How a medical emergency launched my new love affair with plants

It all began when a medical emergency cut short our vacation on October 22, 2016. Soon afterwards, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Alaska State Master Gardeners Conference on April 22, 2017. Earth Day. I knew I couldn’t just give a ra-ra speech about how to grow vegetables. What follows is the Powerpoint presentation I shared at the conference. I’m posting it on my blog with the hope that it will save someone’s life…

Thank you for inviting me to this conference. It is great to be here. I’ve always felt that to hang out with gardeners is to be among friends.

Alaska Master Gardener Conference

Soon after moving to Kodiak in 1984, I completed my Master Gardener training. Since then I’ve tried to share the good gardening word. That’s why we’re all here, don’t you agree? I look forward to exchanging ideas and learning amazing things about fermentation, grafting, high tunnels and more.

I’m here today with a mission for all Master Gardeners: To encourage people to grow and eat more fruits and vegetables. Now more than ever. Let me explain, by telling you a story…

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Last October, my husband Marty and I were camped in Capitol Reef National Park, in southern Utah. Capitol Reef is our favorite national park, in the land of red rocks and narrow canyons. It’s relatively unknown and crowd-free, with glorious hiking trails and night skies. And orchards.

Orchard, Capitol Reef National Park

Three thousand fruit trees that were planted by Mormon pioneers in the 1800s and are now maintained by the National Park Service. Apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, apples, almonds, and plums…Best of all, you can pick all the fruit you want.

One night, after dinner, Marty called his daughter Amy. I sat across from him, typing on my laptop, working on my garden column.

“Hi Amy, we’re now in Capitol Reef. You should see the golden trees set against the red rocks. And tomorrow we’re going to pick apples and……”  I looked up. Something was terribly wrong. Marty was trying to speak, but his words were garbled.

Oh my God, he’s having a stroke! And then, out of the blue, this thought popped into my head: Wait a minute, Marty can’t be having a stroke. These things aren’t supposed to happen on vacation. And it’s his turn to do the dishes!

I turned to my computer and Googled STROKE. Four letters popped up on the screen: F-A-S-T.

Signs of a stroke. FAST

F, stands for face: “Smile, Marty.” He looked okay.

A is for arms. “Raise your arms!” Perfect.

S is for speech: “Marty, where are we?” He shook his head.

T is for time: The description read, “If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.”

Fortunately, Marty’s speech and memory returned to normal within a few minutes. Now what? I spotted the Utah map on the table and read the, “What to do in case of an emergency” information: The closest hospital was in Richfield, 40 miles away. Hmm. I looked out the window. Great. It’s pitch black and it’s Saturday night. Marty and I discussed the pros and cons of driving our 30-foot RV on dark, country roads and decided to leave in the morning.

After breakfast, we packed up and hit the road, driving past family farms and rolling hills. I whispered a prayer, “Lord, I know it’s Sunday, but please have a doctor on duty.”

We parked the RV across the street from the hospital and checked in. Five hours of tests later, the doctor came in and sat down.

Hospital tests

Marty, in the Richfield, Utah hospital where he received top-notch care.

“Mr. Owen, it appears you’ve experienced a TIA. It’s also called a mini-stroke. A TIA is caused when blood flow to part of your brain is temporarily blocked. When you get home, share these lab results with your doctor.”

Kodiak, Alaska airport Benny Benson

Sunset over the Benny Benson Airport, Kodiak, Alaska

We flew home to Kodiak, drove straight to the health clinic, dropped off the results from the hospital, and then headed to the house.

As we opened the front door, the phone was ringing. It was Marty’s doctor. I’ll call him Dr. Greg.  “Marty, you gave me a scare. Having a TIA is a serious warning sign because now you’re more likely to have a full-blown stroke. I can recommend medications and suggest you take a baby aspirin every day, but that does not fix the problem, which is the plaque that’s built up in your arteries. Another option is to change your diet. Start by watching the documentary called, ‘Forks Over Knives.’ It could save your life.”

Forks Over Knives

That night, we signed onto Netflix and watched as the film Forks Over Knives presented scientific evidence that a Standard American Diet loaded with meat and dairy causes many of our most deadly diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and… stroke. And that these same diseases can be prevented and even reversed by adopting what’s known as a whole-food, plant-based diet.

