Chef Emily Maxson Cooks Her Way Out of Crohn’s Disease and Shares the Transformative Power of Food
By Chris Olsen
Emily Maxson began to emerge from a deep sleep. She sluggishly remembered events from earlier that day: kissing her husband goodbye. Sipping her morning coffee. A sudden piercing pain in her stomach like she’d been stabbed. Crawling across the kitchen floor to the phone, her whole body shaking as she reached up to grab it. Emily recalled her mother rushing her to a nearby hospital and her husband meeting them there soon after. And the medical team saying Emily’s appendix had burst and would have to be removed.
As the reality of what she’d gone through seeped back into her consciousness, so did the pain. A nurse entered the room and told her she needed to get up and walk in order to get her intestines working again, but Emily could barely move. She would soon learn she’d endured much more than a 45-minute appendectomy. During the operation, the surgeon discovered her intestines were covered in sores and lesions, so she’d undergone an unexpected four-hour bowel resection. He removed the damaged sections and sent samples to pathology. It was Crohn’s disease, a chronic condition that affects the entire digestive tract. The diagnosis would mean a lifetime of medication and possibly future surgeries. Emily was newly married and just 28 years old.
After a slow and painful recovery, Emily began taking the medications prescribed for Crohn’s disease. She also met with a naturopath and learned about supplements that would replace the essential vitamins and minerals her body was missing now that part of her intestines had been removed. And over the next decade, the medication and supplements would manage the disease for a while. But then they would stop working. Emily continued to climb what’s known as the “pharmaceutical ladder,” moving to the next rung after a medication was no longer effective because her body had gotten used to it. Emily often endured extreme pain, nausea and fatigue. She took trips to Mayo Clinic every eight weeks for IV therapy. She poured all of her energy into being the best mother possible for her two young daughters and then collapsed into bed each night.
Emily continued to research natural wellness and dietary theories. During one visit to her naturopath, she learned about the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) and the book “Breaking the Vicious Cycle” by Elaine Gottschall, a biochemist who’d discovered the physician-developed diet after her daughter was gravely ill with severe ulcerative colitis. The girl had a miraculous recovery after following the SCD, which is based on the chemical structure of carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are more difficult for the body to absorb and become food for bad bacteria in the digestive tract. These bad bacteria cause inflammation and damage in the intestines. The SCD eliminates complex carbs, which starves the bad bacteria and restores healthy bacterial balance in the gut.
The science made sense to Emily, but she wasn’t sure she could adhere to the diet’s restrictions. Before having children, she’d gone to culinary school and became a chef. She couldn’t imagine giving up certain ingredients or not trying new dishes at restaurants. It would also require a lot of planning. She didn’t know if she’d have time to prepare special food for herself. The limitations and time involved felt overwhelming, so she filed the information away and moved on. Until months later, when her Crohn’s relapsed and she reached the top of the pharmaceutical ladder. This time, if the drug prescribed became ineffective, the doctor told her there might not be a new one to try. She prayed to God for guidance.
Out of the blue, Emily heard about two people who’d successfully reversed the effects of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis following the SCD. Then her naturopath mentioned the diet again. Emily took it as a sign. She decided to commit to the SCD for three months. She spent hours in the kitchen cooking from scratch. She worked with new ingredients and used her chef skills to adapt her favorite recipes. She loved the dishes, and her family did too. She felt great and wasn’t fatigued at the end of each day. Emily was convinced she could keep going and was hopeful she could stop using the medications. But her gastroenterologist was hesitant. He warned that the likelihood of the disease returning was high. And if she needed to go back on the meds, they might not work.
Emily decided to take a leap of faith. She followed the SCD to a T for a total of 18 months. While on the diet, she no longer experienced any Crohn’s symptoms. When she returned to Mayo Clinic, tests showed the disease was no longer active. This way of eating, coupled with her faith in God, gave Emily newfound hope for the future. She began supporting others in discovering the transformative power of food to improve health. In 2010, she launched an online platform to share her experience and expertise. She became a certified health coach and created a raw detox business. It eventually evolved into her current platform, Emily’s Fresh Kitchen, an active online community of more than 15,000 people.
This year marks the culmination of her journey and the debut of her cookbook, “Emily’s Fresh Kitchen: Cook Your Way to Better Health.” The cookbook features more than 100 delicious and approachable recipes everyone can enjoy. Many follow the SCD guidelines. Most are gluten-, grain- and dairy-free, but some include more standard ingredients. The majority are adaptable to different dietary needs. The spotlight is on fresh, whole foods. Along with chef Emily’s recipes, the book includes dozens of beautiful images from photographer Belén Fleming.
Emily believes preparing food at home is one of the best ways to improve health and it doesn’t have to be complicated. She believes her struggles with Crohn’s led her to her purpose, and she hopes to inspire others with her journey of healing with food. She’s grateful to God and her family for making it all possible.
Photo: Belén Fleming
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created Publish Her Story (formerly My Founder Story) and Publish Her as platforms for doing so.