An Apple a Day Isn't Enough for This Danville Doc
The Greene family's two-story house looks like most of the others in their Danville neighborhood, but there's something radical happening in the kitchen. The family, headed by Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician, is on a yearlong challenge to eat only organic food.
Greene, who teaches medical students and pediatric residents at Stanford University School of Medicine, is best known for his health website www.drgreene.com, an online go-to guide for parents with questions about ear infections, tummy aches, nutrition, and myriad other kid-related issues.
By testing the benefits of a diet free of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, Greene created a pet project that’s become a passion. After almost a year, he says he feels fantastic. "I’ve certainly felt great. I’ve had a ton more energy [and] needed less sleep. The complexion of my skin is better," says Greene as he molds hamburger patties from a packet of Organic Prairie beef.
"Most adult health conditions are really formed in childhood," says Greene, who comes across as an earnest yet laid-back suburban dad. "Osteoporosis is really a pediatric condition. Same with eye disease, Alzheimer’s, all kinds of conditions. My belief is that awareness of health and nutrition serves as preventive medicine later in life."
Greene started his website in 1995 as a way to answer questions from his patients; it has mushroomed into a site that today gets 50 million hits per month from one million unique users. The American Medical Association called it "the pioneer physician website" and a Yahoo review described it as "The first—and still the best—children’s health website." Greene, who wrote the 2004 book From First Kicks to First Steps: Nurturing Your Baby’s Development From Pregnancy Through the First Year of Life (McGraw-Hill), says today’s parents need as much information as possible.
"The main point of the Hippocratic oath is not to do what you can and not cause harm, which is what most people think. The main purpose is to keep all knowledge of art and science a secret from people, just to be shared amongst doctors," Greene says with a smile. "I’ve been spending my career breaking the Hippocratic oath."
In the kitchen, 11-year-old Austin is squeezing lemons into lemonade. Teens Garrett, Kevin, and Claire are shucking ears of corn, while Mom, Cheryl, sets the table for dinner. As Austin serves me his secret-recipe Lemon Shot (lemon juice with a touch of organic sweetener), his dad describes how the organic challenge began in a New England cow pasture.
Greene noticed an unmistakable difference between the health of the farm’s herd of dairy cows, which were being raised organically, and those he had seen on commercial farms, where the cows are pumped with antibiotics and hormones.
"The difference in their health was remarkable. The CEO of the Organic Valley Family of Farms said to me, ‘It would be interesting to see what would happen to a human who ate nothing but organic, but there’s just no way to do it.’ Well, right then I knew that I wanted to try."
Greene picked October 17, 2005, as the day to start his challenge. The date was significant because Greene felt the day he truly became a doctor was October 17, 1989, the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake. As a resident at Children’s Hospital Oakland, he had to pull severely injured people out of freeway rubble and attend to them. So on October 16, the Greene family enjoyed one last guilty pleasure—a feast of popcorn shrimp at Lori’s Diner in San Francisco—then switched over to all organic. (Well, almost. Dr. Greene has been all organic, but his wife and kids make exceptions when necessary—one of Dr. Greene’s caveats was that the challenge shouldn’t create major complications for anyone but him.)
"Having a diet that’s 80 percent organic is not tough to do," says Cheryl, a vegetarian who eats fish. "It’s that last 20 percent that’s hard."
Dr. Greene’s biggest craving for a nonorganic treat was pizza. "I really craved pizza at first, but now you can get organic pizza in the East Bay, at Pizzaiolo in Oakland," he says. "That’s a great place. They have gotten to know us really well over there." Fresh organic mozzarella is another treat that’s tough to find, but Greene met a guy at an American Association for the Advancement of Science gathering in St. Louis who passed on a home recipe, which will soon become a family project.
Sitting down to dinner at the backyard table, the Greenes offer a Japanese blessing, Itadaki Masu (loosely translated, it means Let’s eat with respectful thanks to everyone who helped prepare the food), before digging into their meal. Tonight, they’re having an All-American spread of hamburgers, watermelon, and corn on the cob. "I don’t want anyone to think that organic just means [eating] bean curd," Greene says with a laugh. "The basic definition of organic is food produced without the use of dangerous or toxic pesticides, without artificial hormones, antibiotics, and without genetically modified ingredients."
After dinner, the kids clear the table (corn cobs go into the compost pile in the side yard) and then create a batch of vanilla ice cream using a hand-cranked machine. Sprinkling blackberries and raspberries on his ice cream, Greene addresses one of the questions that naysayers raise about organics.
"You hear, ‘It’s just a marketing scam to sell more expensive food,’ " he says. "The truth is, my food costs have gone down because I’m more conscious about what I eat, and I prepare more food at home. My restaurant bills have gone way down."
Greene sees organic awareness catching on as a lifestyle trend. "Everywhere I go, people ask me about it," he says. Last year, he spoke at the Green Power Baby Shower, a health conference for pregnant Hollywood celebrities.
Don’t expect Greene to abandon his patients at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto or his teaching position at Stanford to take an organics slide show on a worldwide road trip; he’s content to keep his crusade based out of his home office in Danville.
"I’m not going to be an evangelist for organic food, but I would like to help accelerate the awareness of its benefits. Only 2 to 4 percent of the food produced in the United States is organic," Greene says, "I’d love to see us get to 10 percent by 2010."
Despite having a busy schedule that includes teaching, seeing patients, and traveling, Dr. Alan Greene has maintained an all-organic diet for nearly a year. While many people aren’t ready to go full tilt, Greene offers some tips for incorporating organic foods into your lifestyle.
Look for the "9" on fruit. Organic fruit, when certified by the USDA, has a sticker placed on it with a five-digit code. If the number starts with a 9, it’s organic—any other number and it’s not. "I was at a health spa recently and looked at the fruit they were serving, which was supposed to be organic," Greene recalls. "I had to let them know that it wasn’t."
Check out Dr. Greene’s favorite local restaurants serving organic foods. "In Oakland, Pizzaiolo’s organic pizza is amazing, and I also like Caffe 817. And the Hidden City Café in Point Richmond is very good," he says.
Let organic red wine breathe a long time. "One of the things I’ve missed is really good red wine, because wine grapes are often treated with chemicals that make them nonorganic," says Greene. "I had to go to an event where everyone brought a bottle of wine, with people who really knew their wine, and I brought a Cabernet from Lolonis winery. One told me, ‘You need to let it breathe for a long time—like four to six hours—for it to really open up,’ so I did. My wine ended up getting picked as the top wine of the night!"
Hit Greene’s top five places to shop for organic foods. These include three of the area’s most popular supermarkets. "I’d say the top five are Danville Farmers Market, Andronico’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, and, of course, Berkeley Bowl."
A good organic snack for a long flight is apples and nuts. "Safeway usually has a nice selection of organic nuts—pistachios, cashews, and such, for protein. And I always travel with apples. They used to be thought of as ‘junk fruit,’ but we’re finding out that apples have all kinds of antioxidants."