Private Lives:Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our lives.
I was into health food before it was cool. There were only two other people I knew who frequented my neighborhood health food store in the late ’80s: an emaciated man with a gray ponytail and a woman with a surprising amount of underarm hair, who smelled of B.O. and patchouli.
The floor there was crowded with bins filled with grains, granola and dried tiger’s milk. And on a small shelf in back was a smattering of organic produce: tiny apples with black spots and a couple of balls of spinach so caked in dirt you had to wash each leaf separately and check for worms.
But sometime in the mid-’90s, everyone who made fun of me for being a health nut was suddenly calling for advice. Which was better, organic or local? How did I germinate sprouts? Even my grandmother, who thought I was going to die when I gave up meat as a teenager, wanted my recipe for mock chicken soup.
And now, in the Whole Foods era, as I push my shopping cart down spacious aisles stocked with nonprocessed, gluten-free, non-G.M.O., heirloom, grass-fed, free-range and artisanal goods, I am pleased to know that I was ahead of my time.
Imagine my shock, then, at my last physical, when my doctor told me I had hypothyroidism, common in women over 40. When I got home I looked up the condition on the Internet and found a list of foods to avoid. Kale, which I juiced every morning, tops the list, followed by broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and collard greens — the cruciferous vegetables I consumed in large quantities because they are thought to prevent cancer, which runs in my family. And flax — as in the seeds — high in omega 3’s, that I sprinkled on cereal and blended in strawberry almond milk smoothies. Also forbidden: almonds and strawberries, not to mention soy, peaches, peanuts, corn, radishes, rutabaga and spinach.
And then, as if my world was not sufficiently rocked, I went to the dentist, who said I had five cavities and asked if I snacked on candy and sodas all day long. I was insulted. Indignant. What did he take me for? No, I answered. I don’t eat sugar and drink only fresh vegetable juices — no longer kale, of course, but carrot and celery, which I’m still allowed. And filtered water with lemon.
“You’d be better off with chocolate and cola,” he said. Apparently the natural sugars in fruit and vegetable juices can cause decay, and lemon, though high in vitamin C and bioflavonoids which may prevent cancer, had eroded the enamel that protected my teeth.
I argued that I always brushed afterward. “Worst thing you can do,” he said. “That’s when the teeth are most vulnerable. Always wait half an hour after eating or drinking anything before brushing your teeth. And don’t brush more than twice daily. You’re destroying what little enamel you have left.”
I thought he might collapse when he asked what toothpaste I used and I said non-fluoride brands from the health food store. He steadied himself on the arm of the dental chair and let out a long sigh before sending me home with a prescription for an extra-strength fluoride toothpaste, which I had no intention of filling because I was worried that fluoride, even in the smaller concentrations permitted in over-the-counter brands, might be harmful.
But by the time I got off the bus in front of the Walgreens by my apartment, I had changed my mind. I bought the toothpaste. You never know what you’ll do when you’re scared. I’d read “The Cancer Prevention Diet” by Michio Kushi, who brought macrobiotics to the United States in the ’60s. In the book, he presents numerous case studies of cancer patients who refused Western treatment and healed naturally, through macrobiotics. But when he was told he had cancer himself, he went under the knife.
I got home and looked up my new toothpaste on the Internet. There I read that fluoride is linked to hypothyroidism. In fact, it’s been used as a medication for hyperthyroid patients, who have the condition opposite to mine.
Which should I choose? My thyroid or my teeth? I suppose in the long run my thyroid is more important, though the image of my grandmother’s dentures soaking in cup of water flashed through my mind.
I considered my dilemma as I opened the fridge and took out the milk my husband puts in his coffee. Not soy, rice or almond milk — but dairy, from a cow. And then I remembered the box of Twinkies my husband had bought — not to eat, but because they were being discontinued and might be valuable one day. It was on a shelf in the hall closet, behind the old typewriter, the dial phone and his stamp collection. Carefully, with a kitchen knife, I removed the top and admired the perfect cakes of my childhood, side by side in their individual cellophane covers, like little sleeping bags. I tore the first one open.
Jennifer Berman is a writer and sign language interpreter living in New York City.