My dear Aunt Rose passed away recently after being sick for many months. And just a short time later, another close family member passed after a long battle with cancer. Having to deal with the loss and pain felt by these family members in such quick succession has caused me to reflect on my own life and health struggles. Of course, my biggest health struggle is Multiple Sclerosis. It is always the elephant in the room, the monkey on my back, the looming dread in the back of my mind. Therefore, I am sure it is not surprising that my reflection had me wondering…if I was given the choice, would I rather have a life without MS?
Honestly, I am sure to many of you this seems like a no-brainer. Why would you ever actually want to have Multiple Sclerosis? Life would be so much easier without it. But, ultimately, I have a hard time saying I wish I never had MS. Even though it is definitely not easy to live with MS, I honestly believe my life is better because I have MS. I realize how corny and ridiculous this sounds, and I am positive there are people with MS who do not feel the same way I do. I also realize that I might only be able to say this because at this point in my life I feel that I am doing pretty well. This whole perspective might change down the road. However, for me, MS is the reason I began looking at my lifestyle and truly started prioritizing fitness and healthy eating. It made me dig deep and evaluate how I live and assess if how I lived each day was beneficial for my body.
Without MS, I would have never paid so much attention to my health and wellness. Without a pressing reason or concern to change our habits, why would anyone do it? It wasn’t that I led a super unhealthy lifestyle before MS, but looking back I am sort of shocked about how unconcerned I was regarding the food I put into my body.
After all of this reflection it is still difficult for me to answer the question with a simple yes or no. Either answer is hard for me to commit to. In the end, maybe this isn't the question I should be focusing on. Maybe my wish would be that we could all take the time to be healthy before we get sick and not wait until it’s too late.
Bottom line for me: without MS I would have never known what it actually means to be healthy. For that lesson, I am grateful.
Sweet potatoes were never a staple in our home growing up. My mother almost has a physical reaction if you even mention the name! The only time I ever saw anyone cooking with sweet potatoes was for the customary sweet potato casserole during the holidays. Never did I imagine that one day I would be eating sweet potatoes basically weekly.
It wasn’t until living in New Zealand that I saw sweet potatoes being eaten as fries. Fast forward to the present and I have learned the true versatility of the sweet potato. While you can of course always bake or mash them, I want to share 5 surprising ways sweet potatoes can be used in some very fun, and of course OvercomingMS-friendly, recipes!
Click the below links for the recipes:
Sweet Potato Nacho Cheese
Sweet Potato Pizza Crust
Sweet Potato Hummus
Sweet Potato Chocolate Frosting
Sweet Potato Chocolate Fudge Cake
My biggest hope for this website is to help people feel empowered to take their health into their own hands. This starts by being aware of the food we eat and the ingredients we use. I want to share tips and tricks I have learned along the way and take away the guess work. However, the problem is that many of us (me included) only start to evaluate how we live our lives when faced with disease or health issue. But the focus should be on prevention. Of course it is hard change the foods we eat and to live "differently" than others when we seemingly feel "fine". There is also a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what a healthy diet actually entails. Also, eating healthy on a restricted budget might seem impossible. That is why I was so excited to learn that within my own community there are initiatives specifically addressing all of these issues.
The program, Cooking Matters, provides adult and family classes focused on cooking, food, and nutrition education. The class also educates participants on food budgeting and how to reuse leftovers to reduce food waste, and inevitably save money. The tools provided, show the participants that it is possible to feed your family healthy meals while sticking to your budget. The program also provides a bag of groceries to participants after each class with ingredients from the meals they prepared so they can recreate these at home for their families. Dr. Christopher Fink from Ohio Wesleyan University brought the program to the local community and I had the honor of participating in one of the classes.
The class encourages the participants to think differently about how they evaluate the food they eat through various exercises. The class I sat in began by exploring the concept of added sugars in our foods and how to identify added sugar. Participants learned how to read food labels and spot added sugar. There was also an exercise using sugar cubes to visualize the daily recommended amount of added sugar compared to the amount of sugar added to some common household staples. In many cases the piles of sugar cubes were surprising and gave the participants something to think about.
It was such an inspiration to see something so impactful happening in my own community. I am so grateful that Dr. Fink invited me stop in and see what the program entails first hand. It gives me hope that it is possible to to change our society's relationship with food while also decreasing food insecurity. Local initiatives such as this are how it will be done.
Check out the creative recipe we prepared in this class!
It is 2019 and the human race is engaged in a massive battle. Created as 'Homo sapiens' with a body made for movement, 'Homo convenienco' is attacking hard to deprive us of what is good for our bodies: MOVEMENT. Some of you might even think you are fighting back by going to the gym several times per week.
