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Healing Yourself with Delicious Food: Q&A with Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.

Western medicine usually prescribes a pill or other laboratory made medication to help cure. Yet the idea that food and dietcan help the body heal itself is a concept thousands of years old.
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Whether a pounding headache, depression or cancer, western medicine usually prescribes a pill or other laboratory made medication to help cure. Yet the idea that food and diet (whether cooked, raw, vegan, etc.) can help the body heal itself is a concept thousands of years old. We've heard it from Hippocrates in one of his famous proverbs, "Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food". And from Leonardo Da Vinci: "Vitality and beauty are gifts of Nature for those who live according to its laws". Even Thomas Edison promoted the idea, "The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition".

Today, thought leaders such as Annemarie Colbin, Founder and CEO of the National Gourmet Institute (NGI) in New York City (along with others featured here in this forum) are adapting this philosophy for modern times to address the stresses associated with a Western diet and lifestyle. The connection between nutrition and cooking is needed now more than ever as cancer and other chronic diseases increasingly burden our society. Colbin, once considered a maverick in this field a few decades ago, founded the NGI in 1977. It is now one of the preeminent culinary schools linking health and cuisine in America. She is the author of several wonderful books on health, whole foods, and cooking; the most recent being "The Whole-Food Guide to Strong Bones" (New Harbinger Publications, 2009).

Below I want to share with you a recent Q&A with Dr. Colbin and myself. She touches on a variety of issues regarding health-supportive cooking, our battle with overfishing, obesity and genetically modified food, as well as quick tips on how to make easy changes to maintain balance and vitality in our daily lives. I had a great time learning from her. I hope you find the following both fascinating and informative!


Pooja Mottl: In 1977, you founded The Natural Gourmet based on a mission to teach healthy cooking and how to use food to heal. Today, we are seeing a variety of thought leaders in health and wellness (many here in this forum) echoing similar themes. How has the landscape for health-supportive cooking and food in America changed since you began?

Annemarie Colbin: As you point out, the idea that food can profoundly affect our health has now taken root in the mainstream. It was considered an odd idea forty years ago. What fascinates me is that many physicians, who traditionally do not study nutrition, have gone out on his or her own to study the subject and are now among the most popular teachers of healthy eating. One of the first to start this trend was Anthony Sattilaro, MD, who halted his cancer with diet in the 1980s. Next came Dean Ornish, MD (on the heels of Nathan Pritikin, who came up with the idea), who popularized the "low-fat diet", except he and Pritikin insisted on a low-fat, low-salt, high vegetable, low protein diet PLUS exercise.

PM: Much is being said about cooking becoming a "lost skill" and British chef Jamie Oliver is petitioning to have it compulsory in childhood education. What are some ways to get the next generation better adapted to this important life skill?

AC: Michael Pollan also said that to insure you have good food, cook it yourself. I strongly agree with him. While it is nice for children to learn it in school, good cooking should take place in the home. Unfortunately, with all the packaged foods and snacks, what kids learn at home is popcorn, pizza pockets, and canned spaghetti and meatballs, all heated in the microwave. That is NOT cooking. Another facet that has been lost is the custom of a family eating together. Often, each family member grabs some processed food and feeds him/herself in isolation. Basically, you need someone in the home who anchors the eating habits of the family, who cooks at least twice a week from scratch, who encourages everyone to join and eat together. These are skills we learn by example. It's hard to learn them from TV.

PM: You have strong thoughts on the eating of Salmon. What do we need to keep in mind about this fish and others that are being heavily fished these days?

AC: I have not liked farmed salmon since I found out about it. Recently I learned that it is fed corn and soy -- not the usual foods for fish, and I assume both are genetically modified (GM). Curiously, chickens are sometimes fed fishmeal! These people should get together and swap feeds. Overfishing is a widespread problem. I always prefer wild ocean fish, and see no need to eat the big ones (tuna, salmon), because the little ones (like herring and sardines) are just fine. I trust the Blue Ocean Institute ( to maintain a list of fish that are both safe and ecologically appropriate to eat.

PM: In your teachings with students and others involved in the sustainable foods movement, you give particular emphasis to voicing concern over genetically modified foods and seeds. Today (according to the USDA), about 90 percent of soy and about 85 percent of corn is GM. What should be our main concerns here?

