Healthy Living: A Passion for Exercise and Healthier Food Choices

By Wendy Stephens
Tuesday August 07, 2007

When I was younger, and TV was in its relative infancy, and the big radio in my mother’s and my grandmother’s kitchens was a kind of second hearth to gather round and literally rub shoulders over while listening to distant yet homey messages beam in, I became very taken with my mother’s radio idol, lay nutritionist Carleton Fredericks, and my mother’s TV idol, feats of wonder strongman, Godfather of Fitness Jack LaLanne.  

Carleton Fredericks used to say that if you were stranded on a desert island (shades of my son’s former favorite youth survivalist book Hatchet) all you needed to live would be bananas, oranges, and eggs. Mom would say that the lecithin in eggs emulsified the cholesterol. Although Mr. Fredericks has been somewhat debunked as a vitamin pusher (I don’t remember that part at all), at least his radio show was called: “Living Should Be Fun.” In any case, I drew several lessons from that pithy gem: Fruit is good; potassium is great; protein rocks; love that Vitamin C; stay mostly or all vegetarian. 

Jack LaLanne, who still in my imagination at least, pulls multi-ton ships from a rope and tether anchored by his own choppers during his pre-dawn two-hour swim, always espoused one message that has stayed with me my whole life: “Avoid processed foods.”  

What a godsend, as that three-word directive has kept me away from fast food joints, the inner aisles of grocery stores, Velveeta and margarine, leading me gracefully and swiftly to Berkeley, Alice Waters, the once-nascent Gourmet Ghetto, and the notion that indeed our bodies are our temples.  

“If Jack can do it, I can do it: Exercise and eat right,” I used to think. And so began a lifetime of passion for performing ballet, swimming, martial arts, as well as growing, preparing, and sharing fresh organic fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  

My dad ate a heavy meat diet; he would even say, “Pass the fat,” and eat the skin off our chicken, and the trimmings off the steak and roast beef that my mother and my brothers had been trained to regard as cholesterol-laden and therefore unhealthy.  

He ate cured meats and enjoyed big pastrami deli sandwiches as well as making bacon (and eggs) for us on weekends. I looked forward to hearing him say outside the door of my “Paint It Black” tiny lair, a.k.a. bedroom: “Wendy, breakfast is ready,” and have loved chefs ever since. 

At the ripe young (now) age of 40, my dad also decided that climbing stairs and playing sports could lead to a heart attack in someone so old, so he hung up his tennis racket and sneakers and spent more time in his armchair as my brothers became old enough to mow the lawn and do the gardening. Dad got prostate cancer at 60 and was dead of bone cancer by 66. 

Mom, an absolutely frenetic person and vigorous race walker, primarily vegetarian eater of fresh foods and whole grains, eschewer of refined sugar, white flour, candy, and animal fat, is still going strong at 86, with her nearly 92-year-old former union leader/boxer long-term companion, who eats nitrates, hot dogs, cheap lox and anything he damn well pleases, as he keeps himself occupied by making sarcastic comments about the whole world except his blood family. 

Go figure. No one knows for sure how big a role genetics and environment (and plain old feistiness and love of life) play in longevity, but I know one thing: A strong sense of community, however one defines that term, is crucial in feeling swaddled and coddled as one advances through the years, running the streets and parks and tracks, seeing old friends and famous personages at the downtown Berkeley YMCA, shopping the farmers’ markets, and sharing tidbits of nutritional and physical culture knowledge as we local residents come back from our myriad travels, either in the physical or virtual world. 

My passion to prevent and reverse childhood obesity as chairman of the nonprofit Gardens on Wheels Association is driven by my love of exercise and lifelong healthier eating choices (except for the early teenage mania for chocolate that was part of rebelling against the strict injunction against candy consumption). 

We never had soda in my house (waste of money AND unhealthy), and soda is now implicated, in all of its 47 ounces for 69 cents giganticized evil glory, as the leading cause of childhood weight gain and early onset, preventable Type II diabetes.  

For me, the love of life and quest for fitness and meaningful longevity all started with my family, Carleton Fredericks, and Jack LaLanne. “Exercise and avoid processed food.” There is more to it, but that is a good beginning.