Jeremy Leinen, CEC, Executive Chef of Dunwoody CC, believes health and wellness will be the next great frontier for club and resort chefs.
One of the trends in the industry these days that irks me to no end is the push for “healthier” options. As someone who is very health conscious, I’m glad to see some conversation around gearing food towards health and wellness. That said, much of what is marketed toward that crowd completely misses the boat on what healthy, nutritious food really is.
Every month there’s some new fad and rarely any credible data to support its viability. I choose to follow the titans of the evidence-based health and fitness community, being a monthly subscriber to Alan Aragon’s Research Review, having previously hired Menno Henselmans to be my personal coach and currently being a student of his comprehensive PT course, as well as following information put out from experts like Eric Helms and James Krieger. In a nutshell, I follow credible, vetted research analysis not “flavor of the week” marketing tactics. This is a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time, and hearing Chef Brad Barnes, CMC, speak about it during his keynote address at the 2018 Chef to Chef Conference in Seattle piqued my interest in applying this to my career as a chef.
What actually makes food healthy and where do these trends go wrong?
I think everybody is well aware that processed foods are a poor diet choice. To summarize, they’re generally lacking in nutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. On one hand I see people preaching the importance of whole foods with diets such as “Whole 30” but then simultaneously trying to tie in some of the silly trends that have competing principles.
Fruits and vegetables are some of the most nutritious things you can eat but with the trend of “carnivore keto” and the vilification of sugar, people have been duped into believing that they shouldn’t eat fruit and some are even shunning vegetables. It’s a constant trade of one silly fad for another, with the new one rarely making any more sense than the outgoing one did. Tried and true, research backed nutrition principles are being abandoned for what is largely a bunch of nonsense with no science to back it up.
This all begs the question of what does healthy, nutritious cooking actually look like? There’s basic criteria to meet:
- Lean Proteins: Fish is probably the most beneficial for overall health. Besides being a great source of omega 3 fatty acids, it’s also a good source of zinc and B vitamins. Lean beef is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available, having omega 3’s and other beneficial fatty acids (such as CLA) as well as being an excellent source of B vitamins, zinc and iron. Chicken and turkey are good sources of protein but lack in micronutrient content. Eggs, while often vilified, are highly nutritious and a good addition to one’s diet. As a general rule, fats from meats offer more nutritional benefit than those from added oils. Another benefit of meats is the vitamin A present in animal sources is the active form of it, rather than beta carotene in plants which must be converted by your body.
- Minimal added oil: Heat processed oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)—like vegetable and canola oils—are damaging to one’s health and have been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer. Besides the association with disease factors, PUFA offer little benefits to one’s health and should be minimized. Good alternatives include olive oil and avocado oil, both of which are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids which have cardiovascular benefits. Despite coconut oil being trendy, recent research is showing a correlation with elevated cholesterol, so pump the brakes on use of this supposed “superfood.” Despite everything we were told for years and years, butter and lard are far better alternatives to processed oils. Regardless of which oil you decide to cook with, use the minimum amount needed.
- Fibrous Carbohydrate Sources: Fibrous carbohydrate sources offer a lot of “bang for your buck” from a nutritional standpoint. Fiber has a positive effect on cholesterol and blood sugar levels as well as satiety. Additionally, fiber is extremely beneficial for gastrointestinal health. Despite what the keto zealots say, carbs are your body’s preferred source of energy. As a general rule processed carb sources generally don’t offer much fiber, so looking for fibrous carbs steers people away from processed foods.
- Variety of Fruits and Vegetables: Mom was right when she told us to eat our vegetables. (She might not have known why she was right, but she was.) Leafy greens, rich in vitamin K, is one thing your body probably can never have too much of. Ripe bell peppers are a better source of vitamin C than oranges. Pigmented vegetables like carrots are a good source of vitamin A. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are packed with nutrients, offering cancer fighting properties and plenty more. Fruits are rich in vitamins as well as fiber, and are often sweet and satisfying. There’s a variety of colors offered in the produce department and a healthy diet should reflect as many of them as possible. Variety is good!
- Reasonable Portion Sizes: This is a tricky one with age, size, activity level and individual variations in thyroid output all influencing one’s caloric needs. Considering the role obesity plays in all-cause mortality, caloric intake might be the single largest factor to consider in a healthy diet.
- Iodized Salt– Salt is probably the most misunderstood and unfairly vilified ingredient in cooking. The bottom line is that it is an essential nutrient and your body needs it to function properly. Despite the reasons chefs have for using kosher salt (mainly we find it easier to use because it’s a larger flake), iodine was added to salt for a reason (thyroid health) and nearly everyone’s diet is deficient in iodine due to worldwide soil depletion. Put simply, using iodized salt to season your food will benefit the function of your thyroid.
- Cooking methods: In an ideal “wellness kitchen,” there would be no deep fryer, grill/broiler or any smoked food. The deep fryer probably doesn’t surprise anyone, but the grill might. High heat, direct flame cooking has been linked to cancer and this popular cooking method might be the real reason beef in general has been given such a bad reputation. Smoked foods, just like the practice of smoking cigarettes, has also been linked to cancer. Just as a general note, for optimal health and wellness, these methods of preparation would be avoided.
Please note that this is a brief overview and does not intend to say or imply that dairy, grains, nuts, seeds etc. don’t play a role in a nutritious diet.
What relevance does any of this have to being a club chef? Good question. As a club chef, we typically cater to an older clientele and people often develop more health issues as they age. Admittedly, while this is all important to me in my own life and something I feel that is of value to a club membership, I have not yet formulated a plan to pilot a program for healthy eating. This is a subject that is always highly controversial. There’d be a process to go through and there’s enough issues to sort through in coming back from the pandemic right now. I’m not sure this is the time to take this on. Obviously, I won’t be pulling the deep fryer out of my kitchen because French fries and chicken wings aren’t going anywhere. The grill and broiler aren’t going anywhere either. Even as committed to health and wellness as I am, I haven’t eliminated grilled foods from my own diet, and I doubt there’s many members who are that committed (though I do have one member that follows this guideline).
Here are two recipes that follow many of these guidelines:
In the end, it could be tricky finding the watered down, middle of the road approach that would be workable within a club. That difficulty aside, I think many members would be receptive to the general idea. Despite some realistic expectations needing to be set and comprises to be made, there are many that want to eat healthier but they often don’t really know what they mean by that. The trends are confusing and the messaging is inconsistent. That leaves many discouraged. All that said, the obesity and health problem in this country really goes back to being a food issue. This was a key talking point from Chef Barnes.
I’m still figuring out how, but I see health and wellness as the next great frontier for me as I progress in my career.