But can you really win a battle when you are not utilizing all tools and resources at your disposal?
We all know that sedentary lifestyle is detrimental to our health (it is actually the 4th leading risk factor for global mortality!!). Yet, 'Homo convenienco' holds a firm grip on us. Some of his closest allies include: elevators and parking lots.
So, it is time to fight back and reclaim your right to move beyond gym time.
It's not about exercise at the gym
Let's be clear, when I talk about movement and physical activity, I am not referring to exercise. Exercise is different than physical activity. Physical activity is the act of bringing movement to our bodies throughout the day, whereas exercise is intentional movement for a specific amount of time to help with physical fitness.
Don't get me wrong, exercising is also very important for overall health and a regular exercise plan should be part of a healthy lifestyle. However, while many people are actually quite good at carving out 30-60 min 2 to 3 times per week for dedicated exercise, very few of us pay attention to the amount of movement and physical activity we do outside of this dedicated time.
The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Broken down, this equates to around 20 minutes a day. Wow, let that sink in for a second. Just 20 minutes a day will empower you to show 'Homo convenienco' the way out the door. I don't know about you, but for me this an easy yes on "challenge accepted."
Join the troops
To get our troops aligned, all it takes is adding a few easy to implement strategies.
3 ways to reclaim your right to move:
1. Break through enemy territory: Take walking breaks throughout the day. Expand your forces and enlist colleagues and take some time together to decompress. If you are lucky enough to have a few 15 min breaks at work, use these to take a walk outside.
You can also easily add more steps to your day by always parking at the back of the parking lot. Not only will you increase your daily steps, you also won't have to fight the chaos that can ensues in the front of the lot! Think about it this way, every time you pull up close to the building it's a wasted opportunity.
2. Create Win-Win Situations: Take family or friends for a walk at a local park a few times a week. Make meeting up with people less food-focused and more activity-focused. Meet up for a walk or bike ride instead of going out to dinner. You will not only save money but also do something good for your health. A win-win situation for body and wallet.
3. Counter Attack and Charge Forward: Do not succumb to peer pressure or the alluring opening of the elevator. If you are an able-bodied person we need you to join our troop's pathway, aka the stairs. If you are a fellow stair-goer you typically run into the same few people trekking it up and down the stairwell. I do realize that many might be worried about sweating if there are multiple flights of stairs to walk up. But what about those times that you take the elevator to just go up or down a floor or two? If you are like me and spend the majority of your work day sitting at a desk, why would you then spend time away from your desk standing in an elevator? If you have to change floors, this is the perfect opportunity to add movement to your day. Not ready for the sacrifice? Maybe these stats will convince you otherwise.
Call to action
Pay attention and notice if you are letting 'Homo convenienco' get the best of you. Use these easy steps to get started and you might just come up with your own additional ways to add movement to your daily routine. So, keep moving forward and heed the words of Bob Marley:
"Get up, stand up. Don't give up the fight".
Guest Blog by Amanda’s Husband Tim
MS Warriors: Call to Action
MS Warriors and healthy lifestyle advocates can all too easily get discouraged when visiting their neurologists. Fancy and high-gloss MS center brochures boldly promise “all around wellness centers” with a “holistic” approach to combat your MS from all possible angles. Fantastic. Right up your ally as a proactive MS warrior, right?
Well, like in most other areas of life, reality usually can’t quite keep up with the glossy brochure world.
Most Annual Appointments
And so, a few minutes into your annual visit, way too many of you brave guys will notice that the astonishing impact and power of an MS optimized nutrition, takes on a merely marginal role; if addressed at all.
90% of the time you spend in appointments seems to center around prescribing an ever growing and insurmountable mountain of prescriptions. There is your actual MS medication to prevent relapses, the medication to counter balance your medications side effects, the medication to counter balance the side effects of the side effects, the muscle relaxants and pain medication, the sleep aides, and so on.
And I get it. Medication is important with a serious chronic disease like MS. The latest drugs seem to offer up to 70% success rate in preventing relapses. That is indeed outstandingly great news, and we can all be grateful to our dedicated physicians and researchers for making this possible.
But this laser-focusing in on the chances that the prescription drugs offer can sometimes narrow down the view of your medical providers. Narrowing down your view usually means you are losing sight of the big picture. Every entrepreneur will know what I mean here. And so, the impact of a healthy MS diet runs the risk of falling between the cracks or taking up the last 30 seconds of your appointment as you are putting your coat back on.
Your Impact on Your Physicians
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Your physicians want the best for you and should and will be open to your specific wishes. So you can help them to brush-up on their food-knowledge and get them on-board with your healthy lifestyle that has so much potential for keeping the mountain of medication to a minimum height.
