the same thing. [Michael Pollan, in The New York Times article, Unhappy Meals]
Lunch from the greenhouse in Homer, Alaska (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)
Living With Lyme Disease (Diana’s story)
If you’re new to looking at food this way (and want to change how or what you eat), begin by keeping it simple. My friend Diana applies ‘food as medicine’ choices to cope with Lyme disease, thyroid issues and complications from head injury complications.
“I avoid almost all processed, multi-ingredient foods,” she says. “I also find my health is better if I limit the amount of foods in my diet that are high in sugar. The other thing I feel has made a difference for my body is keeping my meals simple in terms of just 2-3 ingredients at a time and eating small amounts frequently.
Diana also listens to her body. “Since I place a high priority on being as healthy as possible, and know that for my body, food is a big part of staying well, I’ve learned to pay attention to how I feel in the hours and day after I eat various foods to figure out what actually works for my body at this time.”
In the long run, Diana tries to be careful but not to be rigid about her choices. “On special occasions I will eat foods that are not ‘perfect’ for me and enjoy every bite!”
Fats are Good? Bad? What to Believe? (Betsy’s story)
Remember when we were told that fats were bad for us? Here’s another story for you…
When Betsy’s (not her real name) daughter developed an eating disorder, she plunged into research. “I learned that our brains need fats,” Betsy said. “But everyone, including the elementary schools were preaching the non-fat foods message and my daughter took it to heart.”
Soon her daughter’s brain became malnourished which triggered the eating disorder. “In order to recover her health we had to feed her lots of calories, including fat calories, to gain back the weight and re-nourish her brain. Today she is a thriving young adult.” Betsy still cringes when she sees advertisements declaring non-fat foods as ‘healthy.’ “All foods are OK, even junk foods, if eaten as a treat in moderation.”
We don’t have to wait for a wake-up crisis. We can take the journey to ideal health by making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives and enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy.
David Spiegelhalter, a professor of risk assessment at the University of Cambridge, says that each day you eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, you add 2 hours to your life. [From the article, Measuring MicroLives: How to calculate the exact impact of daily choices on every precious minute of your life. On Slate.com.]
Knowledge + Wisdom = Power
Libby, the fish whisperer (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)
Libby poses with sons on a fishing boat in Kodiak, Alaska (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)
Like Betsy, Libby dove into research, eventually opting out of surgery. Her family didn’t know what to think. “What do you want to do?” her fisherman-husband asked.
“I want to go to the Gerson Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico,” she said. “They’ll train me in a therapy involving fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe my body can correct itself.” But there was a catch: The price tag for two weeks at the clinic was 11,000 dollars.
Enter Libby and Clancy’s friend, Wayne Tipler of the F/V Mar Pacifico, a commercial fishing boat in Kodiak, Alaska. Wayne had a few fishing quotas leftover from the season. And when Wayne learned about Libby’s illness he said, “Let’s go fishing for Libby!” So with the fuel, bait, gear, and crew time donated, the Mar Pacifico headed out to the fishing grounds.
“They caught the quota,” said Libby, “and presented me with a check for 11,000 dollars.”
Two weeks of de-toxing at Gerson did a lot to educate Libby about food, diet and time. “A simple organic diet (meatless, no dairy, no sugar) has an amazing effect on a body in crisis.”
Time, however, was her biggest challenge. “I stopped hurrying and learned to slow down” because preparing and eating well takes time. “If you think you are saving time by getting that sack of cheap burgers on your way home, it’s a delusion. If you make it a habit, you will pay in health problems later.”
Pointing the Finger…
Libby blames no one for her odyssey. “There are options and choices which carry consequences, good, bad, or nothing,” she says. “We can’t control everything so we have to be ready to make adjustments, like tacking in the wind with a sailboat. I bear the results of the decisions I make.”
She does, however, point a finger at the medical profession. “Doctors are not educated to view food as medicine,” said Libby, adding that no matter what your situation is, you need to take responsibility for your own health. “What goes into our mouths plays a big part in health issues.”
Clancy, the green thumb, poses with a spaghetti squash in the greenhouse (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)
Today, Libby and her husband live in Homer, Alaska where they raise organic food in two high tunnels, also called hoophouses. “I’m no longer a food Nazi,” she says, “but there is no doubt that food played a major role in my maintaining stability despite the still present tumor.”
Life for Libby
Libby feels blessed to have attended all three of her kids’ weddings. “I am so happy I got to see those things happen. Life is so full of delightful things!”
Today her diet now consists of oatmeal or local chicken eggs and Ezekiel bread for breakfast, plenty of veggies (or soups), moose, and fish. And to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in her gut (now known to boost digestive health) she eats lots of home-preserved sauerkraut and fermented greens with every meal. Whole grains, hummus, and smoothies blended with homemade kefir made from local raw goat’s milk rounds out the menu.
As for desserts, Libby adopted a healthy spin to sweet cravings. “We grow lots of strawberries and I freeze them to make a fruity ice cream.” For a special treat, Libby goes for Moose Nuggets…
Libby’s Moose Nuggets
6 Tbl nut butter, such as almond
3 Tbl coconut oil
3 Tbl maple syrup or honey
2 T raw cacao
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup crushed nuts such as cashews or pecans
Mix well (a food processor works great) and stir in nuts. Butter your hands and roll your “nuggets” or use a cookie scoop. Place on parchment paper in a closed container. Store in the fridge. Libby’s note: I like to use organic ingredients and I usually double the batch. You can play with the amounts. For example, add more cacao or different nuts per your taste.)
While Libby’s journey has been far from easy, it’s not been without love and support from friends and family, allowing her to see all three of her children get married. And what’s life without a little humor tossed in.
“Once I wanted to give up and just go to sleep,” she said. But her husband Clancy had other ideas. “You can’t give up.”
“I’m too old to start dating again.”
Libby and husband Clancy (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)