Carrot Patch: Helping locals eat healthy

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There are abundant sources of health information in this country. Warnings abound regarding sugar-laden, rich, fried foods – but most can’t resist in Cajun cuisine. The result: Many have willingly gone down the path leading to high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Debra Sweatman and Diane Giglio share the conviction that most people suffer with ill health mainly because of bad nutrition. Good food and exercise will help us reclaim the healthy bodies we were meant to have.

When Sweatman opened the Carrot Patch 35 years ago, “We were looked upon as crazy. You just didn’t hear about health foods, especially in the Cajun area,” she said.

The Carrot Patch was built on a tight budget. Sweatman wanted to see if the business would work better serving healthy food, or as a natural supplement retail store. “We did well being a specialty store. I’ve learned a lot over the years and you really don’t need to go in and buy commercial this and that,” she said.

The company has a lunch counter and sells supplements, but that isn’t the main focus. Education about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle is the mission.

“We offer encouragement, support and education. We don’t promote diets. We promote health and a lifestyle of eating good foods so you can live to your full potential,” said Giglio.

The women have several influences in common, including Jack Lalanne. “He’s our man. He’s an exercise guru who really started it way back when with exercise, not body building,” said Sweatman.

“We think he’s doing it the right way because he’s 90 now, so that says something,” she explained.

Sweatman claims her background, which includes medical training and working as a cardiac technician, has earned the trust of her customers. She’s traveled the country studying, training and attending workshops on healthy living and herbology.

“I’ve trained with a lot of my mentors. Pioneers who started the movement – the people who wrote the books. Diane is great in her knowledge of the herbs and fitness. I’m very comfortable and secure in what we do,” Sweatman said.

The quality of the products sold at the Carrot Patch play a big part in the business. U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines say a manufacturer does not have to prove the safety and effectiveness of a dietary supplement before it is marketed. Sweatman has been doing business with the same suppliers for over 30 years and trusts them to maintain high standards of quality.

Carrot Patch customers come from all over south Louisiana, some as far away as Laplace, asking if the store has supplements they can take instead of prescription drugs. “We tell them we can’t do that for you. It’s their choice to get off conventional medicine,” she said.

Giglio claims the most common complaints are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. “They want to take something natural, but they’re not willing to change their lifestyle,” she explained. “I tell them you can control these things. Your body is supposed to heal itself.”

When a customer visits the Carrot Patch with an ailment, Sweatman asks if they eat sugar. “I have never met a diabetic that doesn’t cheat,” she said.

Sweatman and Giglio work with customers’ diet restrictions and provide information geared toward healthy lifestyle changes. “We try to teach people to go back to basics with basic things on your plate. It’s just common sense,” Giglio noted.

The women believe a lack of motivation is the culprit behind unhealthy lifestyles. “We don’t have sidewalks. We don’t promote health [in south Louisiana]. I wish the city and state would promote health more instead of promoting health care,” Sweatman said.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine released statistics in July 2009 that said U.S. adults spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on complementary and alternative medicine products, classes and materials.

The slowing of the economy hasn’t affected the Carrot Patch. “The industry is a money maker these days. The herbal trend is getting bigger and my business has increased since the economy has gotten bad,” Sweatman said.

Sweatman spends time teaching and explaining her lifestyle to her customers. “We enjoy life and we have a good attitude. The idea of the kitchen is to get the food into people’s mouths – let them know what we’re talking about,” she said.

The two teach by example. “The main thing is we live our lifestyle. This is a lifestyle, not a job,” Giglio said. “You can always come back anytime and change your life around and rebuild your body – your body is made to rebuild.

“Once you change your lifestyle, you don’t want to go back.”

Debra Sweatman, owner of Carrot Patch Health Foods, talks with customers at the health bar. The store offers health food and natural supplement to help customers live healthier lifestyles. * Photo by JENNIE CHILDS