What’s the Best Way to Eat?

An article entitled Can We Say What Diet is Best for Health? by David Katz and Stephanie Meller, from Yale’s School of Public Health, was published in the Annual Review of Public Health a few years ago. A story about the article was published in the Atlantic by James Hamblin, who called it Science Compared Every Diet, and the Winner is Real Food. I would have edited out the word “Real” and simply called it “Food.” Then I might have presented a review of the differences between Food (With a Capital F) and manufactured calories.

Like a presentation I give from time to time, Katz and Meller compared a number of popular diets, including low-carb, low-fat, low-glycemic, Mediterranean, DASH, Paleolithic, and vegan, among others. They concluded that “A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.”  Michael Pollan said it in just seven words: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

While the fight continues about the precise components of the healthiest diet, Katz, Meller, Pollan, and Sukol have reached the same conclusion: If you restrict your carbohydrate intake to intact carbs, and your fat intake to nourishing fats, and your protein to high-quality protein, your double chin will begin to shrink away almost immediately, you skin will begin to shine in just a few days, your pants will fit better in two weeks, and your energy level will improve dramatically. Your risk of chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and many types of cancer, will fall by up to eighty percent. It doesn’t matter what you call the diet as long as you eat real food.

Here are a few definitions to help you:

1) An intact carb refers to any and all vegetables, beans, fruits and whole grains with an intact fiber matrix. If a carb has had its fiber matrix stripped away, it becomes a stripped carb. The most important examples of stripped carbs in the American diet are white flour, corn starch and corn syrup, white rice, and sugar. These carbs have had their fiber matrix and phytonutrients stripped away. It’s not a coincidence that white flour looks exactly like corn starch and powdered sugar. The original identity of the food has been stripped away, and all that’s left is a pile of white powder. Be “carb selective,” and don’t eat stripped carbs if you don’t have to. Don’t worry about the glycemic index; it becomes a non-issue when you avoid stripped carbs.

2) Nourishing fat sources include avocados, olives and olive oil, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, and deep-sea fatty fish. There may be more, but for the meanwhile these are the ones that most of us agree on. Stay away from ultra-processed fats that were invented in the 20th century, and don’t buy any so-called “food” with the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Vote with your wallet: if you stop buying it, there’s a good chance that they will stop making it.

3) No matter what other kinds of protein you eat, high-quality protein includes beans (peanuts are a bean, too). Chickpeas, lentils, tofu, pulses, legumes. Many cultures consider beans to be magic, probably because they happen to have the rare quality of being rich in both protein and fiber at the same time. If you desire, you can also obtain high-quality protein from fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and certain meats, as long as they themselves were raised on a nourishing diet, such as grass (cows and steer), phytoplankton (fish), or bugs and worms (poultry), where those food sources have been a significant part of their diet for thousands of years. On the other hand, when you eat highly processed or industrially-based protein of lesser quality, you are just concentrating low-quality food up the food chain. Straight into you.

David Katz says that “…We’re paying for ignorance with human lives…” and “…With [the] knowledge already at our disposal, we could eliminate eighty percent of chronic disease…”

If you remember just one thing from this post, remember this: “If you focus on real food, nutrients tend to take care of themselves.”


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: White Beans with Roasted Tomatoes

This recipe makes a simple and lovely meal that could not be more delicious or satisfying! Like many recipes whose featured ingredient is one or more types of beans, it still tastes wonderful even if you fiddle with the ingredients a little. The name of the game is flexibility.

This particular and extraordinary white bean recipe includes a spice called za’atar, which is used commonly in many Middle Eastern cuisines. Za’atar translates into hyssop in English, but you should feel free to substitute powdered thyme instead if you don’t feel like tracking down a source for za’atar. 

Also, you don’t have to cook your beans from dry. Of course, if you want to, that’s great, but if your preferred strategy involves taking a can or two from the closet, then I would definitely say that’s the plan. I keep a whole shelf of all kinds of beans in the cabinet, because you just never know what you’re going to need.  

  • 2 large tomatoes, cored and sliced into thick wedges
  • 2 tablespoons za’atar (or thyme, powdered)
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
  • 2 cups cooked Great White Northern or cannellini beans
  • 1/4 cup freshly shaved parmigiana cheese (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs (any combination of basil, mint, oregano, marjoram, lemon balm, chives)
  1. Heat the oven to 375F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
  2. Add half the za’atar (approx. 1 tablespoon), a pinch of salt, and 2 tablespoons olive oil to a medium-sized bowl, and mix well. Add the tomato wedges, mix well, and spread out on the sheet pan. Roast tomatoes until soft and fragrant, approx. one hour.
  3. Divide the beans between two bowls. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt to each bowl, and mix well to coat the beans. Top the beans with the roasted tomatoes, chopped herbs, parmigiana cheese if using, and a final pinch each of za’atar and salt. Serves 2 — bon appetit!

