"Like many in my generation as well as my parents’, I grew up regarding fat as an enemy. As long as every dinner was home cooked and contained very little fat, then I was sure I was on the right track. I used to happily eat toast for breakfast – with no butter, of course, but lashings of honey or jam. Then I’d eat more carbs at lunch and a bowl of pasta for dinner with a tomato sauce or sautéed vegetables, again with no fat, which therefore implied it was healthy, right?
Following the standard advice at the time – which was to embrace a low-fat diet without really mentioning all those processed carbs – I thought I was doing great. But it’s clear looking back on it that it was skewed towards one main food group. I have always been against heavily processed foods, so although you could say the diet was weighted towards one food group, on the plus side at least I was cooking. But I thought nothing of sugar and how it cropped up in practically everything we eat.
But as I have learned more over the years, I realise this information is being turned on its head.
For example, our understanding of the role of fat is definitely changing. For years we were told fat was bad, or at best to be eaten only in moderation. But ‘good’ fats (no icky trans fats or hydrogenated fats, thank you) play a crucial role in keeping our bodies, digestion and brains supple and responsive. Some nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K, are fat soluble and therefore can be absorbed only if eaten with fat. Fats also do some seriously heavy lifting – in energy production, cell building, oxygen transport and blood clotting, for starters. No mean feat, I reckon. But it wasn’t always this way with fat. It used to be Public Enemy No. 1.
So although I was restrictive when it came to eating fat, I have always detested the processed spreads and low-fat convenience foods that are often touted as ‘healthy’. What nonsense some of those food companies peddle. To try to figure out what we should be doing, I listened to folks like Michael Pollan, whose sage advice includes snippets like ‘don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as real food’, then branched out into nutritional experts who have overturned the status quo, like Sally Fallon, who embraces fats with a vengeance and is vociferous about our use of seeded oils and our underuse of organ meats and fresh food.
My sister-in-law Doris Choi, a best-selling author and raw food chef from New York whom I met in 2008, really started to open my eyes about raw food, juicing and general well-being. Every summer we get to spend two weeks in the kitchen cooking for our husbands’ families (handy, huh? two of the brothers married chefs) and swapping tips and ideas.
Another important person also came into my life around this time: Susan Jane White, whose best-selling book, The Extra Virgin Kitchen, is all about wheat-free, dairy-free and sugar-free cooking. Over many dinners with Doris and Susan Jane, I began to learn about nutrients – which abound in natural foods – and also about the use of home remedies.
More and more, I started to see that diet was becoming increasingly confusing for those of us who are not in the business of full-time nutrition as more and more information became available. I liked parts of what everyone said, but found they couldn’t all agree on everything. But they did agree on lots of things, so it was really a question of trying to figure out what and how I could convert that into what I wanted to cook at home for my family for everyday nutrition and well-being.
So when my breast cancer diagnosis came, I knew what I wanted to do. For the most part, that meant lots of green juicing, reducing carbohydrates, avoiding sugar or anything processed plus drinking wheatgrass shots and using turmeric, garlic and ginger as much as possible. Bone broths and miso soup became staples. Fermented foods were introduced and I inadvertently ended up fasting a bit during chemo.
Don’t get me wrong: I do not eat a perfect diet and on occasion I take a more relaxed approach. Naturally, I would break out and celebrate if out with friends, but I tried to eat better 80–90% of the time.
The more I am learning, the more it seems so clear and obvious that although there are a few common mistakes with the dietary advice patients are being given, I think patients want to do more to help themselves and healthy people want to do as much as possible to prevent disease. Trying to stay fit and lean helps. Exercise is vital. And stress levels need to be kept in control – one of the trickiest things, I find.
It’s also about making some small changes, seeing how you get on and then if it feels good, following that path further.
Now, I do not claim to be a nutritionist, but I am a chef with a keen interest in nutrition. I do know a reasonably small amount, but in the last few years I have made it my business to learn more, not just about how to cook, but about how to cook in ways that maximise nutritional uptake so our bodies make the most of what we put into them – all those vitamins, minerals and suchlike.
It can take time to introduce new flavours and textures to your weekly menu, however. Training your palate is a process, especially if your diet has been high in processed foods full of sugar, unhealthy fats and salt for a long time, as few foods can match the brain’s appetite for these substances; they send our pleasure receptors haywire. Really, then, you’re retraining your brain as much as your taste buds.
Or at least that’s the gist of it. For example, many of my recipes in The Ketogenic Kitchen are more like guides, really. This is because many ingredients, such as herbs and spices, can be successfully swapped for something else if that’s what you like and it works for you. Don’t like kale? Use spinach instead. Don’t like goat’s cheese? Sure, feta will do, and if you want to ease up on cheese, mash an avocado and season it up and you’ll get the required creaminess we often crave. It’s all about figuring it out as you go along.
Gaining the confidence to cook in this way takes a bit of time, and if you’re a novice cook it can feel important to stick to recipes as it builds your confidence. But as your skills and confidence grow, well, in theory the world is your culinary oyster.
Hopefully these small steps will help you and your loved ones to feel brighter, healthier and stronger."
This is an edited version of a piece written for Chelsea Green Publishing, the US publisher of The Ketogenic Kitchen