I recently had the opportunity to interview Rebecca Katz, author of a trifecta of cookbooks about eating for health, including the popular Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, The Longevity Kitchen, and her latest The Healthy Mind Cookbook.
M: How did you get involved in this area? Are you a Cancer Survivor?
R: I’m not a cancer survivor. My father had cancer when I had just graduated from culinary school. I went home and cooked for him while he went through treatment. At the time, there were no resources I could find to guide me on what to make, no notion of eating for optimum health during radiation and chemotherapy, no mentions of transient taste changes. I had to figure it out. He survived the cancer. I went on to work with Commonweal, a program where I cooked for people with cancer. It was the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Here I was, a trained chef, but I did not have a toolkit for cooking for people with cancer – no one did. I couldn’t imagine what a caregiver or patient with no culinary training was going through. So I dedicated myself to really working very specifically in this area and as I developed a toolkit I wanted to share it with others. The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen was far from an overnight sensation, it was a new area – I went around to Cancer Centers to talk to people about it.
M: How have you seen things evolve since then?
R: What I find so amazingly exciting is that there has been such a paradigm shift. People see that diet plays a role, food plays a role, and diet has a place at the table (no pun intended). The interest in the food-health intersection is astounding. I feel very, very encouraged. Doctors too are looking at food now as a tool to help people – the patient has been driving the train, they have been aggressive at looking at food as part of the solution. I’m now working with doctors at Stanford and Johns Hopkins.
M: What makes a recipe Cancer-Fighting? And are there different recipes that fight Cancer (Book 1) promote Longevity (Book 2) or a Healthy Mind (Book 3)?
R: Whenever you are loading your plate with plants, you are eating for optimum health and well being – plants includes herbs and spices. This food is keeping your garden [aka your body and mind] thriving, creating a wonderful environment for keeping the “nasties” away, and, by the way, it creates the optimum “yum” in your food. We’re talking about the world of whole foods. We know that the plant kingdom is an all-star for addressing all kinds of things – cancer, longevity, brain health, gut health. Specifically we are looking for foods with a high concentration of phytochemicals, which can help regulate a protein complex called NF-kB and the inflammation that causes many diseases. Phytochemicals are really powerful at getting in and creating an unhealthy environment for cancer cells to live. So while the recipes are different in the books, you’ll see many crossover herbs and spices in all of my books. For example, take mint: an amazing food for all three – kingpin in terms of memory, amazing cancer fighting food, and for longevity there’s the connection between mint and memory – the smell of mint makes us sharper and more aware as we work.
M: Are your recipes all Gluten Free? Paleo? What are your thoughts on those huge trends?
R: I’ve never liked to tell someone what they can and cannot eat. No one likes that. Everyone is really different. There are points in peoples’ lives where gluten may not make sense. Vegan might make sense. More animal protein might makes sense. I think that when you get into a really polarized position about food it can become unhealthy. I fit more into the Mediterranean world, a little more of a relaxed approach. I think that’s a healthier place to be. Remember when we thought that fat was bad for you? We’re still fighting the myth that “healthy food tastes bad” because it was fat-free steamed vegetables and brown rice, nothing to even help you absorb the nutrients in those veggies let alone improve the taste.
I don’t say “this recipe is Gluten Free,” I take people through the back door – they make it, they think it’s delicious, it may be gluten free. And if you want to add a piece of crusty bread with your soup or want to add more protein, you can. I always feel like it’s harder to teach people how to deal with vegetables then it is to add more protein. I focus on maximizing nutrient density on the plate.
M: What is one of the “aha’s” that your students and readers find the most compelling?
R: People are the most fascinated with the concept of fat/acid/salty/sweet. I have a great infographic on that, it shows how you get to “yum.” It’s the alchemy of “yum,” how the addition of one ingredient – an added pinch of salt, a few drops of lemon juice, some olive oil – can change everything about the taste of a dish. You have the power to make a dish better.
M: What’s next?
R: I’m now the Director of Healing Kitchens Institute at Commonweal – dedicated to training doctors, community leaders, and wellness professionals how to incorporate cooking into the role of health & healing. We’re teaching oncologists what patients are going through with transient taste changes to increase understanding of and dialogue with their patients. Cancer is tough because it’s so many different diseases – the right foods for colon cancer might be different than breast cancer. I’m also working on a second edition of the Cancer Fighting Kitchen.