Common-Sense Healthy Eating

Margi Lenga Kahn

An obsession with diets—all types of diets—for nutrition but mostly for weight loss has been a hallmark of American culture for generations. And sadly, it’s been a zero-sum game for most.

Michael Pollan, acclaimed writer, professor of journalism and one of the most prolific writers in the area of eating patterns and global diets, is passionate about what he views as the current state of unhealthy eating habits and its detrimental impact on Americans.

As he writes, “The French paradox is that they have better heart health than we do despite being a cheese-eating, wine-swilling, fois-gras-gobbling people.  The American paradox is we are a people who worry unreasonably about dietary health yet have the worst diet in the world.”

This is hardly a new state of affairs. Indeed, clever entrepreneurs have for decades made millions of dollars off of our obsession. I recall friends of my mother struggling to lose weight on Weight Watchers, which assigns points to specific foods and suggests you stay within their daily recommended point total for successful weight loss. Not long after that came Nutrisystem, followed by Jenny Craig. These were diet programs that helped you monitor what you ate by—guess what?—requiring to eat the foods they manufactured. And then came Slim Fast with its diet program based on its branded foods available for sale in neighborhood grocery stores. 

That was then. Some of the newer entries into the diet industry include the Mayo Clinic Diet, which recommends a program of both healthy eating and exercise; the Keto, Paleo, Ornish and Atkins diets, each eliminating certain food groups from your diet, such as fats, carbohydrates, meats, legumes, dairy and grains; and Noom, a behavior-based weight-loss program — just to name a few. Let’s not forget those kooky fad diets, many of which gained popularity on college campuses in the 1970s, such as the cabbage soup diet, the grapefruit diet and the apple cider vinegar diet. Each promised to melt off the pounds just in time for that special weekend date.

And then there are diets based on changing one’s eating behavior, such as intermittent fasting, which endorses limiting food intake to a span of no more than eight hours per day, and mindful eating, which recommends taking time to enjoy meals without distraction and paying attention to our individual body’s cues of satiety so as not to overeat. In this same category, I would include what I like to call lifestyle diets, diets that may reflect a commitment to the environment and the ability to feed the growing population, along with a focus on maintaining good health. Examples include vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian “lifestyle” diets.

As if this vast array of diet plans and lifestyle options is not enough to cause consternation, we are also bombarded by the dietary and nutritional recommendations, some good and some not, from those supposedly in the know, including the United States Department of Agriculture. But just as the “in” diets change, so do the recommendations of USDA.  For example, over the past 20 years, we have been advised to replace butter with margarine; to avoid eating avocados, nuts, and coconut; to substitute artificial sweetener for sugar; and to reduce fat in our diets (think Snackwell cookies and crackers, a company that rose to short-lived success as a result of those recommendations). The USDA has now abandoned all of those recommendations.

And lest you think that the focus on diet is new, I’m here to tell you that there were generations of nutritionists, physicians and scientists espousing and publishing their nutrition and dieting recommendations. William Banting, a respected carpenter and funeral director in London in the 19th century, wrote “A Letter On Corpulence,”a dieting booklet published in 1853 that popularized what came to be known as the Banting Diet. 

Soon, a popular question in London was, “Do you Bant?” Banting, who had been bothered by his own obesity, wrote about his struggles to lose weight, and recommended a diet that involved four smaller meals a day that eliminated bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and starchy vegetables. Think of it as the great-grandfather of the Keto diet. 

Our Jewish ancestors were not immune to diet crazes. Take, for example, the medical journal, Folksgezunt (in German, translates to “health for the people”). Published between 1923 and 1940 by a group of Jewish doctors, itfocused on topics of nutrition and healthy eating. There were articles on the rise of obesity, on the dangers of dieting (particularly for women), on the negative effects of diets heavy on flour, potatoes, and other starches, and on the value of diets that included more fruits and vegetables.

In 1938, Fania Lewando published her cookbook, “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook,”a collection of more than 400 vegetarian recipes. Lewando, who cited the advice of medical authorities of that time, declared, “From the prophylactic point of view, one must certainly make an effort to avoid meat at least three days a week.” 

Prior to publishing the cookbook, Lewando was the proprietor of Dieto-Jarska Jadlodajnia, a highly respected vegetarian restaurant in Vilna owned by her husband. In addition to setting the menu and doing the cooking, Lewando conducted classes for Jewish women on the importance of good nutrition and diet. Her recipes are for unfussy, vegetarian dishes.

So what are we to do? What dietary guidance should we follow? As with any diet or change in eating habits, there are health issues to consider. What impact might the elimination of fats, carbohydrates, grains, dairy or meat have on our well-being? How might those changes influence our digestive systems, energy levels and emotional health? 

As a culinary educator for the past 25 years, I have spoken with hundreds of students seeking advice on dealing with food allergies to eggs, dairy, nuts, and gluten, just to mention a few. I have heard the frustration so many experience with dieting, and with the weight gain after the dieting. And though I do not have any formal training as a nutritionist, my early work as a therapist informs me that this current obsession with body image and what physician and neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt calls “the unintended consequences of our obsession with weight loss,” have created feelings of guilt and unhappiness among those seeking to change their eating habits as a way to get healthy and lose weight. 

In the May/June 2012 issue of Eating Well magazine, dietician Evelyn Tribole made the case for intuitive eating: listen to your body, eat when you feel hungry, and stop when you feel full. Intuitive eating takes away the guilt component that most diets create by forbidding certain foods. Just as other proponents of intuitive eating suggest, take time to enjoy a meal, focus on what you are eating and how it tastes, and simply slow down. 

Most of us have a good idea of the foods that comprise a healthy diet. That knowledge, along with moderation with all foods, is sure to have a profound impact on the health and weight concerns of the general American public. My advice to anyone wanting to try a diet is: seek guidance from a nutritionist. Just as no one size fits all, not everyone will find success with the same diet.  

Michael Pollan’s plan for a healthy diet does not include calorie counting or eliminating foods or food groups. He keeps it simple, breaking down his diet plan to a mere seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

I fully endorse that approach to food. And the easiest way to eat in moderation: take the time to enjoy what you eat, and enjoy it with others whenever possible.

For those of you craving a healthy salad that is packed with flavor, or that got-to-have-something sweet treat, see my recipes for Cabbage Salad with Dried Mango and Avocado and Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Almond Flour Cookies. 

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of seven. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]

 


Cabbage Salad with Dried Mango and Avocado

Note: Just about any raw vegetable can be mixed into this salad. Furthermore, you could turn this salad into a main course by serving it topped with a can of drained canned tuna fish.

Ingredients:

3 tbsp. fresh squeezed lime juice

2 tbsp. honey

1 tbsp. peeled and finely grated fresh ginger

1-2 tsp. hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Sriracha

2 tsp. soy sauce

2 tsp. Asian fish sauce (can be found at most    supermarkets) 

1 tsp. white wine vinegar

1 tsp. ground cumin

Pinch of ground nutmeg

½ c. dried mango, chopped (dried mango is    available at Trader Joe’s)

¼ tsp. coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

½ lb. each green and red cabbage, cored and    finely sliced or shredded

6 scallions, light green and white parts only,    thinly sliced

12 sugar snap peas or snow peas, cut into    strips 

½ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, finely    chopped

¼ cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

2 medium Hass avocados—peeled, pitted and diced, plus avocado slices for garnish

1 cup roasted salted cashews, chopped, plus    more for garnish

1 fresh lime, cut into thin wedges, for garnish

 

Directions

Whisk together lime juice, honey, ginger, hot pepper sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, 1 tbsp. of the chopped dried mango, cumin, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a small bowl; set aside while preparing salad. 

Combine shredded cabbage, scallions, sugar snap peas, cilantro, mint, diced avocados, remaining chopped dried mango and 1 c. chopped cashews; toss to combine. 

Pour half of the dressing over the slaw; toss to evenly distribute. Add remaining dressing over slaw and toss again. Taste, adding more salt and pepper, as needed.

Garnish slaw with avocado slices, additional chopped cashews, and lime wedges; serve.

Makes about 8 side dish servings.

 


Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Almond Flour Cookies

Ingredients:

2 tbsp. unsalted butter or    coconut butter, at room    temperature

½ cup coconut or light brown    sugar 

¼ cup almond butter

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups almond flour, whisked to    remove lumps 

½ cup regular or mini dark     chocolate chips 

Flaky sea salt, such as    Maldon, for sprinkling    (optional)

 

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, sugar, almond butter, egg, and vanilla extract on medium-high speed, until smooth. (Or mix with a sturdy wooden spoon in mixing bowl.)

Sprinkle baking soda and salt evenly over the top, then sprinkle in the almond flour. With the mixer on low speed, beat until the mixture is thoroughly combined. (Or incorporate dry ingredients with a wooden spoon.) Remove bowl from mixer stand; fold in chocolate chips with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed.

Scoop out 2 tbsp. of dough and roll each scoop into a ball; arrange balls on prepared baking sheet 2-in. apart. 

Lightly flatten the tops of the cookies with the palm of your hand. Sprinkle with salt, if desired, and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until edges begin browning. 

Transfer pan to a cooling rack for 5 minutes, and then carefully transfer cookies from pan directly onto cooling rack to completely cool.

Makes 12-14 cookies.