The Edible Kitchen

One step in developing a healthy diet and lifestyle includes reviewing your kitchen tools, and asking yourself the important question: Would I eat this?

Of course, we don’t sit down to chew on pots and pans (though the sight of certain Le Creuset pots, or copper-bottomed pans, can make my wife and I drool), but there’s a very close connection between the health of your food and what you use to prepare it. Having cookware you like can influence how much you cook for yourself. It can also influence how your food tastes, and what kind of meals you choose to make. It can change how you enjoy your food overall. For most of college I carried around a large Chinese bowl that I could use to eat an entire meal (soup, rice and beans with broccoli, chicken, etc). I would think to myself that if this bowl ever broke I would be devastated. But why am I asking this silly question about eating your cookware? Well, that’s just what we do, in small amounts, anyway. If your food has ever tasted plastic-y following, say, microwaving it in a Tupperware container, you know what I mean. I find that one of the best ways to inspire people to eat better is to create an inspiring environment for making food, and that starts with a few simple tools that are sturdy and safe to cook with.

All cooking tools used to be made with naturally occurring materials, starting with clay, a substance that has been known to have healing properties when applied orally or on the skin. Being fireproof, earthenware could be used to boil water and cook food, though it is capable of cracking and doesn’t heat very evenly. Metal cookware, developed later, doesn’t have these flaws, though only metals that can be heated to normal cooking temperatures without undergoing a chemical reaction are suitable. Copper is unanimously the best cooking metal, due to its high conductivity, though it is usually layered with stainless steel to prevent reactions. These pots are very expensive. Cookware that is 100% stainless, while it does not react chemically, does not conduct heat quite as well. A better conductor that is less expensive than copper is Cast iron. Cast iron does not heat very quickly, but the heat spreads evenly and does not diffuse rapidly. With seasoning, it also gradually forms a nonstick coating. For this reason stainless is best for jobs like boiling water for pasta, while cast iron is better for sautéing or for bean soups such as chili.

The beautiful thing about stainless and cast iron (and copper too, if I could afford it) are that they will last forever, and become more valuable and effective with use. Ultimately your goal is a seamless blend of cookware and food. Sautéing with a cast iron pan will undoubtedly result in little flecks of iron – an essential mineral – in your food. The act of seasoning suggests that you could even list the cast iron pan with the ingredients in a recipe.

There are some other cooking tools out there which I wouldn’t recommend. Some cookware is made from aluminum, a metal which has undergone some notoriety because scientists have noticed a correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and significant aluminum levels in the brain. This is not proof that aluminum is responsible, but it’s worth mentioning that, unlike some metals, such as zinc, magnesium, iron, etc., aluminum is completely unnecessary for function of the human body. Nevertheless it’s found in everything, from pans to baking powder to deodorant to antacids to even water supplies. Since we know stainless steel and cast iron are harmless, I’d advise sticking with them.

Teflon, patented and manufactured by the company DuPont, has a couple of strikes against it. The Teflon-making process creates a significant amount of environmental waste, including a carcinogen byproduct known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. PFOA has been found in the drinking water of communities near DuPont’s Teflon manufacturing plants. For this reason alone I would suggest staying away from Teflon. I think that while we’re making choices towards improving our health, we should also be considering how those choices affect the health of others. However, there are two additional concerns related to cooking with Teflon. One is that pieces of Teflon can flake off the pan and end up in your food. The manufacturer claims that these particles will pass through your body unimpeded and not cause any health problems, but it’s not clear to me that ingesting pieces of a synthetic plastic will not impede your body’s function.

