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It’s time to rethink how we diet, according to Chef Dr. Michael Fenster. He’s an expert in culinary medicine, and he spoke with Hanna and Cari about how our western diet is harming us. The processed foods we eat are not only harming our physical health, but our mental health. Our food in today’s America is also not beneficial to the environment, as it is shipped from overseas or nationwide. Chef Dr. Mike is not here to judge our habits or our tastes; he’s here to help us learn about our food and how it impacts our health.
Mike, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background?
In terms of cooking, I actually started as a dishwasher and then worked my way up to a line cook. I then became a sous chef and eventually executive chef as I was working my way through college. I went off to medical school and fulfilled all those rigors to become an interventional cardiologist. Eventually, I went back to culinary school and got a degree in gourmet and catering. Obviously you can see there’s sort of a yin and yang in my life between medicine and food, with a foot kind of on in each of these worlds, as it were. In retrospect, coming into culinary medicine and being a spokesperson for culinary medicine and these concepts, I think it was something that was meant to be. It brings to mind a quote by Mark Twain. He said that the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out what you were born to do. I really feel that culinary medicine is what I was born to do.
Can you tell us what is really going on with food in this country?
The short answer – it’s a disaster. One of the things we study and I teach in culinary medicine is we don’t just look at food and nutrition. A real fundamental part of our program is we look at why we choose the foods we choose. Culinary medicine is very multidisciplinary and evidence-based as well, and those disciplines include sociology, psychology, understanding the economics of agriculture (agribusiness), et cetera. We’re kind of a victim of our own success and what we are getting is what we asked for, in terms of our food.
If I could take us back on a journey to post-World war II in the 1950s, there was a big push to convey to people that life was about having your leisure time. This idea of a convenience culture was really pushed through the food industry – don’t spend time in the kitchen cooking, that’s drudgery, use our instant mix, buy our pre-made food, et cetera, et cetera. And we, as a culture, really bought into that. What they did was make it cheaper, and they made it easier by increasing delivery and pick up convenience. Their sales went through the roof. What we’re finding is that these additions to our food, and changes to our food pathways, have huge effects on things like our gut microbiome. That leads to a state of inflammation, which ultimately leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a whole host of other inflammatory conditions.
Why don’t you believe in setting boundaries when it comes to food and doesn’t that go against what most diets tell us to do?
If you look at it the way the ancient Greeks did, a diet is actually meant to be a way of life – a lifestyle – a way of approaching life to introduce harmony, which was the ultimate goal. When we talk about a culinary medicine approach to diet, that’s what we’re looking for. When we look across healthful diets that span the spectrum, throughout the globe and throughout time as well, and we use some of their data – what we call the blue zones. There are pockets in populations around the globe where people live to be over a hundred. They retain their cognitive function. They retain their physical health and they live these amazingly long healthful lives. So what’s the commonality in these groups? When it comes to diet the diet aspect of it, these people are eating real, very unadulterated, foods. They’re not subscribing to the modern Western diet. In these blue zone diets, what they’re cutting out is refined carbohydrates or preprocessed, pre-packaged, adulterated snack foods: things like breads that are industrially made, crackers, the pre done condiments. When we eliminate those types of foods, we find we have a world of flavors.
What exactly is culinary medicine?
We have a very stringent definition that we operate at the university which is: a multi-disciplinary evidence-based approach to the selection of ingredients and techniques used in the preparing of foodstuffs with a focus on developing health and wellness through an optimized food experience. It’s not nutrition science with healthy recipes. We’re pulling from the culinary arts the preventive medicine aspect of the medical sciences, psychology, economics, we’re understanding sociology and convenience, color, and psychology. We’re trying to understand the unconscious influences that we have on our microbiology.
We can measure statistically significant different levels of inflammation, blood pressure, heart rate, et cetera. One meal is healthier versus the other meal, strictly on our criteria of how, when, where, and why you ate that meal. Looking at all these things, which we call the food experience, is what we study and then seek to apply to individuals so that they can optimize their health and wellness so they can reset, re-engage, and discover their connection relationship with food. It’s very important not only to our health and wellness but to our happiness in life.
Can the food experience help reduce mental health issues?
What we’re finding is what we eat, to a large degree, can affect our gut microbiome. This gut microbiome is in constant communication with our central nervous system, and what we’re finding is that through the foods we eat and how we eat, we can alter our gut microbiome in a very positive way. To give you an idea of how pervasive it is – if I were to draw a blood sample from you and measured the communication molecules (we’ll call them the humors in your blood), we would find that about 40% of them are derived from the gut and gut bacteria. So 40% of the communication in your body at any given time actually comes from bacteria in your gut.
How can someone have an authentic food experience?
It starts with the quality of our foods. How can any relationship be real, authentic, and meaningful if the food is adulterated and plasticine? We’ve got to get back to consuming the foods our body was meant to consume. We talked briefly about the gut microbiome, and this group of bacteria has evolved with us over millions and millions of years to metabolize the foods we eat, and all of a sudden we’re feeding them things like additives, or leaving things out that they need in terms of the fibers and complex carbohydrates that they look for to be healthy. If they’re not healthy, we’re not healthy. A real authentic food experience starts by seeking out quality food and engaging and training your taste buds.
We know that inflammation is at the core of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and degenerative disease such as arthritis. That describes some of my personal journey into culinary medicine. I suffered at a young age from severe arthritis, mostly due to the fact that I thought I was a great athlete in high school. Really I was just breaking bones and tearing ligaments, which later on, associated with my very poor diet, resulted in accelerated osteoarthritis to the point where when I first showed up in the doctor’s office, they’re like, “You need a joint replacement yesterday.” I’m proud to say through my own journey in culinary medicine, by changing my diet and other things, I can hike the mountains of Montana for eight hours. I still got all my own original parts. I still don’t quite need that joint replacement even though I was told I need two joint replacements when I showed up at the doctor’s office 20 years ago. That’s my personal story, and part of the reason I got into culinary medicine.
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Listen to the audio for the full interview.