Ask them if they are aware of the decades of research of their now deceased colleague Dr. Swank? Or the impressive new and always updated resources of Dr. Jelinek and Dr. Wahls? (There should be no person with MS who is not familiar with Dr. Jelinek’s resources – this man is a true life changer.)
If you are lucky to have a truly holistic Neurologist, maybe you can encourage them to launch a healthy diet research trial. I know I am rather optimistic here, but creating awareness can already ignite the wind of change. And I mean, a food trial probably couldn’t hurt in addition to the multitude of drug-focused trials.
Let’s be clear, I am no medical expert, neither am I a scientist like Amanda, but I feel nevertheless confident to say that no MS patient has ever died or will ever die because of a healthy MS diet.
But, your physicians answer when faced with the same question about MS drugs will have to be different. I am not telling you guys anything new here that MS patients have died and can die from a form of brain infection called PML when on drugs that weaken your immune systems. Physicians rightly stress that those cases are rare, but who of you wants the be that “rare case.” Amanda certainly doesn’t want to be it.
We all have one common goal and that is to combat MS with all available tools. A special focus on your diet is the adverse risk free part that you can actively influence. And with your help and demand, your physicians will come more and more onboard.
MS Warriors: It’s time to encourage and empower your physicians!
5 tips to promote healthy eating
1. Wash and prepare fresh produce before putting it in the fridge.
The best way to ensure that the fresh produce you buy will be eaten is to have it ready to go. So, instead of immediately placing produce in the refrigerator when returning from the store, keep it out and make sure you wash, peel, and cut anything that can be a handy snack. For example, peel and cut up cucumbers, wash hand fruit like apples and keep them in an accessible fruit basket, take grapes out of their plastic bag and give them a good washing before putting them in the fridge.
Make sure to pull out the prepared produce at key munching times. For my family, this is when we are preparing dinner. Our go-to is fresh blueberries; these are typically out and ready to be snacked on while we are cooking. You can also place washed and peeled vegetables on the table during dinner. Another good time to pull out prepared fruit would be after dinner to offer as a healthy dessert option.
2. Take fresh fruit and veggies along with you.
Once you have tip 1 down, tip 2 will be very easy to follow. Take some of the prepared produce with you to snack on throughout the day. To be perfectly honest, I used to struggle to eat enough fresh fruits. But I have found that if I bring them to work with me, I will gladly snack away on them as I sit at my desk.
I began small with just bringing an apple in to work; I would make sure I ate an apple every day. Now, I bring in 2-3 different fruit varieties with me and this way it is easy to eat lots of fresh fruit. Of course vegetables can also be great bring along snacks such as carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, or celery. If you are feeling really fancy (or nostalgic :)), add some peanut or almond butter and raisins to your celery to get an added protein boost.
3. Take time on days off for food prep.
This one isn’t always easy, I know it can be very difficult to find a few spare hours to dedicate to food prep on our precious days off. However, it can be a huge help to ensure meals are ready during the week, especially if you take your own lunch to work. Making sure I have something to take for lunch was the main reason I began using a few hours on Sundays to prepare 3-4 days’ worth of lunches. Later in the week I typically follow tip 4 to cover the last day or two of the work week.
4. Prepare extra portions when cooking.
If you are already cooking, it is easier to increase ingredient amounts of the current meal than to try to prepare two separate meals. You may as well double the batch size and make enough to save. This way you will have some meals ready to go for those times when you are not up for cooking. Further the extra portions are helpful for those weekends when you didn’t have any spare time to follow tip 3!
Before you serve your meal, divide a few portions out to be saved. This will ensure the extra portions are used for other meals and can also save you from overeating.
5. Keep supplies on hand.
This one is really sort of obvious, but also key to sticking to a healthy diet. How many times have you looked in your fridge and cupboard and not had vital ingredients for a meal you wanted to prepare? It can happen, but these are the times where it is tempting to verge off the healthy path so make sure to always stock up on staple items. Some of my key staples are raw nuts or tofu, lemons or apple cider vinegar, quinoa, nutritional yeast, and canned beans. As long as I have these ingredients, I will be able to quickly whip something up that is nutritious and satisfying.
What is a Warrior?
I guess I was naïve. I think I never really understood what it means to be an MS warrior. I had this image that if you are a warrior, nothing can touch you. If you do everything right, you will be shielded from the bad. But really, being a warrior means that you continue to fight and keep pushing forward in spite of the obstacles that try to slow you down.
