Phone interviews can be challenging. It is hard to build rapport with someone when you can’t see their facial expressions. In my experience, the conversations are stilted and wooden, interspersed with awkward pauses and people trying to speak at the same time. Insert the additional pressure of having the interviewee be the 80-year old sister of your new boss. I was given the assignment to interview Focus for Health founder Barry Segal’s sister about healthy lifestyle and nutrition because “she has been into that stuff for years”. I am a bundle of nerves as I dial the phone.
My concerns immediately dissolved when Wendy Steinbaum spoke. She was warm, open, and inviting; her enthusiasm was immediately evident. Despite my attempt to come across very “professional” (sending interview questions ahead of time of very specific topics about her Macrobiotic diet and workout routines), Wendy wanted me to “meet” her first and understand her life and history (or as she called it her “backstory”) before starting the interview.
Within 10 minutes of talking to Wendy, I felt like I was speaking to a friend of many years, and the conversations flowed in a direction far better than the scripted interview I planned. What I took away from our conversation was that Wendy’s journey to wellness was a path of self-love that took decades to unfold. The path that led her to the happiness she now experiences, a happiness that emanated through the phone, started from a different place: struggling with personal issues, being dissatisfied with her weight, and grieving the loss of her best friend.
I realized quickly the idea of discussing the macrobiotic lifestyle in a vacuum was off the table; I would have missed the real story. The interview was no longer about nutrition and wellness; it was about evolving into the person you want to become. Wendy’s lesson for our readers was not about a “diet” (Wendy hates the word diet) but about how to live in a way that makes you happy, becoming the best person you can be, and having faith that everything will work out the way it is supposed to.
It was also a lesson about the benefit that comes with steadfast consistency to staying true to yourself and living your life in the way that makes you the best you can be (even when those around you may not share your path). But, still appreciating the validation that comes when your lifestyle and ideals becoming accepted over time (veganism is now a mainstream idea) and feeling the delight that comes with your older brother thinking you have something valuable to contribute to his organization. So, with that, I would like to introduce you to Wendy Steinbaum.
Earlier this week, eighty-year old Wendy was told she by her Naturopathic Doctor that she has the “cellular structure of a 41-year-old.” I guess that is what 35 years of an extremely healthy, plant-based diet will do for a person! So, what causes a person to adopt such a radical (my words, not Wendy’s) lifestyle and be able to stick to it for almost 4 decades (so far!)?
Overeating, Fearful, and Unfulfilled
Wendy remembers a childhood where she was always on a diet. She never felt thin enough and experienced tremendous pressure to look a certain way. Wendy recollected that her mother was “very beautiful and that there were expectations on me that I knew I could not fill.” Wendy described herself as a compulsive overeater and by high school she weighed 170 pounds while being 5’4.
In adulthood, Wendy’s weight varied as she continued to struggle with overeating and feelings of frustration. When her best friend (her sister in-law, Lucille) died at the age of 42, the situation worsened. Like many of us, Wendy associated food with comfort, and that is what she turned to in the face of her grief. In 1982 Wendy sought the help of the Pritikin Longevity Center and there she learned about exercise and healthy foods. This program assisted Wendy in understanding that her confusion and mood swings were related to hypoglycemia, a condition caused by very low levels of blood sugar, and she got her weight from 140 to 130.
Overtime the lost weight returned, and though she was eating “better foods,” she learned that even overeating healthy foods can cause weight gain. Wendy used the phrase “Quantity changes the quality” to describe her realization that her behavior of overeating was sabotaging her healthy lifestyle.
Introduction to Macrobiotics
In 1984 Wendy attended a cooking class that inspired her adoption of the macrobiotic lifestyle. Wendy was empathic during our conversation that she is not on a diet because “diets do not work for me.” For Wendy, Macrobiotics is a lifestyle – “a plant-based approach to health.” At the class, people told their success stories about reversing diabetes, surviving cancer, maintaining healthy weight, and experiencing increased energy. This class made her wonder if her best friend could have been saved by this kind of lifestyle. Motivated by fear, Wendy became committed to macrobiotics.
