- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Want to try heading off Alzheimer’s disease? Drink lots of water and green tea, avoid foods rich in copper such as calves’ liver and turnip greens, and follow a Mediterranean diet.

Meal plans and recipe books directed at people with specific health problems are a trend today, especially if they come with the backing of a doctor or chef — preferably both.

A small fork and stethoscope on the cover of “ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine” is a clue to Dr. John La Puma‘s credentials and his mission, which is, in his words, “to blend the art of cooking with the science of medicine to give you restaurant-quality food to help prevent disease.”

That is a big order by any standard, but in addition to his degree in internal medicine, the author has attended a cooking school, worked in restaurants, helped write two previous recipe books and taught cooking and nutrition in a medical school. He practices medicine in Santa Barbara, Calif., and appears in a segment on Lifetime television called “What’s Cookin’ With ChefMD?”

He talks about his approach as a “new art and science,” in part because the research done over 2 1/2 years involved examining about 2,000 clinical studies. “We chose the best ones we could find, with the best evidence [done] in people not just in a laboratory, and tried hard to be vigorous about the science and faithful to the flavor,” he says.

The motivation for his dual life as cook and doctor also was personal, he says. Fifteen years ago, he says, he was 35 pounds overweight and paunchy. He felt he was “aging” too fast. Today, at 50, he claims to feel 35, all because of understanding “food as your body sees it” (what he calls “bioavailability”), the need and means for avoiding hidden toxins, and how to feel satisfied after a meal without being overly, dangerously full.

These are his three so-called “keys” to a better diet, the pursuit of which, he maintains, goes a long way toward reducing disease processes.

“Seventy percent of heart disease is preventable and 80 percent of cancer,” he says in a telephone interview.

He peppers the book with useful reality checks, including important information about food-drug interactions and specifics about what food combinations are good for helping prevent what diseases. There are a great many surprises along the way, such as his recommendation to use full-fat salad dressings instead of a low-fat or no-fat dressing, to drink filtered coffee rather than espresso or a French press brew and to be sure to choose organic foods with thin skins as a way of avoiding artificial chemical pesticides.

Choosing a dressing with healthy fat, the kind found in avocados, walnuts, almonds and olives, enables a person to absorb seven times more lutein than would occur eating low- or no-fat dressing. Lutein, he notes, helps prevent macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness for people older than 65.

Banish any thought of coffee as necessarily harmful. He asserts that two daily cups of filtered coffee can reduce the risk of colon cancer and of acquiring three other conditions. A method like French press, however, can raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol because of exposure to cafestol, a chemical in coffee.

A vast majority of non-organic thin-skinned fruits — apples, pears, peaches, etc. — contain artificial chemical pesticides, he notes, in contrast to fruit with thicker skins, such as mangos and pineapples. People also are more likely to eat the skin on thin-skinned fruit.

He also explains the science behind why grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are valued — part of the oft-praised Mediterranean diet. Red meat helps provide iron, but older men and women usually don’t need additional iron, he warns.

To people who want to blame genetics for their weight gain, Dr. La Puma offers little hope if they are older than 40.

“Most of this is choices, not your genetics,” he says. “The bigger question is what do you eat to keep [weight] off.”

Exercise is a given. The larger question, and challenge, is figuring out how to eat right and enjoy it more, possibly extending one’s life span along the way.

Not all of the tips and recipes are new, but Dr. La Puma spices up his fact-packed tome with what he calls his “Little Bites,”“Noxious Nots” and “Doctor It Up” — separate bits of wisdom found sporadically throughout.

“Of all nuts, pecans have the most antioxidants,” he points out. The reason for soaking dried beans before cooking is to reduce “most of the indigestible sugar that causes flatulence,” he writes — advice not generally found on a typical bag of beans. And pink shallots “have the greatest overall antioxidant activity in the onion family.”

Washington-based LeViv is one company that sells diet plans and products directed at people with specific medical problems. The firm, which delivers frozen meals directly to a consumer’s home, boasts of “chef-inspired” meal programs that target chronic health conditions such as type II diabetes, kidney disease and prostate cancer.

A single month’s plan costs approximately $11 a day for two meals and snacks, according to Jayson Grossberg, a former chef who is managing director and global head of culinary ventures for LeViv (www.leViv.com).

“What we did was go to already existing diet protocols from the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins to create our special recipes,” Mr. Grossberg explains. “We wanted to focus on meals that are made with non-processed items. We keep our refined sugars low, for example, using instead honey and maple syrup. There could be some crossover - someone with cardiovascular disease has to concentrate on a low saturated fat and low sodium diet, whereas a diabetic needs to focus on a low glycemic index. Someone with chronic kidney disease has to focus on balancing magnesium and potassium levels.”

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