We learned that a whole-food, plant-based diet is an eating plan that includes lots of plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form, like vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. It does not include animal products, like meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs or processed foods like oils or sweets.

Whole Food Plant Based diet

That was a mouthful for us, but the evidence was clear. And Dr. Greg was certainly an inspiration. Four years ago, at 5-ft, 9, he weighed 230 pounds and was shaped like a pear. His cholesterol levels were off the charts. Today he exercises regularly and weighs 160 pounds. He dropped the fried chicken for pizza, minus the cheese and salami.

After watching Forks Over Knives, Marty and I decided to give plant-based eating a try.

Whoa, habits die hard. I’d always believed that by growing our own veggies and cooking mostly from scratch, that our bodies would be alright. Yet what I’d been serving Marty all those years–some of the same stuff that’s killing millions of Americans–had been silently killing him.

Leading causes of death in the United States CDC

Leading causes of death in the United States (from Center for Disease Control data, 2014). Chart design by Marion Owen.

What you’re looking at are the top 15 causes of death in the United States. The red bars represent diseases caused by obesity and diet. At the top is heart disease. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. That’s one in every four deaths in this country. Heart disease is not limited to adults, either. Recent studies show that heart disease is showing up in children.

You know, for all that our heart does for us, we take it for granted. We don’t give it much thought as we go about our busy days. To bring attention to your heart, I’d like you to do this exercise… Make a fist with your left hand. Now cover that fist with your right. That’s the size of your heart. Our bodies contain about 5 quarts of blood. And your heart beats that 5 quarts of blood through your body 2,000 times. Every day. 2,000 times!

Don’t you think we could take better care of our heart?

When I describe what we eat these days, people say the most interesting things. Like, “Wow, no eggs or cheese? That sound pretty extreme.” Extreme? I think using a saw to open up your chest for open heart surgery is extreme.”

At the heart of the problem, is the Standard American Diet—what most Americans eat—is loaded with too much fat, sugar, meat, dairy, and refined, processed junk. We haven’t always eaten this way. The eating pattern in our country began to change right after World War II.

Standard American Diet

From the Mother Jones article, “The Standard American Diet in Three Easy Charts”

Like most Americans, I was told that eating meat helped kept you strong and healthy. I was also taught that if I didn’t drink milk every day that my bones will crumble. Sound familiar? Well, guess what? Our bones are crumbling. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, countries like the U.S. and Australia that consume the most dairy products, have the highest rates of bone fractures.

Meat dairy

Thanks to the Standard American Diet, more of our friends and family members are getting sick and dying prematurely, despite all the procedures and pills we prescribe. We have the most advanced medical technology in the world, yet our life expectancy has dropped for the first time in 22 years. And our children…

The youth of today may live shorter lives than their parents.
~ New England Journal of Medicine

You know what makes me cry inside? We’ve become so accustomed to chronic illness that we consider heart disease and strokes as natural parts of the aging process, like wrinkles on your skin. Let me tell you, there’s nothing natural about my grandfather dying of high blood pressure at age 49. Or my mom and dad dying early from preventable diseases. No one ever counseled them about nutrition.

Hold on here. Since most premature deaths in the country are preventable and related to what we eat, you’d think that nutrition would be the number-one subject taught in medical schools. Sadly, it’s not. You know why? There’s no money in writing prescriptions for broccoli.

Vegetables healthy diet

Let food by thy medicine and medicine by thy food.
~ Hippocrates

I don’t want you to be discouraged because things are changing for the better. For example, Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in the United States which covers about 9 million people with 15,000 physicians, publishes educational brochures to help make plant-based diets the “new normal” for patients and physicians.

Meanwhile, until America catches on to the value of plants as preventive medicine, Marty and I find ourselves in the minority. This was obvious at a recent family gathering. My siblings had questions and concerns. Understandably. We’ve all been led to believe that you must eat meat and eggs for protein, and drink milk for calcium. It’s all marketing hype. Let me share the Top Three questions they asked us. It might help with some of your questions, too:

First question:
Where do you guys get your protein?

Well, how do hippos, horses, elephants, gorillas and cows get their protein? And brown ears. Did you know that 75 percent of a brown bear’s diet is plant-based?

