Whether we eat at home, dine out or grab something on the run, consuming food is such a necessity that many of us have lost awareness of just what we are putting into our mouths.
But if it were pills or medicine, would we think about what we are chewing on a bit more carefully? What if food were medicine?
This kind of thinking is the basis of a movement that treats food as medicine. The movement is being championed by local wellness practitioners and is the focus of a medical culinary program at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Heather Ratliff, a registered nurse and wellness coach who owns The Wellness RN, for example, teaches clients that healthful cooking and food consumption is one of five cornerstones — along with adequate exercise, ample sleep, stress management and reduced toxin exposure — of optimal health.
KVCC, in partnership with Bronson Healthcare, has created an entire educational curriculum that teaches future chefs, medical professionals and the public about healthy cooking and eating.
“Food is a lot cheaper than pills,” says Vivien McCurdy, KVCC’s director of food safety and nutrition and head of the college’s medical culinary program. “If people eat healthier and improve their health, they can cut down on medical expenses.”
Education of eating
The KVCC program informs and educates institutional and restaurant chefs, medical professionals and the general public about how to foster awareness of healthier food intake through its series of one-night classes that focus on nutrition to improve physical and mental health. Each class addresses a particular food characteristic, such as carbohydrates, lipids or gluten.
Sessions for the public emphasize awareness of food ingredients, food origins, meal preparation and intake volume. Sessions for medical professionals also address how doctors, nurses and nutritionists can best communicate with their patients about food and how it relates to disease management.
“As doctors become more aware of food as medicine, both the program and the principles, the more they inspire their patients to eat better and to engage local produce in their everyday eating habits,” McCurdy says.
Doing so is especially important for patients who have undergone a major health crisis or diagnosis — such as a cardiac event or a diabetes diagnosis — after which the doctor or a dietician breaks the news that dietary changes are necessary.
“The medical professional,” McCurdy says, “might tell a patient, ‘You can no longer eat saturated fats’ or ‘You must stay on a 2,000-calorie per day diet.’ What does that mean? The patient probably isn’t in a state of mind to comprehend the details of a new way of eating. The patient wants a translation to understand how those instructions will impact his or her daily lifestyle.”
KVCC instructor and chef Cory Barrett adds, “Our classes for the medical professionals make food a topic of conversation between the doctor and the patient. They (medical professionals) are better able to convey that dietary changes are an idea worth trying instead of a rule that must be followed.”
Why all of this attention to eating, something we do automatically? Simply because many of us tend to automatically eat the same old, same old, which tastes great but can make us unhealthy.
Such unhealthy eating practices, Ratliff says, are among the root causes of diabetes, gastrointestinal and cardiac disorders, anxiety and depression, and a decline in mental acuity. She says that paying attention to what we eat helps us “figure out the underlying problem and understand that an unhealthy lifestyle is not sustainable.”
Ratliff, who is educated in biology, environmental science, public policy and nursing, says she likes to analyze community health situations from several perspectives to find the root causes of discomfort and disease.
Among the societal factors that have led many Americans to practice unhealthy dietary habits, she says, is a worsening economy, which often requires individuals to work more.
“Americans in their 30s to 50s are the first generation to grow up without someone in the household who exclusively manages the family diet and nutrition,” she says. “Feeding a family while also working a full-time job takes a lot of energy, and we don’t live in an environment that supports that.”
Ratliff also notes that today’s parents are the first generation to let their children make their own food choices. “Busy moms who don’t have time to cook a healthy meal give in to their kids and just serve macaroni and cheese,” she says. “It’s easy, convenient and delicious, but it’s also a nutrient-poor food.”
Ratliff’s assertions are supported by the article “How Marketers Target Kids,” published in the online magazine Media Smarts, which claims that children influence what a family eats for breakfast and lunch and where the family goes for casual dining more than 90 percent of the time.
Children get their food ideas from television advertising, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which notes that children and teenagers watch television more hours than they are in school. The impact of TV advertising “is greater than usual because there is an apparent lessening of influence by parents and others in the older generation,” the journal says.