“Health is your thoughts, environment, food, and people around you.”
When I asked Wendy what “health” meant to her, her immediate response was “health is your thoughts, environment, food and people around you.” Health encompasses items in your home, the products you put on your skin, drugs you put in your body, and the food you consume. Wendy’s goal is to have her environment be natural and toxin-free. What this translated into is no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS), no meat, no dairy, no farm-raised fish, no domestically produced wine exposed to Glyphosate, eating seasonal foods, and avoiding caffeine, sugar, and gluten. So, with the occasional exception of wild-caught fish (only when she is out at a restaurant), Wendy has been a gluten-free, sugar-free vegan since 1984. This at a time when the concepts of gluten-free and veganism had almost no mainstream presence, and very few available food products.
At this point Wendy and I shared stories of the challenges of adopting diets so far afield of mainstream culture. I shared my story of being a vegetarian in 1985 and needing to travel 15 miles for the one health food store in our area to buy tofu (not packaged tofu but tofu made there and left floating in barrels for customers to retrieve and store in their own containers). Wendy remembers her children making fun of her when she would bring her own food to restaurants or asking waitstaff to bring her boiling water for the dried noodles she would bring with her. Wendy jokingly reminded me that “restaurants don’t really like it when you bring your own food.”
These types of conversations usually occur when long-term health nuts find each other. The reality of having a meat-free diet is that you can feel isolated, most social events revolve around foods you chose not to eat, and people can be judgmental about what can be perceived as a radical lifestyle. Wendy’s lightness and sense of humor makes it clear that she is fine with following her own path, even if that path is in a different direction than most people.
Is Plant-Based Eating a Radical Approach to Health?
Not to Wendy Steinbaum. When I posed this question to her, she replied immediately…“Eating excessive animal fats, having those fats fill and clog your arteries to the point that a doctor needs to split your chest cavity in half to keep you alive, that is radical, not veganism.” Wendy blames 95% of illnesses on our tainted food supply and the Standard American Diet (SAD).
In the last decade, Wendy has found a community of like-minded people on social media. Despite her concern about the amount of time she wastes on her devices, Wendy finds comfort in being a part of a larger community of like-minded people; she feels less alone in her journey. Wendy enjoys the Forks over Knives and Vegan for Her Facebook feeds.
Though she expressed frustration that she has watched people she loved die of disease that might have been preventable by lifestyle changes, she respects that everyone has their own choices to make. When her father was ill and she suggested a plant-based diet, he assured her he would rather be dead than eat the way she does. She retells the conversation with kindness and humor. “Everyone has a right to live and die the way they want. I can’t impose my ideas on someone else. Everyone’s path is different and must be respected.”
She is certain that her path was best for her and gets validated when she sees how well she is aging. Now that she is older, it is even more obvious to her she is on the right path, as friends are dying and suffering from chronic illness, she realized her healthy eating was “like an insurance policy.”
Be A Boy Scout
I agree with the logic of everything she is saying. I am a reasonably healthy eater myself, but I struggle to resist temptations and I frequently succumb to those temptations. I want to understand HOW she does it. How do you stick to eating healthy without giving up or giving in to temptation? Wendy’s advice: “You have to be a boy scout: you must be prepared.. She thinks ahead and plans her meals in advance. If she knows she is going to be home all day, Wendy will cook a wok full for vegetable and leave it on the stove to pick at throughout the day. If she is going on a long car trip, Wendy brings steamed sweet potatoes to munch on during the drive.
Based on what she learned about herself (with help from Overeater’s Anonymous), she knows that for her to be successful, she can’t feel as if she is depriving herself. Having food available that she enjoys eating is critical to her success. To avoid the temptations of food you must clean out your home of unhealthy foods. If there aren’t any bad foods in your home to eat, you can’t fall into the temptation of eating them.
If Wendy is going to a dinner party that would not offer her many food choices, she will eat before attending, bring her own food, or make herself a dessert to be waiting for her when she arrives home. Knowing she had something “sweet and delicious” waiting, she does not feel deprived and she is able to restrain from eating foods that she doesn’t want to eat. Having trouble relating to that level of willpower, I pressed about her ability to abstain from eating at parties. Wendy added that it was dangerous for her to take that first compulsive bite because once she started, one bite “would never be enough.” Wendy developed the tactic of excusing herself to the ladies’ room when dessert is being served. Wendy simply stated, “I don’t consider that food for me.” If you don’t consider it “yours,” you do not feel like you are missing out.
Remembering Wendy’s aforementioned dietary guidelines, I couldn’t help but ask what she considers a “sweet delicious dessert.” Wendy then rattled off the recipe for two of her go-to desserts: Apple Crisp and Chocolate Pudding. Wendy offered no lengthy description of those desserts as being sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, but she didn’t need to. We were already far enough along in our relationship for me to know that was assumed. Hearing the concern in my voice about sugar-free desserts, she suggested I try “Sweet Vegetable Drink” as a macrobiotic way to counter sugar dependency and cravings.
You can find the recipes for Sweet Vegetable Drink and Apple Crisp at the end of the article.
Wendy stresses to me the importance of consistency. When you find a lifestyle that works you must stick to it daily. “Every day is the chance to become the person you want to be.” Making major changes to your life can be overwhelming so she recommends “one step at a time”. Small changes performed daily will have a great impact it you remain consistent! Wendy reminds me it took her a very long time to get where she is now “be patient and kind with yourself when starting”.
Keep it Moving
On her 60th Birthday Wendy wanted to do something “powerful”, so she walked the 1st Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego, California (her time 7 hours 19 minutes). She felt wildly empowered by this accomplishment and you can hear the pride in her voice as she recounts it.
Wendy is a firm believer that bodies in motion stay in motion and her fitness schedule certainly reflects that philosophy. Wendy takes Pilates classes (machine not mat) 4 times per week (2 group and 2 private sessions), 1 yoga class (structural, not flow) and a weekly Tai Chi class. Wendy is an Apple Watch user, and has been known to run around her apartment at night to make sure she gets her daily 10,000 steps in if she does not go on her daily 3-4 mile walk. Simply put, “sitting is bad for your health.”
Resting for Better Health
Wendy told me to add “rest” on the list of her healthy habits. “I didn’t realize how important rest was until after my husband died.” On a cold, rainy Sunday, Wendy decided to stay home in her pajamas and just “be.” She observed on Monday how much better her mood and attitude were after a full day of not doing anything. Since that experience, Wendy has designated Sundays (unless her schedule calls for something more exciting) as a rest day for her mind and body. She stays home in her pajamas, gives her skin a break from showers, and goes at her own pace through the day. This is a perfect opportunity for her to calmly catch up on stuff that she didn’t get to during her busy week (paperwork, filing, cooking, catching up on her DVR, reading, phone calls) but at a leisurely pace. I think she might be on to something with this idea!
Her Advice: Worry Less
As we begin to wrap up the phone call, I ask Wendy what advice she would have for our readers. Her suggestion — worry less. Wendy was a self-proclaimed worry wart. Now at 80, she can say with complete clarity, “Everything works out the way it is supposed to.” Despite, losing her husband five years ago, Wendy is contagiously happy and positive about life. “Everything in life is all I could have ever dreamt it to be.”
“If you can’t tell, I am a very happy person.” Yes, I can tell Wendy! Happiness and enthusiasm radiate from her in a way that makes you want just a taste of what that level of self-acceptance and empowerment would feel like.
Make no mistake, Wendy’s current state of happiness, consciousness, and enlightenment was not without struggles along the way. Wendy stated it took her a long time to understand the relationship between food, her emotions, and her concept of self. Only after losing her husband and being “alone” did she finally understand that her choice to eat well and maintain a healthy lifestyle was an act of “self-love.” Wendy reflected that as a wife and young mother she often felt invisible and she was so consumed with taking care of others that so much of what she knows now never occurred to her before.
