April 2021 Health & Wellness

America the Healthy: Cooking the Food You Love for the Health You Deserve

By Linda D. Bradley, MD

Fondly referred to as a “foodie gynecologist” by her patients, Dr. Linda Bradley has spoken at over a dozen Symposia Medicus conferences since 2007. An expert in her field and in the kitchen, Dr. Bradley attributes her passion for cooking to her father: “Dad’s hard work provided the income to send me to college to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor, but it also serendipitously ignited my culinary palate.” Here, she shares her tips, tricks, and truths for eating happier and healthier.

America has found unity in diversity. In life, love, and eating, we’re enjoying our own and each other’s cultures as never before. Food is at the center of every culture, and America excels in bringing them all together. Our national table is set with a vibrant array of foods reflecting the tastes of people from many regions, many backgrounds, and foods from every possible spice and flavor niche. We enjoy our ethnic cooking straight up, or combined with other types of food in ways that are characteristic of our innovative spirit. Some food critics say that we are in an era of food fusion. We’ve proven over and over again that our national palate is flexible and adventurous. Now it’s time to leverage that appetite for change to make our country healthier and happier—to enjoy our favorite foods in a more nutritious form, and enjoy a more positive attitude toward life.

A manifesto for healthier living and smarter eating has been energized by the insights of top physicians, nutritionists, and chefs worldwide. Too often, chronic disease such as hypertension, depression, overweight/obesity, cardiac disease, and premature death of all causes often points to poor food choices and not eating well. Good health and good eating is attainable. Now more than ever, we realize that good nutrition and quality food is medicine. Can the “Farmacy” replace our reliance on the “Pharmacy?” We have begun to incorporate engaging psychology of eating through the mind-body connection and the positive joy of health coupled with increased movement. What feels better than optimal health?

To become America the Healthy in our changing twenty-first century requires strong guidance, vigilance, label reading, and a basic understanding of caloric intake and strategies that grocers, restaurants, and advertisers use to increase your consumption of junk food, sugary drinks, and overall nutritionally empty calories. Most importantly, I’d ask you to cook at home more often. Just reclaim your kitchen. Because for all its vibrancy and excitement, the American diet has deep downsides. The chief culprits are salt, fat, and sugar. We know how they get into our bodies: through prepared foods, snacks, fast foods, sweet supersized drinks, and even specialty coffees. More ominously, they come dressed as our most cherished ethnic foods—the touchstones of our identity and the dishes we enjoy when we come together as extended cultural families.

The truth is, some of the least healthy foods on the planet are some of the most beloved and most closely identified with particular nationalities and ethnic groups. These foods may be hallowed reminders of harder times, when some of us were oppressed, deprived, and restricted to scraps from the larger table. So we take pride in their sometimes rough idiosyncrasy and associate them with good times, togetherness, picnics, weddings, and laughter along with sad times such as hospitalizations, funerals, and grieving.

What can a program of change look like for you? The easiest way to leverage your current food preferences to achieve better health is by spending time at the kitchen in front of your stove, substituting ingredients, learning new kitchen techniques, and redirecting old habits. Every culture embraces certain cooking techniques and seasonings that could use an updated, upgraded, and reformulated method to improve health without sacrificing flavor in our favorite iconic cultural recipes.

Transforming our favorite foods is possible. Give your tongue and taste buds time to undergo transition. For many of us, our taste buds have been hijacked and up-regulated to crave more sugar, salt, and fat in our diet. I suggest a tapered approach to transform your family’s favorite recipes and rework recipes with healthier substitutions.

The Art of Substitution

Be surreptitious—don’t tell your family that it’s a “healthier version.” Sometimes when we say that a recipe is healthier, friends and family will automatically draw conclusions that it’s not tasty or authentic. When you creatively learn substitutions, they will ask you “what’s the recipe?” Here are some discreet examples of reformulating a recipe:

  • Decrease fat in recipes by choosing a dairy product with less or no fat and increase other ingredients to enhance the taste. For example, when a recipes calls for whole milk, substitute with a lower or no fat version—1%-2% or non-fat. Or, substitute a non-milk source, such as soy, almond, or rice milk, yogurt, apple sauce, or kuzu.
  • Shake the Salt Habit—SHAKE is an acronym based on key areas to decrease salt consumption
  • The bulk of dietary salt comes from processed food or foods eaten in restaurants
  • Salt your water when making pasta or rice and then don’t add any more during cooking
  • Be vigilant and opt for purchases of canned goods that have no salt added. Or, when using canned beans and vegetables, rinse the beans generously.
  • When fruits and vegetables are out of season, buy frozen vegetables and fruits. They are harvested at the peak of freshness. Make sure the label only lists the food within the bag—no added salt or sugar.
  • Keep the salt shaker off the dinner table—and instead make your own seasoning blend or purchase a no-salt-added herbal blend
  • Brighten and enliven food with the citrus zest of lemon, limes, oranges, and other dried or fresh herbs (or a blend). Add citrus just before serving to enhance flavors.
  • When possible, eat by the season. Fruits and vegetables that are picked seasonally, sold at farmer’s markets, or grown by your hands will taste the best—and not require additional salt or sugar because the food is exceptionally flavorful, nutritionally richer, and less expensive.
  • A tincture of time: give your taste buds a few weeks to acclimate to the less saltier version of your favorite foods

Making wiser lifestyle choices, improving your culinary and nutritional literacy, and understanding the cultural influences on lifestyle choices will increase your longevity and quality of life. I hope that I can inspire you at every level of commitment to health and good eating to change your life for the better—and recover the qualities of body and spirit that will bring our nation together again, for good health and better times.

Dr. Bradley is a Professor of Surgery at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine and Director of the Center for Menstrual Disorders, Fibroids, and Hysteroscopic Services at the Cleveland Clinic. She lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio.