For years, maybe more than a decade, I had Oreos as a bedtime snack. My kids nearly rioted with a sense of injustice when they learned that I grew up with a “cookie jar.” “You mean you had a literal jar that actually had cookies in it, like all the time?!!” they complained incredulously.

Yep, it’s true. This now certified health geek has a sordid past! In the beginning, I started out with three regular Oreo cookies nightly, probably at around five or six years old (I’m not really certain but the memories go way back). When my younger brother began to join me in this nightly routine, it somehow turned into four DOUBLE STUFF Oreos! It took us so long to eat them (at least thirty minutes), because each cookie was a blank slate for a new creative way to carve our teeth into the icing or the cookie itself. (It also allowed us to delay the inevitable and dreaded…getting ready for bed!) To dunk or not to dunk, was a question that arose with each cookie because we always ate them with cold milk. It was good “clean” fun back in the day before ipads and Xbox. It was my brother and I connecting with a ritual that tasted good and kept us “present” before I knew anything about mindful eating and meditation.

The Oreo has seen some variation in ingredients over the years. It entered the market place in 1912 and when I was eating them daily the cream filling was lard. In the early 1990’s they changed the recipe to remove the lard and added partially hydrogenated vegetable oils; but that turned out not to be the healthy alternative that some initially believed it would be.

It was in the summer of 1994, taking Anatomy and Physiology prerequisites for Occupational Therapy school from a French-American (maybe French Canadian?–in any case he loved French cooking and butter!) when I first learned about partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) and how the body responds to this altered fat designed to keep products on the shelf for a longer time period. I learned from Francois that margarine was bad long before this was part of the public awareness. This was my first lesson than science is often 10-20+ years ahead of public policy or governmental health recommendations. Science as early as 1981 indicated the connection between trans fats and heart disease, and by 1993 a Harvard study strongly linked trans fat consumption to heart attack risk. But not until 2018, did the scientists, politicians and public health advocates create change in the food industry to ban partially hydrogenated oils.

oreos to kaleFor many years, partially hydrogenated oils were the enemy to avoid. I screened it away from the kids. All candy acquired trick-or treating that contained it went directly into the trash. We then added artificial colors and artificial flavors to the enemy list–there were many studies linking them to cancer and hyperactivity . As elementary school aged children, my now teenagers “mostly” tolerated my food-nazi behaviors and sometimes even lovingly shared their knowledge with their friends in an effort to keep them healthy and safe. That was OK until my daughter, in Kindergarten, told one of her classmates who was overweight that she was at risk for heart disease–and apparently it was followed by some crying. (Sorry to that now 16 year old out there!!–I still feel guilty about that one!) I know now that I actually have very little control over what my kids (and husband for that matter) choose to eat. They go to friends house’s and eat Doritos and drink Coke. At their grandparents house they gravitate toward Cheetos and saltine’s crackers, ginger ale and ice cream. I get it; they taste good. I ate Oreos daily for probably a decade! After I gave them up in my teens and 20’s I just moved over to homemade chocolate chip cookies, boxed brownies and fat-free-extra-sugar-not-that-tasty SnackWells.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, I recently spoke with a wise woman who is a personal trainer, health coach and local business owner and in a peripherally related conversation she mentioned that being told to make a behavior change is ineffective for most people. To replace a behavior, or food, you need to find something else that creates the same or similar emotion. Well, I loved eating Oreos with my brother–it was fun, it was a ritual. What could possibly replace that? Hmmm? Think hard…maybe…I’ve got it! KALE!? Hear me out! I’ll get you there, bear with me.

The easiest way: go get a bag of chopped organic kale from Aldi or Trader Joe’s. (If you grow your own or get some from a Farmer’s Market–whoop whoop!–even better, but I’m going for easy here.) Dump the bag into a big bowl (you could take a minute and tear out come of the biggest ribs) and add Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Himalayan Sea Salt (we sometimes also add nutritional yeast for some added B vitamins). Toss it around and dump it on a baking sheet. Cook in a preheated oven at 350 F for 10-15 minutes until they are still green but mostly crispy. Here is a variation that I haven’t tried yet but looks pretty good. Some recipes state, “store in an airtight container,” but we NEVER have left overs. We often don’t even sit to eat them. We stand in the kitchen and see who can get the best crunch. My dear 7-year old will sometimes pick out what looks to be a super crunchy one and give it to me. (So generous! Seriously, he must have learned generosity with food from Bubba, my mom, because I am rather greedy when it comes to food!). Try it. It may become a new ritual. My 16 year old daughter even has a friend who is offended if she comes over and I don’t make kale chips! I feel as if I am doing a public service when I share kale chips with others. It brings me true joy! So, mission accomplished. I replaced Oreos with Kale…similar ritual tendencies, creating togetherness, being present and mindful (enjoying the crunch), feelings of joy and sharing….plus a ridiculous increase in nutrition and health benefits!

Not all behavior changes take 40 years–that is what it took me. Eliminating sugar was definitely the hardest health change for me! I grew up on it. It ended every day and was part of almost every meal. I used to spoon a teaspoon of sugar over my “healthy” breakfast of Cheerios or Life cereal. Strawberries were covered with sugar to make them palatable. A party wasn’t complete without pie, cake, cookies or brownies. Perhaps this is not too different from most American households. I used to think that sugar was harmless though–just calories. So, if I kept my weight in a healthy range, sugar was no big deal, right?

But Maya Angelou taught us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Did you know that sugar increases risk of heart disease? I didn’t until researching for this blog! I get how it connects to diabetes and obesity so I suppose heart disease makes sense as well. I do know that my hip pain goes away when I’m not eating sugar. Why is that? Maybe because sugar increases inflammation! There is a vast amount of research linking sugar to negative health outcomes…but until recently I fell pray to brief news clips not giving the whole story, marketing by the sugar industry and the very demanding microbes in my gut.

My Mom, baker of all things delicious and sweet, died April 1 this year (she never really liked April Fools Day)–with dementia. I am not sure if it was Alzheimer Disease (AD) or not. But based on my 23 and Me genetic results (E4 variant in the APOE gene) I do have an increased risk for AD. “Studies estimate that, on average, woman of European descent with this variant has a 5-7% chance of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease by age 75 and a 27-30% chance by 85.” So, what can I (and you) do to reduce our epigenetic risk of getting AD? Lay off the sugar! I’d like to do all that I can do to see my hopeful grandchildren grow up–and remember it! Brain changes occur decades before symptoms arise. Don’t wait for the public health announcement in twenty or more years to take action. The power to delay or avoid health problems are in our hands (not in our cookie jar) right now.

So go find some friends or family and enjoy a crisp and crunchy kale chip. Make it fun. Laugh it up. Make a new healthy ritual. Let me know how it goes.