You’ll be happy to learn that protein is easier to get than you think. Even lettuce and tomatoes contain protein. All whole plant foods have some protein in them and by eating a balanced, plant-based diet you get all the protein you need. That goes for Richard Gere, Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, and athletes too, like NFL defensive lineman David Cater, and tennis champion Venus Williams. And regular folks like Josh LaJaunie from Louisiana. Take a look at this before-and-after photo…

When Josh turned 32, he weighed 410 pounds. He joined a gym and began working out; even started jogging. Then, after watching Forks Over Knives he switched to a plant-based diet and today he weighs 190 pounds and competes in ultramarathons. But his greatest achievement? His whole family has adopted plant-based diets.

Second question:
No dairy? Where do you get your calcium?

Cress calcium

Move over kale! Cress is the numero uno green.

Calcium, folks, does not come from cows. It’s not cow-cium. The best way to get usable calcium is to eat a variety of plant foods. The mother lode of calcium? Kale. And quinoa, chickpeas, sesame seeds, spinach, almonds, and cress. (Cress, by the way, now tops kale as the healthiest green). And figs. A half cup of figs has as much calcium as a half cup of milk.

Third question:
Marion, what about olive oil? Isn’t it plant-based and good for you?

Olive oil

Olive oil, coconut oil and other oils are highly refined. Which means all the good stuff, vitamins, protein, minerals and fiber, has been removed. What’s left is fat which causes plaque to build up and clog your arteries. And with more calories per gram that any other food, oils are not part of a healthy diet.

Ah, yes. Today is Earth Day [talk was give on April 22, 2017] and it’s springtime in Alaska. Queen bumblebees are emerging from their underground burrows, and it’s time to prepare the garden, which means starting seeds and pulling weeds.

bumblebee

For the last part of my talk, I’d like to share some of the peaks and valleys we went through while transitioning to healthier eating plan and provide suggestions for how to get started…

One day, soon after we watched Forks Over Knives, I stepped into the kitchen and began pulling food from the shelves. No more mayonnaise, frozen chicken breasts, chips, or sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. It felt great, almost liberating, like pulling weeds after a long winter.

pulling weeds

Then I stood back and stared at rows of empty shelves. It was time to go shopping…

For my first plant-based shopping spree, I’d made a list alright, but I didn’t realize I needed to bring a sleeping bag with me! Steering my cart up and down the aisles, I ended up reading so many labels (Is it oil-free? Is there milk in it?) it took me over 3 hours before I reached the checkout line. As I began placing items on the moving belt, the clerk looked at me, and my cart, and started chuckling. “We were beginning to think you were going to spend the night here!”

Trader Joe's

As for planning plant-based meals, I knew it was important to eat a variety of plant foods, but how much of what …? I never gave it much thought before. I mean you could live on Yukon Gold potatoes and technically you’d be following a plant-based diet. But it wouldn’t be healthy. Then I discovered a checklist called, The Daily Dozen while reading Dr. Michael Greger’s bestselling book, How Not to Die, which is available through Amazon.

Plant based recipes cookbooks

Being a visual kind of gal, I re-created Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen chart on a dry-erase board and set it on the kitchen counter. Here’s how The Daily Dozen works… On the right are the kinds of foods you want to eat each day; on the left are the ideal number of servings.

Now as a child I ate my share of Tater Tots and fish sticks, but these days, I actually cook… a lot. During the summer for example, I feed eight people almost every night on our Galley Gourmet dinner cruises. And I love to cook So, when we converted to a plant-based style of eating, I was afraid it would be boring and too restrictive.

Galley Gourmet dinner cruise

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that this new world of food was refreshing and quite satisfying. There are thousands of tasty, easy-to-make recipes out there that don’t require eggs, oil, or milk. Sound impossible? Try this recipe…

I serve this tasty sorbet to nonbelievers. What a cool way to eat more greens. I call it sneaky nutrition.

I don’t always create winners, though. And I know when something’s a flop, because Marty will say, “Well, that was different.” Case in point: At first, we really missed cheese, so I tried to create a fake cheddar cheese from sweet potatoes, agar flakes, and cashew butter. Hmm, not so good—I tossed it into the compost pile. Hopefully the earthworms won’t mind.