McCurdy agrees that child-targeted advertising, along with the rise of convenience foods, is to blame for the fact that as much as 80 percent of today’s American population cooks very few meals a week. “After World War II, baby food came out on the market, and mothers stopped cooking for their kids,” she says. “How do we change a generation who lost their cooking skills and craves fast-food hamburgers?”
Functional medicine, mindful eating
To help counteract such trends, Ratliff educates her clients on the concept of functional medicine, which she defines as “the understanding that the symptoms we experience are merely our body’s responses to our environment.”
“Our goal then,” she says, “is to get to the underlying problem. Diabetes and failing organs are real, but would they be there in our body and our life without the precursors of the environment that the body finds itself in?”
When treating her patients, Ratliff says, she looks at “the whole picture, including food intake, rather than the separate issues or symptoms.”
Correspondingly, McCurdy orients culinary students and cooking-class participants to the notion of mindful eating.
“The whole idea is to think about what you are putting into your mouth,” she explains. ”If what you eat makes you feel good, then that’s good. But if you eat too much and make yourself unhealthy, then you’re not going to feel good.”
The same principle, she says, applies to dining out at restaurants, where the portions for one are often enough to serve three or four people. “Many people enjoy food in a restaurant because it’s presented well and it tastes really good,” she says. “But if, at the end of the meal, your pants are too tight and you groan, then the enjoyment is gone. So mindful eating is knowing when to stop so you enjoy what you enjoy.”
The ability to know when to stop eating to stay in the state of enjoyment relates to Ratliff’s promotion of being aware of our body’s internal environment. “If we continually eat foods that have an inflammatory effect on our body — like heavily processed foods, foods with a lot of chemical additives, high calorie foods and industrial seed oils like corn oil and conventionally grown meat — our body responds negatively. If we choose foods that support wellness, it’ll create an environment in our body that engenders health rather than an inflammation response.”
“If we can change the environment, we can change the symptoms,” she affirms.
Likewise, KVCC’s culinary courses educate future commercial chefs to use more nutritious ingredients — more herbs and less salt, sugar and fat — and more appropriate portions. “A commercial chef prepares a thousand meals a week, easily; he or she impacts a thousand people a week,” says McCurdy. “We teach our student chefs how to cook healthy meals so their customers remain healthy and, at the same time, maintain their skill to make food look pretty. This philosophy improves the health of the whole community.”
Future chefs, therefore, learn to use as much fresh, local, good-tasting produce as possible and to season meals with herbs and spices rather than salt, sugar and oils, Barrett says.
“Sugar, salt and fat do add flavor to foods, and we should not get rid of those, but there’s a lot more options available—spices, lemon, lime, crunches—to create interesting flavors and textural components,” he says.
McCurdy says the program’s emphasis on healthy cooking is critical, since some of the program’s graduates will be employed by health care institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “People there need to have food that’s healthy because their body systems are already compromised, but they want food that tastes good too,” she says.
Healthy cooking is actually fairly easy, Barrett says, noting that he favors recipes that he calls “one-pot wonders” — meals prepared with readily accessible ingredients in a single pot, leaving only a few dishes to clean. (See sidebar.)
Finding such recipes online is also easy, says Barrett. “Search for keywords ‘quick healthy meals,’” he says. “If you’re in a grocery store or farmers’ market and you see a new vegetable that intrigues you, pull out your smartphone and find recipes that feature that food item.”
Similarly, Ratliff advises her clients, “To alter your health, alter your diet.”
“After my initial input session with many clients,” Ratliff says, “I tell them, ‘Go home for a month and change your lifestyle. Change your diet. Get more sleep. Exercise more. Reduce stress. Rid your home of toxins. Then come back and see me.’ Invariably, I see amazing changes happen.”
“The result of a month of eating only clean foods (unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are as close to their natural form as possible) is fascinating. People experience a change in their whole body.”