Prescriptions: Nutrition and the Importance of Knives

Illustration By Anna Tong

Illustration By Anna Tong

En Español

The Clinic, an ongoing series about health, is a joint project of Mission Loc@l, the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley and scientists with the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF. Prescriptions is a weekly column written by scientists.

Here, Naomi Stotland, M.D., of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences, reports on the Food For Health Forum organized and hosted recently by Kaiser Permanente and held at UCSF Mission Bay.

Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D., from UC Berkeley presented alarming findings from more than 10 years of research on farmworkers in Salinas. The bottom line? Children born to mothers who are exposed to organophospate pesticides (commonly used in U.S. agriculture) while they are pregnant are more likely to have their neurological development harmed.

In the farmworker community Eskenazi studied, the schoolyards are often immediately bordering the farms, so pesticides get into the soil and ground where children learn and play. She also found that until at least age 7 or so, children are less able to clear the pesticides from their bodies than adults, so the same level of exposure is much worse for them. Eskenazi’s team has been able to reduce exposure in workers and their children through better hand-washing and protective gear, but these measures are not fully protective, and the risks associated with exposure to pesticides for pregnant farmworkers and their children persist.

Now that these and many other studies show a clear association between pesticides and harm to children’s health, do we really want this stuff on our food? Eskenazi’s talk was followed by a presentation by Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm. In addition to being organic, Full Belly grows a wide variety of crops so it can provide its workers with year-round work, instead of just seasonal. You can read more about Eskenazi’s research here.

Author Michael Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, spoke about how the U.S. government’s efforts to promote a low-fat diet, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, may be largely to blame for the dramatic rise in obesity here. Companies added sugar to make up for the lost flavor from the fat, and the result was low-fat flavored yogurt that actually has more calories than the same brand of yogurt of the full-fat variety. In at least one case, the yogurt had more sugar per ounce than regular Coke.

Pollan’s message is that we need to eat more like our ancestors did before processed foods even existed. He said that one thing is very clear from the science: A “western” diet, consisting of highly processed carbohydrates, lots of animal fat and little fruits and vegetables, is to blame for much chronic disease, including most heart disease, most diabetes and a substantial fraction of cancers.

Around the world, these diseases are rare among people who eat traditional diets. Those diets vary tremendously around the world, so there may not be one perfect diet. But there is one that is worst, and that is the typical U.S. diet.

Pollan’s talk reminded me of a wonderful book I read a few years ago called “The Jungle Effect.” Written by San Francisco physician Daphne Miller, it describes indigenous diets around the world. Miller worked with her patients to develop diets for them based on their ancestry, and found that their health improved greatly.

Cookbook author Mollie Katzen gave a wonderful talk on bringing back the art of home cooking. She wondered aloud why so many of us these days seem to find plenty of time to indulge in social media and surfing the web, yet have “no time to cook.”

Her solution? Knives. Everyone should get a good chef’s knife and get it professionally sharpened a few times a year, she said, because having a dull kitchen knife is a big reason that people don’t like to cook at home.

Katzen described how difficult it is to shop for and cook fresh produce for a family of four — fresh vegetables take up a ton of space in the refrigerator and wilt and spoil quickly. She advised us to wash and blanch vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy and kale by boiling them in water for two to three minutes immediately upon arriving home with the groceries. They’ll take up less space (they shrink when you cook them) and will keep longer in the refrigerator than raw veggies.

When you are ready to use the blanched veggies, just chop them to the desired size and heat them in a pan with a little olive oil and garlic or use them in soup, etc.

Katzen also recommended keeping extra already-chopped white, yellow, red or green onions or fresh garlic in the freezer in a baggie. Then when you have a busy night, you can throw them right from the freezer bag into the pan to use in stir-fries, soup, stews and so on. A little advance preparation will make those weeknight dinners much easier, and you’ll be less likely to break down and order pizza.

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