Getting to Know "For the Health of It" Columnist Jill Grunewald

We at Simple, Good, and Tasty write, think, talk, and meet with people about local, sustainable, organic, good food all the time. We watch movies like Fresh and Food Inc., read books like Eating Animals and Food Rules, and eat at restaurants like The Birchwood Cafe and Chez Panisse, where the food is deliciously fulfilling on multiple levels.

With all of this activity focused on good food, once in a while we force ourselves to ask the most obvious question -- why do we do it? There are environmental benefits to supporting good food, for sure, and economic benefits too. But none of these benefits seems quite as clear as the fact that good food makes us healthier. Much has been written about childhood nutrition, the obesity epidemic, and the increase in type 2 diabetes worldwide. It’s important stuff, all of it. Thousands of books, papers and websites are dedicated to food and health, and we're barely scratching the surface.

Today, Simple, Good, and Tasty introduces a new regular feature, a food-and-health column written by Jill Grunewald of Healthful Elements. Jill has been writing terrific articles for us for months, generally centered around seasonal eating (often in some delightfully lascivious way). Her new column will focus on how food fits into a healthy lifestyle and why it matters. We’re calling the column “For the Health of It,” and we hope you’ll find it useful, informative, and fun.

By way of introduction, I’ve asked Jill a few questions about her background, her work, and why food and health are so important. Here goes:

SGT: Tell us a little bit about your background and experience - where did you study, and what do you do for a full time job?

Jill: I grew up very well fed, eating mostly foods lovingly prepared by my mom and grandmothers, harvested from my grandparents’ gardens, fruit trees, and my dad’s parents’ cattle ranch. My grandmothers were master preservers, so we ate great food year ‘round. Of course, there was the ever-present bag of Lay’s and gallon of cheap ice cream, which we never considered not eating.

Everything changed when I left home and didn’t want to cook. I was eating processed crap and started to pay the price. I didn’t make the connection to my diet, because I was (unintentionally) eating foods lauded by the media: bagels, pasta, nonfat this and that. It wasn’t until I worked with an herbalist with a nutritional focus that I got off the junk.

What do I do for a full time job? The timing of this question is very interesting, because I just left my nonprofit job at Food Alliance Midwest (FAM), which included being the coordinator for Minnesota Cooks, six weeks ago. I moved here in 2007 and knew no one but my now-husband, Mark, and his family. Working at FAM was exactly what I needed to do; it helped me create an amazing community of friends and colleagues - remarkable people who carry the torch for a sustainable food system.

Lately, I’ve had an influx of teaching opportunities and new clients, so I am counseling, writing, preparing for workshops, teaching, and continuing to study the complex and fascinating endocrine (hormonal) system. I was recently featured in Minneapolis Examiner, was interviewed by Amanda Balagur of Localicious Radio, and wrote the introduction to the Health section of the 2011 Do It Green! Minnesota magazine, to be published on Nov. 20. I’m also honored to be teaching a class at the University of Minnesota’s LearningLife Continuing Education Program in March - What’s In a Label? Understanding Nutrition and Eco-Labels on Our Food.

While I can help people with a variety of health issues, my area of focus is helping women manage weight and energy through strengthening the thyroid and adrenal glands. There is a saying that “we teach what we need to learn,” and I have had my own thyroid and adrenal challenges.

SGT: How does eating local, sustainable, and or organic food affect our health?

Jill: Plants and animals on corporate farms are bred for the highest possible yields and profits, not nutritional value. Grow it fast, get it to market. These growers and shippers prioritize cultivars that can withstand industrial harvesting equipment and endure extended travel and storage. Centralized production compromises food safety because food becomes vulnerable to large-scale contamination.

Despite “studies” to the contrary, chemical-free, organic, and sustainably grown produce contains higher amounts of photochemicals (antioxidants) compared to conventionally grown crops. The longer that tomato stays attached to the vine, the longer it has to uptake nutrients from healthy soil. We’ve lost a sense of what real produce tastes and feels like. No wonder people have a difficult time getting their kids to eat vegetables.

Animals on free range, sustainable, and organic farms are treated with respect and care and not crammed into CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Because they are able to move, they have more glycogen in their muscles, making the meat tender, flavorful, and less prone to bacteria. I believe that the hormones and antibiotics being fed to animals on conventional farms are wreaking havoc with our health.

When animals are mistreated, they’re stressed, and we consume that stress hormone. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re more stressed than we’ve ever been. Many farm animals are also being fed an unnatural diet, diets they wouldn’t eat in their natural environment. This causes acidosis, which can lead to E. coli-contaminated meat.

Food that is produced in a time-honored fashion and manner that is respectful to the earth is more health- and energy-giving than food produced in a manner that goes against nature. Good nutrition starts with eating biologically diverse foods that are in season, grown in healthy soil without chemicals, harvested at peak ripeness, and not suffering from jetlag. Eating locally also provides us the right type of fuel to keep our bodies in balance with the climate. A clean, local, sustainable food system isn’t only beneficial nutritionally; it’s also critical for a healthy environment and community.

SGT: What factors besides food do you think play an important role in our health?

Jill: One of the reasons I enrolled at IIN was because their philosophy is that food is not our primary nutrition. As Joshua Rosenthal, founder and director of IIN stated in his book, Integrative Nutrition, “Eating well helps, but don’t expect it to work miracles. It can fill you, but it cannot fulfill you.” Our primary nutrition comes from healthy relationships, an inspiring career, a spiritual practice, and exercise that’s right for your body. So yes, my program focuses on whole foods nutrition. But it’s not all about food; I talk with people about these other essential areas of their lives. It all works together.

SGT: Why do you do what you do? Why does it matter?

Jill: I feel called to do this work. We have a full blown health care crisis in this country, and people need help. I believe in smart prevention. We are overweight, stressed, and exhausted and diabesity (you read that right) is skyrocketing. The processing and refining of foods and our bigger, cheaper, faster food culture are killing us. The fact that the government subsidizes conventionally raised meat and dairy and genetically modified corn, wheat, and soy, all of which we eat too much of, certainly doesn’t help.

It used to be that people only ate whole foods because that’s what was available. There is now a direct correlation between the consumption of processed, adulterated, chemical-,  hormone-, and antibiotic-laden food and degenerative disease, behavioral problems, and antibiotic resistance.

The goal of IIN is to have a “ripple effect” and I want to be one of the big pebbles. I want to make a difference. This isn’t rocket science. People have been derailed by all of the conflicting nutrition information out there and they’re (rightfully) confused. Many don’t know what real, whole foods are. I’m trying to help change that. What we eat affects everything in our lives.

SGT: What do you do when you're not thinking about health?

Jill: I’m a Virgo, so I’m a compulsive organizer. I’m really an introvert at heart and I love to stay home and read. I have a bad habit of having six books at a time half-read. I’m working on that. Being at home with my husband and our two cats, with a great dinner, a movie (I love documentaries), and a fire in the fireplace really recharges my battery. I’m a music freak and I have vowed to start knitting again this winter. I keep promising my husband a sweater.

Header photo by Kate NG Sommers.


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter.