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This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
Personal Health with, Gulp, Jane Brody
You are about to talk to Jane Brody, long-respected personal health columnist for the New York Times, whose eight books and glowing press photo stand in mute reproach to you, me, and all the others who eat -- as incentive, reward, stress-reducer, socializer -- but hardly ever as a result of sheer hunger; who don't cross-train or exercise enough; who count on our doctors and our pills to keep us alive, if not well.
Jane Brody. You want to eat a proper lunch before the phone interview. She won't know you did, but who knows, maybe you can work it into the conversation. That, or mention you're planning to enjoy an apple after the interview. Good thing your phones don't have "visual caller ID" -- you know what you're dressed like and nibbling on, and you're sure she's got that bandbox look and probably snacks on one of the key food groups, which does not include maraschino cherries. Either way, it's bad for you.
Jane Brody, who answers her own telephone in a down-to-earth manner, ruefully admits she broke her own rules on a recent vacation in Spain, and answers all your silly questions -- including those your friends deputized you to check on. You're so relieved to find a real person and not a scold that you consider telling her about your own favorite diet day on vacation: macaroni and cheese for breakfast, banana split for lunch. But you refrain.
This paragon-person, whose voice even manages to sound healthy, is coming to Princeton on Monday, November 9, as keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary dinner of the Holistic Health Association of the Princeton Area (HHAPA). "An Evening with Jane Brody: Wellness as a Way of Life" begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott, Forrestal Village. She has been here before. In 1987, Princeton University awarded her the first of her two honorary doctorates.
Brody was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941. Her father was a lawyer and civil servant, her mother was a school teacher, and she has one younger brother. Her professional path began with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry Cornell University in 1962, and a master's in science writing from the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism in 1963. Two years as a general assignment reporter with the Minneapolis Tribune preceded her joining the New York Times in 1965 as a full-time specialist in medicine and biology. Since 1976 she has written the Times' widely syndicated weekly "Personal Health" column, along with other articles on science and medicine.
"We were looking for someone who represented a balanced viewpoint," says Marjorie K. Herman, executive director of the HHAPA. "We see ourselves as a bridge between the traditional and the holistic health communities. Jane is such a reasoned writer." As for the meal itself -- a reasonable thing to wonder about given Brody's food expertise, Herman believes they've chosen a restaurant that will serve a meal "both healthful and tantalizing." In keeping with the association's approach -- not dictating, but exploring options -- attendees can choose from three entrees: fish, roast vegetable strudel, and breast of chicken.
"I am convinced that my future health largely depends on how I care for myself in the present," Brody says. Her education and experience have equipped her with knowledge of how people can best care for themselves -- their holistic selves: body, mind and spirit -- that even medical doctors often thank her for. And her open-minded approach to so-called alternative care methods must please practitioners in those areas, ranging from acupuncture to herbal therapy, not to mention their clients: the 42 percent of all Americans who, with or without health insurance coverage, used at least one alternative method in 1997. As Brody reported in April, "Alternative medicine is clearly the largest growth industry in health care today."
"When I started writing medicine in the 1960s, the emphasis was on patching people up. But there was a slow-growing realization, particularly with regard to heart disease, that a lot of the things people did (smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise and stress-reduction techniques) was making them sick. That realization has evolved into lifestyle concepts that are designed to keep people healthy as long as possible," Brody says.
As the most pronounced change during her 33 years with the New York Times, 22 of them as its weekly "Personal Health" columnist, Brody cites prevention. "The vast majority of people now realize that's where it's at. Prevention is the key to health, not patching people up after they're sick. What you see now -- this interest in vitamins, exercise, diet, and all this stuff -- boils down to a realization that we have to do what we can to stay as intact and healthy as possible as long as possible."
But, we're tempted to say, Americans get fatter ever day, and this is a Prozac nation. But Brody, who says she's more fit and healthy now, at 55, than she was at 15, agrees that the hardest step toward prevention is the first one: deciding to live right. After that, aids and information abound.
For instance, those who commit to "prevention," may have to evolve into new ways of eating, new things to eat. Happily, Brody's cookbooks are targeted at people who enjoy eating, and they emphasize variety, moderation, and gradual change. She knows herself well enough to be sure to eat three meals a day, instead of skipping or fasting. "I've never run into anybody who's nice when they're hungry. Starvation isn't a natural state for the human body." Another Brody aid: "I keep all the things I shouldn't eat in the freezer." And she allows for exceptions ("I can still eat past fullness, as I proved on my vacation") -- when there's a birthday or anniversary celebration, for example.
Brody raised twin sons Erik and Lorin on a diet of low fat, low sugar, whole grain cereals, fish, and pasta. Although now grown and married, they're still going with her program; in contrast to those of us in Brody's generation, she says they "use food to satisfy hunger. They don't have any of those non-nutritive-related food habits."
"There is no pill that replaces good, healthy food," says Brody. "You can't put nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day into a tablet and expect to get the same benefits." By the way, you read that right: Brody has upped the ante on fruit and vegetable servings each day from the recommended five. "Nine is better," she says, and makes it sound easy. She mentions the three small portions of fruit on her breakfast cereal, and her typical dinner salad that includes four veggies.
There's health and there's holistic health. The second form involves two more elements -- mind and spirit -- than do the traditional medical practitioners who focus on the body. Brody has written about how physicians years ago arbitrarily separated mind and body. Only now is modern medicine beginning to reintegrate the two, more fully appreciating how they affect one another.
"The mind and body are one. There is no real separation between the two, and what happens to one affects the other. So when your body is ailing, your head doesn't feel so great either, and when your head is ailing, your body doesn't feel so great. If one or the other is not in good shape, you've got to do something to fix it. Certainly, the evidence of heart disease and some evidence of cancer points to a significant influence of mind over body," Brody says, citing "people who have unresolved conflicts, who have grief that they have not expressed and end up with cancer."
Yes, she agrees, attitude -- or, spirit, the third element in the holistic trinity -- can make a difference, and Norman Cousins was just the latest example of that. "It depends on personality," she adds. "If you were a chronic pessimist, it would be very difficult to say, I'm going to be all right. I can make it.'"
Brody offers the example of a woman who has had two bouts of ovarian and one bout of breast cancer. "Every time I see her, she says, `I can deal with this. I'm doing fine.' That's her personality. She's not the kind to resign herself to whatever's going to happen. Even given the same physical decline, the attitude makes a difference in how you experience it. The physical disease may be the same in two people, but the person who just gives up is not going to have the quality of life for whatever time is left," she says.
Back to that "largest growth industry in health care today" -- alternative care. These methods, not taught in medical school, include, but are definitely not limited to massage or herbal therapy and chiropractic, as well as yoga and biofeedback. "I don't think we should be dismissing anything out of hand without testing it, especially something, like acupuncture, that's time-honored and has well-established benefits," Brody says, indicating that this technique seems to be harmless as long as it's done by a qualified practitioner. She adds with a laugh, "If you're going to try something that's not proved, then it damn well better be safe."
Which is about how Brody also regards the placebo, a look-alike but inactive remedy recently described in the New York Times as "the most potent medicine ever discovered." A placebo can help, she says, noting that she has written the placebo story many times over the years. On one hand, she summarizes the argument, "why spend $100 a treatment on something that's just a placebo? On the other hand, if $100 a treatment is perfectly safe and the alternative is suffering, I don't think there's anything wrong with it."
"We have to keep an open mind," she says. "Acupuncture is helpful, and acupressure is helpful. We're now finding evidence that magnet-therapy is helpful. That doesn't mean it's helpful for everything we're using it for. We still have to define the parameters."
Not to say Brody eschews the methods of traditional medicine. She recognizes that "there's much more latent depression than people realize. A lot more people discover they've been depressed only when they get a medication and feel better, people who fumbled around for years, not knowing they were depressed, not knowing it was anything other than their basic personality that was the matter. Once on medication, they discovered that life could be a lot rosier than they realized."
At the same time, Brody doesn't hold up Prozac and its relatives as the be-all and end-all. "There's depression related to life events that doesn't necessarily need medication to treat it. It may be helped by exercise, a more sensible eating pattern" Would that all of us, depressed or not, had Brody's determination to stay healthy and fit. She swims every day there's a pool available, counting laps to give herself something to do, and clocking two-thirds of a mile.
In fact, it was at the "Y" pool on the morning of our interview that she says she had been "attacked by a couple women of a certain age," with questions about health. Brody says people ask her about personal health wherever she goes, and she always responds if she knows the answer. It's a very rare occasion -- if she's assaulted by somebody who's obnoxious in a social setting -- that she'll say she's "off duty."
Brody says when she began writing about personal health, she expected to be inundated with complaints from doctors. Au contraire. Medical doctors often turn to her with compliments and questions. In part, she says, this is because she deals with so many different medical fields, while they often specialize and lose the broad view or the current details. When Brody's husband consulted a specialist about a foot problem, the doctor handed him his wife's article on the subject. That brings it full circle.
-- Pat Summers
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