Clean Up Your Kitchen, by James N. Dillard, MD
Clean Up Your Kitchen
Do we really know what we should eat? And if we knew, how tough would it be to eat that way consistently? Most people I meet seem pretty confused and daunted by these questions.
But nutrition researchers and scientists, and directors of the Institutes of Human Nutrition at places like Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, U.C.L.A., and Duke do not disagree with one another. Surprisingly, there is remarkable consensus.
Somehow that consensus view has not made it into the education of health professionals, to the media, or to the public at large. Most people think that what we should eat is so contradictory and confusing that they just throw up their hands and eat anything. Atkins, Zone, vegetarian, South Beach, vegan, low-carb, anti-aging, low-fat, macrobiotic, detox, cheeseburgers — whatevah!
To compound the problem, many of us don’t cook so well, or don’t cook at all, or we’re damn sick of cooking. After raising three or four kids, many parents never want to look at a stove ever again. They just want to settle into the sofa with comfort food.
Many of us consistently make unhealthy choices at the market, and may need a bit of nutritional education. Others believe that healthy food can only taste bland and inedible, like something fed to horses.
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation out there, and some of this is intentional. While some folks are making a bundle off diet schemes that don’t work, giant food corporations are super-sizing us with processed foods as addictive as cigarettes or booze.
Our health care costs have spiraled out of control, and our eating habits play a big role. One-third of our kids are obese, and they are getting adult-onset(!) diabetes and heart disease. We are plagued by chronic degenerative illnesses, many of which are diet-related.
So what should we eat? What is it that all the food scientists agree upon? Well, in the simple words of the greatest food writer of our time, Michael Pollen, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
We’ve heard this before — a diet rich in vegetables and fresh fruits. So why do so many of us go for the steak and potatoes? Surprisingly, it may be that your brain is addicted to certain combinations of fat, sugar, and salt.
If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of Dr. David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating.” In this breakthrough book, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration reveals how our food industry has systematically designed foods that manipulate our neurological responses into eating more than we need to eat. And our brains are trained to come back to these foods. It is a must-read for those with a weight problem or with an overweight family member.
Dr. Kessler says it’s not enough to simply buy different foods — we have to change our whole relationship with food. For this, we may need some help.
To get it, I talked with Montauk’s culinary nutritionist, Stefanie Bryn Sacks. Ms. Sacks is uniquely qualified to speak to the issues. She is a superb chef, trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and holds a master’s degree in nutrition from Columbia University.
“People will put premium gas in their car, but they won’t put premium food in their bodies,” she told me. “They need to take the time to think about what they are eating.”
Any life change can be daunting, and changing your diet may be particularly tough. “But eating well can be much simpler than it seems. All it takes is some time, some thoughtfulness, and some education,” she told me. You can make great changes in baby steps. Here’s how she recommends you start.
Make a food diary. Write down what you are eating every day for a week. It can turn you into a more conscious eater. You may discover some things that you did not know. Pick some components of your eating habits that you want to change, and start with those. Don’t try to change everything at once — you won’t make it. You’ll just go back to where you were.
Next, you need to examine the choices you make in the store. Shop in the outside edges of the store, not so much in the center aisles, where all the processed foods are.
Ms. Sacks also suggests that our many farm stands, food cooperatives, and local growers, some with organically grown produce, are the best source for your raw materials. But it’s not enough to simply choose good fresh local food; you need to know how to cook it to make it taste good.
Healthy plant-based food can be delicious. Personal training by a chef like Ms. Sacks is ideal, but some excellent paperbacks can help. She recommends “Everyday Food: Great Food Fast” by Martha Stewart Living and “Food and Healing” by Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D. For understanding how to read labels, “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives” by Ruth Winter is an invaluable reference.
The taste staples in Ms. Sacks’s kitchen are olive oil, fresh herbs, and spices, lemon and lime, tamari (high-quality soy sauce), mirin (sweet rice wine), Dijon mustard, ginger, red and green curry powder, toasted sesame oil, grapeseed oil, avocado and walnut oil for salads, and a bit of butter at times. These can make healthy foods come alive.
Here are a few tips. Don’t eat on the fly. In the words of Eric Schlosser, we are a “Fast Food Nation,” but just say no. Sitting down and eating more slowly may help you eat less and enjoy healthy food more.
Stop eating when you are no longer hungry. And don’t go food shopping hungry. You may buy the wrong things. If you fall off the wagon and go for the ribs and fries, it’s okay. We are all sinners. Just make the bulk of your diet healthy. And try to understand any emotional component to your eating. Food can never fill emotional emptiness.
Unfortunately, most doctors have no training in nutrition. My buddy Dr. Andrew Weil often says that he had only a one-hour lecture on nutrition at Harvard Medical School, and that was on diabetes. So we have to educate ourselves. His book “The Healthy Kitchen” is another good resource.
We all have to eat. What we choose matters. And most of us can’t afford to get sick nowadays. Making your kitchen a place for healthful, delicious food is one great way to stay out of the doctor’s office.