Thank you to Maureen Abood at her blog Rose Water & Orange Blossoms for a prior version of this wonderful recipe.

 


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Yellow Squash Crockpot Soup

This soup, perfect for fall days and nights, cooks up beautifully in a crock pot. If you put together all the ingredients in the morning, the house will smell heavenly all day, and the soup will be ready to eat when dinnertime comes. On the other hand, if evening time works better for prepping the ingredients, the house will smell heavenly when you wake up, and the soup will be ready at lunchtime and also keep til dinnertime.

Two strategies contribute to the flavor of Yellow Squash Soup. The first is slicing of vegetables thinly, which increases the available surface area, increases absorption of spices into the vegetables, and makes more flavor available to all the taste buds in your happy, waiting mouth. So take your time, and cut the vegetables thinly. Not paper thin, just thin. The second is slow cooking, which is a wonderfully reliable way to enhance flavor and make everything taste the very best it possibly can.

2 long yellow (zucchini-type) squash, medium
2 carrots, peeled and sliced in 1/4-inch slices
1/2 Vidalia onion, peeled and sliced very thinly
4 stalks celery (leaves included), sliced very thinly
1/3 cup quinoa
1/3 cup green mung beans (hard, unsprouted)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 tsp. mustard seed
one whole lemon, sliced in half cross-wise
water to fill a large crockpot half way (approx 1 quart)

  1. Cut each yellow squash in half lengthwise, and slice thinly to create half-moons. Add to crockpot along with carrots, onion, celery, quinoa, and mung beans.
  2. Add olive oil, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and mustard seed.
  3. Fill the crockpot halfway with water. Allow to cook on low setting for 8-12 hours, but feel free to leave for longer if necessary.
  4. Squeeze the juice of the two lemon halves into the soup just before serving.

Hearty appetite, and happy fall!


Can You Believe It? Fat is Good for You!

A few years ago I read a cookbook called Fat, a celebration of flavor written by Jennifer McLagan. A few days later, I tried the sage butter sauce recipe with pasta: Fry 30 fresh, whole sage leaves in ½ lb. butter on medium heat for about 10 minutes, just until the butter begins to brown and the leaves turn crispy. Meanwhile, boil ­­­3/4 pound of pasta in salted water and drain when done. Pour the sauce over the cooked, hot pasta and serve with a simple green salad and some fruit. I added steamed beet greens to the pasta as well. It was heavenly. The sage lost its tangy, sharp, fuzziness as it was transformed into something much softer around the edges. The gentle, flavorful crunch paired with the chewy, slippery pasta was unbelievably satisfying, and we ate nothing more that evening — no popcorn, no chocolate, no ice cream.

One-half pound of butter?! It sounds like a lot, though each serving ended up with significantly less, of course. A small portion is extraordinarily satisfying; a large portion is overdoing it. You need fat, and you’ll get it wherever you can if you don’t get it from nourishing sources. The “French paradox,” the observation that the French remain slender despite the quantity of butter and cream in their diet, is only a paradox if you believe that fat is the enemy. There is no paradox. Fat is nourishing. Good fats, that is.

Fat nourishes and satisfies. Fat is absorbed by a pathway that uses virtually no insulin. That’s why, one hundred years ago, before there were any medications for diabetes, the ONLY treatment for diabetes was a high-fat diet. Fat is dense with nutrients, vitamins and, most of all, flavor.

The low-fat, no-fat message is a major contributor to America’s diabetes and obesity problem.

You may already know about the variety of nourishing fats in olive oil, avocados, dark chocolate, nuts (and nut butters), seeds (like pumpkin or sunflower), and deep sea fatty fish. If not, I hope you’ll start to include a lot more of them in your diet.

The butterfat in dairy products is unique, in part because it contains an unusually diverse collection of fatty acids. These fatty acids serve as building blocks for the ceaseless repair and remodeling that goes on all our lives. Of course, they are especially important for all young mammals, who are busily building and growing their bodies in the months and years immediately after birth. 

Which fats aren’t food? The fats that were invented in the 20th century. Like soybean, corn, “vegetable,” cottonseed oil. When did cotton enter the food supply? I’m not sure about canola either, frankly. Canola stands for CANadian Oil Association. That’s not the name of a food.

