One mom's extreme search for healthy living
January 20th, 2011
01:20 PM ET

One mom's extreme search for healthy living

One of the most profound  byproducts of a serious health challenge can be a patient’s need to seize control over some aspects of his or her life, hoping those changes may affect the outcome of illness. Today, in the first of three parts, writer, cancer survivor and mother of two young children,  Amanda Enayati reflects on her newfound vigilance - some might say obsession - with achieving a healthier lifestyle for herself and her family.


“Why did I get cancer?”

I think in the first years after diagnosis, I asked anyone and everyone who crossed my path: doctors, surgeons, oncologists, specialists, nurses, orderlies and receptionists. All I ever heard was: “We just don’t know.”

I tried to make a case for myself, as if somehow that would undo that which was already done: But I am young. I have no family history. I have no genetic predisposition. Zero high-risk lifestyle habits. Nothing! The disease just showed up one day like a nightmare houseguest no one was expecting or was happy to see.

“So why did I get cancer?”

Eventually, when they were all good and tired of me, I was greeted with blank smiles and an imaginary chorus of crickets chirping.

But an unanswered question of that magnitude does not just go away. It replays in your mind over and over again. It makes you suspect things that appeared innocent just a few short months ago. It makes you, well, paranoid.

I began researching like my life depended upon it. (And perhaps it did and does.) One day I came upon a simple sentence: About 40 percent of cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes. Its source: the World Health Organization.

I figured there was so much I could not control in recovering from cancer. But I could control “lifestyle changes.”

Nothing was safe from my potential wrath: the foods my family consumed; the health and beauty products we used; our household products; even activities we engaged in. My activism had unexpected repercussions for my husband and two children—a toddler and a preschooler. They became the (sometimes-reluctant) beneficiaries of my new ways.

And so began the journey that started the day I was diagnosed with the Big C. To some, I am a maven, a progressive, a fellow traveler. To others, an extremist, a ruiner of childhoods.

What we eat (and don't)

“I know cupcakes. I have eaten cupcakes. And you, sir, are no cupcake.”

As a child I read a comic book in which a little girl goes to bed one night and wakes up the next morning to find that everyone in her world has changed. Her family members, school friends, every single person in her small town all look and act the same, but they are different somehow. Some deep, essential part of them has vanished and instead they appear to be soulless replicas of their former selves.

Somewhere along the line, this happened with the foods we eat. It was not an overnight thing like in my comic book, but a slope down which we slipped further and further as ingredients we recognized as foods for hundreds of years were removed one after another—only to be replaced by their Frankenstein approximations. And perhaps the resulting food looked, felt and even tasted the same, but it was, in reality, a soulless replica.

In every endeavor, lines must be drawn and in our household, the first lines were drawn against the usual suspects: excessive sugars, bad fats, dyes, preservatives and pesticides.

The woman who was famous for requesting the dessert menu before the dinner menu, who once inhaled five full-sized éclairs in one sitting, began monitoring her family’s refined sugar intake with the vigor of a dominatrix wielding her whip. Which, I would have you know, is no easy feat. Copious amounts of sugar—bearing a half-dozen different monikers—is in everything: bread, crackers, soup, peanut butter, ketchup, yogurt, sauces, juice and jam.

What’s wrong with a little sweetness, you say. Live a little, you say.

You are, in fact, quite right. There is nothing wrong with a little sweetness. The average American, however, consumes between 150 and 170 pounds of refined sugar a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up from four pounds a year less than a century ago. And this level of sugar consumption wreaks havoc on our bodies by, among other things, depressing our immune system, and feeding inflammation and cancer growth.

Remember the hoopla over trans-fats—major contributors to disease and obesity—in our cookies and crackers a few years ago? Have you checked a popular candy bar label recently? Many of their ingredients boast the unholy trifecta of high fructose corn syrup (oh sorry, we’re supposed to call it “corn sugar” now and even with the cute new name, studies show that it promotes obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides—at much higher rates than table sugar), partially or fully hydrogenated oils and carcinogenic dyes. How is that for a moral dilemma while standing in the middle of the Walgreen’s candy aisle an hour before the Halloween night crowds of little people descend? Do you shell out the big bucks you don’t have for the expensive stuff with ingredients you recognize? Or do you buy the reasonably priced chemistry experiments with familiar names that evoke childhood nostalgia but that you now only ever pick up in order to show your children what not to touch with a ten-foot pole?

