Healing in the Kitchen, Culinary Medicine Topic of Talk at SUMIS

Expert on Plant-Based Wellness Breaks It Down, Unlocks Mysteries of Natural Happiness
Photo by: Monique M. Demopoulos

Stafford Township, NJ — “Culinary Medicine” was the topic of a talk given by Anthony Dissen, a plant-based dietitian, public nutritionist and integrative community health educator, at the Stockton University Manahawkin location on July 8. He teaches health sciences at Stockton University.

Dissen applies principles in plant-based nutrition and wellness to a gamut of conditions, including cardiovascular health, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease, weight management, arthritis and bone/joint health, digestive wellness and men’s health.

He immediately opened up the discussion to the audience, encouraging listeners to ask questions and influence the course of the talk.

Dissen defines culinary medicine as “the union between nutritional science, culinary arts and medical research.” This integrative fusion gives a comprehensive understanding of the nutritional aspects of food, how they aid in disease prevention and how to maximize these benefits through food preparation. Culinary medicine extends far beyond the narrow understanding of particular aspects of food, such as micro and macro nutrients, which Dissen claims nutritional science has often been guilty of teaching.

“Nobody eats nutrients; we eat food,” he said.

Traditional medicine, according to Dissen, “tends to be disempowering. It seems confusing; it seems expensive and complicated. It seems to take a feeling of control out of our hands. Medicine, unfortunately, is not built around people; it is built around disease-states, and so the human aspect of it tends to be lost. What I love about this particular area of nutrition, this culinary movement, is that it puts the power back into our hands quite firmly.”

Dissen believes culinary medicine should lead people “towards actionable things that any of us can do in our cooking and our food choices that are very simple, and that have a surprising number of health benefits,” he said.

Go Holistic:

Blue Zones

First, Dissen introduced principles of the Blue Zones Project, and how they can be implemented to provide overall holistic wellness. Founded by Dan Buettner, the Blue Zones Project began as a National Geographic project that researched the customs of isolated communities around the world whose members enjoy extraordinarily long and healthy lives.

Buettner’s team, according to Dissen, in an attempt to find the happiest people on Earth, “found that there were two important questions that dictated whether a person or community of people were happy. The first, ‘do you think life is long or short?’ and the second, ‘do you think life is easy or hard?’”

Their conclusion was that people who felt life is both long and easy were the happiest.

Dissen’s practice focuses on humanity, and how aspects of happiness influence habits of the body and mind that play a role in our ultimate health. He gave high praise to Buettner’s work, affirming that a sense of happiness is a critical aspect of health that is so often lost or overlooked in modern medicine.

“The reason I’m bringing this up now,” Dissen said, “is because it should seem easy and enjoyable, it should seem happy, it should seem fun to bring some of these techniques into our kitchens, because anything that initially seems very difficult and unsatisfying, we don’t need to worry about starting with that.” He reiterated that the health industry is unfortunately too focused on mindsets such as “no pain, no gain,” which he claims does not generally lead to happy, active people.

According to the Blue Zones Project website, the five original “blue zones” are the Italian island of Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula; and Ikaria, an isolated Greek island.

What these places all have in common is their residents live well into their 90s. They eat heavily plant-based food, harvested locally and in season. They prioritize rest, community and family. As such, they generally have a sense of faith, belonging and purpose, which has been shown to have a direct correlation to longevity. Being secluded, these places are not inundated by the fast-paced capitalist industry that drives so much of the world through media. While they work less and rest more, they also spend much of their time outdoors and, as such, are much more active than the average American.

The project has since evolved into a worldwide mission dedicated to transforming communities into blue zones, by working to influence positive changes in the environment and in healthcare, as well as promoting social connection and cultivating a healthy atmosphere in which denizens make healthy choices and naturally live more fulfilling lives.

Dissen promotes the Blue Zones idea that life satisfaction, sense of purpose and enjoyment of daily life are huge contributors to health, and emphasized how these can be implemented in our food rituals. The principles of the Blue Zones Project, as well as recipes, articles and other resources, can be found at bluezonesproject.org.

Before moving onto food science, Dissen also sprinkled in some sound advice: “This has nothing to do with culinary medicine, but if nothing else, we all need to sleep more!”

Food Prep
And Spices

Dissen talked about which foods contain the most valuable nutrients, and how those foods can be combined and prepared to best maximize nutrient absorption in the body. He said food preparation is “often the thing that is most lost in the discussion of health,” which he claims can significantly limit the healing benefits of food.

Dissen’s first piece of culinary advice is to consume foods rich in dietary nitrates, which he reassured the audience is much different than the nitrates found in processed meats. Nitrates aid in the production of nitric oxide, which promotes circulation, heart health and energy. Introducing two to three cups a day of arugula, beets and/or baby spinach would provide the equivalent of nitric oxide units for maximum blood flow and energy, he said. While he generally promotes fresh over processed, Dissen said in the case of these particular foods, the benefits are the same whether they are fresh, frozen, canned, cooked or raw.

When asked about taking supplements to provide the same benefit, Dissen explained the way the body activates this nitric oxide is via saliva. In other words, chewing is the optimal way to reap the cardiovascular benefits from these foods. Moreover, “supplemental sources are always less effective,” he said.

