The Real Road to Wellville?
Two strange and inspiring stories of the healing power of food – or how terribly it can hurt us
Deirdre Earls' Life Changing Discovery
In a few short years, Austinite Deirdre Earls has made a remarkable journey from the frustrations and despair of chronic illness to burgeoning national prominence as a dietary expert. Her modest, 27-page book Your Healing Diet: Austin's Quick Guide to Reversing Chronic Diseases Through Healing Foods has become something of a phenomenon. During this past year, Your Healing Diet has established itself as the No. 1 bestseller in BookPeople's health section, and the No. 1 bestselling book at Whole Foods. A national version is the No. 1-ranked book in its category on Amazon.com, as well as regularly ranking in the top-selling 1% of all books sold on the site. The local edition is now sold at more than 40 locations across Austin, and Whole Foods has commissioned Earls to tailor unique editions for Houston, Dallas, and New York City markets. Denver, Chicago, and Boston editions are slated to follow. The well-known national magazine Prevention will be running an article featuring Earls this November, and she is profiled on the television documentary The Incurables on the Veria Network.
"My focus has never been on publicity," Earls says. "My attitude has been if you do the work and generate results for people, the work will be its own marketing. Yesterday I got a call from the magazine Natural Health, and for me, that was just a great affirmation that I don't need to seek out exposure. If I am doing my job right and getting results for people, all that will take care of itself."
What makes Earls so compelling as a spokesperson for natural healing through diet is a combination of her unique story and her impressive credentials. Unlike many who have a personal tale to tell regarding a profound dietary change, Earls is a registered dietician, with a degree in scientific nutrition from Texas A&M and an M.B.A. from the University of Texas. She has worked professionally in health care from 1986 to the present day, and because of her medical training, her words carry weight beyond the merely anecdotal. Add to that her extraordinary energy and glow of regained health; though she is 44, she looks easily 10 years younger.
"People have been telling me that I need to get a new photograph taken, because I look younger today than I did two years ago, when I had that picture [on the back of my book] taken," Earls confides. "When I hear that I look even younger than I did two years ago, that's just more evidence that a healing diet impacts every area of your life."
Earls' story begins in the summer of her 13th year, when she suddenly broke out in severe psoriasis right before the start of middle school. "Thirteen is just an awful age to have a disfiguring condition," she remembers. "But it wasn't like I could hide it. My family was very supportive, and with their help I managed to not let it rule my life."
Twenty-five years of battling chronic psoriasis followed, with a number of hospital stays (sometimes a month at a time) and thousands of dollars paid out for medical care and prescription drugs. "Some treatments would clear my skin for a while, but after an initial improvement, there was an inevitable relapse and a steady worsening of symptoms," Earls recalls.
During those years, she graduated from college, worked as a dietician for a string of hospitals around the country, and went to graduate school. "Never, in all that time, did my training or anyone around me suggest that there might be a dietary aspect to my psoriasis," she says. "It wasn't until 2002, when I began looking on the Internet in desperation, that I discovered that diet could be playing a role."
That year, Earls had a jarring epiphany. "The pain, tightness, and cracking of my hands got so bad, I couldn't unscrew a jar or grip my steering wheel properly," she says. "As I was driving to work one day, it dawned on me that it just wasn't safe for me to be driving my car! Before, this had just impacted me, but now, it had gotten so bad that I was presenting a danger to others." She knew from previous consultations with her dermatologist that he had nothing left to offer except chemotherapy, a type that breast-cancer patients often receive.
"A cancer patient has six or maybe 10 doses of methotrexate; for psoriasis, the treatment is to keep you on methotrexate indefinitely, with regular liver biopsies. The biopsies are to make sure that your liver can take another dose of chemo without failing – that's how harsh this treatment is. But people sometimes die from the biopsy procedure alone."
Determined to find another way, Earls began the aforementioned Internet search. To her surprise, "diet" kept coming up. "Several sources claimed that psoriasis can happen when there is an inflammation of the intestine, due to elements in the diet," Earls says. "Now you have to understand, I had formal training and experience as a registered dietician! And I had never come across this information before. My formal training, instead of helping me, had kept me sick. Looking back over my career, I realized that my training had never enabled me to effectively help anyone else, either."
Earls researched all the diets that claimed to promote natural healing: vegan, raw foods, macrobiotics, alkalizing, anti-inflammatory, cancer prevention, and anti-aging. The one thing they all had in common was an emphasis on eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. With nothing to lose but her painful condition, Earls committed herself to trying a "healing diet" for six months.
"Now, I am a Texas girl, and it was hard to separate me from my beer, my barbecue, and my jalapeños," she says. "And it was hard to forgo the social interactions that I was used to having around food like that. But I just kept reminding myself, that it was a six-month experiment. If I didn't see improvement, I could always go back."
Natural healing methods usually cause symptoms to intensify before they recede, and Earls' experience was no exception. "I was prepared for that, and really, it didn't discourage me," she says. "At around four months, the itching got so bad it would keep me up at night, and I felt like I just wanted to jump out of my skin. My ankles became so swollen and tight I had to sleep with my feet off the edge of the bed. This was undoubtedly the most challenging part of my healing. But somehow, deep down I had no doubt I was doing the right thing."
Abruptly, during the fifth month of eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, Earls' symptoms started to vanish. Over the following two weeks, they virtually disappeared. Her psoriasis went into remission and has stayed that way, from 2002 until the present day. Her success was so dramatic that dermatologists began referring patients to her, and eventually she decided to write a helpful guide about how she did it, to help others find healing. Your Healing Diet is that guide.
"Psoriasis is naturally the area that I feel I am most knowledgeable about," Earls says. "In fact, I was asked to be a featured speaker at the 2005 convention of the National Psoriasis Foundation. But I have discovered along the way that a healing diet is hugely beneficial for a number of medical conditions. Diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and a whole range of autoimmune disorders can respond dramatically when a plant-based, whole-food diet is adopted. I have clients who no longer need to take pharmaceutical medications for many of these conditions. Most of the people who consult me experience an unlooked-for weight loss as an added benefit."
Unlike many other natural healing proponents, Earls was not interested in writing a lengthy tome or strident manifesto. "If my years of being a dietician taught me anything, it is that people's attention spans are short, and no one ever achieves 100 percent compliance with a strict diet," she says. "People don't need that level of structure in their lives. If a patient feels deprived and unhappy, they are not going to stick with it. It just isn't human nature. Changing my diet was, beyond any doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done. If I felt overwhelmed by it, how much more so must be a woman with children, or with a husband who wants no part of it? I wanted to write a guidebook, a simple, short book that got the basics across but most importantly could make adopting a healing diet more 'doable' for regular, busy people."
One of the things that Earls had come across as a dietician was the attitude that if you don't follow a diet perfectly, you might as well not do it at all. "That is not my experience," she avers passionately. "If you even change your diet a mere 15 percent, you will begin to experience some benefit. In fact, I often start people who feel overwhelmed at a 50 percent compliance rate. One of my success stories, an Austin police officer, has always hovered around 50 percent compliance! He hasn't become a vegan; he still eats meat every day. But he used to eat meat three times a day. Now he has a salad for lunch, and he makes other healthier choices. He no longer needs medication for diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, and he lost 30 pounds.
"As people experience better health, increased energy, and a lessening of severity in their symptoms, they are usually motivated to take another step and become more committed. They 'up' their compliance, on a continuum that is done at their own pace. It is certainly much, much better to ease your way into a healing diet than to feel so overwhelmed you don't attempt it at all."
"And once people are completely committed, they are still going to cheat sometimes," she laughs. "I cheat about once a day! But I do want to help people make better cheating choices, because that is the reality."
Another reason Your Healing Diet has become so popular is that Earls addresses the difficult issue of eating out. Included in every edition is a comprehensive list of local restaurants that have good options for people on a whole-food diet. This list alone makes her book an invaluable tool. People following a healing diet (as well as people suffering from celiac disease and other food allergies) don't want to risk going hungry when they try to eat out with family or friends. Putting together a frequently updated list of accommodating restaurants is one way Earls smooths the path.