As it turns out, teaching children about healthy and unhealthy foods also requires rather extensive instruction in Marketing 101.

Lesson One: Decoys – Plastering pictures of popular, beloved cartoon characters on boxes of highly processed foods with degenerated, scientific-sounding ingredients. (“But Mommy!” asked my indignant then-5-year old once as we read the ingredients on a box of treats at the checkout line in Target. “The people who make this must realize that children are going to want to eat it. Why would they put stuff in it that they know makes people sick?”)

Lesson Two: Funny math – Using three different types of sugars as ingredients so the manufacturer does not have to list any of them first.

Lesson Three: Diversionary tactics – Putting a healthy-sounding ingredient up front in your list to divert attention from a suspect ingredient that comes later. Or emblazoning your box with health slogans.

For my husband’s big birthday last year, my daughter, son and I consulted at length and decided to splurge on an ice cream cake from a well-known specialty store that boasts a super-premium ice cream made fresh every day. We ordered the cake about a week before the special day and that morning, the kids and I piled into the car to go pick it up. As we waited for one of the store clerks to fetch the cake from the back, I saw a sign by the register that said: “Nutrition information available upon request.”

“Sure,” I said to the person behind the cash register since it was taking the clerk some time to return, “I would love to see the nutrition information.”

“You mean how many calories it has?” She asked me.

“No,” I said. “I mean what’s in it.”

The cashier pulled out a large binder and flipped pages for a few seconds. And then she set a list of ingredients before me that was—I kid you not—thirteen lines long, over 50 ingredients wide, and included such delights as partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, propylene glycol, high fructose corn syrup and polysorbate 80.

So what did I do?

When the clerk came in with my small, $30 ice cream cake, I paid for the Franken-dessert and took it home. I cheered and sang along with my children as my husband blew out his candles and smiled as we ate slices of the little monstrosity. And not only did I never set foot in that chain again, I made sure to tell all my friends about the sludge they attempt to pass off as super-premium, fresh ice cream.

Which brings me to the most important lesson of all: You can only do the best you can do.

You can teach your kids, inform them and hope that they will become savvy consumers who eat consciously and healthfully. You can do all that, and I guarantee there will still be many days of unhealthy, chemical and/or sugar-fueled overindulgence. And when that happens, you must shrug and move on. Because at the end of the day, there is no such thing as perfection (unless you’re Oprah, and your nutritionist, gardener and chef are working in concert with one another during your annual 21-day cleanse).

Take one step at a time—and most of them will be baby steps—starting with filling your plate with: more fresh vegetables; beans and other legumes; whole and sprouted grains like Ezekiel breads and tortillas, and brown rice pastas; organic fruits and veggies when possible (see Dr. Sanjay Gupta's report on the Environmental Working Group’s ranking of produce with the least and most pesticide residue); healthy oils like olive and flaxseed (but never heat the flax oil); plenty of spices like turmeric and black pepper, garlic powder and Mediterranean herbs; and sugar mostly in the context of whole fruits and veggies (and not just juice either, but the whole fruit). And if you are buying packaged foods, read labels like a fiend.

Maybe if we stop accepting food zombies as the real thing on a larger scale, “food” companies will do the right thing and stop trying to pass them off on us.

Listen, I obviously have no way of knowing for sure whether my pre-cancer diet caused my illness or contributed to it in some way. Am I willing to change my eating habits to—if nothing else—live a more healthful life and make myself feel better? You bet I am.

Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared on CNN.com, Time.com, Salon (named “10 in 2010: Our Favorite Salon Stories”), the Washington Post and "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.

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Filed under: Children's Health • Healthy Eating

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Moodyme

    This woman is considered a good writer? I guess the Internet has lowered standards.

    No new information here, and far too much padding with extraneous words, to get her word count up.

    January 20, 2011 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MoodyMoody

      To my fellow Moody: this is HER story, a biographical piece. It is only peripherally an article about healthy eating. Of course it isn't new information; it is information presented in the context of a real person's life. Personalizing information makes it much more real to many people.

      January 20, 2011 at 18:54 | Report abuse |
  2. CFS Facts

    And sometimes, sickness just happens. Many CFS patients, for example, report an extremely healthy lifestyle before they got sick: daily exercise, good diet, etc. Some were Olympic athletes with trainers and coaches monitoring everything they ate, and nonetheless, got sick. This is not to give anyone carte blanche to live an unhealthy lifestyle, just to remind people that you can do everything right and still not be immune to health problems.

