“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
We are bombarded in our daily lives with the idea to eat healthy foods and live a healthier lifestyle. While most of us generally agree with this idea, it is hard to decide what exactly that means. Are eggs heathy or not? Is farmed salmon really bad for you? What about pork? Red wine? Is chocolate going to make me live longer? Media, books, friends and relatives all tell us about healthy foods, but they are often contradictory, hard to follow, and difficult to stick with. As a Senior Living Chef, I hear often that people are looking for "healthier" alternatives. Very early on I learned some important facts; the first is that people don't want to be told what to do. As noble as your intentions might be, people want to make their own choices about food and deeply resent chiding or restrictions. The second is that people want to be happy. Food is a very personal choice, and as much as we want to live a healthy lifestyle, if we don't like tofu or lima beans (yuck), we aren't going to eat them no matter what our doctor, family or Chef says. My role here at Vi is to make people happy with the training and resources Vi gives me and ultimately that is what I will always fall back on with menu planning. Having said all that, I thought it would be timely to try to lay out some of the more popular Healthy Diets and explain them a bit and how you can apply them here at Vi. Obviously this subject can and does fill many books, but in simple layman's terms, here it is.
Low Carb Diets. These can also be known as Atkins Diets, South Beach or other popular names. The idea is that the standard American diet is far too high in simple carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy. Some, like whole grains are digested slowly and converted into energy, but most like sugar, flour, rice, and potatoes are digested very quickly and raise blood sugar levels quickly and dramatically, disrupting the natural production and absorption of insulin which regulates blood sugar. The body stores excess energy in the form of fat, and as we all know, Americans are getting fattier and unhealthier with every passing year. Lower-carb lifestyles severely limit the amount of carbohydrates, regulating blood sugar levels better and causing the body to burn more of the fat it has stored to supplement its energy. There are pros and cons of this lifestyle as with all dietary changes and while this has worked for many people, it is a difficult way to go. The simplest thing to know if you are trying to lower your simple carbohydrate intake here at Vi is that many things can be substituted on the menu. Vi Residents have a pretty wide range of choices and can make requests when needed. I would avoid soups altogether as they usually are high in carbohydrates. Salads are a great choice; I recommend oil and vinegar in lieu of salad dressing. Ask your server to omit beans, croutons and fruit where possible. For entrées, meats are your friend and lots of non-starchy vegetables. Ask to substitute potatoes or rice with another vegetable and be careful of sauces as many are thickened with flour or cornstarch. Sodas, juice, and alcohol are all bad choices on this path; stick to water, tea, maybe a sugar-free soda or coffee. For dessert, there aren't many good low carbohydrate choices, the low-sugar Jell-O is probably the best.
The Mediterranean Diet has been the talk of the last twenty years or so, but like most it is more of a lifestyle than a Diet. The idea is to stick with olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), moderate wine consumption and low consumption of non-fish meat products. This falls neatly in line with USDA dietary recommendations, and does not actually omit any food or count calories. Moreover, the Mediterranean diet encompasses more than just food; for this reason, it is often described as a way of life. Traditionally, people living in Mediterranean regions have emphasized physical activity, social gatherings and relaxation along with a moderate consumption of wine with meals. In the U.S., drinking alcohol in moderation is defined as limiting intake to two drinks or less per day for men—and one drink or less in a day for women. (I don't think you're supposed to save up your drinks and have fourteen in one night, I could be wrong.) The Vi Menu is easily applicable to this way of life, as residents not only have a lot of choices, but can ask for ingredients to be omitted in some dishes. As an example, on a recent menu there was a choice of Tomato Gazpacho or Cauliflower soup -either is good but the Gazpacho was the better Mediterranean-style choice. The Chopped Salad is probably a better choice than the Chili Queso with Flatbread (although it was delicious). The nightly special was a Sesame-Seared Tuna Steak with Tamarind Honey Glaze over coconut rice with green beans fitting in neatly to the Mediterranean lifestyle especially if requesting that the green beans are cooked in olive oil rather than butter and that the tuna should be rare (not part of the diet but tuna should always be rare). The dessert were Apple Pie or Cheesecake but a healthier choice would be a side of fruit (pineapple and blueberries). A gift from a resident The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health by Nancy Harmon Jenkins is one of my favorites, and is a great choice if you would like to read more.
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH diet is a healthy-eating plan designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure. The DASH diet includes foods that are rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium. These nutrients help control blood pressure. The diet limits foods that are high in sodium, saturated fat and added sugars. This falls neatly in line with US Dietary recommendations, but is a bit more restrictive in ingredients and cooking. The bulk of the diet is whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. Smaller amounts of lean proteins and dairy are allowed, and saturated fat and sweets are severely limited. This one is more difficult, but certainly doable at Vi with the current menu. Once again, the Salad menu is your friend, allowing for large amounts of vegetables, beans, and fruit. I would ask for cheese to be omitted or reduced, and I would avoid many dressings as they can contain unwanted sugars. At dinner, grilled fish such as salmon or tuna is a great choice, but ask that the kitchen not use salt or butter when preparing, and be very careful with sauces as they can contain high amounts of fat and or salt. A roasted chicken with the skin removed is relatively lean, and you can request that this be served over a salad or simply over steamed vegetables. A few servings a week of sugar are ok, just pick and choose what and when you will indulge. A half cup of sorbet is a good choice but not every night.
