Recently, I divulged a bit of my current struggle with food, how a diet I'd once called balanced (one I previously worked so hard to streamline) had fallen reckless. I wanted to practice self-love and stop restricting myself, but ultimately, I gained 10 pounds and all of my hard-earned, expertly honed acceptance flew right out the window. It was around that time when I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Glowing Up, wherein the guests were two women with a perspective on food and wellness that affected a huge shift in my psyche.
Kacie Carter and Caitlin Sullivan have been friends for over a decade and together opened a now supremely popular restaurant in L.A. Honey Hi is a healthy spot, though it doesn't give off the exclusive or intimidating vibes usually associated with such a moniker. That and the food tastes good. "It's flavorful, delicious, celebratory, full of fresh foods, and heavy on the vegetables," Carter told me over email. "We are inspired by the bounty of fresh produce in California as well as traditional preparations of international cuisines that are inherently flavorful and nutritious."
Like many of us, Carter and Sullivan have found their journey to being well a long and arduous one. "When I was 16," Carter explains, "I subsisted off of daily Dairy Queen chicken tenders and a chocolate cone for an entire year. Once I got to college, a lot of health and anxiety issues started cropping up, but I wasn't yet able to make the connection about how my diet was causing or exacerbating them. Fast-forward to my mid-20s, after a few run-ins with parasites in third-world countries, 25 years of eating refined foods with no awareness or education around nutrition, and a stressful job working as a stylist in the fashion industry—my health completely collapsed. My hair was falling out; my skin was a disaster; my digestion was destroyed; I was gaining weight; nothing worked properly. It was terrifying. I went to dozens of Western doctors who prescribed me medications like steroids, Accutane, and even Rogaine rather than looking for underlying causes. I felt completely hopeless." Sullivan had a similar story: "About four years into my [advertising job], my body started shutting down. Lack of sleep, lack of nutrients, and a lack of a social life almost took me down. My hair started falling out in clumps, I couldn't sleep even when I had the time, I had severe anxiety, and was completely depressed. I had to teach myself about what worked for my body and what I needed emotionally and physically to be happy and sustained."
Acquiring a comprehensive understanding of food was key to finding health for both of them. Carter went to a naturopath who identified over 30 food allergies and tons of other systemic issues that were affecting her. She spent three dedicated years following specific dietary protocols to find what best worked for her specific body. "A lot of people find removing things from their diet discouraging," notes Sullivan, "but for some reason, it always felt like an interesting challenge for me. I thrive with creative parameters, and it forced me to become a better cook because the food I wanted to eat every day wasn't available in restaurants. It was incredibly empowering to figure out how to take care of myself. I have always loved food more than anything in the world, and learning how deeply it affects all aspects of our life, from physical and emotional well-being to environmental sustainability to politics, made me fall even deeper in love."
Though, the biggest understanding the two women have come to is one I've found crucial in my own eating-disorder recovery: Healing isn't linear. "It requires patience, time, and, most importantly, discipline—think years to see major results, not three months," says Carter. "This is why we don't view what we do as a 'diet' or a trend; it's simply our lifestyle, one that we know we can keep up for life. And we feel excited about it as opposed to oppressed or limited because we know we are making a difference to our own well-being and, now, through the restaurant, public health and the environment."
Carter continues, "We grew up in a culture wherein the 'norm' consists of refined foods and rampant chronic illness. I thought Cheetos were a food when I was a kid. Undoing that conditioning is a process. Navigating your way through trends and breaking through the status quo can be scary, and it will take many twists and turns. At one point or another, I tried just about every diet under the sun. I put in the time with each one, paid close attention to what worked and what didn't, and eventually arrived at what works for my own body through trial and error. I had to be unafraid of confronting my own preconceived notions and dogma around what 'eating well' meant for my personal constitution. For example, I was a vegetarian for four years and was extremely resistant to changing that, even though it wasn't working for me. I try to be open-minded and perceptive so I can continue taking care of my body in a sustainable way. It has to be sustainable or else it doesn't matter!"
After ruminating on their words and finding empowerment in their philosophy, I asked Carter and Sullivan to come up with a Honey Hi "diet," one that I could try on my own terms. They were hesitant, as every food reacts differently with every body, but they set up some guidelines for me to follow as part of my own wellness journey. Below, find their thoughts on food and turning health into a sustainable lifestyle.
The Honey Hi Philosophy
1. Fill 80% of your plate with vegetables.
"They should be cooked and raw, in all kinds of colors," suggests Carter. Sullivan adds, "Raw, cooked, blended, fermented, whatever! All types, all ways, all the time." Carter continues, "Support your local farmers if you can, as their produce tends to be more nutritious and flavorful."
2. Switch up what you eat often and try new flavors.
"I like to go to the grocery store and buy vegetables I've never cooked before in order to teach myself how to use them," notes Carter.
3. Focus on fresh foods that expire.
"Shop the periphery of the grocery store, not the inside where the packaged food lives. Try not to eat things with ingredients you don't recognize or from sources you can't trace (this is true especially when it comes to protein, meat, fish)," explains Carter. "Make sure the animal products you consume are responsibly sourced—grass-fed, organic, etc.," adds Sullivan.
4. Avoid getting hung up on food dogma, guilt, and judgment.
"The only thing that matters is you feel good and energetic after you eat, both immediately and in the long run," says Carter. For example, she continues, "Dairy is something most people are intolerant of as adults, but some people do tolerate it, and, again, it's about how not what. We use grass-fed butter and sheep's milk cheese, which are low in lactose and easier to digest and always have an option to not include it. I only eat dairy that has been fermented in some way."
Additionally, "Coffee is awesome for you, unless it doesn't work for your biology. Even though coffee is full of antioxidants, when I drink it, it's like drinking a cup of anxiety and panic. I have a common gene that causes my body to metabolize caffeine super slowly, meaning that it stays in my body for a long time and stresses me out. This is why some people can drink 10 cups at 8 p.m. and be fine, and others have a meltdown. I use the dandy brew we created for our menu instead. It's an earthy, slightly bitter brew of dandelion root and some other herbs that stimulate liver function. I add some medicinal mushrooms like Chaga, which are super high in antioxidants, and use that as my morning cup of nutrients."
5. Keep it simple.
"You don't need to cook a giant chef-worthy feast for every meal. I eat a pack of smoked salmon with torn dill, some sautéed greens, a few olives, and a little bit of avocado most meals of the week."
Foods to Get Into
"Plants! Fermented foods! Herbs and spices!" Sullivan says. "Honey Hi is all about nutrient density and getting the absolute most phytonutrients and healing benefits as possible from your meals. These foods are deeply nutritious (and they also happen to be the most delicious, in my opinion)."
"They're the great commonality in the Venn diagram of nutritional philosophy," says Sullivan. "Whether you're Paleo, vegan, Ayurvedic, or whatever the latest thing is, everyone agrees eating mostly plants is the key to sustained health." Carter agrees: "Vegetables are my love language and the absolute heroes of our diet. They provide incredible varieties and amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, fiber, and anti-inflammatory compounds. No matter your dietary philosophy, a majority of your diet should be made up of fresh vegetables."
2. Fermented Foods
"Not only are fermented foods living, super bioavailable, and diverse strains of probiotics—they are also an incredible way to preserve vegetables and be able to consume them year-round," explains Sullivan. "We're so lucky to live in California where we have access to vegetables all the time—but that is not the case in many places. Fermentation allows us to preserve foods safely and effectively, oftentimes making those foods exponentially more nutritious than in their freshest state! You can add sauerkraut or kimchi to a meal to easily add a lot more vegetables and a wide variety of nutrients. The relationship between your brain and your gut is very real and the naturally occurring probiotics in fermented foods are an easy way to add probiotics to your diet without expensive supplementation."
3. Cold-Water Fish
"For most of our history on this planet, humans had a relatively balanced intake of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids," says Sullivan. "But modern diets have made omega-6 much more common in our diet (from refined vegetable oils, grains, etc.) and omega-3s are consumed less frequently. Cold-water fish like salmon and cod contain high levels of omega-3s, which can help balance out that ratio, thereby helping to reduce inflammation in the body. Not to mention smaller cold-water fish (especially sardines) have less mercury content than fish like tuna and swordfish and are much more sustainable for the oceans and overfishing."
4. Healthy Fats
"Healthy fats are essential to a healthy diet!" Sullivan says. "We were led so astray by the flawed dietary advice of the '80s that demonized all fats and encouraged us to eat high-carb. Our brain and our cells need healthy fats in order to function—high-quality, non-damaged, or oxidized fats in the right quantity—alongside other nourishing foods. Since we are always considering bioavailability, healthy fat is essential for the absorption of many key nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K. There's a good reason to add avocado or olive oil to your salad every day."
5. Herbs and Spices
"They're like nature's pharmacy," explains Sullivan. "There are so many medicinal components they contain, the most important and well known of which are antioxidants and polyphenols, both of which supply vital energy to our cells. These properties (the plants defense mechanisms to deter bugs) are the very things that give them their unique flavor. For example, oregano and rosemary are extremely anti-viral and antibacterial. Turmeric is highly anti-inflammatory and can help mediate the immune system. The active constituents of black pepper and spicy peppers enhance the bioavailability and absorption of these other spices. They all work in tandem with each other, which is why it’s so important to consume a wide and varied diet consisting of many colors!"
6. Well-Sourced Animal Products
"I don't believe that meat is bad for you, contrary to the prevailing PC view that we should all be vegan to save our health and the environment," says Carter. "I actually believe small regenerative farming holds the key to a sustainable food future and healthy soil. Well-sourced animal products and offal helped return my body to a state of health when I was at my worst, actually. It all depends on how that meat was raised and how much of it you eat and alongside what other foods. Avoid factory-farmed meat at all costs. Consume grass-fed cows and animals raised in their natural environments eating their natural diet, alongside tons of vegetables and fresh foods."
Foods to Avoid
"We talk all the time about bio-individuality," adds Sullivan. "In other words, what works for one person's biology may not work for another's. We are careful not to villainize specific foods that are potentially hard for some people's health challenges or constitutions but others may thrive on. Generally speaking, processed foods simply do not work for anyone's biology. That means processed and refined vegetable oils, refined sugar and grains, as well as processed and factory-farmed meats. Processed foods can be incredibly inflammatory and sustained inflammation in the body is the root of disease."
"We avoid foods that tend to be common triggers for people (gluten, most dairy, refined foods) and that food data and prevailing research show are undeniably harmful to your health (refined sugar, excessive carbs, processed foods, and toxic vegetable oils)," says Carter. "For me personally," Sullivan says, "sugar and gluten are no good. They just wipe me out completely. I also discovered that I require a lot of sleep and a tremendous amount of time alone to recharge. Growing up, I always thought people cut out foods solely for digestive and physical issues. But I learned in this process that inflammatory foods like sugar and gluten have an enormous impact on your mood as well. The relationship between our digestive health and our psychology is very, very real."
1. Canola, Soybean, Safflower, Sunflower, and Corn Oils
"These are some of the most dangerous substances on the market," says Carter. "They absolutely saturate many of the foods that make up the 'standard American diet' because they are cheap, flavorless, and abundant. Refined oils are higher in inflammatory omega-6s, and they are often damaged by processing, light, oxygen, or overheating—which means they create free radical stress in your body. It's like eating pure inflammation." Sullivan adds: "Essentially, skip foods in a package."
2. Refined Sugars and Excess Sugar Intake Through Carbohydrates or Sugar Sources
"Cool it on the sugar," says Sullivan. "Or at least, scale way back." Carter adds, "It can spike your blood sugar, can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes, feed pathogenic bacteria, create food addictions, and profoundly mess with your hormones."
3. Factory-Farmed Meat and Fish
"Not only did these animals live a miserable and inhumane existence, but the mass production of meat is horrific for the environment and very detrimental for our health to consume," explains Carter. "They are loaded with hormones and inflammation from an unhealthy, stressed animal. I avoid meat unless I know exactly where it came from or if I’ve cooked it myself."
After all was said and done, it seems the sentiment is this: Eating healthy is not abnormal or fringe. "It's only in the last hundred years since the advent of the industrialized food system that our entire culture shifted away from traditional preparations of foods and started living on refined foods," explains Carter. "And we wonder why we are having a public health crisis and skyrocketing chronic illness. I call it the slow-moving plague. Diet is the single most modifiable factor in our state of health. The field of epigenetics shows our genes are only 10% of the story. Environment, the most important of which is diet, makes up the other 90% of how your genes decide to express themselves. Returning to foods that we evolved on that our bodies can recognize is the key to plugging the hole in the dam that is our chronic illness crisis."
Carter and Sullivan struck an especially sensitive chord with me about the social factor of it all—the pressure we face as women at restaurants or gatherings to be "down" and "chill" enough to eat refined, fried, and processed foods while guzzling a can of beer. It's fear, really, of seeming "difficult" or "high-maintenance" and, quite frankly, it's bullshit. The bottom line is that eating well isn't weird, sad, or limiting. It was normal for millions of years. "What is abnormal," Carter says, "is that we no longer recognize or crave the real food that allows our bodies to function optimally. Additionally, this refined-food-induced state of dysfunction disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities, as they are unable to afford quality food and they have much higher levels of mortality, heart disease, and chronic illness. We have to reclaim and normalize real food in order to save our public health and our environment."
At Honey Hi, Carter and Sullivan want to show people that healthy food is just food. It really doesn't need to be in a separate category from the rest of the culinary world. "We place as much value and scrutiny on the way our food tastes as we do on the nutritional integrity of the food," says Sullivan. "You can do both, it's possible, and we're doing it. There is so much dogma and evangelism surrounding wellness and healthy eating, and I think it's incredibly limiting and scary. So often people think of healthy food as pretentious and 'other.' We really want to destroy this stigma. If you do it right, it's craveable, sustainable, and comforting.
And, not that it matters, but I lost the extra weight and gained a lot of healthy perspective. Mostly, I learned to feel more comfortable making choices that feel good and treating my body with respect rather than disdain. But as always, it's a journey. We'll see where this one takes me.