On this episode I interview one of my nutritional heroes, Rebecca Katz (@RebeccaKatzYum).
I grew up in a foodie family (I mean, I am Italian-American after all…) and I’ve been cooking and learning about food for as long as I can remember. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer (you can read all about it here), a dear friend (thank you, Joanie), sent me Rebecca’s book and I’ve been a superfan ever since. Here’s why:
* Her recipes are really. good. — I do not exaggerate when I say that every time I make one Jason raves. These days he’ll just say, “Is this a recipe from that Rebecca lady?”
* They’re easy to execute — I’m a home cook, not a trained chef.
* She explains the science behind healthy eating in a way that’s empowering and relatable.
And that’s why I wanted to do this episode. Weeding through information about food can be overwhelming and even disheartening. This episode distills Rebecca’s four-pillar approach to a cancer-fighting diet. And, if you take this approach, you have a shot at preventing other diseases, too (think diabetes and heart disease). On the episode we talk about:
* Rebecca’s background as a chef and nutritionist and how she came to write The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen
* Her new online course, which brings the book to life
* Anti-inflammatory foods, especially the ones we overlook like ghee! olive oil! ah-voh-cah-dohs!!
* Foods that regulate blood sugar and why they work the way they do
* Her recommended subs for refined sugar and why it’s important to have sweet treats sometimes
* Coffee. It ain’t so bad. (Yahoo!)
* How to reduce oxidative stress
* The little tiny foods we often overlook that can powerfully regulate NfKappaB
At the beginning of the interview, we talk about Rebecca’s background and what it took to create a book that references so many nutritional studies. If you want to jump right to the questions about the four-pillars, it starts at minute 15:30.
Did you know? There are more antioxidants in a 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon than there are in a 1/2 cup of blueberries.
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I was recently hanging out with some old friends and mentioned that I’m living a nearly refined-sugar free life. (I say nearly because I believe in balance and, on occasion, sharing a chocolate croissant with my family is worth it.) They gasped. While I’ve always attempted a clean diet, it was shocking for them to imagine their former fro-yo lovin’ friend off of sugar. I chalk it up to one of the things that a breast cancer diagnosis did for me – scared me straight off the sugar crack.
You may have heard somewhere that sugar “feeds” cancer cells. According to reputable cancer centers like MD Anderson, that doesn’t appear to be altogether true. But, there are other reasons to reassess your refined sugar intake. For starters, excess sugar increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Refined sugar is also nutritionally vapid – it’s a big zilcheroo. According to USDA, people who consume the most sugar have lowest intake of essential nutrients, like vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, calcium, and magnesium.
Beyond that, sugar affects your physiology and has an addictive quality to it. When you eat sugar, it quickly converts into glucose in your bloodstream, leading to a blood sugar spike. You feel a rush of energy – woohoo! But quickly thereafter, your energy crashes leaving you tired and unconsciously jonesing for another sugar high. There you are in your cubicle at 3pm and, man oh man, does just one more candy from the candy bowl sound tempting right now.
In yoga, we talk a lot about training the mind to observe and stay neutral so that we’re not pulled by the vicissitudes of our thoughts and emotions. From a neutral place, we can make better decisions, be more productive, and have better relationships. When I applied the things I’ve honed in yoga – like self-observation and open-minded curiosity—to my diet, I learned that I was being pulled this way and that, several times per day, by the vicissitudes of my blood sugar. As nice as it was to have an occasional treat, it’s much more satisfying to feel grounded and stable. That’s what I think about when I’m tempted by something these days – I think, “Is this going to be worth it?” Usually the answer is no.
Even if you don’t have the desire to cut out added sugar altogether, it’s worth staying within the American Heart Association’s recommended daily range: For women that’s 25 grams daily—about 6 teaspoons. For men it’s 37 grams daily—about 9 teaspoons.
If you want to start curbing your sugar habit, read on:
1. Basic Formula is TBD – Time. Balanced Meal. Dehydration.
According to Karyn Duggan, a nutritionist at One Medical Group in San Francisco, the acronym “TBD” can help you remember the three most essential ways to set yourself up for nutritional success. To break it down, you need to:
Time Your Meals — Eat at regular intervals. When you wait too long to eat, your blood sugar drops and you start to crave simple, sugar-loaded carbohydrates to give you an energy boost. As One Medical Group nutritionist Karyn Duggan says, “At that point, there’s no chance of making a healthy choice.” Duggan suggests eating within one hour of waking and not going longer than 4-5 hours between meals.