AC: Besides the fact that there is little good research about the effects of these foods on people who consume them, my main concern is that with Genetic Modification, foods are treated like software; they are patented, and to plant them you need a license and a payment to the owner of the patent. You are not allowed to keep the seeds and replant them next year, which is how human beings have kept the food supply going since the beginning of time. I also find it beyond outrageous that if you have an organic garden, and your neighbor plants a GM crop, and the pollen travels across your fences and gets into your organic food, it will turn your good organic produce into cross-pollinated GM plants; then, if your products are tested, even if you didn't touch a leaf from the neighbor, you can be hauled into court for unauthorized growing of GM foods, and the courts will side with THE NEIGHBOR. Check out Jeffrey Smith's work ( and weep.

PM: You have been defining "whole foods" in your writing and lectures in a unique way. Why is this an important concept to get across?

AC: The way I define them, whole foods are those that Nature provides, with all their edible parts -- whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and small animal foods like eggs, seafood, small fish, and some small-sized fowl. You eat all the edible parts here -- apples with skin (unless waxed - remember "edible"), grains with their bran and germ, chicken with the livers and giblets. So, no egg white omelets! The opposite of whole foods would be fragmented or refined foods, missing some or most of the nutrients: e.g., white flour, white rice, sugar, and even common substances like tofu, oil, or skim milk. My assumption is that as our bodies are designed by Nature to live on the foods that Nature provides, they will detect a difference if they are given only part of those foods and then go looking for what is missing. Thus, juices are missing the crunch, the fiber and the protein of the whole foods they're extracted from, as are supplements; the body will then crave the missing pieces, and want additional food minus the nutrients (i.e., junk food and chips). We're always trying to make balance, whether we know it or not. Therefore, watch out for foods calling themselves "whole foods", as this is now a marketing term, as in "whole food supplements", a total misnomer - i.e., if you can't cook it, it's not a whole food. I believe this is a very important concept to put across, as it forms the basis for helping us choose healthy foods -- looking at the whole thing -- rather than at the various nutrients in the food. Basically the idea is that if you eat 65-70 percent, by volume, of your meals as whole foods, then you have a little room for the flavor ingredients such as oil, salt, herbs and maple syrup.

PM: Although the Natural Gourmet values modern science in its curriculum, you maintain a strong emphasis on traditional cuisines and learning from what our ancestors ate and cooked. Why is this so important?

AC: Human beings seem to have been smart enough to devise traditional diets in all parts of the globe that have maintained the health of local inhabitants. Numerous explorers have found surprisingly healthy populations in every corner of the world. In our times, we are now consuming large quantities of foods that are newly invented, and many of them contain elements that are "new to Nature", as Jeffrey Bland calls them. We don't know if these newfangled foodstuffs are supportive of health, whereas traditional foods and diets that have been around for 500 years or more have been tested in the laboratory of life and shown to be effective. So it is kind of a no-brainer to consume such well-tested foods, and just as obvious to be careful with the newfangled stuff that clever corporations are trying to sell us today.

PM: Our Western diet is heavily acidic mainly due to processed carbs and sugary foods. What are 3 quick ways consumers can begin to rebalance without making drastic changes to their daily routine?

AC: A) Eat salad or other greens once or twice a day. B) Have brothy soups (no cream, no starch -- e.g. chicken, vegetable, or miso soups) in at least one meal per day. C) Eat fruit instead of flour-sugar desserts.

PM: You were a visionary, establishing the Natural Gourmet seemingly ahead of its time. What do you see for its future and the future of recent grads?

AC: The ideas I have been teaching all these years are becoming more and more mainstream. In 50-100 years, the NGI may be obsolete, because by then everybody will know this information and it will be part of the zeitgeist. For our grads, as less and less people cook for themselves, and more and more eating establishments offer plant-based and healthy cuisine, I believe they will all have lots of jobs for the next 100 years or so.

PM: You do a lot of outreach in the NYC community at places such as the Urban Zen Foundation, sharing the Natural Gourmet's principles. What are some organizations you would recommend for those that want to get involved?

AC: I am particularly fond of Health Corps, the organization founded by Mehmet Oz to bring information on health, nutrition exercise and such to high schools. I do a program on Train the Trainer for them. We also work with Project Aspire from Touro college, doing food demos in a school in Harlem. There are lots of others, as this field is becoming very popular.

PM: In your teachings on health-supportive cooking, you favor a fusion of Western and Eastern principles. Why use this approach?

AC: More food and interesting ingredients to choose from! If your kitchen has ingredients and seasonings from France, Spain, Italy, Japan, India, and China, you can make really fabulous and interesting meals. I did that with my book "The Natural Gourmet" (Ballantine Books) years ago; it is very gratifying and encourages creativity.

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