Strokes kill about 140,000 Americans each year – that’s 1 out of every 20 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Someone in the U.S. has a stroke every 40 seconds. I was one of these unfortunate people in 2015, when I suffered a stroke that put me in the hospital. Since then, I have had smaller “pin” strokes or “mini-strokes” that have affected my memory and stamina. My doctors have insisted that I must watch what I eat, exercise regularly and avoid stress to reduce my risk for future occurrences. So for me, healthy eating is a matter of life and death.
The hopeful news among all these glum statistics is that strokes are preventable by reducing high blood pressure, stopping smoking, getting more exercise and improving your diet. Or, as is often said now, “eating clean.” When I was a kid clean eating meant one thing – washing up before dinner. My Mama insisted that I had clean hands before sitting down at the table. Hand and fingernail inspections were routine. Today, clean eating seems to have a variety of meanings and there is no single definition that food experts accept. Some even deride the concept of clean eating as an elitist fad and a bunch of malarkey cooked up and perpetuated on social media. Others are less dismissive. I like the explanation given by Katherine Zeratsky, a dietician and editor with the respected Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She writes on the clinic’s website that “clean eating,” or “eating clean,” is “in essence a diet – just a way of eating. But it is also a way of living that lends itself to improving one’s health and well-being.”
Here’s another definition I like, from Dawn Jackson-Blatner, RD, author of The Superfood Swap: “Clean eating is caring, not obsessing, about ingredient quality and doing your best to cut the C.R.A.P.: chemicals, refined sugar/flour, artificial sweeteners/colors/flavors, and preservatives.”
In other words, you are what you eat. Makes sense to me. Zeratsky identifies several key principles of clean eating:
· Eat more “real” foods and less processed or refined foods.
· Eat for nourishment.
· Eat more plant-based foods.
· Clean up your act by getting plenty of physical activity during the day, getting enough sleep at night and managing stress in healthy ways.
After I suffered a transient ischemic attack (a stroke) in 2015 – I learned about the importance of not only diet, but also exercise and stress reduction the hard way. It has become a passion of mine to spread the word about healthier living so others don’t have to go through what I did.
As I see it, eating healthy is a life-saver. I try to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and less processed or “fast” foods. True, it’s not always easy or convenient to eat this way and it can mean multiple trips to the grocery store. I’ve also learned to eat more plant-based proteins – beans and lentils, as well high-protein whole grains, like quinoa. That said, I still draw the line on eating English peas. I couldn’t stand those mushy green orbs as a kid and I can’t stand them now.
Perhaps the most important part of clean eating is becoming more educated about where food comes from and the ingredients that go into the food you put in your mouth. Generally speaking, it’s better to eat as close to nature as possible – food that is minimally processed, not packaged, or originating from a factory. Some of this is second nature in much of the United States. Many of us have learned through personal experience that no store bought tomato, which has the same heft and consistency as a baseball, is preferable to a sweet, soft tomato sold at a roadside produce stand. It’s no wonder that so many farmer’s markets have been raging successes.
I’ve also become a fanatic about reading food labels for the sugar, sodium and fat content, thanks in part to my wonderful, sharp-eyed mother-in-law Ann Ward, who, after my stroke, took it upon herself to go through my pantry and refrigerator like a health food storm trooper and toss out items she considered unhealthy. Sometimes, as she pointed out, that “energy bar” is really a candy bar in disguise. For this reason, cooking and eating at home has generally become my preferred dining mode, and I’ve I’ve learned some new recipes and cooking skills. But dining out does not have to be a roll of the dice.
Savannah is home to a number of restaurants dedicated to healthy eating. One is relatively new – Clean Eatz – which is exactly what its name implies. Located in the former location of Sweet Potatoes on Waters Avenue near Eisenhower Drive this independently owned franchise eatery offers a broad range of nutricious meals. Their salmon bowl, with sides of brown rice, quinoa, edamame is tough to beat.
The Kayake Cafe is another Savannah restaurant that does an excellent job of preparing good food with good healthy ingredients. Yet a third restaurant (where we're regulars as it's walking distance from our home) is The Fox and Fig Plant-based Café.
Finding good food and good ingredients is another way of eating for life. It shouldn’t take something as serious as a stroke to learn this valuable lesson. It shouldn't have taken a stroke to make me want to learn my way around the kitchen and prepare healthier meals. But that's exacctly what happened. One of my favorite dishes is homemade hummus, which I serve with carrots, celery and bell peppers. It’s one of those dishes that looks as good as it tastes.
... Mama was right about real clean eating; I still wash up before meals, and I’m super-diligent about scrubbing any fresh vegetables I buy at the supermarket, a farmer’s market or a roadside stand. And to finish off a night of true clean eating, I’ll do the dishes and leave the kitchen spic and span.
While it still pains me to say “no” to the occasional strip of bacon, I’ve gotten over it. I’d rather say “yes” to a long, happy life with my family and our puppy, Valen-Tino.
Tommy Barton is the retired editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News and writes a travel and food blog.