But the parmesan cheese substitute blended from almonds, cashews, nutritional yeast and salt? That was a keeper.

But then, somewhere along the line, I became sort of a food Nazi…

Another story for you: When I was about 10, my parents gave us a science kit called the Visible Man. Now that I think back on it, maybe it was their prelude to The Talk. Imagine a 16-inch model with see-through skin which shows the major veins and arteries. The kit comes with the skeleton, vital organs, and brain. The idea is to paint the organs and then assemble the kit. We learned a lot, but we had fun, too… putting the bladder in the skull and the brain in the abdominal cavity. So keep the Visible Man in mind while I tell the rest of this story…

While vacationing in Arizona this winter, I’d been really stressing out over food. How much oil was in a slice of Dave’s Killer Bread? Will the restaurant throw us out if we ask for no cheese on the veggie burger? Because of my love for Marty and concern for his health, I fretted over every food choice to the point where I made myself sick with worry.

I called the health clinic in Kodiak. “Dr. Greg, I’m scared that we’ll eat the wrong things. I mean, it’s not like Marty is the Visible Man, where I can see what’s going on inside him!”

“Marion,” he said. “It’s OK to eat animal protein now and then. Just keep any servings to the size of a deck of cards.”

We should all be eating fruits and vegetables as if our lives depend on it–because they do.
~ Dr. Michael Greger, Nutritionfacts.org

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Marion, it’s too late to change how I eat.” I’m telling you, it’s never too late to begin a plant-based diet. You will see results in as little as 3 weeks: Your cholesterol will plummet, you’ll have more energy, and you’ll lose weight. Without trying. No more stiff and swollen joints, no more gout, no more bloating after meals, and no more… constipation, thanks to all that great dietary fiber. Think of all the time you’ll save by not sitting on the toilet for so long!

If you want to be as regular as a Swiss train, eat a plant-based diet. It will be a moving experience.
~ Rip Esselstyn, author of Plant-Strong and the Engine 2 Diet

Another thing that’s not so humorous. If, instead of beef, chicken and butter, more people ate sweet potatoes, carrots and beans, everyone’s health would improve and Medicare costs would drop by the billions of dollars. And let’s consider the health of our planet…

According to the U.N., plant-based diets may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have a gentler impact on the environment. In fact, “livestock emissions,” might be more dangerous for the environment than automobile emissions.Seriously though, did you know that around the world, more crops are grown to feed animals than people? It’s adding to climate change. Every year, thousands of acres of rainforest are cleared and converted to pastures for soy production and cattle grazing. Trees are the lungs of the earth.

The earth.  The conference theme is, “Every day is Earth Day, when you’re a Master Gardener.” This spring, I started my broccoli, lettuce and turnips with renewed enthusiasm… I’m more passionate than ever about growing veggies. It’s hard to describe the freedom that comes with eating this way…

I hope what I’m sharing has inspired you to make changes toward a healthier lifestyle. Please understand, you don’t have to go cold turkey, so to speak. Affirm your goals, celebrate the small victories, and don’t give up. It’s like standing at the bottom of a tall staircase. You don’t ever feel you can’t get to the top just because you can’t get there in a single leap. You look at the stairs and think, yes, these are doable steps. One, two three…

Here are 7 steps to help get you started on a plant-based journey:

1. Get your blood tested. LDL, HDL, triglycerides. Understand what these numbers mean.

2. Bring cooking back home. Cook from real ingredients. And invite kids into the kitchen. If you don’t know how to cook, try to learn. My mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook.” Perhaps the easiest way to get your feet wet as far as shifting to a plant-based diet, is to change a favorite recipe to be plant-based, say making split pea soup without ham, or tacos with beans, rice and veggies without the meat and cheese. Served with a salad made from home-grown veggies… It’s like saying “I love you” with food.

3. Don’t eat fast food. Period. Fast food is like poisoned honey. It might taste good at first, but in the end, it’s a killer.

From Women’s Health magazine

Not a very pleasant image, is it? It got my attention though. It was in the March 14, 2014 issue of Women’s Health magazine that began with a direct appeal to readers: “We’re guessing that you would never even consider smoking cigarettes, given how awful they are for your health, right? But an alarming new study suggests that the Standard American Diet may be as harmful as smoking.”