In retrospect she does not view her choices as depriving herself but of nurturing herself. Wendy’s advice: find a lifestyle and food choices you enjoy and that work for you. “You must love it and not feel denied of anything if you are to remain motivated. The key to success is to be consistent and remain motivated by that fact that it is your choice to nourish and love yourself.” Wendy stressed numerous times that this was “her journey” and that everyone must find their own path. She hopes that people will find something in her journey that resonates for them but tells them to “forget the rest.”
No Room for Negative Thoughts
One of the first things Wendy said to me is her definition of health includes our thoughts. Our health and our thoughts are intertwined. To the end, there is no room for negative self-talk in Wendy’s life. She equates negative thoughts as having a karmic power to become true if you believe them. So, it is critical you re-write the script in your mind to be positive, empowering, and self- loving. “Negative self-talk is dangerous. When you have thoughts of doubt or negativity, replace it with positive thoughts.”
At the end of our phone call, I expressed concerns about being able to write the article in the way that does her justice, Wendy immediately assured me with positive feedback and statements that “I would write a wonderful article.” She was so insistent about my abilities to write the article well that I felt my self-doubt and anxiety lift. At that moment I truly understood what she had meant by insisting on positive self-talk. What if we could all learn to provide that level of support and positivity to ourselves? How unstoppable would we be if we could be our own cheerleaders and be confident that everything will work out fine.
What Are Wendy’s Goals for the Future?
“To continue to live my life tall, straight, capable, and independent.”
If Wendy had the goal of inspiring others, she could check that off her list today. I left the phone call motivated and energized, feeling that anything is possible. Now when I start to feel stuck, I will think of Wendy, at the age of 80 driving out of state to visit friends or family, with her steamed sweet potatoes next to her, or at the age of 60 walking the last mile of her marathon, or doing her weekly Pilates (not understanding why the studio keeps taking pictures of her for their website!) and I will remind myself rewards come to those who are consistent.
Her consistency for 35 years has led her on a journey that has culminated in her living the best life she could have imagined for herself. Wendy Steinbaum is abundantly happy, amazingly healthy (with a cellular level of a 41-year old), and a source of inspiration to those who know her, and hopefully, those who read about her!
May 5th is Wendy Steinbaum’s Birthday. Happy Birthday Wendy from Barry and Dolly Segal and the entire Focus for Health Team!
“Sweet Delish” Treats to Reward Yourself
Ingredients (organic if possible):
- 2 cups apple juice
- 2 tablespoons kudzu (a natural thickening agent)
- 5 cups peeled sliced apples
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup whole rolled oats
- 4 tablespoons oat flour
- 2 cups coarsely chopped mixed nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds)
- 1 cup raisins
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- 6 tablespoons cold pressed sunflower oil
- 2 tablespoon rice syrup
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Oil and 8” baking pan and set aside
- Dissolve the kudzu in some apple juice and place in a saucepan with the rest of the juice. Stirring slowly bring to a boil. It should become thick and translucent. Turn off the flame. Add the mixture and cinnamon and apples, too gently. Transfer to the prepared pan.
- To make the topping, combine the oats, nuts, flour, raisins, and salt in a mixing bowl. Rub the oil into the mixture with your fingers, then drizzle the rice syrup while mixing with the fork.
- Distribute evenly over the apple mixture.
- Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the topping is golden and the apples are bubbling.
Sweet Vegetable Drink
Sweet Vegetable Drink is a recipe often recommended in Macrobiotics to those with constant sweet cravings due to blood sugar imbalances or hypoglycemia. It is thought to help the body recover from the long- term effects of too much refined sugar.
Ingredients (organic if possible):
- 1/4 cup green cabbage, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup carrot, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup sweet winter squash or sweet potato, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup sweet yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 – 5 cups filtered water
- Place all the ingredients (water and vegetables) in to a stock pan
- Bring all ingredients to a boil then cover and reduce to low and simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Use a vegetable masher and mash all the vegetables in the pot.
- Strain out the liquid using a thin mesh strainer into a container with a lid.
- Keep the sweet vegetable drink in the fridge, but warm slightly to body temperature before drinking