Vegetarian and Vegan lifestyles are great choices and Vi has made changes to menus in recent years to make this easier to apply to our menus. When people think about a vegetarian diet, they typically think about a diet that doesn't include meat, poultry or fish. But vegetarian diets vary in what foods they include and exclude: Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, are included. Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products but allow eggs. Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs. Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish. Vegan diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products — and foods that contain these products. Some people follow a semi vegetarian diet — also called a flexitarian diet — which is primarily a plant-based diet but includes meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion or in small quantities. Obviously there are a lot of variations here, being a strict Vegan can severely restrict what is available to you. Here at Vi we try to make sure that there is a vegetarian option on every menu. Many dishes can be made vegetarian by simply omitting or substituting the proteins. Some dishes cannot omit things, such as soups, stews, and braises. On a recent Menu, the Moroccan Chickpea and Eggplant stew is a great option, maybe accompanied by a summer salad. Ask your server what can be made vegetarian, or even better ask the chef at Culinary Corner on Mondays at 10 am. A great film on Netflix is called Forks over Knives, and it discusses the benefits of eliminating animal proteins from your diet. It is pretty persuasive.
The Blue Zones Lifestyle is one we have been hearing more of lately. The idea is that certain areas of the world (Okinawa, Ikeria, Nicoya, Loma Linda, Sardinia) where people regularly live much longer than other populations. Author Dan Buetnner has studied these populations and tried to determine what sets them apart, dubbing them the Blue Zones. The biggest thing to know about the Blue Zones is that it is not a diet but a lifestyle. Blue zones lifestyles can be simmered down to a few basic tenets. Probably the biggest one in my opinion is a sense of community and family. People in these areas live full lives often in multigenerational homes. Feeling needed, having a purpose, staying active, taking breaks from stress, getting enough sleep, these things all contribute to overall health which is of course the idea but for purposes of this blog we will discuss diet. A big part of the dietary aspect is called the 80% rule. The idea is to stop eating when you are 80% full. Often our brains don't get the message of satiety for a while after eating, which means if you eat until you are full you are probably overeating. Meals should be mostly plant based, if not vegetarian. People in the Blue Zones eat an impressive amount of vegetables, beans and grains. Meat is best avoided, but the diet is not necessarily vegetarian, just plant-centric. Those who do eat meat regularly choose fish in small amounts. The major source of protein is in beans, while eggs and dairy are severely lowered or reduced. Naturally occurring sugar is fine, such as that in fruits, but processed sugars (and processed foods in general) are avoided. People in the Blue Zones tend to eat whole foods, whole grains and nuts, avoiding preservatives and rely on fermentation such as in sourdough, tofu, and pickled vegetables to make them easier to digest. Interestingly alcohol is not avoided, one to three glasses a day is fine. On a recent menu, The Tomato Soup with Fresh Basil is an excellent Blue Zone-style choice. A Greek Salad is a fine addition, but ask the server to omit the feta cheese maybe and use olive oil and vinegar as your dressing. There is a Pan-Seared Trout with Baby Kale and Cannellini Beans on the menu, consider a half-portion or substituting the fish with some extra beans. Once again, fruit is a great dessert but keep in mind that all these high fiber dishes might take a few minutes to fully settle and you might be 80% full already. As with all dietary choices, the Blue Zone diet does not exist in a vacuum and I can't stress enough that it is a full mental, spiritual and lifestyle driven approach to health that can't be accomplished by simply skipping dessert once in a while. Dan Buettner has several books on this subject, and The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100 is a great one. Another is Living (and eating), Deliberately - Ikaria: Aegean Blue Zone: Food, family, philosophy, Ikarian style by Dianna Lefas is a really good one too that specifically talks about the Mediterranean island referenced in Buettner's books.
For those of us old enough to remember when margarine and saccharine were health foods, it is important to take a step back once in a while and decide what your lifestyle goals are and how you want to live your own life. While I know quite a bit about the pros and cons of my favorite foods, my own philosophy is that balance and perspective is key. I urge everyone to try to be as active as possible, not necessarily at the gym but every day in small ways. Enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, but know when to say when and don't feel obligated to order something just because it is available. Much as we all hate waste, if you are full--stop eating. Talk to your neighbors and get out as much as you are able, there are many wonderful people living here and I am sure they would like to get to know you. Talk to your server at dinner, some are shy I know, but the amount of life experience you have is staggering and they find you more interesting than you might think. Your choices at meal times are your own, and I hope that there is enough variety to choose from no matter what you like. If you find all of this confusing, don't worry, you are not alone. I am happy to answer any question I can and I am never too busy to find time to explain the menu if you want. As always, feel free to attend the Culinary Corner every Monday at 10 am in the Dad Clark Bar.