I’ve just listened to an interesting interview with Dr. John LaPuma on culinary medicine, which he describes as blending the art of cooking with the science of medicine.
Note: I typically take the science of nutrition with more than a grain of salt (groan), but I like this. It’s probably because it offers affirmation for some of my deeply held prejudices about food—particularly when nutritional fads appear to contradict common sense about food.
You may have seen him on TV (I haven’t, but that’s not surprising since I don’t get much exposure to TV). His books are Cooking the RealAge Way, The RealAge Diet, and ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine.
He said, “I found that I didn’t know what to tell patients in the office about their own weight or their own health that had to do with lifestyle. . . . I went to cooking school to learn how to make a healthy diet taste good.”
He talked about bio-availability—the concept that our bodies’ absorption of nutrients depends on other what other nutrients are present.
Curcumin is thought to be responsible for much of the anti-inflammatory action of turmeric, which is a common ingredient in curries. But you only absorb the curcumin if black pepper is also present, because a component of black pepper is piperine, which increases the bioavailability of the curcumin. You don’t absorb much curcumin without piperine.
Or lycopene in tomatoes—you absorb four times the amount of lycopene if you cook the tomato than if you eat it raw. (Lycopene seems to be preventive for prostate cancer as well as heart disease.) And you increase that bioavailability even more by using a little olive oil—or any other healthy oil.
When you add avocado to a spinach salad, you absorb about seven times the lutein, which protects against acute macular degeneration and cataracts among other things. You don’t get that kind of absorption without fat in the salad, or if you use a low-fat or non-fat dressing.
Vitamins D, E, A and K are all fat-soluble. He recommends that people who take their vitamins at breakfast make sure they have a little bit of healthy fat at breakfast. (The fat in an egg yolk, for example, is enough.)
Probiotics help you better absorb all B vitamins except for folic acid, which is vitamin B9. So if you have kefir or yogurt with probiotics for breakfast, you absorb six or seven times more of your B vitamins than you do without them (except for folic acid).
He also talked about a pretty comprehensive sounding USDA study (50 years of data) that shows the average supermarket vegetable is anywhere between five and forty percent lower in magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc than those harvested fifty years ago, due to our focus on increasing yields.
He says, “In selecting for high yield, you basically select for higher carbohydrate content in vegetables with little assurance that any of the other nutrients – the thousands of phytochemicals that are part of a vegetable . . . all increase at the same time.”
He agreed with the interviewer that locally, sustainably, organically grown food is likely a healthier option, saying that the organic vegetables have more phytochemicals and antioxidants because they have to fight off disease more aggressively. But he also said “any vegetable is probably better than a Twinkie.”
In other words, the really important point is that anything we can do to get half our food in vegetables is good for us—whether that’s organic, fresh, frozen, or whatever.
He did however, have a list of foods he’d recommend buying organic over conventional:
• Conventional milk has antibiotic residues and high levels of progesterone and progesterone-related hormones
• Peanut butter because of the aflatoxin on conventionally-grown peanuts and the fungicides with which they are sprayed
• Ketchup because it has triple the lycopene in organic form than conventional
• Apples because they are commonly sprayed heavily even before harvest and then stored for three to six months (and we eat a lot of them)
• Potatoes because they have such thin skins; pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides go through thin skins much more easily than they do thick skins
He also had some suggestions for the meat-eaters among us:
If you simply dunk your meat—that is, fish, chicken, beef, or any other muscle meat—into a marinade, you cut the carcinogenic heterocyclic amines by seventy-seven percent. And adding higher oxidant herbs like rosemary increases HCA protection even more. For ground meat, he suggests marinating it or using a dry rub for the same benefit.
His other suggestion for people who typically eat meat every day is adopting some vegetarian days—finding delicious recipes using beans or a pasta recipe that is rich in other plant proteins.
But his main message is one I heartily agree with: it’s small, simple changes that make it easy for people to change the way they eat.
“Could you have guacamole instead of full-fat sour cream? Could you order fish instead of beef? Could you eat nuts – tree nuts – instead of chips? Could you try one new food? Could you change the size of your plate so that it’s six inches with a rim?”
Which brings me to another point he made about the dangers of paying too much attention to the latest diet advice: We are so carb-paranoid these days that many people won’t eat beans, and yet beans are both a good source of carbs and a good source of protein and many of the phytonutrients. And the darker the bean, the higher the antioxidant and flavonoid composition, so you get an extra anti-inflammatory and antioxidant boost that way.
And fat. Let’s face it: we are afraid to eat fat. That might be good in the case of processed foods, especially if you’re looking at tortilla chips or cookies. But it isn’t true for something like guacamole. It isn’t true for healthy fats like nuts that derive many of their calories from fat, but have important cardiac effects and important effects against the development of diabetes in particular.
Healthy fats in general are important in the treatment of diabetes, in lowering cholesterol levels, reducing risk of heart disease, and for metabolic syndrome. Typically we don’t get enough good fat for good health. We need Omega 3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats that are so prevalent in coldwater marine fish like sardines, herring, rainbow trout, and salmon.
There are other sources of Omega 3 fatty acids: krill, the organisms fish eat to get Omega 3s, and plant-based Omega 3s found in flax, walnuts, and purslane (my favorite weed).
These Omega 3 fatty acids have really important effects lowering triglyceride levels and preventing pancreatitis/attacks of pancreatitis, in preventing sudden death from heart disease, reducing pain in osteoarthritis and reducing certain forms of mood disorders, particularly mild anxiety.
It’s good to know that overcoming our fear of food has major health benefits, isn’t it?