Another is by providing a shopping list, so that your cupboard won't be bare once you get rid of unhelpful or proscribed food items. "I have already done all the label-reading and research," she says." Why shouldn't I just share what I have learned and save people time?" She provides a list of options for every meal, and she focuses on foods that do not require lengthy preparation. "I don't take the time to cook every meal I eat," Earls says. "And I don't expect other people to suddenly have time to become a home chef. The cooking classes I teach are really more food-assembly classes: quick, easy things you can eat that taste good and will help you heal."
When I asked Earls what she used to eat, compared to what she eats now, it is clear that the changes she endorses are very "doable" indeed. "Before, I would perhaps have had a bowl of cereal with milk for breakfast. Now, I have a rice cake, with almond butter and raisins on top. Or, I can have an amaranth breakfast cereal with soy or almond milk, and my 'cereal experience' is nearly identical. The difference is one meal will cause my skin to flare up, and the other won't. For lunch, I used to grab a sandwich at ThunderCloud. Now, I have a smoothie or a Quinoa Greek Salad at Castle Hill Fitness. I don't feel at all deprived, and I am well. Not to mention, the financial drain of expensive medication and constant doctor visits is a thing of the past."
The benefits of eating a plant-based, whole-foods diet can extend beyond health and finances. Earls used to be so allergic to dogs that she couldn't have one. Two years ago she adopted Santiago, a 90-pound, indoor, shedding black Lab whose presence brings joy to her life every day. "He's my best friend," she says. "And to think I would never have met him if I hadn't been willing to change."
Your Healing Diet can be found at Whole Foods, BookPeople, and 40 other locations listed on Deirdre Earls website, www.yourhealingdiet.net. Every other Saturday at 11am, she teaches a free class at the Whole Foods flagship (Fifth and Lamar) called Let Food Be Your Medicine (class size limited to 12). She also teaches two classes at the Whole Foods Culinary Center.
How 2-Year-Old Sander McGovern Started An Organic-Food Company
Meagan and Katie McGovern are two sisters who have always been there for each other. When Katie struggled with being a single mother, Meagan stepped in to help her raise her son Matthew. Years later, when Meagan started her own family and became overwhelmed by her toddler Sander's ceaseless tantrums, screaming, and sleeplessness, Katie gave up her lucrative job in hotel administration and relocated to Austin to help Meagan cope.
They decided to start up an organic dessert company, combining Meagan's love of baking with Katie's catering experience and business acumen. The business took off, and they were doing well, when it became apparent that Sander was not just going through a difficult phase: He was beginning to show signs of autism. At 22 months, he still wasn't talking. He refused to play and didn't respond to his name. He spent much of his time moaning aloud. Never one to take things lying down, Meagan researched Sander's symptoms on the Internet and found that many children his age with similar behavior patterns were diagnosed as having ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder.
"The way they think of it now, there is a spectrum of autism-related disorders; at one end you have attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, and at the other end you have profound autism. In the middle is Asperger's syndrome. They are all thought to be related," Meagan explains.
She also discovered in her research that many children showing these symptoms (especially very young ones like Sander) have benefited greatly from following a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Gluten, a very small protein found in wheat and a handful of other grains, is the trigger of celiac disease, an inflammation of the intestine that causes great suffering in approximately 2% of the population. Casein is another very small protein, one found in all animal milk. Because these proteins are so small, they are able to travel through inflamed intestinal walls into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, they are suspected of wreaking havoc on the central nervous system.
Unlike in celiac disease, where the removal of gluten from the diet always leads to a lessening of symptoms, not all Autism Spectrum Disorder children respond to a gluten-free, casein-free diet. However, enough do to merit giving it a try, and Meagan wasted no time.
"Within three days, I knew we would never be going back," she says. "Sander was cheerful; he stopped moaning; he began sleeping. He started laughing! He began responding to his name; he started playing with his toys. But, because I was breast-feeding him, I had to go gluten- and casein-free, too. These proteins are so small they are carried in breast milk. And when I went on Sander's diet, what I discovered is that the gluten-/casein-free food out there is terrible!