Where do you find those fats? In synthetic fat products, such as margarine, Crisco, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, coffee whiteners, and refined, ultra processed oils. These products are not food. They are food-like, but they do not nourish you. You may put them into your mouth and swallow, but they do not sustain you. Let’s talk about margarine. Any way you slice it, margarine is not butter. Most margarines are made from hydrogenated soybean oil. Sometimes with a little bit of butter. But don’t be fooled.

The word margarine is related to margalit, the Hebrew word for pearl. Margarine exits the machine a pearly gray color. My mother, born in 1936, remembers when “oleo” was sold with a tiny bead of red food coloring. Kneading the red bead into the gray, waxy material, as she did with her thoroughly modern Aunt Helen, slowly turned the gray wax into a yellow-colored product that more closed resembled butter. In those days, the dairy lobby was more powerful than the soybean lobby. Now it’s the reverse.

One way to identify products that are not really foods is by their names. Instead of being called by names our great-ancestors would have recognized (like butter and yogurt), they have fanciful names with healthful, pseudo-scientific, old-fashioned, or playful connotations that are meant to evoke all kinds of warm, cozy feelings. 

Product categories like margarine, with its endlessly creative, industry-generated names, are not food. Think about Smart Balance (seesaw), Blue Bonnet (hi granny!), Promise (not really), Country Crock (old-fashioned, homemade), Benecol (bene means good, col evokes cholesterol), or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (why not—we just told you?). These are not foods, and your own granny would likely have told you the same.

One last point I’d like to make. When you choose animal-based fats, such as dairy from cows or eggs from poultry, do your best to choose products that come from the most well nourished animals to which you have access. I know these products cost more, but if that means you eat better quality animal-based food less often, and eat more vegetables and beans at other times, that’s a win. 

Remember that you are what you eat, and you are also what what-you-eat eats. Any time you eat anything that ate a substandard diet, you concentrate it up the food chain. Into you.   


Newsflash: The American Diet Causes Obesity

Have you ever heard anyone say that all you have to do to make your diet more nutritious is to stop eating white flour and sugar? Does that seem radical to you? What’s wrong with white flour and sugar? What would such a change accomplish? I’m not going to say you can never eat white flour and sugar. My motto is moderation. Most people can tolerate a treat now and then. But let’s look at what’s really happening. Why are two-thirds of Americans currently overweight or obese? Because the standard American diet is so nutrient-poor that most people are literally hungry all the time. So they eat. It’s not about willpower; it’s about nutrition. Continue reading


Sweet New Year Soup

Tonight, as the sun slips below the horizon, we will begin our celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Traditional Rosh Hashanah foods tend toward the sweet and the circular: sweet for a sweet new year, and circular to represent the seasons that run one into the next, year after year, around and around. Instead of the usual braid, we even twist our challah (egg bread) into a round this time of year.  Continue reading


Keepin’ It Movin’, All Year ‘Round

I think of wellness like a pyramid with three major pillars: eating patterns, activity pattern, rest & relaxation patterns. This week I’m talking about activity patterns. Your muscles are going to need a little warming up if you want them to help move you in the direction of good health. Cardio, balance, resistance, flexibility. It’s pretty easy to tell who’s been protecting their balance and flexibility for the past few years. It’s not just about marathons, or weight lifting. And you definitely don’t need to train for the Olympics. You just want to increase your opportunities to move. And for that, you could probably use a plan. Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Summer’s Caramelized Corn Salad

This beautiful and elegant recipe, with its mix of so many different colors and flavors, will certainly make your tastebuds sing! The sweetness from the pepper, sour from the lime, heat from the Sriracha, brightness from the parsley, all come together to form an absolute culinary orchestra. And sauteing the corn in olive oil? Well that’s what gives it that little bit of sweetly caramelized late summer magic. Enjoy! Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Golden Gazpacho Soup

You can think of gazpacho as soup and salad, both, at the same time. It will make a great first course at a nice dinner, but you can also take it to work for lunch (maybe with Mary’s Gone Crackers or a slice of toasted whole-grain bread). It would also make a scrumptiously satisfying mid-afternoon snack. Continue reading


When it’s Not Really Fruit or Vegetables

If I had just ten seconds to share nutrition advice, I know exactly what I would say: Eat more fruits and vegetables. And I don’t think that would surprise anyone. We all know that fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses, rich in not only fiber but also phytonutrients, and everyone knows it’s a good idea to eat more of them. Especially since most of us don’t eat enough produce to begin with.

Now, the brand managers in the food industry know that we know we should eat more fruits and vegetables. This is why there are so many processed food items containing fruit-related words, or some version of the actual word “fruit.” Vegetables, too, to a lesser extent. Like vegetable oil. And which “vegetable” would that be, please? Continue reading