Teflon is also capable of releasing harmful toxins when heated. Since most cooking pans are meant to encounter heat at some point in fulfilling their function, this can represent a problem. There is some debate about at what temperature Teflon releases toxic fumes; the manufacturer claims that Teflon is stable up to 600 fahrenheit. However, the fumes from Teflon pans have been known to kill caged birds at temperatures of 350-400 fahrenheit, normal cooking temperatures. This is sort of a case of “canaries in the mineshaft”; while Teflon won’t kill us like it will kill a small bird, it will release fumes that can cause flu symptoms, headaches, and contribute to the number of toxins in our system. Compare this to heating cast iron or steel. What happens? They get hot, that’s it.

The “advantage” of Teflon is that it is non-stick. However, a cast iron pan closely approximates the non-stick qualities of Teflon without any of the chemicals or toxins. Directions for taking care of your cast-iron pan are in the recipe section. Some people like Teflon because it enables them to cook with less, or without, oil. But considering that oil and fat are now being found out to be much healthier for us than has been thought in the past, it seems worth sacrificing the fat-free diet so that you can go on the toxin-free one. Teflon is also not that cost-effective as the Teflon degrades and the pans will have to be replaced over time, creating more waste. If you’re going to eat and breathe your pans, choose cast iron and stainless. Wouldn’t it be nice at the age of 70 or 80, to still have the pan you made all your delicious meals in? Like you, it will only have gotten better with age.

Cooking with Stainless Steel:

Food can easily stick to stainless steel frying pans. To reduce food sticking in stove-top skillets, wait to add food until the cooking oil’s surface has a wave of movement to it but is not smoldering. Add food carefully to maintain an oil layer beneath it, and do not attempt to move food until it loosens (as it cooks) and can be easily flipped or moved. Also, use a metal spatula.

Cooking with Cast Iron:

A cast iron skillet should be seasoned both to prevent rust and to provide a non-stick coating. Seasoning consists in applying a layer of oil, such as sesame oil, coconut oil, olive oil, or organic animal fat (not fish oil) to the surface of the pan with a paper towel (not too much – just the lightest layer, or it will get sticky and gross). When washing the skillet, do not use soap or use it very lightly. Use instead just a scrubber or brush with hot water, quickly dry the pan (with a towel or on the stove), and reapply the layer of oil. It can take a few seasonings for the non-stick capabilities to take effect.

Weight Loss

Even though your diet can be a major factor in determining your energy level, susceptibility to disease, digestive health, mood, et cetera, most of the people who take into account the connection between food and health are those who want to lose weight. The vast majority of diet books out there are narrowly focused on a single goal: adjusting a person’s food intake to help them lose a few pounds. In addition to the diet books there are also the exercise regimens, and even the diet pills, and every once in a while a news segment on how overweight everyone is. In this realm of thinking food is treated as pure calories, and people who want to lose weight are supposed to eat low-calorie meals through exercising their willpower. Since the recommendations for losing weight are so uniformly dreary, dieters are often stuck in a constant struggle between actually enjoying themselves and suffering for the sake of either being “healthier” or of looking slimmer-the way we are all supposed to.

In my opinion the weight-loss industry fits the definition of a “racket”; their recommendations are just grueling or boring enough to keep many people from ever being able to fulfill them, while still extending the possibility of hope that keeps them in business. While I do agree that there are many people who’d be healthier if they lost weight, I think a different approach to the whole situation is necessary, starting with an attempt to understand how we got to this place.

First of all, the diet that most Americans eat, and the way that we eat it, does tend to create health problems, though not always weight gain. Some people do gain weight over time (in different places for different people), while others develop other “diseases of lifestyle”: heart attacks, digestive disorders, depression, diabetes, even cancer. Because of our different body types and metabolic rates, we have different reactions to the same foods. In the Indian medical system of Ayurveda, there are three different body types, the Vata, Pitta, and Kapha (or Winter, Summer, and Spring): the Vata is usually tall and skinny, the Pitta is short and sturdy, usually naturally muscular, and the Kapha is large and curvaceous, and difficult to move – someone with a lot of natural gravitas. The Kapha body type is better than the others at storing extra energy as fat. Thousands of years ago, when people were likely to go through periods of famine from time to time, the people who were genetically better at storing fat, like the Kapha type, were more likely to survive, because their bodies would break down the fat to be consumed as energy, thus fending off starvation.

