It’s confession time. Two years ago you would have found me jogging three and a half miles at least four days a week, swimming a few miles at Gurney’s twice a week, and attending frequent yoga classes. But working as a chef is tiring and I’m gettin’ old. I slacked off on the exercise and the pounds crept up on me. This is all it took to lead me to my current status as a person with hypertension: a 15-pound weight gain and sheer laziness.
My doctor recommended the DASH diet, “dietary approaches to stop hypertension,” along with moderate daily exercise. I mentioned this diet a few weeks ago in a column about the delicious, decadent food and adult beverages of New Orleans and how I tried to safely navigate this terrain while in that city for six days. I have learned a lot in the six weeks I have been on the DASH diet, have lost five pounds, and have successfully lowered my blood pressure.
Springtime is here, soon there will be plenty of fresh local fruits and vegetables, and perhaps you, too, would like to shed a few pounds and adopt a healthier lifestyle. The good news is how easy it is. The DASH diet is easy to follow, and because it is heavy on grains, fruits, and vegetables, you never feel hungry. More important, it is endorsed by the American Heart Association, the Mayo Clinic, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), and has been voted the number-one best and healthiest overall diet plan by U.S. News and World Report.
Based on your age, weight, sex, and level of activity, you can calculate what your daily diet should include. In my case, it is six servings of grains (this means wheat bread, cooked pastas, rice, and cereals), four each of fruits and vegetables, one and a half of meat, poultry, or fish, a quarter of nuts, two of low-fat dairy, one of fat, and half a serving of sweets. Obviously in the grains category they mean brown rice not white, and oatmeal, not Cap’n Crunch.
I have embraced the challenge of coming up with tasty meals and knocking off as many of my required items at a single sitting. Some have been tremendously successful and delicious, others went straight into the garbage, with me cursing the waste of time and money spent. Here is what I love: brown rice and oatmeal. Here is what I hate: turkey bacon, whole-wheat pasta, and non-fat sour cream.
One day I found poblano peppers at the market. As I love chiles rellenos, I attempted to come up with a healthy alternative. After roasting and peeling the peppers I stuffed them with a mixture of quinoa, corn, cumin, and a tiny bit of grated cheese. Topped with some homemade pico de gallo they were delicious. Another time I tried a recipe from Food and Wine’s “healthiest new ingredients” issue. It was so time-consuming, expensive, and ghastly I tried to find a Food and Wine Web site so I could complain about it. There’s no way they tested that recipe. It was punishment.
Working in a restaurant and writing restaurant reviews present more challenges. At work, I have access to all kinds of healthy and delicious things — every kind of fruit, salad ingredient, kale, squash, cabbage, you name it. But I am also confronted on a daily basis with the home fries sizzling in butter with bits of caramelized onion, mashed potatoes, bagels, and gravlax, not to mention the desserts and ice creams I crank out for the restaurant. Family meal, or staff meal, is frequently loaded with pasta, creamy sauces, cheese, and all manner of pork products. When dining in restaurants I simply remind myself, “You don’t have to eat it, you just have to taste it.” As I abhor waste, I do ask for doggy bags and give them to my dining companions.
The DASH folks offer diet tips: Take advantage of deli and supermarket salad bars, double up on vegetables (one cup is two servings), put berries on your cereal, nuts are okay! Some convenience foods make DASH easier, bagged ready-to-eat baby carrots, broccoli, and cabbage slaw. Make your plate colorful. You want to see greens and oranges and reds, not just the browns and whites of meat and starch.
My refrigerator has changed; my pantry has changed. They’re actually quite picturesque! Look, there’s a lovely bowl of black grapes where the Epoisses cheese used to be. Falafel and sweet potato chips have replaced those awesomely delicious Cape Cod potato chips. I make fruit crisps with no sugar, topped with homemade granola, and served with vanilla frozen yogurt. Homemade hummus is a snap to make and has much less fat than commercial brands. I keep a toasted nut mixture of sunflower, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and dried cranberries on hand to toss on top of every salad or just to snack on. When I was too pooped to cook the other night, the lure of takeout Chinese food was too much. I succumbed, but only to the sautéed string beans and brown rice.
I am not hungry. I am probably eating more than I did before, but the food is better. I don’t really miss butter or the extra dash of salt I would always put on everything or cookies or steak. The DASH diet does not forbid any of these things, it simply recommends smaller amounts. You can try fad diets and you will lose weight. You can brag about rapidly losing 30 pounds on the high protein “A” diet, but I guarantee you will probably gain it back. I am not a doctor. I am not a nutritionist. I am just a person with common sense who is trying to improve her health. Diet bad. Moderation good. Lifestyle change best!