Despite our growing awareness of the benefits of a healthy diet, most people do not realize the power locked within the food they eat.

Just this week another major study was released that showed a healthy diet makes for a healthy life. It found an estimated 80,110 or 5.2 percent of new cancer cases among adults 20 and older to be caused by a bad diet.

The main culprits? Eating too much sugary junk food and processed meats and too little fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to the study reported in JMCI Cancer Spectrum conducted in the United States in 2015. We’ve heard this before many times backed by more and more research. But study after study has also shown how hard it is to get people to change their eating habits.

At a very early age, I learned the hard way how food can make us sick or make us well. When I was 18-months-old, my mother learned my liver stored fat inside its cells instead of turning it into glucose for energy. I still remember the look of relief in my mom’s eyes when the specialist told her the cranky, toddler, rife with tantrums and tears, then kicking and screaming on his office floor, was not just going through the “terrible twos” a bit early. Her intuition was bang on and there was a medical reason behind my distress. And the cure for her angry, cranky child’s behavior lay in her diet.

So, after two weeks in hospital and a battery of tests, I was placed on a highly restricted diet, one with no fats, sugars or additives. I’d have to eat this way until the day my liver matured and could properly process fat.

Almost any food a kid would like was off-limits. No candies, baked goods or spices for me. No chocolate, no ice cream, no cookies, no sweet breakfast cereal, no peanut butter, no chips, nothing advertised on the TV commercials with my favorite shows. Not even “real” milk. Just three cups of the horrible skim stuff made from powder and water.

Halloween was a nightmare. Each year I’d go out all dressed up, trick and treat, and then hand over my loot (everything but the apples and boxes of raisins) to my siblings and friends. I became a tough little cookie, and at birthday parties and holidays told everyone I hated icky treats and didn’t want them anyway.

Then, when I was nine, the scans and blood tests showed my liver was finally maturing. Gradually, I was allowed small amounts of the food I had been dying to try for as long as I could remember. And by the time I was 13, I was free to eat anything I wanted.

Hallelujah, I thought. And, boy, did I make up for lost time. For the next three decades, I became a junk-food junkie. I reveled in peanut butter and chocolate ice cream, donuts, Kits Kats and Coffee Crisp bars, chips, and butter tarts. And it seemed fun while it lasted. But by my mid-forties, my knees and wrists started to ache and burn like they were on fire. For a lifelong jock who made her living as a writer tied to a keyboard for hours on end, this was a serious problem.

Back to a team of doctors and medical tests. Turns out, I’d inherited a type of progressive, degenerative osteoarthritis, likely from my dad, who had to quit work in his early fifties due to his painful joints. Inflammation was the enemy, the doctors said. Steroids, pain pills and anti-inflammatory medications were their answer, and, in the fairly near future, multiple joint replacements.

I was still the same tough cookie but by then a medical writer and reporter who remembered how a change in diet helped me as a child. So, after much research, I worked to tame my arthritis by changing what I ate. My new diet excluded all processed foods and overflowed with fresh fruits, vegetables and berries, whole grains and legumes.

I jokingly told friends and family I was on the “anything-but-white diet.” No potatoes (too much starch), no white rice (only whole grains and legumes now), no white flour, and no cow’s milk or dairy products. Instead, I switched to kefir, low-fat Greek yogurt, and almond and soy milk. Olive and fish oils rounded out the new regimen.

Once again sugar was banned from my life, meaning sucrose, glucose, and anything made with corn syrup or fructose. I cultivated a love of spices including turmeric, peppers, ginger and cinnamon. Whenever I could I ate my fruits and vegetables raw.

Over time, my inflamed joints were soothed and today though my arthritis is not gone, it is more than under control. On a rare bad day, I may take one or two aspirin. But healthy eating, plus exercise and weight lifting to develop the muscles to stabilize and support my joints, mean I now move without pain.

Nowadays I love to cook. I make almost everything “from scratch,” much like my mother did for her sick child. The way I had to eat as a kid was tough. But I’m glad of it because it gave me the key to how to live an active life today.

I’ve been a poet since I was five. Then after university, I worked at the Toronto Star as a journalist, editor, and public editor. Happier now, I write poetry.

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