When Helen Jiang went to the doctor in the summer of 2014, she was told she could no longer have children. “You should have a different life plan now,” the doctor said. After the visit, she and her flatmate, Jane Lee, went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, ordered baozi, and cried.
“I was crying the whole afternoon in a baozi restaurant. And then she [Lee] was crying with me.” Jiang had known she had scleroderma, a life-threatening autoimmune disorder, but hadn’t felt much about it until she heard the doctor’s words. Looking back, Jiang thinks she had been in denial. “I think most of the time I live quite numb of my own feelings … I don’t realize what’s really going on in my heart,” she says.
Last month, we met with Lee and Jiang at their Chaoyang apartment. Despite her cheery demeanor (she giggles often), Jiang has an air of resolve. A former international investment manager, she is “stubborn as a mule,” as Lee puts it. Jiang and Lee met in 2013. The two later became flatmates and grew extremely close. “I think we’re like sisters. It’s really beyond the point of friendship,” Lee explains. “We’ve been through a lot together.” Occasionally, their relationship seems a bit like that of an old married couple. “We try to fight for our rights in the house,” Jiang laughs.
In 2014 Jiang started to get sick. First, she was diagnosed with scleroderma. Although it was life-threatening, Jiang says it came on slowly, lessening the emotional impact. “Like boiling the frog,” she says. But soon, Jiang was diagnosed with a second autoimmune disorder, myositis, which causes muscle cells body-wide to become inflamed and break down. After her diagnosis, Jiang quickly began to lose her strength. Muscle exertion of any kind became taxing. Even sitting for long periods was strenuous. “It’s exhaustion to the point it’s really painful,” she explains. Jiang stopped leaving the house, and eventually couldn’t leave her bed.
Doctors told her to take steroids, but Jiang refused. She had encountered people who had taken them and told her horror stories: A relative had developed heart trouble, a woman Jiang happened to meet on a train told her steroids caused her severe leg pain. Jiang decided that steroids were something to avoid. Yet, without them, she seemed out of options. Lying on her bed, Jiang started to worry that she would be bedridden for life. “If this is really going to happen to me, I probably have no future anymore,” she thought.
Desperate, Lee began searching the internet for solutions. She finally came upon the Paleo AIP (Autoimmune Protocol) diet, an extreme form of paleo designed for autoimmune disease sufferers. It prohibits all grains, processed foods, nuts, dairy, as well as certain vegetables. With few options available, Jiang decided to give it a try. And in a gesture of solidarity, Lee went on it too.
After a month on the diet, Jiang noticed that she had more energy. “Every day I realized there’s something I can do that I could not do in the past,” she says. At first, “I could start to sit.” After a few months, “I started to realize I could go outside. I could go for a walk.” She began walking to the store daily, and noticed the trip getting easier and easier. “I felt light,” she says. Because nothing else in Jiang’s environment had changed, the two felt sure that the diet was responsible for her recovery.
The experience prompted Lee to think more about diet and nutrition, and she started reading up on the latest scientific research. According to Lee, most people suffer from minor irritations like acne, headaches, fatigue, and brain fog. “But people just feel like it’s normal,” she says, while in fact, “all these things have to do with nutrition.” Lee wants to increase awareness about how different foods affect health in these subtle, but significant ways. “It’s important to know why something is good for you or bad for you,” she says. For Lee, nutrient density is key. “You want your calorie-to-nutrient ratio to be as low as possible,” she says. According to Lee, this means limiting grains and increasing proteins and nutrient-rich vegetables.
After starting Jiang’s diet, Lee began experimenting with creating nutrient-dense foods that are also full of flavor. An avid chef, Lee loves reading multiple recipes and adapting them until she can create the perfect dish. To develop the various flavors of their Krispy Kale, she and Jiang started by sampling various kale chips from the U.S. and China. They then tried and tweaked more than 60 recipes, eating and throwing out numerous batches until they were finally satisfied. Early last year, Lee and Jiang began to market their products to the public through their business: Manna Source.
Their business is still in its early stages, but the two hope to go beyond providing snacks and even physical nourishment. “It’s not just the body. It’s the body, mind, and heart,” Lee says. While their food products can help support a healthy body, they also want to provide for the mind by educating people on better ways to eat. They have started writing articles about health and nutrition, and hope to publish more. In terms of the heart, their vision is to create a community of people who can provide each other with information, personal tips, and support in their quest for better health. They’d like to eventually open a restaurant where people can enjoy hearty, healthy meals and learn about what’s on their plate.
As for her illness, Jiang says she is thankful to have gone through the experience. She now has a more meaningful path to pursue with her best friend. “Out of this sickness came so many good things,” she says.