    January 20, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Tonya

    AMEN< AMEN< AMEN!!! People close their ears to what it truly healthy most of the time because they are unwilling to make the changes and take responsibility for their obesity, diabetes, cancer, and down to simple illness'. People don't want to deprive their children but instead clog their arteries and depress their immune systems, their brain and body function and set them up for a lifetime of problems. This generation will be the worst. We have football players dying on the fields from heart failure. We must stop eating processed and "dead" food and eat foods that are "alive" that feed our bodies and replenish our enzymes, strengthen our minds, help us live longer and more vigourous lives because we think before we eat. I had to bury my dad from cancer, after curing it with living foods, he went back to eating meat and dead foods and the cancer was back within 3 months and he died shortly after. What a sad thing that we so many people lose their loved ones simply for the sake of a sugar, and other processed food. It is a stupid thing really that we choose not to live because of food. Just stupid.

    January 20, 2011 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sporky

      You should be notified that enzymes don't need replenishing- the hallmark of an enzyme is that it is a protein catalyst for chemical reactions that is NOT USED UP during said reactions. Additionally, everything you eat is DEAD, regardless of whether it has been cooked to 114 (?) degrees or not. You pull a carrot out of the ground, you remove it from its habitat, it stops photosynthesizing, it is dead. And while a healthy diet certainly helps prevent illness and will guarantee proper nutrition for the sick, it does not cure cancer.

      January 20, 2011 at 17:57 | Report abuse |
  4. HST

    Thanks for sharing a smart, common sense, real mom, do-able approach. And the writing's great, too. Loved her cancer series and glad to see Amanda Enayati is back!

    January 20, 2011 at 17:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kathi

      Her writing style is sparkling! And I heartily agree with her stance.

      January 21, 2011 at 08:38 | Report abuse |
  5. Lane

    The author should read "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and "Race for Life" by Ruth Heidrich, PhD. She would have few doubts about what caused her cancer and what to do to give herself the best chance of survival.

    January 20, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • allison

      She should also read Dr. Esselstyn's book, Reversing Heart Disease.....Much of what we consume is a slow poison to the arteries. President Clinton spoke of his new quest to follow Dr. Campbell and Dr. Esselstyn to reverse his own heart disease. (see interview video with Wolf Blitzer)

      January 21, 2011 at 08:17 | Report abuse |
    • abbyful

      Here's a newsflash for you, the conclusions drawn in the book "The China Study" are not the conclusions of the actual study.

      March 9, 2011 at 17:48 | Report abuse |
  6. Michael Robinson

    Chronic Illness demands rethinking things

    I know some people talk about this or that person getting cancer, or as above, fit athletes getting CFS, well wake up call. Something went wrong. It might be mental, spiritual, diet, immune, viral, bacterial, a food sensitivity, or as I suspect in my case, .... all of them. After many years I discovered I'm sensitive to about 18 individual foods and about 9 food groups. Foods I'd eaten lots of in the past. Foods considered generally healthy foods, but for whatever reason they are off the list now and I'm doing better by not taking them.

    So I take that as we all have some learning to do.

    What we all generally consider as "healthy foods" may not be. Check out Robert O Young's books on pH Miracle and he talks about the sugar that comes from wholegrains and fruits and even some vegies as contributing to our ill health.

    Yet others talk about the enzyme inhibitors in grains and nuts that we should be washing away with 8 hours of soaking before we eat any grains, yet few people do as we chew down handfuls of nuts and cups of wholegrain foods not realising that there are numerous proteins in those grains designed to block nutrition like gluten does and some people are sensitive to that.

    Then again there are oils and GM foods and the list goes on.

    Lets not kid ourselves we are as healthy as we can be, especially not when ill health is on the rise.

    January 20, 2011 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Vera

    Hello Everyone,

    If you are interested in breast cancer treatments and preventions, please take a look at this link: http://breastcancerbydrruddy.com/. There are great articles you'd love to read! It goes over the Breast Health and Healing Foundation as well as the breast cancer virus and vaccine. The vaccine may be a great help to breast cancer patients as well as the healthy. Prevention includes the food you eat, the amount of exercise you get, and the destructive things you must avoid such as HRT, birth control pills, alcohol, and cigarettes. Thanks for reading!

    January 20, 2011 at 18:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. behealthy

    first off, good post. this is a very important topic and has often been seen as taboo by media conglomerates as it goes against the large-scale processed food manufacturers who often pressure them to not publish these stories.