But, test it for yourself. When I first gave up sugar, I needed to eat small, protein-packed meals every 2-3 hours.
Balance — Eat balanced meals and snacks. A balanced meal, says Duggan, has a combination of protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates. This combo will keep your blood sugar steady, helping you to feel satiated. (To learn more about how to create this healthy balance, you can read my post, Best Tip for Healthy Snacking.)
Don’t Get Dehydrated — “People often confuse thirst with hunger,” says Duggan. Her recommended intake? About 1/2 ounce per pound of body weight. So, for a 150 person, that’s 75 ounces per day.
2. Taper Off Slowly
Once you’ve got your basic strategy in place, you can get tactical about your sugar intake. I’m of the belief that it’s better to wean yourself slowly. For example, you can cut down on one sugary habit per week, like putting sugar in your coffee or starting your day with a sugary yogurt. Like yoga, going slowly helps you get to know yourself better: You can really feel what a small change does to your energy and mood. You can start recognize your habits, your challenges, and from there you can keep strategizing.
3. Learn to Read Labels
When you pay attention to labels, you may be shocked by which foods have hidden sources of sugar – ketchup, breads, soups, tomato sauce, granola, and salad dressings are just a few offenders.
Any item that lists any form of sugar in the first few ingredients or has more than 4 grams of sugar is a no-go. (These are all ingredients to look for: high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, glucose, malt syrup, molasses, lactose, sucrose, dextrose.)
4. Eat Whole Foods
It’s easier to avoid added sugars if you stick with the basics: fruits, veggies, and complex carbs that are loaded with fiber and will keep you full; proteins that will help keep your blood sugar steady.
5. Trade Bitter for Sweet
Bitter foods have compounds in them that make them healthy (flavonoids, carotenoids, or polyphenols). Americans tends to be stuck on the salty to sweet pendulum. But bitter foods can expand your palate and help you appreciate different foods. Anytime I have a sugar craving I take heed: I have olives, some almond milk with turmeric and cinnamon, or I make a dinner with some delicious bitter greens. I try to keep my food interesting and adventurous.
6. Have Healthy “Treats” On Hand
The last thing you want is for food to be a bummer and to feel deprived. Having some healthy treats on hand can be helpful as you’re weaning or if you know you’re going party hopping and you want to avoid mindless sweets.
This past year I have become very creative in the kitchen with some major fails but successes, too. I’ve learned to make killer almond flour muffins, beet brownies, sugar cookies without sugar, and I’m working on a chai pound cake. I use grade B maple syrup in moderation in these instances because it’s rich in minerals. But there is some evidence that even sugar substitutes create more sugar cravings, so I try to be modest.
7. Don’t Try to Be Perfect. Find Your Perfect Balance.
Is pumpkin pie your favorite dessert that you look forward to all year long? Then have some pumpkin pie! Did your kid’s ice cream cone nearly fall to the ground and you just had to give it a few licks? Look, you were just doing your job. What I’m trying to say is that it’s important to maintain a sense of humor about all of this. Do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up over the small – or even the large — missteps. Food is fuel, but it’s also social. It’s a way for people to commune and share time together. If you want to indulge from time to time, my philosophy is that’s OK.
What’s important to me is that I make conscious choices about what I’m eating – that I’m not sucked into a daily abyss by my cravings. If you feel like you’ve gone over the edge for a day or a week, reel it back in and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” (Answer: To feel great!) “What do I have to do to find my perfect balance?” (Answer: Keep watching, keep breathing, keep tweaking along the way.)
8. Eat More Fat
I’m adding a tip that I’ve experimented with since I first published this post over on drishtiyoga.com. It’s simple: Make sure you’re getting adequate healthy fats in your diet. Healthy fats are satiating and they keep you full. I notice that I feel better physically and mentally when I have them — instead of feeling deprived from eating sugar, I feel like I get to indulge a bit in a way that’s healthy for me. To learn more about healthy fats, read the interview I did with nutritionist and chef Rebecca Katz, where we talked about “ancient oils,” feeding your brain, and why full-fat is better than low-fat milk.