Plant-based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.
~ Dr. Neil Barnard (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

4. Change your relationship with food. A healthy relationship is one that loves you back. You might love macaroni and cheese, but it doesn’t love you back. Next time you’re online, Google “plant-based.” You’ll discover blogs, recipes, and workshops. And you never know, your neighbor might be ditching the macaroni and cheese, too! And check out the database of 2,000 videos on NutritionFacts.org.

5. Encourage schools to bring plant-based menu options into their cafeterias. The same goes for prisons and other institutions. We all need to eat, but everyone deserves healthy food.

6. Step out of your food comfort zone. Grow or buy 3 fruits or vegetables this year that are unfamiliar to you. If you’re never grown cauliflower for example, give it a try. If anything, to make awesome coffee and chai un-milkshakes. Just replace the ice cream with almond milk and frozen cauliflower bits.

7. Be patient with yourself and with doctors. When the film Forks Over Knives was released in 2011, it helped spark a medical and nutritional revolution. Americans have a long way to go,  but with each passing day, more and more people are adopting a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle. You can see this, even in Anchorage. At a Costco store last December, we discovered many products that were labeled “Plant Based.”

In closing, the past 6 months have convinced us that Marty’s stroke was the best thing that ever happened. For one thing, our blood numbers have returned to normal. I’ve also gained a higher regard for my garden and a new appreciation for the human body and how best to nourish it.

My husband Marty, relaxing…

Which reminds me. Your body is like no one else’s. Take care of it. It’s the one you walked in the door with; it’s the suitcase that carries your soul, that spark of God within you, as you travel on this earth. And in that spark, is the wisdom to choose those things that will give you freedom, happiness and health. And who wouldn’t want good health? Because when you don’t feel well, it’s difficult to play with your grandkids, take in a symphony, enjoy your garden, or sit quietly to meditate on God.

I’m not a physician, but if I had one wish, it would be that every doctor’s prescription would look like this:

In the beginning of my talk I said that Master Gardeners have a mission: To encourage people to grow and eat more fruits and vegetables. My goal today was to tell you why it’s so important.

I hope I’ve inspired you to begin the journey back to optimum health, for the earth, for ourselves, and for our children.

Thank you, and God bless you. And thank goodness chocolate is plant-based!

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13 Responses to How a medical emergency launched my new love affair with plants

  1. Candy Falatko says:

    Love this ,Marion. Thank you. Marty looks great!

  2. Jeff Goldberg says:

    All is well that ends well. Glad to hear it all worked out.  Jeff

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Only this morning I looked in the mirror and I decided it was time to take stock of my bad diet, like too much alcolhol, chocolate, sweets, biscuits, cakes, and puddings, and fat. Already my blood pressure is not what it should be, neither is my weight. When I saw your email it was a blessing, as though somebody was helping me to start a good diet. Thank you Marion, and bless you for taking the time to write and send all of your suggestions for a better diet. For me it could not have come at a better time. Well here goes let´s get started.

    • marionowen says:

      Liz, good for you! Start by watching the documentary Forks Over Knives. It helps explain a lot. And then the book, “Plant Strong” is excellent. The first half of the book has short chapters that are easy to understand and very inspiring. And it helps to find someone to share recipes with; there are lots of places now that offer workshops. Good luck and good health to you!

    • Melissa says:

      Liz – You go girl!! Remember you are worth it! Take care! Melissa.

  4. Fantastic article and advice Marion. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Melissa says:

    Marion – great information. Like you said one does not have to go cold turkey. Just start adding more fruits, veggies, and nuts. Favorite snack is a mix of craisins, raisins (I know high sugar but it’s not candy), sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. Already enjoying my lettuce and spinach. Kale is coming along. Really great post! Glad you guys are doing well!

    • marionowen says:

      Hi Melissa, yup, stay with the seeds, nuts, fruits and veggies. At first I thought that way of eating would be terribly restrictive. But no… more freeing than anything!

  6. Nadene says:

    Thank you Marion you just might have pushed me in the right direction. Also thank you Dr. Greg💟

    • marionowen says:

      Well, by all means Nadene… watch the Forks Over Knives documentary. It will help explain a lot more than what I could cover in my blog post. Keep me posted, too, okay?

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