It took just a chance encounter in a local grocery store to dramatically change Kathy Offutt's shopping, cooking, eating and overall health.
The 63-year-old met Iris Eastwood more than three years ago in the health-food section of Food 4 Less. Eastwood asked Offutt if she knew where to find gluten-free flour, to which the latter asked what she planned to make. Soon, Offutt heard all about the vegan potlucks Eastwood hosts at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Central Point and the free, private cooking lessons Eastwood offers by request.
"I said, 'I really need to learn to cook like that,' " says Offutt.
Eastwood arrived at Offutt's Medford home the next day to demonstrate recipes and techniques for whole-foods, meat- and dairy-free cooking and to promote the diet as a pathway to health. Offutt adopted the new regimen immediately and abstains from all sources of gluten and dairy, as well as eggs. Occasionally eating a small piece of organic chicken or wild salmon, Offutt no longer has gastrointestinal distress or chronic candida and is able to maintain her ideal weight with ease.
"It has made a huge difference in my life," she says. "I wouldn't have had the support."
The story is repeated scores of times among clients of Healthy Living Ministries, an arm of the Central Point Seventh-day Adventist Church that aims to spread the gospel of wholeness and health to communities outside its own congregation. Every month, the church holds a free, vegetarian cooking class, followed by a vegetarian luncheon and 30-minute lecture on health and well-being by Dr. Jim Said, a Medford naturopathic physician, chiropractor and counselor.
A member of the church for 11 years, Said was a "medical philosopher" before his wife, Ronda, introduced him to a scriptural model for health care. Adventists have spread their health message since the Protestant denomination was established in the 1860s in the United States. They cite the Bible's characterization of the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
"We were designed to live in a garden, literally," says Said, referring to the creation story from the biblical book of Genesis.
A diet of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts and devoid of all animal-derived foods more recently is validated by "The China Study" and "Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease," says Said. Both popular books grounded in medical research are widely touted by vegans.
A diet of plant-based foods provides "foundational nutrition" — the full mix of macro and micronutrients — as well as thousands of phytonutrients that aren't entirely understood by scientists, says Said. Additional benefits come from the properties that allow plants to adapt to changes in their environments, he adds.
"It's self-cleansing," says Said.
The body's own detoxification systems rely on plant-based enzymes to function, he says. Some people require more raw foods than others, but most do well with a 50-50 ratio, he says. The plethora of packaged, processed foods has no place in a healthful diet, even if ingredients are entirely plant-based, says Said.
"There's nothing in the garden that drips oil, and there's nothing in the garden that drips sugar."
Diabetes is one of the most common diagnoses among the dozens of people who attend the church's cooking classes and lectures, says Eastwood. Invariably, participants — the vast majority unaffiliated with the church — are surprised by how simple it is to cook healthful meals, she says.
Among the most popular dishes are eggplant lasagna, beans with green plantains and macaroni and cheese with coconut milk and cashews. Eastwood encourages the switch to brown rice instead of white and drinking lots of water, which is "like a Roto-Rooter."
Weight loss almost certainly follows, along with testimonials of improved health. Rarely do participants join the church, say Eastwood and Said.
Offutt belongs to a different Christian denomination, where she gives friends vegan recipes and new information gleaned from each Seventh-day Adventist potluck. She also contacted Said on behalf of her two adult daughters, who were subsequently tested for food allergies. After adjusting their diets, both are much healthier, one 30 pounds lighter, says Offutt.
And although her husband hasn't converted to Offutt's way of eating, he attests to enjoying 85 percent of what she prepares.
"It's given me that hope that eating healthy doesn't have to taste bad," says Offutt. "I'm trying to get other people to see how being healthy can taste good."
See Healthy Living Ministries' calendar of events and find more information, including vegan recipes, at www.healthylivingministries.webs.com. Read more about Said's practice at www.drjimsaid.com.