After years of struggling with her own chronic illness, nutritionist and blogger Amie Valpone shares how an anti-inflammatory, whole-food diet has changed her life for the better.
Manhattan-based chef, nutritionist, and blogger Amie Valpone is on a mission to make clean eating accessible to everyone. You’ll find delicious whole-food recipes on her blog, TheHealthyApple.com, that reflect her own way of eating — 100 percent organic, lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of fresh vegetables. From a cleansing quinoa salad to black bean tahini dip, there’s something to please every palate.
Valpone is publishing her first book Eating Clean: The 21-Day Plan to Detox, Fight Inflammation and Reset Your Body (available March 8), and it’s full of the kinds of nutrient-dense recipes and clean-lifestyle tips you’ll find on her blog. The book’s forward is written by functional-medicine pioneer and Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine director Mark Hyman, MD.
After 10 years of medical mysteries, Valpone says a Lyme disease diagnosis was the catalyst for her own dietary changes, ones that have extended far beyond the benefits of a cleaner plate. She acknowledges the difficulty in creating a healthy and clean lifestyle for ourselves, but she hopes to show you how easy — and delicious — it can be.
Experience Life | On your website, you note that you’re on a mission “to change the way people eat. To feed people food — the way food was meant to be.” So, from your perspective, what is food meant to be for us?
Amie Valpone | Food is meant to be nourishment. But so many people are focused on calories and choose foods found in boxes and cans that are void of nutrients, full of refined sugars and flours, and made from very cheap ingredients such as soy and corn — all of which causes inflammation in most of our bodies.
Real food is eating one-ingredient whole foods and forming your meals and snacks around those foods. What’s in an avocado? An avocado. What’s in an apple? An apple. What’s in an almond? An almond. Many of my clients don’t realize you can live a delicious life by eating whole foods every day. I’m living proof. In my new book, Eating Clean, I talk about how food helped me heal from a decade of chronic illness. Eating this way is what helped me reset my body and allow my body to heal.
EL | What are the biggest physical and emotional shifts you’ve seen in yourself since shifting to a diet that consists of 100 percent organic, lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of fresh veggies?
AV | For 10 years my body reacted to everything I ate — I was bloated, tired, had brain fog, and so many other awful symptoms. That’s when I started eating clean, namely, adding in more healthy fats for hormonal balance and to balance my blood sugar, and ate more lean proteins at every meal and lots of fresh veggies.
I’ve seen so many changes. I no longer have hormonal imbalances (night sweats, PMS, acne); I don’t have muscle or joint pain anymore; I don’t get tired around 3 p.m., like I did for years; I no longer have sugar cravings, my blood sugar is stable; and I have more energy than I’ve ever had. Now, I crave veggies when I wake up in the morning!
I’ve also learned how to slow my life down and relax and focus on mind-body healing, which I never had the patience for when I was working with Western-medicine doctors. When I discovered functional-integrative medicine, I taught myself how to meditate, breathe from my belly to signal my parasympathetic nervous system, and learned how to focus on me and my well-being instead of putting everyone first.
It sounded selfish at first, but I soon realized a large part of my body getting “out of balance” was from me doing everything for everyone else and worrying about everyone else and not taking care of myself. Now, I focus on self-love and self-care daily.
EL | You offer an “anti-inflammatory meal plan.” What kinds of foods and meals are considered “anti-inflammatory” and why is it important to focus on foods that fight inflammation?
AV | We’re all exposed to toxins on a daily basis from our tap water to our air to the food we eat and what we put on our skin. It’s nothing to freak out about or get overwhelmed by, but I’ve found it to be very helpful to be mindful of how I can decrease the amount of toxins I’m bombarded with on a daily basis by eating anti-inflammatory foods full of antioxidants to help fight free radicals, and focus on other detox practices I mention in my book, along with eating organic.
My 3 Month Anti-Inflammatory Meal Plan, which is sold on my website, is filled with foods that fight inflammation, such as ground flaxseeds, walnuts, leafy green veggies, and other foods that are nutrient-dense and filled with omega-3s to help fight inflammation in our bodies. Many people don’t realize that eating conventional (nonorganic) food means that you’re digesting growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides — all of which wreak havoc on your body and your gut. And now that we know about 70 percent of our immune system is located in our gut, it’s important to add in anti-inflammatory foods as well as probiotic-rich foods to keep our gut flora healthy, and, in turn, keep us healthy.
EL | Most of us are trying to balance a lot — work, home life, a relationship. What are some simple ways we can embrace healthier choices in the midst of our increasingly demanding lives?
AV | Nothing changed for me until I changed my environment and my lifestyle. I think it’s important to understand what a huge role everyone plays in their own health. What I’ve learned is that it’s up to you to change the quality of your life forever. I was an incredibly healthy person, but it turns out “healthy” wasn’t good enough, and I learned no one really knows what healthy is, including many of the Western doctors that I went to.
I know it’s challenging to embrace change, but once I hit rock bottom with my health, I learned how to slow down for the first time in 32 years. It was my wake-up call and I don’t want anyone else to have to deal with what I went through for 10 very painful years. I want to hand the keys over to someone else with my book and help them shortcut their journey.
I’ve learned you can at least support your body’s ability to do what’s in your control: Detox on a daily basis by eating organic foods, meditate, take an Epsom salt bath, make yourself a cup of tea, and find time to schedule downtime in your calendar — every day.
