Eating healthier meals in prison

by Michel Deforge

From PHN Issue 34, Fall 2017

Eating healthy did not even feel realistic, or possible, when I started trying to overcome the obstacles. I now believe that the physical and psychological benefits make it easy.

First, a little about me: I am 45 years old, ten years in custody with many to go, diagnosed with Crohn disease (which is incurable and can lead to intestinal failure). My goal: to leave in better health than when I arrived.

My journey began in 2012, when I switched to body-weight exercises for a physical fitness routine I can do anywhere, maintaining mobility and strength. In spring 2015, rapid weight loss (40 pounds over two weeks) and other aggressive symptoms in my gut—later diagnosed as Crohn disease—resulted in a ten-day trip to the hospital. Once stabilized, I began my journey down the road to recovery—reclaiming my health, strength and vitality. Along with my exercise routine, I walk one to three hours daily, at a moderate-brisk pace. Programs and activities provide community connection and purpose to life, while diet and exercise restore my physical health.

A perfect diet is like a giant jigsaw puzzle—with lots of pieces missing because of incarceration. I read several books about the relationship between food choices and health, looking for a magic pill or golden elixir which would restore my health, strength and vitality. Sadly, there is no such thing. What I did discover is that it requires hard work, grit, and determination to conquer old destructive habits. But it is doable!

My eating philosophy is a set of principles, rather than a rigid set of rules:

  1. Real food: I try to eat food that is as close as possible to what it looked like when it was harvested in nature. When it comes to eating meat, this is especially important. How often are we fed something so processed that it no longer represents any part of any known living animal?
  2. Beans—powerhouses of nutrition: Beans provide good protein and lots of fiber to keep me feeling full from meal to meal. The carbohydrates they carry are released slowly into the bloodstream, so they don’t trigger an insulin response, or the fat storage process, making them a stable energy source throughout the day. This makes a late-day energy slump or snack-binging hunger less likely. Combined with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, beans yield all the essential amino acid building blocks needed for healthy living.
  3. Whole veggies and fruit: I eat all I want. Vegetables and fruits—whole, not processed or juiced—have natural fiber, important vitamins, and minerals like potassium.
  4. Starchy carbohydrates: I limit consumption of these. Potatoes, white rice and all processed/refined grain products (bread, pancakes, waffles, French toast, corn flakes, cookies, cake, etc.) have little if any fiber and convert to glucose. But whole grains, like rolled oats (plain, no added sugar) keep their natural fiber and nutrients.
  5. Processed additives, fat, sugar and salt: I avoid these. I stay away from margarine, butter, salad dressing, and all oils—these have high calories and little, if any, nutritional value. The body can get enough fat from eating unsalted nuts and/or seeds, which are high in protein.

My solution to this puzzle with missing pieces is not for everyone. I never set out to become a militant vegan. But everyone can read and learn about what is healthy for body and mind, taking small steps over time toward lasting health through ever-smarter daily choices, despite what isn’t available.

I buy dried fruit and nuts for post-workout snacks, and meal replacements. (However, not everyone has money for commissary, unfortunately.) At first, I didn’t like the idea of eating beans so often, but I stuck with it. The key was buying condiments and spices from canteen. With time, my taste preferences changed. Now, I enjoy eating beans and veggies (even when overcooked) more than most of the “meats” served.

I continue to covet some of my unhealthy choices. For example, when I eat a particularly good looking piece of cake, I just enjoy it, and move on. It’s not about judging myself. Over time, I am developing habits that allow me to minimize my unhealthy choices and the consequences they carry.

As an incarcerated person, many healthy foods are just not available. They are the missing pieces. I focus day by day, even meal by meal, on selecting real food, according to my principles. I also trade things with others who happily exchange their veggies or fruit for cookies, etc.

Consequently, my Crohn disease is in remission, not just controlled by medication; my body is healing itself. My cholesterol composition is fantastic and getting better every year, my A-1C is below 5, and my blood pressure is stable around 108/70. My day is full of energy, and my mind is alert—no late-day grogginess. I am stronger, healthier, and more fit now than before I experienced my first attack of Crohn disease. I would not go back to any of my previous habits.

Good luck on your own journey to healthy living!

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