What was once a natural advantage has become a liability in our calorie-rich, thin-focused society. Everyone suffers in their own way from eating a poor diet, as I said above. Some get chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, and IBD, or have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, migraines, or depression. But only for people who react to low-nutrient food by gaining weight is the connection obvious. While everyone else’s health concerns are on the inside, and their causes supposedly unknown, overweight people are seen as weak-willed, lazy, and having only themselves to blame. This is sad because in traditional Ayurvedic thinking, and Indian culture, the Kapha type is the best: typically the most beautiful, natural leaders, and most powerful. Everyone wants to be Kapha. But since our culture idolizes the impossibly thin person (on top of encouraging us all to eat junk food) even Kaphas who weigh what they are supposed to weigh feel like they are fat, because they are not straight as a stick (a characteristic of the Vata, or Winter type).

As you can probably guess from the above, my recommendations for weight loss are not about will power or setting up the individual to fail. It’s not easy to transition to a healthy diet; when we’re tempted with endless quantities of sugar and fat, it’s because our bodies are used to those substances being scarce, and therefore crave them. But the difference in how you feel from eating well is enough to make most of us never want to go back to our old diet and lifestyle.

Eight Recommendations for Losing Weight:

These are recommendations that I’ve given to my clients that have worked for them. They are founded on dietary theory, but I include them because they actually make a difference when followed, and are not that difficult to follow.

1. Chew your food. Of the many good things that happen when you do this, I’ll mention two: chewing your food breaks it down before it gets to the intestines, which makes it easier for the body to digest and pass on. Nothing helps weight loss like not having food stuck in your intestines! Also, because of that extra step of digestion, and the slower eating that is necessary, we are more satisfied with less food and more likely to notice when we’ve had enough.

2. Eat vegetables last. Vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains all have fiber, a substance that moves food through the digestive system. If you eat your salad first and meat or pasta last, the salad will pass through while the others just sit there. Eat vegetables last, and they will push through the food that came before them – cleaning out your system. Isn’t it funny how the American Dietetic Association recommends 25-30 grams of fiber per day but doesn’t tell you how to utilize it? I’ve never bothered to count my fiber grams, but I eat greens at the end of a meal. Problems with stomachaches and indigestion may also clear up for you.

3. Drink more water. Sometimes when we feel hungry we are in fact thirsty. If you’re hungry between meals, try drinking water and see if the hunger goes away.

4. Eat more healthy fats such as organic animal fat, olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, and fish oil. One of the worst things dieters have to put up with is the pendulum swing of weight-loss diet fads. People are still getting over the idea that fat is bad for you (hopefully, they’ll also eventually get past the concept that carbs are bad for you). There are certain forms of fat that are healthy and necessary for life. One good thing about fat is that it is filling. Replacing fat with something else just makes you want to eat more food in an attempt to feel satisfied. If you eat enough fat during breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you probably won’t want to eat until the next meal. So put butter on your oatmeal or brown rice, gravy on your turkey, olive oil on your greens, etc. You will end up eating fewer calories – and they’ll be healthier than the ones in the fat substitutes.

5. Do something you enjoy for exercise. There are many different kinds of activity for us to choose from – running, swimming, biking, weight lifting, yoga, gymnastics, martial arts, dancing, competitive sports, rowing, Frisbee, juggling, etc. – but if it doesn’t energize you, I wouldn’t recommend it. Interestingly, many people have lost most of their weight just by going for long walks, without any exercise equipment needed. I find that exercising purely for some intangible concept of health can feel like a chore. Once you do find an enjoyable mode of activity, though, it can become addictive.