EL | You advocate for cooking at home as a great way to consume healthy foods, yet many of us regularly go out to lunch or attend a gathering at a friend’s house. What are your top tips for navigating a menu or sticking with “cleaner” options next time we venture outside the comfort (and control) of our own homes?
AV | First, read the labels of your packages for ingredients, such as sugar and canola oil as well as other inflammatory ingredients that might be lurking in everything from your mustard to your vegetable broth. Fill your pantry with raw nuts and seeds and gluten-free whole grains (millet, teff, sorghum, wild rice, black rice, and quinoa). Stock your fridge with fresh fruits and veggies such as leafy greens, avocados, lemons, and cooked beans.
You can make a batch of whole grains and beans on a Sunday night and store them in separate sealed containers in the fridge so you’re prepared for a variety of meals during the week: Use quinoa to make a quinoa porridge with almond milk for breakfast; put it in a salad for lunch and try quinoa tacos for dinner. With the beans, make a sauté for breakfast with coconut oil and spinach, mash them for a bean sandwich and veggies for lunch, and for dinner, make a bean soup.
You’ll quickly discover how easy it can be to cook once and eat a few times with staple, one-ingredient foods. I’ve laid out all of my tips in my new book, Eating Clean, but these are some additional thoughts on navigating your pantry and your kitchen. The key is choosing whole, one-ingredient foods as much as possible — whether you’re at home or out and about.
EL | Your photography is as beautiful as your recipes are tasty. Why is the pairing of food with art important to you?
AV | Thank you so much! I taught myself photography. I want people to feel happy and see beautiful photos when they come to my website, The Healthy Apple, because it’s important that we are enjoying our experience with food and that it makes us feel incredible while eating it and cooking it.
A huge shift for me happened when I stopped standing over my Manhattan counter eating and started sitting down, setting a beautiful plate and making it look beautiful.
I believe there is a huge healing that happens when we feel beautiful and we are eating beautifully presented foods.
EL | What are your top three ingredients for a happy, healthy life (apart from food)?
AV | The older I get, the more I crave meditation. I meditate for an hour a day and I love it. It’s changed my life and opened my eyes to living a delicious life. So, my three ingredients are: mediation, quiet (alone) time, and warm Epsom salt baths.
EL | What is your go-to breakfast these days?
AV | Breakfast is my favorite meal! I always eat a big breakfast. I usually have an avocado with sea salt on my grain-free crackers from my cookbook along with lots of veggies, and then I’ll snack on raw walnuts about an hour or so later. I created a handful of grain-free crackers in my cookbook (made from nuts and seeds), and I bake them every Sunday night for my breakfast each week. I also eat them with hummus, guacamole, and salsa as a snack to keep me satisfied all day long.
EL | How about a favorite snack or two for on-the-go?
AV | Zucchini is always in my bag! Ask anyone who knows me. Raw nuts and seeds are always delicious as well, and I often pair them with unsweetened coconut flakes and cocoa powder and a pinch of ground cinnamon.
I also love munching on my grain-free crackers or grain-free breads made from almond four, coconut flour, and chickpea flour.
I have an incredible flatbread recipe in my cookbook and two more coming soon to my blog that are amazing. I’ll wrap them in parchment paper along with my homemade nut cheese and I’ll be set for a long plane ride to California.
I make it work wherever I am — because it’s a way of life for me. So it doesn’t matter if I’m headed to a meeting or on an airplane, I’ll plan my menu for the day and seek out healthy options while traveling, like finding a local health-food store and making a fun snack to munch on every few hours after breakfast.
EL | You say, “We each know our bodies better than anyone else does.” How can we become more in tune with our own needs? What simple steps can we take, starting today?
AV | My best advice is to stop listening to what everyone else is telling you to do, eat, etc. And find time to get quiet with yourself. It wasn’t until I started to slow down my life, get quiet with myself, and embrace everything happening for me and not to me that my life began to take off.
I recall days when I was so sick during my decade of chronic illness, when doctors wouldn’t believe me or they’d hand me a drug to cover up my symptoms.
I could have gone that route — chosen the drugs — but I knew there was a better way.
I knew there was a way to make my body work again and I’m living proof it can be done no matter what ails you. I can count on two hands all my diagnoses from Lyme to C-diff. colitis, and no one thought I’d come out of them on the other side. I trusted myself and found the answers inside of me by being incredibly mindful, taking notes on how I felt when I did something, ate something, etc., and started to put the pieces together.
More recently, energy work has been healing me, and it’s something I never explored before — it’s opened my eyes to so much, and I started getting messages from so many people to try it or I started seeing books about it. I started to listen more to the subtle signs of life and that is what has led me to my healing. I’ve learned how to listen to my body and understand symptoms and what was going on inside of me so that I could learn how to help myself.
And I do believe anyone can do this — the answers are all inside of us, we just have to be willing to slow down and hear them.
I was too busy for 10 years. And now, it’s all I make time for because my health is my No. 1 priority.
Visit Amie Valpone on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @TheHealthyApple. Valpone’s first cookbook, Eating Clean: Detox, Fight Inflammation, Reset Your Body and Get to the Root Cause of Illness, will be available for purchase March 8, 2016.