    CNN- I do not agree with you labeling this as an 'EXTREME' search for healthy living. This should be the norm for every person and family in the U.S., and sadly that is not the case. A healthy diet and lifestyle has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of cancer. If you look at the Tarahumara people in Mexico or the Maasai in Kenya they remain, in the vast majority, free of any diseases.

    @Sporky: I agree with you about a healthy diet helping to prevent illness, but I am also wondering about its ability to cure cancer. I am no doctor but would say I am very concerned about the state of health of this country. I recently came across a diet therapy known as the Gerson therapy that claims the ability to cure cancer. It has been called controversial and is outlawed in the United States, however I suspect that the pharmaceutical industry and the medical industry pressured the FDA to outlaw the practice of Gerson therapy in the U.S. because of their own greediness. Have we already found a cure for cancer and just don't know it?

    January 20, 2011 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Raspasa

    Well written. It's sad that putting forth the effort to find healthy, natural food can sound "extreme" these days. I only recently started scrutinizing ingredient labels as closely as I do now. Some of the foods/non-foods that surprised me the most: most pancake syrups and bottled juices (almost all high fructose corn syrup). Thanks for sharing – looking forward to other posts.

    January 20, 2011 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Susan777

    It's best not to buy any food that comes in a box or a can. It's expensive, but I try to only eat organic fruits and veggies, and I try to eat temperate fruits (apples, pears, berries) and not tropical fruits since I live in the Northeast. Wild salmon is my protein of choice. Even my dogs eat wild salmon. I spend a small fortune on food... but if you don't invest in your health, what's the point of investing in anything else?

    January 20, 2011 at 20:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. runner920

    It's refreshing that this lady is taking steps to protect her family instead of insisting that the government protect us from ourselves. You can only do so much in teaching your kids, and then you hope they make good decisions as adults. Very scary that something seemingly innocuous as sugar can wreak such havoc on the body.

    January 20, 2011 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Francisco

    Amanda Enayati The answer to your question of why can be understood through a new emerging science of nutritional genetics..Its the interplay between nutrition and genetics.A book The Code Code will help answer your quesation of why you got cancer.

    January 20, 2011 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Catherine

    I can see how getting cancer at a young age would be a life-changing experience. But not everything that happens to you is interesting. Not every way in which you react (or overreact) to those things is interesting, either. A large part of what you think you know is hyperbolic conspiracy-theory. I'm sorry you got cancer. Making it your life's focus is sad.

    January 20, 2011 at 22:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JS

      Way to miss the whole point, Catherine. I'm afraid that the writer is unlikely to make headway on this issue for one simple reason – the industries she is referring to represent some of the most powerful lobbies in our country.

      January 20, 2011 at 23:23 | Report abuse |
    • behealthy

      @JS – even though they may be very powerful companies and have influential lobbyists, it is always worth a shot, don't you think?

      January 21, 2011 at 01:05 | Report abuse |
  14. Myself63

    She's not "making it her life's focus." She is taking it as a warning sign and working to improve her lifestyle and her family's lifestyle. If her children grow up learning to eat fruits, vegetables, legumes whole grains, and organic dairy/meat instead of a bunch of processed garage all day, she has changed their lives. It sounds like she's making her family her focus, and that's a good thing.

    January 21, 2011 at 04:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Myself63

    P.S. I think we all have to do what's best for ourselves diet-wise, whether you feel best doing a vegan diet or the "paleo" diet (which is heavier on the meat.) Just listen to your body. If you do eat meat, though, look for salmon and grass-fed beef and cook it in healthy ways.

    Let's not judge each other. Let's support each other's choices and not ever even slightly blame the victims of cancer. We are all in this together.

    January 21, 2011 at 04:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Whitney

    Wow. What we are consuming and putting on our bodies coupled with our laziness is killing us. Our bodies are not designed for processed food or chemical laden products. I worked at a Cancer Service in my county and researched for months to figure out why so many people are getting cancer today. If you take the time to research it you will see exactly why we need to change the way we live. We gain convenience for disease and/or death. I believe in the Gerson Therapy, but that will never be used in America. Why you may ask? The treatment we have for cancer is too profitable...it always comes back to money. Research what is in products and how companies deceive us with their labeling. Our bodies can only take so much before our immune system breaks down and cancer or an endless number of diseases form. Please take the time to do the research and save your life–do not be so easily fooled.