My most memorable and doable resolution for 2016 has been to eat more fat. Yes, you read that right: Eat. More. Fat. Decades ago, fat became the villain of the America diet and carbs were king. Now the low-fat approach to eating is being blamed for the rise of processed carbohydrates and high-sugar foods — think sweetened low-fat yogurts and splenda-sweetened Starbucks bevvies.
For years I tried and consistently failed at a low-fat diet, unconsciously filling up my healthy-fats void with sugary frozen yogurt or microwave popcorn (which still sends shivers up my spine). These days I find that adding just a bit more fat to my diet is making me feel better all around.
But, as we start to embrace healthy fats, I’m also noticing the pendulum swinging the other way. Think bacon-laced muffins, cookies, scones or the Bulletproof Diet. I’ve even noticed myself getting a little bit too excited about the crème fraiche that’s now in my fridge!
The new 2016 dietary guidelines released by the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments reflect the confusion that still surrounds how much fat we need: Jane Brody reported in The New York Times that, for the first time, the guidelines do not suggest restricting total fat in order to maintain body weight. But they do suggest limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories – which means limiting most animal fats that you find in meat, cheese, yogurt, and eggs. However, doctors like Mark Hyman, the director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional medicine debate that saturated fat only poses a health risk when you’re eating a diet that is high in sugar and processed carbs.
Confused yet? Me too. That’s why I sat down with Rebecca Katz, chef, nutritionist and author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook to help me figure out a sane way to navigate healthy fats. Rebecca also calls herself the queen of “everything in moderation, including moderation,” which I love.
A Q&A with Rebecca Katz
Why is fat a vital part of our diet?
Fat plays a really important role in our ability to feel satiated. If you take fat out of your diet, you then have to increase something else, usually the sugar content. And when you increase the sugar content and you take out the fat, the brain gets the signal ‘I need more, I need more, I need more!’ because it’s not satisfied.
So, on a macro level – what is a healthy approach to fat?
When I talk about fat I really like to stick with what I call “ancient oils.” So, I include extra virgin olive oil, a little bit of grass-fed butter, avocado, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, and ghee, which, as you know, has been around since the beginning. The fats that I don’t particularly gravitate to are the fats found in processed foods.
Do you mean transfats? Why are transfats so bad for us?
Trans fats are created when you add hydrogen to liquid oil — like soy bean oil or corn oil — which turns the oil into a solid. Think of Crisco and Margarine. These are the fats found in many processed foods – anything that says “partially hydrogenated,” on the label is a dead give away. These fats are nasty since the increase the levels of LDL, or what I call lousy cholesterol, and inhibit HDL, the good cholesterol that slows the build up of dangerous plaques in our arteries.
When you say a little bit of grass-fed butter or coconut oil, what does that mean?
Like everything else you don’t want to overdo. When I say a little, I mean a small percentage of what you’re cooking, so a couple of tablespoons of olive oil with whatever dish you are cooking. In a day you could have a ¼ cup of walnuts, a half of an avocado, and some olive oil. We are not talking about old school French cooking, we are talking about a new way of looking at fat so that it’s complementary and it’s incorporated into the diet. I look at the Mediterranean diet because I think it makes the most sense. Fat is integrated without being extremist.
And why is grass-fed butter better than, say, regular organic butter?
Grass-fed butter is high in omega-3 fatty acids because the cows are grazing on grass. It’s also higher in Vitamin K2. If you can’t find grass-fed butter in your market, then go for organic so you can skip the added hormones and pesticides.
What are the benefits of including healthy fats in your diet?
Our brains are made of 60% fat. You need to feed your brain good, healthy fats if you want to have optimal brain function.
Fat also plays a really big important role in the way we absorb nutrients. So, remember in the 1980s, when we were eating what I like to call ‘hippie gruel’ and eating plain, steamed broccoli? Healthy foods were like a punishment. But, what science is telling us is that nature knows best. So, that plain steamed broccoli that we are eating – well, guess what? If we sautéed it in some olive oil and garlic, we would be able to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins of that broccoli. And not only that, it would’ve tasted great and we would’ve been satiated!
That’s the snapshot: If you want your food to taste good, if you want to feel satiated, if you want your joints to feel good, and you want your brain to function optimally, then adding good fats to your diet gives you that.