It took me a year before I was able to even talk about Multiple Sclerosis without crying or getting upset. My diagnosis was only three years ago, and for the last year and a half my MRIs have been stable. This led me to have a sense of security and confidence that the lifestyle I follow is doing what it is supposed to. Honestly, I think I was even a little smug about it, and of course it is easy to keep going forward when you feel like everything is working out. But MS is anything but easy. I thought that by accepting that I have MS I was prepared for anything.
There is a plethora of scientific evidence which shows MS disease progression can be slowed through healthy diet and exercise. Unfortunately, I think I had unconsciously gone to the next level and convinced myself that this could stop the disease. That all came crashing down when a new lesion was found on my latest MRI. In hindsight, it should not have been surprising. The month prior to my visit I had experienced two weeks of constant dizziness. This kept me from doing anything strenuous. Retrospectively, I can see now that I was going through a relapse. The truth is I had only accepted the fact that I have the disease, but not that it can actually get worse. Upon hearing the results of the MRI, I found myself having a hard time coming to terms with it.
The fact is, we cannot control the curve balls MS will throw us, but we can control how we live our lives and the foods we eat. So during those times we are stricken by a relapse or new symptoms, our body has the resources it needs to heal as best it can. It isn't about stopping the disease because that is unattainable and will led to disappointment. Furthermore, since disease progression rates vary from person to person, it shouldn't even be about slowing progression because that is difficult to measure. It should simply be about doing everything within your power to live your best life. For me, the foundation for this starts with my MS diet.
A warrior uses all the tools at their disposal to be equipped for what lies ahead. Even when there are set backs a warrior will keep fighting and never give up. As MS warriors we cannot predict the outcome of the disease but we can make sure we use all the tools at our disposal and continue to push forward.
Interestingly, even though doctors will not specifically say what diet to follow when you are living with Multiple Sclerosis, one thing that I have heard quite frequently is that there is some evidence that cruciferous vegetables are beneficial. So, the same doctor that was pointing me to the donut store was also telling me to eat more Brussels sprouts…talk about mixed messages!
Cruciferous vegetables include things in the cabbage family like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale. I don’t know about you, but I get really tired of eating just steamed broccoli or cauliflower and to be honest I am not such a fan of kale salads (if you are by all means go for it!). To ensure I eat these types of vegetables, I will use them as a base for a sauce, which yields a very creamy, nutritious, and delicious alternative. If this sounds interesting, I have added three of my favorites to my recipe site: Cauliflower Alfredo, Broccoli Pesto, and Kale Chips.
The First Steps
There are various MS friendly diets out there. I follow the OvercomingMS lifestyle (I will write about that more in another post), but honestly I don’t really care what you follow, as long it works for you and you can stay with it. However, whatever you follow, it is important to make sure you:
There are many studies out there that show that a high saturated fat diet can worsen MS (I will also explore this evidence further in another post). That is why any MS friendly diet must be low in saturated fat (below 15 g), as was clearly shown by Dr. Roy Swank.
It is also very important to do your best to avoid processed food. The issue with processed food is that they typically contain refined oils that are treated in a way that makes them lose any beneficial properties they may have had. What this means is that you have to get into the habit of reading food labels and ingredient lists. I have three rules for label reading:
Reading ingredient lists of food can sometimes be really daunting and frustrating, especially when you start to notice the use of oils and sugar in pretty much EVERYTHING! But keep strong, you will find that not everything in the store has to be avoided. Once you know what brands conform to these rules, it makes shopping a little easier. However, knowing what the ingredients are in any food you buy is essential.
I also try my best to avoid refined sugar as it is a huge contributor to chronic health problems as any vitamins are stripped from it during the refining process and your body actually uses up essential nutrients to break it down. I was shocked to find out that there was a huge cover up about the health risks associated by too much sugar back in the 60’s. Therefore, sugar has infiltrated pretty much every food item in the grocery store. It took me ages (and a few tears) to find a vegetable broth without any added-sugar or bread without any oils.
To this point you might have already noticed that in order to adhere to an MS friendly diet, it will be necessary to prepare the majority of your food from scratch. Therefore, you will need to make sure you have the tools and staples available in your kitchen to make sure you always have access to what you need when you need it. I always have raw cashews and sliced, blanched almonds on hand. Plenty of nutritional yeast, lemons/apple cider vinegar, fresh fruits and veggies, and my blender and food processor are in use every day. As I follow OvercomingMS, I also have a bottle of flax oil in my fridge to pour over meals for an omega-3 boost.
To make sure you have all the resources necessary to tackle this task of preparing MS friendly meals, I will continuously be providing snack and meal ideas on my Recipes page. Stay tuned for a whole slew of tasty treats!
Amanda Windhof, PhD is an MS lifestyle advocate who wants to ensure a healthy diet is accessible to everyone.