By Emily J. Weitz; Photography by Michael Heller
Douglas Mercer, President of the Wellness Foundation, started the organization with a vow — to make East Hampton the healthiest town in the country.
While this is not an easy goal to measure, there are many participants in Mercer’s program who will say his efforts have been successful in changing one life at a time, and the reach of the Wellness Foundation has expanded to include Southampton, Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor.
For one Sag Harbor couple, Susie and Jim Merrell, last year’s Wellness Challenge was a six week journey that has unfolded into a completely new approach to food.
“We were living the epicurean diet,” explains Susie. “It wasn’t just cheese. It was Cavaniola’s cheese. It was slow, local, and everything was the best of everything.”
Because they were already conscious eaters who paid attention to what went in to their bodies, the Merrells weren’t necessarily looking for the big change that was about to come.
“I didn’t want to do it,” admits Susie. “I liked the way we were eating. Jim sort of dragged me into it. Because it was just the two of us, there was no way we could do it if we weren’t on the same page.”
Jim had learned about the Wellness Challenge, a six-week program in which participants do away with all animal proteins and processed foods, by his doctor.
“I was trying to bring my cholesterol down and address some digestive issues,” Jim says. “Before we talked about any statins, he suggested I try the Wellness Challenge.”
“Even at the first meeting,” chimes in Susie, “I was telling everyone, ‘I’m not here because I want to be.’ But now I’d say I’m the one who’s more fanatical. I love eating this way. I love the way the food tastes, and the way I feel.”
Before the Wellness Challenge, neither Merrell knew it was possible to have a great meal without an animal protein.
“I didn’t know I could live without parmesan cheese,” says Susie, “but I really can.”
One thing the Merrells enjoyed about the Wellness Challenge is the fact their group really represented a cross-section of the community.
“The group was so diverse,” says Susie. “Not just the reasons they were there, but where they came from in the community and what they do. It was lovely. There wasn’t anything elitist about it.”
And when Susie announced she wasn’t there because she wanted to be, she wasn’t alone.
“This was not a group of the converted,” says Jim. “You aren’t going into a group that’s already convinced. There’s skepticism in everyone in the room.”
That healthy skepticism was refreshing to two foodies who loved their coffee and wine. It meant they were all in it together, and they would all approach the changes that were to come with their own obstacles and their own failures.
You have to bring current blood work to the first meeting, and there you will be weighed and measured. Then you’re given practical instructions for things to do.
“The first meeting is everyone introducing themselves and explaining why they’re there,” says Jim. “Some people just want to lose a little weight, and others have real health concerns. It was amazing: here is someone who’s had a bypass and they’re being told to do this. And then as you move forward, you get to see how people are evolving, and the benefits.”
Once they made the decision to do it, the Merrells say they found the whole thing remarkably easy.
“It was much more difficult in anticipation than what actually happened,” says Susie.
For Jim, the biggest transition was in creating a morning routine that set him up for a healthy day.
“I used to have coffee and a muffin for breakfast,” says Jim. “Now our daily ritual is a vegetable smoothie. It’s an unbelievable way to start the day. All these minerals and nutrients.”
For Susie, part of the intimidation was in the preparation, but once she bought the right foods, it became simple.
“Once you get over the idea that there needs to be an animal protein,” she says, “and you realize how much protein there is in leafy greens and beans and nuts, you start seeing limitless possibilities for the foods you’re eating. The transition wasn’t hard, but it took different planning. Now we have to soak the beans a couple of times a week, instead of marinating the steak. I’ve even figured out a way to make them look pretty.”
When they first began, Jim and Susie decided to do their best to stick to the regimen, even letting go of coffee and wine. At the end of the challenge, they said they could decide what worked for them. Now nearly a year has passed and the couple have kept to their vegan lifestyle — most of the time.
“At the end of the six weeks,” says Susie, “you feel so good that you think ‘I’ll never have a glass of wine or a piece of fish again. But now, we’ve broken every rule.”
That doesn’t mean they’ve given up.
“When we go out to dinner,” says Susie, “we never say ‘We’re vegan.’ But when we come home, we are. You’d think that after breaking a rule, you’d want to go back to the old way of being, but we never have, because this feels so good.”
“Nothing has curtailed our social life,” laughs Jim. “We know we can go back and be good most of the time. People tend to brand these things all or nothing, but so much is about the inconsequential meals: the breakfasts and lunches.”
They also eat a lot. They just eat a lot of healthy food.
“I eat constantly,” says Susie, and I never think about what I should eat based on calories. But I lost 10 or 12 pounds, 50 points off my cholesterol, and so many inches off my belly that I am embarrassed to even tell you. In that six weeks, it was so effortless.”
For Jim, the biggest surprise is the shift in mindset about it.
“Every time we talk to people, there’s always a one thing they couldn’t give up: coffee, cheese, wine. People put it into a frame of negation and self-denial. There wasn’t a whole lot of self-denial involved.”
Once he saw what he could eat, he realized how decadent it could feel.
“The kind of stuff that is natural is more luxurious than the bulk stuff,” he says. “Choosing between a muffin or a smoothie? What am I giving up here? You quickly get past the frame of self-denial and onto one of the pleasure, and all those better luxuries.”
The Fall Wellness Challenge begins October 1. To sign up, visit the website or attend one of the upcoming events. Tonight, a screening of “Younger Next Year” will take place at the East Hampton Rec Center. On Thursday, September 13 there will be an Optimum Wellness Seminar with Dr. Pam Popper at East Hampton Middle School. Vegan potluck dinners take place one Monday per month (the next one is September 10 at 6:30 p.m.) at East Hampton Middle School. Cost for materials, including two books, is $50. The cost for participation is free. Go to www.wfeh.org for more information.
Jim and Susie’s take on the Wellness Challenge Morning Smoothie
Put in a blender a handful of flax seeds, grind up dry.
Then add a banana, handful of blueberries, a couple of shitake mushrooms, 2 cups of kale, a cucumber, parsley and ginger (optional), one carrot cut up and a handful of frozen fruit.
Add a little pomegranate or cherry juice, then some water.
Grind it all up.
After the first sip, you realize you are drinking a vegetable, then you never think about that again.