When my daughter was born and I was breastfeeding, I learned about how fat helps with brain development and it was liberating for me. And since I’ve started giving her grass-fed butter, she has become the best eater. She was born a very tough eater and wouldn’t gain weight. She eats a lot of butter now and it seems to be very helpful.
What’s really important about that story is that that kids can have sensitive taste buds. As we get older, our sense of taste numbs a bit. But kids taste things so profoundly. It’s why they tend to stray away from bitter, like spinach and broccoli. What good fats do is they calm down those taste buds, so your daughter feels like, “Oh! Somebody just wrapped a blankie around my tongue so now I can eat!”
My daughter would probably eat a half a stick of butter a day if I let her. How much should we follow our kids’ lead versus being aware of how much she is having?
I would look at how she is responding. If your child doesn’t have a sensitivity to dairy, then trust your instincts about how she is doing. It sounds like she’s eating better, she’s eating more, and her body is capable of absorbing it.
That’s what I’m feeling; just observe her and observed how she responds.
Absolutely. And one size does not fit all. If you have a kid who’s lactose intolerant, maybe grass-fed butter is not her thing, maybe it’s olive oil or coconut oil.
For those of us who tolerate dairy, do you recommend whole milk and yogurt or low-fat?
If you’re eating dairy, I recommend full-fat, organic dairy that has no added hormones. Low-fat dairy is a processed food. Whenever you take the fat out of the dairy product, the natural sugars go up, so now you’ve got something that is much higher in sugar.
Is that because the fiber is stripped out?
No, it’s because the fat helps slow down the absorption of sugars. The things that slow down our production of insulin are good healthy fats and fiber.
I understand that we want to get oils from fish because they provide us with omega-3 fatty acids, but I feel very concerned about toxins in our fish because our oceans are so polluted. I’ve been told to eat the smaller fish like anchovies, sardines but I don’t really like them.
I have two ways for you to do sardines in my cookbooks and I think you might like them. But here’s the deal if you don’t eat fish: There are a lot of the fish oils like the Nordic Naturals that are very safe. As we age, the omega-3s are really important to quell inflammation, help with brain health, heart health, mood. If fish is not a part of your world, then you really need to supplement with a good quality fish oil. If you’re vegan, there are really good oils made out of kelp.
And if you do eat fish, you want to choose wild fish because eating farmed fish doesn’t give you the same health benefits – is that correct?
Correct. With farmed fish, you’re not getting those omega-3s. They are higher with omega -6’s which is a little more pro-inflammatory. So you are looking for that omega-3 triad and that comes from a wild fish, scallops, mussels, crabs, shrimp, sardines, anchovies, those types of fish.
Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us! The takeaway for me is to stop being afraid of healthy fats and to be conscious about adding it for its health benefits and for how satisfied it makes me feel – without going too crazy.
As a kid, I remember the Ladies Who Lunch coming over to the house regularly to play canasta or mah-jongg. On these occasions, my mom showed me how you could use a fruit as a bowl for salad: she’d serve the pearled grand dames tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, and that was the inspiration for this dish. I’ve gone for a different mode of transport—an avocado boat—and jazzed up the salad as well. No mayo here, but lime juice, cumin, coriander, jalapeño (za-zing!), olive oil, and avocado provide the diving pond for the shrimp. I think the Ladies Who Lunch would’ve approved.
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
¼ cup coarsely chopped parsley
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 large ripe avocados
Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
1 pound cooked shrimp, cut into bite-size pieces
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into bite-size pieces
2 scallions, sliced
1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds, toasted (optional)
To make the dressing, combine the cilantro, parsley, olive oil, lime juice, cumin, coriander, jalapeño, garlic, and salt in a food processor and process until smooth.
Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Spritz the cut flesh with lemon or lime juice and sprinkle with salt. Make a well in the avocado halves by scooping out some, of the flesh, leaving a ½-inch border. Place the flesh in a bowl and mash it lightly with a fork. Add the shrimp, apple, and scallion and 4 tablespoons of the dressing; stir until evenly coated. (Reserve the rest of the dressing for another use; it will keep for 5 days in the fridge.)
Spoon the shrimp mixture into the well of the avocado halves, making a nice mounded scoop in each. Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds and serve immediately.
A note from Andrea: Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing this recipe with us! You can find more of Rebecca’s delicious recipes on her web site, in the recipe box. (To learn more about healthy fats, check out this interview I did with Rebecca.)