    January 21, 2011 at 06:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Whitney

    @Myself63 I thought what you said was right on until you said " not ever even slightly blame the victims of cancer" What? I watched my grandfather die of lung cancer. He was a farmer for years, chewed, and smoked. So, how can you say that his life style choices and job did not contribute or even cause his cancer? How can you say that it is no one's fault that they have cancer? Some people are more predisposed to certain cancers or it runs in their family. But to say that we are never to blame someone for the cancer they have is ignorant and what is wrong with today's society. No one will take responsibility for their actions. There are consequences to every action we make and no one wants to accept that today. Cancer is very complex and generally do not happen over night. I am not saying when someone develops cancer to tell them that it is their fault and enjoy the consequences–so do not read into that.

    January 21, 2011 at 06:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Myself63

      The problem with "blaming" is it becomes easy for people to hear someone has "lung cancer" and then automatically think, "He must have been a smoker so that's why he has it." It's just not helpful to the victim. People get lung cancer who never smoked, so it's impossible to say your relative's was caused by smoking. Of course, people who smoked for years who get cancer know it probably contributed, so there is no point is saying so, implying it, or treating them any differently from any other cancer victim. They still don't deserve cancer, and who really knows the cause anyway? It's not black and white, and I think any kind of blame causes people to have less empathy and compassion.

      January 21, 2011 at 14:31 | Report abuse |
  18. Dr Bill Toth

    More articles like this must get around and around and around before "healthy" lifestyle becomes mainstream.
    We all know what to do, the question is do we do what we know? For most people the answer is no. And so please if you have a story like hers...get writing.
    Live with Intention,

    January 21, 2011 at 07:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Rick S.

    I think it is time to subsidize healthier foods. Either that or tax the heck out of unhealthy foods. The reason we have an obesity epidemic is the ease, cost, and proliferation of the unhealthy foods. This means that less affluent families will buy more of the unhealthy food items to reduce their living expenses. By reducing the cost of the healthy alternatives and increasing the cost of the unhealthy items we would reduce obesity simply by reducing the number of excess calories.

    January 21, 2011 at 08:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • allison

      My husband is a doctor at a heart hospital and would agree with you 100%. Any parent who saw Food, Inc., and takes their child to the drive through for fast food, has completely lost their mind.

      January 21, 2011 at 08:21 | Report abuse |
    • Myself63

      But when some of us suggest eliminating "junk food" as eligible for purchase with food stamps, people have a hissy fit. I'll never understand that.

      January 21, 2011 at 14:34 | Report abuse |
  20. D. J. Lane

    I always enjoy your work, Amanda. Please take heart and ignore the negativity of Moodyme and others.
    Determining the optimal diet is challenging. Not only are the foods we have easy access to pretty unnatural across the board, but I believe that individual genetic variations make finding THE optimal diet well-nigh impossible.

    I also wanted to point out though that the China study has been pretty thoroughly debunked. Here are a few links that explore this in more depth http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/cancer/the-china-study-vs-the-china-study/

    I look forward to hearing more from you.

    January 21, 2011 at 14:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Staceyann Dolenti

    It doesn't appear to me that the writer is trying to blame anyone as suggested, she is just pointing out what a slippery slope food has become. I applaude her efforts. I simply try and eat as much unprocessed food as possible.

    Staceyann C Dolenti

    January 21, 2011 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. megan

    good stuff. http://www.howtoeathealthey.info/ also has some great healthy living tips

    January 22, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Annie

    I agree wholeheartedly–and that's why my three young boys eat large plates of salad (not drowned in ranch dressing), drink green smoothies, and eat fruit before breakfast every morning. I sprinkle chia seed in their oatmeal, and make my own granola bars to feed and nourish their rapidly growing bodies. I don't believe in extremism, and nor does the author–I'm not going to shield my children from having a store-bought cake at a party, but for their own birthdays I make their cake. One of the most important values you can instill in your child is one that their body is the only one they've got, and they need to put good things into it in order to feel good. We all love our children and want the best for them, so why not give them the gift of health?

    January 25, 2011 at 11:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Analise

    Thank you for the wonderful article! My mother was 30 years old when she died of cancer, and as I get close to that age, cancer scares me more and more. The things you talked about in this article are things I have become more aware of in the last four months and sometimes it feels like I'm the only one that cares about what's in my food. Your story is very inspiring and helpful!

    April 25, 2011 at 19:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Brenda

    Love your work. With all of the "why"s You never mentioned if your cancer was estrogen receptive. Could you let us know. Thanks, B

    June 12, 2011 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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