We’ve all heard the adage, “You are what you eat” but what, exactly, does it mean and how does it work?
Since 2015, The Happy Kitchen has hosted a series of Food as Medicine classes with integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Shelly Sethi, and local chef and blogger, Shefaly Ravula. Food as Medicine is the study and practice of seeing food as not just calories, but as powerful tools for health and healing. Classes include nutrition education, cooking instruction, and, of course, lots of delicious food!
We asked Shelly and Shefaly to share their thoughts about Food as Medicine, cooking at home and the challenges of making healthy choices every day.
Part Two, with Dr. Sethi, is below. Part One, with Shefaly, is here.
Could you explain Food as Medicine in beginner's terms?
Food as medicine is a really just a new way to approach the foods that we put in our body. It focuses on an understanding that what we eat affects our health. Foods can improve our health and we can eat in a way to specifically address our specific medical conditions. Foods can also be detrimental to our health and having knowledge of the nutrients in the foods we consume as well as the specific role they play in our bodies can help us make beneficial choices. To me, food as medicine also takes into context how mindfully we eat our food, how well are we digesting it and the environmental impact of the specific foods we choose. It is a more holistic, bigger picture of how we feed our bodies.
What got you interested in FAM?
As a family physician, I see first-hand how much of an impact food and nutrition has on our health. We have spent the last few decades vilifying certain foods, for example saturated fats. I love the Food as Medicine movement because it focuses on the beneficial and synergistic qualities of whole foods and brings us back to a balanced approach of inclusion of foods rather than exclusion. It's a complicated picture, and it's unjustified to focus on a few nutrients in isolation that affect our health. A much better approach is to think about adding to our diets the large variety of foods that play a significant role in our well-being. What to eat, and how to eat comes up a lot with my patients. So, I have taken an active role to help people answer these questions through cooking classes, and education.
How has FAM changed your approach to cooking and eating?
I think about foods now as a form of communication between my body and the earth. We have good science that shows how foods and even the bacteria in the soil on our foods turn on and off genes that significantly impact our health. I approach how I feed myself and my family from the perspective of including those foods that have a positive impact on our genes. I try to make sure we eat those foods multiple times a week. Examples of these are cruciferous vegetables, wild fatty fish, a diverse array of spices, seed, nuts and herbs, pre-biotic and probiotic foods.
Have you or your family members found it hard to adjust to any of the changes you’ve made, and are there any foods you really miss?
My family has not found it hard to adjust to these changes. I started exposing my kids from the first bite of food they took, so their taste buds have developed to a plant-based, nutrient dense diet. In full honesty, however, my 3 year does miss eating cheese every day! I used to eat a lot of pasta, and noodles are still my weak point. However, I recognize that I don't feel good after eating a large amount of these foods. We talk a lot about how foods make us feel, and all four of us, including my 3 year old son, agree that we feel better when we eat this way. There aren't many foods I say we can never eat. It's more about eating those foods occasionally like a condiment, as opposed to frequently. So, it has not been difficult for us.
Do you cook every meal from scratch?
No I do not. I certainly do not have time for that. I usually cook about 70% of my meals from scratch. I supplement with some healthy pre-pared meals from whole foods for example, and also will use some of the pre-seasoned or half-prepared foods like uncooked salmon burgers. I am very careful however about reading the labels so I am fully informed about the ingredients. I used to use a lot more pre-made dressings and sauces, but have gotten rid of most of those after learning about the artificial flavorings and high salt content. Now I just use fresh herbs and lots of spices.
How do you save time in the kitchen?
Most days, I just cook simple foods, like roasted cauliflower with herbs from my garden and baked fish lightly seasoned with spices. We eat a lot of salad in our house, so that saves us cooking time!
How can someone apply FAM principles when traveling or eating out, when the choices or quality of ingredients used may not be the best?
It is often difficult to find healthy foods while traveling! I always pack our own food for the airplane and bring nuts, nut bars, home-made veggie wraps, hummus and veggies etc. I think when you are stuck with not-great food choices in an airport or a particular city or town, make the healthiest choice you can, and try to grab snacks like fruit and nuts. Also, it's important to remember that you can try things like mindful eating, or doing a breathing exercise prior to eating, and drinking lots of water even if your food choices aren't the best. You can profoundly affect how your body handles what you eat by lowering your stress levels, getting good sleep and increasing your hydration while traveling. You may not be able to control the actual ingredients of the food, but you can change the impact it might have on your health.
What are your favorite foods and flavors (even if they are not perfectly FAM)?
My favorite food profile is definitely Asian food! I love Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian... really all of it. I also really love just a flavorful, bright, fresh vegetable or fruit. When I became vegetarian in 8th grade, I realized that my ability to appreciate the flavor of a fresh whole vegetable or fruit significantly improved. I think it had a lot to do with the natural reduction of salt and heavy flavorings that happens when you stop eating meat. I am no longer vegetarian, but eat more of a pescatarian, plant-forward diet and still whole-heartily enjoy the taste of really delicious broccoli or berries.
What are your go-to dishes for weeknight or in-a-hurry meals?
Roasted vegetables, and baked fish or stir-fry tofu.
Any future goals or plans you’d like to share?
I am really excited that Shefaly and I can offer our Food as Medicine classes at SFC. I love the mission of SFC and look forward to continuing to develop classes here. I would love to do a series of classes on foods and nutrition specific to certain medical conditions like diabetes or hyperlipidemia or cancer. There is so much misinformation out there, and people are told there are so many foods that they cannot eat. I would like to bring back the joy in eating and bring to light all the foods that they CAN eat and re-inforce that good food not only nourishes our body, but also our soul.