He suggested doing extensive research before taking any supplements. “Of course, there are companies that do make quality supplements, but you have to do a lot of research to make sure this company is making a supplement the correct way, in the amount they claim it contains, without any contaminants or other things they don’t list on the label,” he warned.

Secondly, Dissen gave plaudits to herbs and spices for their powerful healing benefits. He highlighted marjoram, oregano, mint, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon and allspice as especially potent herbs and spices.

“They all have very potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits,” he said. “The most antioxidant-rich food on the planet is cloves,” he further claimed. Conveniently, these herbs and spices can be found at any grocery store and are relatively inexpensive. Dissen even suggested using blends, such as “pumpkin pie blend” or “Italian blend,” rather than buying the spices individually. Many people already have these herbs in their kitchen, unaware of their healing qualities. Even better, spicing up food makes it more enjoyable to eat. And enjoyment, according to Dissen, is key.

Teas are also rich in these antioxidants that prevent cell damage, and Dissen listed green, white, rooibos, mint, lemon balm, hibiscus and chamomile. All of these teas, with the exception of white and green tea, are naturally caffeine-free. Dissen praised hibiscus tea for aiding even in blood pressure management.

He let the audience in on a secret regarding turmeric: “The popularity around turmeric is well deserved. There are quite a lot of benefits of this yellow spice. It can be great for diabetes, arthritis and inflammatory issues, but to have maximum effectiveness, it needs to always be cooked, and it needs to be cooked in the presence of brown-black pepper.” The heat helps to activate the healthy compounds, and pepper allows it to be absorbed by the body, according to Dissen.

As far as mineral absorption, he claimed a mineral deficiency does not necessarily mean the body is lacking these minerals, or that people are not eating enough of them. Rather, there is more often something blocking the ability of these minerals to be absorbed. While vitamin C is well known for immunity promotion, Dissen informed the audience that citrus also “helps to enhance the absorption of things like iron, zinc – things people are worried they aren’t getting enough of in their diet.” As an example, he suggested pairing oatmeal, which contains a lot of iron, with something like a fresh grapefruit or a glass of orange juice.

Dissen also advised onions and garlic help with the absorption of iron, calcium and zinc. “As little as a single clove of garlic a day can be enough to have benefit,” he said, “just enough as you would use in your soup or tomato sauce.” He recommended using fresh garlic, although the powder can still aid with cholesterol and have a blood thinning effect. Pasteurized garlic is not recommended because, he said, the heat involved in pasteurization can kill the nutrient. Another important preparation tip for garlic is to crush it and let it sit for 15 minutes before adding it to the pan; a significant amount of allicin, a powerful antioxidant, is produced when garlic is crushed, which takes time to culminate.

Dissen recommended about a cup of cruciferous vegetables per day, e.g. cabbage, kale, broccoli, wasabi, horseradish, etc. These vegetables have been researched, according to Dissen, for cancer prevention and disease fighting. He tipped listeners that, as with garlic, chopping these vegetables and letting them sit at room temperature prior to cooking will help to activate their beneficial enzymes.

Then he shared some breast cancer research findings.

“In one particular study, women who ate the equivalent of half a cap of a white button mushroom a day and drank the equivalent of half a bag’s worth of green tea a day had a 90 percent drop in their odds of developing breast cancer. So, for all of us, mushrooms eaten in the presence of green tea has some especially good immunity and cancer fighting benefits.” Cancer-fighting compounds found in mushrooms are activated by the presence of green tea, he elaborated.

To complete the talk with a final, important food group, Dissen suggested resistant starches. These are good for diabetes and blood sugar, as well as colon and digestive health, he said, because they are pre-biotic, meaning they feed healthful bacteria in the gut. Potatoes, whole grains, beans, peas and lentils all qualify, but Dissen said it is important to allow them to cool before eating.

“The starches crystalize after they’re cooked and cooled, and those starches then resist regular digestion, which is very good for blood sugar management.” The starches sit in the large intestine, where they feed the healthful bacteria that aid in blood sugar management and protect against cancers. During the current anti-carb craze, Dissen told the audience not to resist resistant starches. He also advised implementing the skin and pith of vegetables and fruit, which contain not only fiber, but also nutrients that are otherwise lost when peelings and piths are tossed.

An audience member asked Dissen if he suggested eliminating sugar. He instead recommended unprocessed whole foods and a practice of mindfulness. “If your goal is blood sugar management, the whole food is better – first, because there’s less sugar, but also because there is higher fiber content,” he said. As far as dessert goes, Dissen reintroduced the concept of happiness that he opened with.

“One of the many benefits of our food choices is the happiness we get. If I eat dessert, and I feel guilty about it, that will have a greater impact on my health than if I eat dessert and it is satisfying and enjoyable.” Dissen suggested allowing any activity to be satisfying will produce more dopamine in the brain, which is a happiness-causing chemical.

By contrast, if he were to engage in exercise with a negative mindset, he would not reap the benefits of endorphins because he is not enjoying what he is doing. “Whatever it is, if I really mindfully eat it and enjoy it, I will actually eat less of it over time because I got that satisfaction. If I feel guilty and I don’t get that satisfaction, I’m going to keep seeking it until I do.” This is what Dissen believes leads to compulsive eating habits. He concluded by referring the audience to the principles of the Blue Zones Project, to learn ways to promote a healthful, happy lifestyle.

To attend a future talk, or to learn more from Dissen, visit anthonydissen.com.

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