UZIT Nutrition Weekend: We Are Expressions of What We Eat

Though there is no straight formula to getting and staying healthy, there is one principle that all speakers at this weekend’s Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program supported in their own way: food is medicine, and what we put into our bodies directly determines our health. There is no way around it: we are expressions of what we eat.

This may sound obvious, because it is. It is so obvious that one can’t help but drop a jaw at the current epidemic of nutritional ignorance in our country. Soaring rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and more are all byproducts of this fundamental disconnect between us and our food. Our inbred agricultural system thrives on keeping people disempowered and under a spell of sugar and starch, while pharmaceutical companies swoop in to Band-Aid the aftermath. Instead of breaking down our food–our food is literally breaking down us.

Things need to change, and we have the power to speed up that process by how we spend our dollar. People all over the world are coming up with solutions to our current out-of-sync state, and we had the pleasure of hearing from a handful of luminaries this weekend, including Dr. Christiane Northrup, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. Mark Hyman, among others. Perfectly setting the tone for the enlightening conversations were the beautiful nutrition images donated by Matt Armedariz, Helene Dujardin and Lindsay Moris that were projected throughout the Urban Zen Center.

First, though, we heard from incredible innovators Brooklyn Grange, an organization building commercial organic farms on New York City rooftops. Entering its third season, Brooklyn Grange will expand this spring to a second rooftop farm (45,000 square feet) in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Yes, there will be a CSA. I get giddy imagining all the fresh (and seriously local!) produce made possible by these visionaries.

Next we learned from Brian Halweil, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institiute, co-Director of Nourishing the Planet and editor of East End Edible Magazine. Brian addressed current issues facing the food system on a global scale. Did you know that we produce more food today than ever on this planet? And yet still millions of people live in poverty and hunger. As Africa urbanizes more quickly than anywhere in the world, we will need sustainable urban farming models like Brooklyn Grange. Or cheap ways to fertilize the ground: like the Acacia tree in Kenya weaving Nitrogen into farm soil. Our interconnectedness became clearer and clearer as Brian spoke, outlining farming and food waste solutions from New York City (Check out Tri-State Biodiesel) to Nigeria (see the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s answer to Cowpea Storage). Most importantly, we need to educate our kids, creating models like Stephen Ritz’s “Green Bronx Machine.”

The inspiration continued with a panel of conscious entrepreneurs offering organic, vegan solutions to dessert and decadent dining. Selected and moderated by Clean Plates founder Jared Koch, the panel included Nibmor founders Jennifer Love and Heather Terry, The Regal Vegan founder Ella Nemcova, Sun In Bloom restaurant founder Aimee Follette, and Raw Ice Cream Company founder Mark Roth. We got to sample a treat from each: Nibmor’s Daily Dose of Chocolate, the Regal Vegan’s Walnut Lentil Pate, a delicious meal from Sun in Bloom, and three mind-blowing flavors of vegan ice cream from the Raw Ice Cream Company (seriously, this ice cream is better than some “real” ice cream I’ve tasted). But beyond the food, what was most palpable in these folks was passion–and a deep commitment to sharing the healing power of food.

Friday just kept getting better. Next was Dr. Christiane Northrup, a hero to so many women in the room whose books (including Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom) have helped millions of women around the globe. Self-described “mega wuwu, mega practical,” Dr. Northrup supported her claims with science and yet reminded us that our own “GPS” is greater than any green juice, doctor, or superfood because it is “connected to source.” She warned of the “just get rid of it” mentality that pervades our culture and offered a more inclusive view. We are all here because we are healing a wound, she reminded us, and the ultimate expression of healing is community.

Following Dr. Northrup was a documentary called “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” a film by Australian native Joe Cross about his journey from obesity and autoimmune disease to radiant health through a 60-day juice cleanse. Traveling through America, Joe meets a truck driver named Phil, also obese and suffering from the same autoimmune condition. Fed up with feeling disempowered, Joe and Phil reclaim their health, inspiring others to do the same. The results are nothing short of amazing. I could say a lot more about this incredibly moving film, but instead I’ll let you watch for yourself here. Its more than worth it.

Finally, Friday wrapped up with Dr. Dean Ornish, a pioneer in the field of medicine for his prescient claim that diet and lifestyle choices can diminish heart disease. After 16 years of trying to convince Medicare to cover his Comprehensive Lifestyle Program for Reversing Heart Disease, Dr. Ornish has succeeded, and his program is now the first integrative medicine program covered by Medicare. “What people want more than health is freedom,” Dr. Ornish explained, reminding us that intimacy and sleep are just as important as the food we eat, and that when the conditions are right, our bodies really do have the power to heal themselves.

The deliciousness continued on Saturday with a yoga practice led by Rodney Yee. Through asana we explored the nutritional quality of the breath, and how our mental state directly affects our ability to receive and release successfully. If we are in a state of fear, hardened and contracted to the world around us, we are naturally less perceptive, less receptive, and less available. To show up fully for others and be of service, we must first learn the nourishment that goes deeper than any food. Planting our roots, lifting our arms, and welcoming the breath, we weeded through our own soil to clear the ground for growth.

Rounding off the menu was Dr. Mark Hyman, also a pioneer in functional medicine and a tremendous source of inspiration and energy. Dr. Hyman discussed “Diabesity” (as he calls our current epidemic of obesity and diabetes) as a social disease, and addressed the systemic setbacks we face today as a nation. He didn’t sugarcoat our situation (no pun intended), and shared a disturbing photo that showed a supermarket offer to buy Coca Cola with food stamps. Yes, the government is now advocating the purchase of soda. “We need to treat the system, not the symptom,” he continued, “we need to use third world models to cure first world problems.” Most importantly, Dr. Hyman reminded us that what we put into our bodies directly affects how our genes express themselves. “Food isn’t just calories,” he explained, “its information. You have the power to upgrade your biological system with every bite you take.”

A lot to digest. Thankfully, we had some guidance, with a closing lesson on digestion from Rodney Yee. Rodney encouraged this room of Integrative Therapists to connect the dots–to apply and integrate the transformative knowledge gathered in yoga, aromatherapy, contemplative care, reiki and nutrition. With graduation next month, Rodney urged this group to keep the UZIT recipe fresh out in the world: to keep “juicing” each other for inspiration, empowering each other, and like any good chef, to keep refining and adjusting the ingredients of the method.