"Katie and I began experimenting with making delicious, satisfying gluten-/casein-free foods, especially breads and baked goods. And the more I talked to other parents about Sander, it seemed no one knew where to get good gluten-free food. So, we switched our business to gluten- and casein-free only, and here we are."
The McGovern sisters changed their business model to offer what parents of ASD children need most: a home-delivery service. Many mothers of ASD children are so exhausted and sleep-deprived that asking them to learn how to cook gluten- and casein-free food is close to asking the impossible. Functioning like personal chefs, Katie and Meagan take the pressure off. They cook a week's worth of tasty, satisfying meals and deliver them on Fridays.
"Probably our bestsellers are the foods that kids like that parents don't want to refuse to their children: pizza, chicken fingers, and macaroni and cheese." Meagan says. "These are all foods that are hard to make without dairy and without wheat, but we have figured out how to make them absolutely delicious, and the kids love them. We also sell a lot of cupcakes, cookies, birthday cakes, and bread. Baked goods are very hard to make without gluten, and no child wants to go without treats they see the other kids having."
It is one thing to say your gluten- and casein-free baked goods are fantastic, and it is another to prove it. After sampling several of the McGovern sisters' muffins, cookies, and cupcakes, I have to proclaim that these women are geniuses. I cannot say this emphatically enough. Their baked goods are completely and totally indistinguishable from regular, fancy-bakery products. Most gluten-free baked goods simply never have a normal texture or mouthfeel; and if they have a decent texture, they have no flavor. The McGoverns have solved these problems and come up with ways to make bread, pizza crust, cake, cinnamon rolls, and piecrusts that are gluten-/casein-free and flavorful, with wonderful texture and "bite."
"Our bread is our bestseller," Meagan says. "We had a woman from France take one of our cooking classes, and she practically lost her mind she thought our bread was so good. 'I can't believe I think this gluten-free bread is good!' she said. 'I am French, and I think this bread is good!"
The sisters' website, www.mcgovernsorganics.com, has a comprehensive list of every dish they make, and that list is so long and varied that it won't all fit in this article.
"Probably the most popular dinners are lasagna, pizza, pot roast, chicken pot pie, and shrimp in spicy coconut sauce," Meagan says. "Everything we sell is made here in our commercial kitchen, from scratch, by my sister and me. It's made to order. Peoples Pharmacy at 183 and 620 are so excited about what we are offering that they have bought a freezer unit solely to enable them to carry our products. Peoples Pharmacy in Westlake is planning to do the same. People can just stop by on the way home from work and pick up a gluten-/casein-free meal.
"For some people, that's enough. But, if you can't have eggs or beans or rice, in addition to being on a gluten-/casein-free diet, you can call us up or e-mail or order on the website. You can tell us, 'I can't have gluten or dairy or potatoes or mushrooms or pineapple. What can I have?' And we can say, 'Okay, here are 20 different things we can make you for dinner.' People are so excited; you just don't know." Meagan beams. "They have had to make so many sacrifices; they think they can never have a decent meal again. They are so happy and so grateful.
"Because we are already cooking without dairy, it is easy for us to make vegan food, too. I mean, we are already halfway there. We are willing to work with whatever dietary needs a client has."
For those who can't afford to order meals premade, the McGoverns offer cooking classes about once a month. "Our classes are really fun! They're always a blast," Meagan laughs. "So far, each class has been about half adults with celiac disease and half mothers of ASD kids. We show them how to make pizza, chicken fingers, chicken pot pie, meatloaf, and 'glorious morning' muffins. A lot of these people have been gluten-free for five or six years, but learning a whole new way of cooking has them stumped.
"If there are groups who want to take a class, we are perfectly willing to set up a class especially for that group," she says. "And we offer phone and Internet support to people who have just gotten a diagnosis and aren't sure where to turn." There is no charge for support and guidance; it's just something Meagan does. "Following this regimen gave us our son back," she says quietly. "If I can help another mother recover her child, just by pointing her to the right resources, that's a blessing."
For more information about McGovern's Organics, go to www.mcgovernsorganics.com.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com