6. Indulge during dinner. The foods most likely to be chemicalized, artificial junk foods are the ones we eat in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or in place of those meals, when you’re too tired to cook). If you try to starve yourself during mealtime, you’ll likely be hungry when it’s not mealtime and eat something unhealthy. So I recommend eating at very specific, consistent times every day, and making sure that you eat enough during one meal to last you to the next – despite any urge you may have to reduce your portions.

7. What else is nourishing besides food? Sometimes I eat as a way of reducing stress, because it makes me feel better. If I realize that I’m eating junk, I try to find some other way to reduce stress. Here are some sample ideas for a “nourishment list”: read a book; take a hot bath; get a back massage from your friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse; take a walk; watch a movie (especially a comedy); exercise; clean your house; meditate; paint; play an instrument; bake (homemade cookies are better); talk to your friends, take five deep breaths, play cards, get dressed up, dance, or just write down all the good things that have happened to you today.

8. Eat whole foods and natural sweeteners. A lot of weight gain comes from eating manufactured and processed food. A package of oreos has as many calories as a table piled high with grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and animal food. And even with all those calories, you’re still starved of vitamins and minerals. Thus we can be both overweight and malnourished at the same time. As I said before, it can be awkward to transition to whole foods, and not through any fault of our own. Junk and fast food is designed to be easy to eat and addictive. So the most important recommendation is really never to feel any guilt about the struggle, because those sorts of feelings can paralyze us into not even trying to be healthier and happier. Instead, think positively about yourself and your capabilities. This may be the hardest recommendation to follow, but with it all the others become much easier.

A Note on Christmas

Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is here, and that means lots of stress. Theoretically, the holidays are a time to connect with your spiritual side, take a break from work, see your family and friends, and give a few sincere gifts. But what happens is that the gift-giving part is pushed into prominence by retailers, and Christmas especially becomes all about shopping and spending. When all the focus is on the gifts, you get stuck with a lot of stuff you might not want, while frantically trying to find stuff others might like, which you probably can’t afford, and the obligation becomes more powerful than the sentiment of generosity. Then there’s the emphasis on display: you see Christmas wreaths and lights all over the place, which seem more bent on urging you to shop for your own than simply looking nice. Through a strange turn of events, it often seems like the real Scrooge is the one encouraging you to meet all these Christmas obligations. The stress can drive us to eat a ton of sugar and possibly come down with something called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some of my suggestions for taking a real holiday:

Celebrate some of the stress-free aspects of Christmas: sing traditional carols and play Christmas music, use your time off to go for walks in the snow or woods, and maybe build a fire in the fireplace.

Spend time with your friends and family. Don’t worry about the gifts part, your presence is much more valuable than anything you could buy for them. Do something fun together that you will remember for a long time.

I actually think that giving gifts is one of the best parts of Christmas. But I just don’t like crowding into the mall with everyone else. Try using your own personal talents, skills, and knowledge when giving a gift: everyone has something they are good at, whether it’s making something with your hands, cooking, writing, music, art, etc. If you’re more technical you could fix someone’s computer, make them a website, etc. You could also write a letter to someone telling them all the reasons why you like them! That’s probably a gift they wouldn’t forget. Sometimes we think we’re not good enough to give someone something personal. It’s embarrassing. But how much more would you appreciate a one-of-a-kind gift than one that you could have bought on your own? Even if your personal skill happens to be making lots of money, how about something such as a museum membership, Netflix subscription, or other gift that “keeps on giving” without requiring more manufacture and waste. (By the way, when I searched for some more ideas online, almost all I found were websites selling “alternative” Christmas gifts. No! I wanted something handmade! More websites selling “handmade” gifts. How about homemade? Plenty of ideas for homemade gifts, but all slanted towards kids. What, adults are too grown up to make something?)

Christmas is supposed to be a “holy day,” celebrated as the birth of Christ. The solstice is also the time of the ancient winter festivals of Yule. The spiritual, not the material, should be the primary focus during Christmas; as such, make sure you get some time to yourself to contemplate the meaning of this time of year.