HEAL cooking course helps leaders battling disease

Lori Simerman and Shelly Miller both joined the HEAL movement this year as facilitators for Our HEALing Kitchen. Miller oversaw the garden-to-table cooking class at Renaissance Pointe YMCA, while Simerman led adults and youth for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

But their appreciation for the course goes deeper than most.   

Lori and Shelly both have multiple sclerosis, or MS, an autoimmune disease of the nervous system that causes a gradual loss of muscle control. They say healthy recipes in the nutrition course can counteract the intense pain and energy loss common to the disease.

Their stories are examples of how people gain tools to prevent or manage the effects of chronic diseases through HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living). Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity are among other chronic conditions that cooking class participants acknowledged over the course’s five-year history.

Kathy Wehrle, the Parkview Health dietitian who compiled the cooking course curriculum, says diets low in saturated fat help people who have MS. “Autoimmune diseases are a rarity in those populations that eat plant-based diets,” she says, “and we teach this also in Our HEALing Kitchen.”

Parkview Health and the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation cosponsor the course, as well as summertime farm markets that offer low-cost produce in local food desert neighborhoods. The sponsors offer mini grants and training to local nonprofits, churches, and government agencies who want to join the HEAL movement. Partners, then, select facilitators within their organizations to lead the course and attend training sessions. Most often, the facilitators are not experts or professionals in nutrition. They’re everyday people who also want to improve their health and help others do the same. Many say they learn as much as their class participants.

Lori was diagnosed with the disease less than two years ago, just six months after marrying her husband, Jason. It was December 2017, and she kept feeling pain in her neck and shoulders, burning sensations in her arm, and numbness in her toes and tingling in her fingers. She thought it was stress.

After the MS diagnosis, doctors prescribed an array medicines to help. Still, there were times when her body ached all over—and still does.

One day, a coworker who knew someone else with the disease suggested that Lori watch what she ate. “The more I read, the more I was realizing that natural foods and foods without preservatives will help you from relapsing.”

A relative at Big Brothers Big Sisters told Lori about the HEAL course and that they needed a facilitator. She got excited. Lori loves working with the kids and their mentors, but equally beneficial, she could soak up the course information for herself.

For instance, doctors warned Lori that her taste buds would change and suggested she dress up her food with additional seasonings. The more she led the cooking classes, the more she learned about using herbs and other spices to liven dishes in a healthy way.

“You think about healthy eating and you think, it’s not going to taste good,” Lori says. “Going through those recipes in HEAL, it’s like everything tastes good, and we didn’t hardly use any salt.”

Now, she’s starting to use the recipes at home.

Shelly was diagnosed with MS in 1996, then with diabetes in 2018. Today, she stays mindful of what she puts in her body.

“MS is a very painful disease,” she says.

Regular exercise helps with the physical pain, she says, so she walks an average of 30 miles each week. A diet loaded with fruits and vegetables helps with fatigue and other issues, supplying the strength and energy she needs throughout the day.

Over the past year, Shelly has lost 35 pounds. She says she no longer has to take medication for diabetes, although she continues taking her MS prescriptions. She’s now a personal trainer for the YMCA and specializes in working with people who have diabetes, MS, and other conditions.

Our HEALing Kitchen has given her more tools to help people, she says, adding that her work is more of a calling than a job. “It’s my testimony,” she says, “because it works in my life so much.”