My grandma died nearly a decade ago, but I swear she's been sending me flocks of cardinals in her absence. I think she knew I'd be needing these precious symbols of her love.
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Every time I see a cardinal, I know my grandmother is with me. This regal, red bird was Grandma's favorite. It reminds me of her fiery Columbian spirit and the blue flames that blazed in her restaurant's kitchen. Grandma infused her food with love, captivating stories and copious amounts of butter. And everyone who slipped into a booth at The Village Gourmet in Pawling, N.Y. felt that love from their taste buds to their toes.

My grandma died nearly a decade ago, but I swear she's been sending me flocks of cardinals in her absence. I think she knew I'd be needing these precious symbols of her love. Two weeks before she died, I received my own walloping wake-up call. Incurable cancer. I needed a lifeline. I needed my Grandma. So I went into the kitchen -- and I've never left.

Although Grandma's passion had led me to the power of food, not all of her recipes were healthy. I kept her gusto and the love that she put into her cuisine, but ditched the ingredients that bought her a one-way ticket to arthritis, diverticulitis and a host of other inflammatory conditions. I also ditched my own addictions and compulsions around food, especially sugar.

At one of my lowest points, sugar had a painful grip on me. I'd buy/binge and then beat myself up over my behavior. Sometimes the only way out of my drug-like trance was to mutilate my stash before burying it in the trash. This step was very important. If I didn't jam cigarette stubs into the pints of Ben & Jerry's or spray them with cleaning products, there was a 50/50 chance I'd rummage through the rubbish to rescue my heroin.

One thousand donuts could not fill the suffering growing inside me. which makes a lot of sense, because since when are donuts miracle workers? Miracles require an overall, tectonic shift toward love and life's sweetness, which couldn't be farther from processed sugar's deceptive and fleeting high.

My new kitchen was (and still is) a peaceful haven fully stocked with nutrient-dense, plant-empowered, whole foods. It's my direct connection to spirit, and of course, my juicer! Slowly, as my time in the kitchen deepened, I started to feel better. While I may never be in remission from cancer, I am currently in remission from an unhealthy relationship to food.

For nearly a decade now, I've been teaching others how to thrive by filling their bodies with more anti-inflammatory, plant-based foods filled with energizing vitamins, nutrients, minerals, antioxidants and cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Not a day goes by when someone doesn't write me to say, "Thanks, I feel better too now." Those letters from my readers are my digital cardinals.

The fact is, we need help, and we need each other. We're a nation riddled with preventable, lifestyle-driven diseases. We consume far too many animal products, processed and refined foods, saturated fats and empty calories. I'm not suggesting that we have to give it all up, but I am suggesting that we consciously and consistently reduce our consumption of these products. While we're at it, it would benefit us to take a closer look at the industries that profit from both our ignorance and our misfortune by spoon feeding us confusion and deception. We're taught to solely blame our luck-of-the-draw genes for our health issues, rather than our daily habits, dietary choices and interplay with the environment that surrounds us. The real truth lies somewhere in the middle, and the good news is that we are more capable of turning around our global health crisis than we think.

Change your plate. Change your fate. If you learn anything from my story, let it be this: Don't wait. But I get it: Change is a pesky notion. For many folks, the biggest challenge in changing their eating habits isn't money, time or education; it's reframing their connection between food and love. Love is healing. Love is comforting. Love is holy. Food can be all those things too. But as I mentioned, food can also be harmful. Again, the goal isn't to be restrictive or tight about what passes through the altar (your mouth) and into the temple (your body), it's to create sustainable and consistent energy for every deserving cell in your body. That, my friends, is true love.

I dedicated my most recent book, Crazy Sexy Kitchen: 150 Plant-Empowered Recipes to Ignite a Revolution, to Grandma. It's my way of saying thank you for introducing me to the kitchen -- the place that has become my pharmacy and transformed my life. I'm just sorry that I didn't have the chance to share my decade-long health odyssey with her. I know that the knowledge in Crazy Sexy Kitchen would have improved her quality of life. I also know she would have gotten a real kick out of my friend Chef Chad Sarno, who helped me create the glorious recipes. If Grandma could sit at my dinner table today, perhaps she would have realized that you don't have to compromise pleasurable cuisine for nourishment and good health -- they actually go hand in hand.

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