Nourishing Hero: Rebecca Katz

This is the latest installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature on NOURISH Evolution? Let us know who inspires you!

When my mom was dying from lung cancer, I responded like anyone who has a loved one battling a major illness. I cooked whatever I thought might tempt her to eat–oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, homemade pizza, soups of all kinds and anything with her favorite ingredient: bacon. One of my last memories is of her propped up in bed happily tucking into a bacon-wrapped scallop.

Of course, we all need nourishment every day. It’s even more crucial, more elemental when we’re sick and need food to bolster our bodies, lift our spirits and soothe our souls. But that can be tricky when someone is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for cancer treatment.

“It’s like demolishing the whole house to renovate the bathroom,” says Rebecca Katz, M.S., author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery (Celestial Arts). The treatment weakens patients and kills appetites at a time when they most need the healing power of food. That’s why, she says, 80% of cancer patients are malnourished.

“The biggest issues, by far, are nausea and taste changes–those are the two culprits that keep people from experiencing food,” she says. “If they disconnect from food, they’re disconnecting from life.”

Katz is the senior chef-in-residence and nutritional educator at Commonweal Cancer Help Program, which offers weeklong retreats for cancer patients at its oceanfront facility in Bolinas, Calif. She’s also the executive chef for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s Food as Medicine and CancerGuides® Professional Training Programs to train doctors and other health-care pros about nutrition.

Her journey learning about the healing power of food for cancer patients began when her father battled cancer. Although she’d trained as a chef at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, she says, “I didn’t have a clue how to cook for someone with cancer.” So she started doing some research, out of which came her first book, One Bite at Time: Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends (Celestial Arts).

“That was the beginning of my exploration in this area,” she says. “The longer I was involved with it, the more studies that came out about how food can help us fight disease, particularly cancer.” She estimates that 5,000 new studies about the healing power of food were published between the time One Bite was first released in 2004 and when The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen was published last year.

She offers advice for what to eat before, during and after chemotherapy, as well as suggests specific recipes to counteract common side effects like anemia, nausea, fatigue and weight loss. Since cancer treatment often messes with a patient’s taste buds, she has tips for how to balance flavors accordingly. Everything tastes like cardboard? Add a dash of sea salt or a spritz of lemon juice–both enhance flavor and move it forward to the front of the mouth. Food tastes metallic? Balance it with maple syrup or agave nectar for sweetness or a touch of fat from nut butter.

Her “culinary pharmacy” is stocked with healthy, whole foods–all manner of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, organic poultry, sustainable fish, spices, oils and nuts. Although The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen focuses on the healing aspects of these foods–what Katz calls the “culinary Rx”–it’s anything but medicinal. Colorful, tantalizing recipes like Triple-Citrus Black Cod, Shredded Carrot and Beet Salad, and Emerald Greens with Orange leap off the page.

That’s the key, she explains. “The nutrition is great, but the taste is what’s really going to make the difference between whether someone is going to eat or not. Great taste and great nutrition have to sit together on the same side of the table.”

Meet our other Nourishing Heroes:

Creamy Millet with Blueberry Compote

If you haven’t tried millet, this recipe from Rebecca Katz’s The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen (Celestial Arts) is a great introduction. As she notes, it looks very similar to quinoa, and it’s also gluten-free and a good source of protein. Millet and orange have anti-inflammatory properties, while spices like allspice, cardamom, ginger and cinnamon aid digestion. Coconut oil has antibiotic properties (you can find it with the other oils in health-food stores), and blueberries are rich in cancer-fighting phytochemicals. This is a nice make-ahead breakfast–just stir in a little extra almond milk and warm it up in a saucepan over gentle heat. It’s a powerfully nourishing start to your day.



Time For a Gut Check on Organic?

Fifteen years ago, I got the kind of call from my doctor that began with, “I have some news.” The kind of call that resulted in a hastily scheduled visit with an oncologist and two surgeries less than two weeks later. The kind of call that saved my life, and at the same time changed it forever.

A year later, Christopher and I packed up everything we owned (almost) and drove down to Costa Rica. It was an incredibly intense time for me, of being angry at and grateful for and in awe of my body for the first time. Before, I’d taken it for granted. But now I had an intense, almost motherly, instinct to nurture it.

I became more aware of how much my body hurt when I didn’t get enough sleep. I could discern a calm confidence when I practiced yoga regularly. I noticed how fresh foods made me feel clean and balanced and energized. And I felt, in my gut, a strong conviction to switch over to organic food. Something just felt wrong about putting chemicals—even if I was told they were safe—into my body.

Why do I bring all this up? Because in the last two weeks a couple of reports have come out that make my decision look not just intuitively right, but scientifically sound too.

The first, a report on reducing environmental cancer risk released by the President’s Cancer Panel (which was appointed during the Bush Administration), found that “the risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” It goes on to give several recommendations for reducing exposure, including choosing organic food. The second, a study by researches from the University of Montreal and Harvard, found a link between ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and organophosphates (i.e., agricultural chemicals). Nothing definitive, but enough to make my ears perk up on the heels of the cancer risk study.

Gary Hirschman, former president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm suggested yesterday at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions that organic isn’t really the “new–”organic practices have worked for thousands and thousands of years–the chemicals used in agriculture are what are really unproven over the long haul. We are, in essence, in the midst of a 60-year experiment.

It seems to me that this is a good time for a gut check. Not an extended analysis or time spent poring over the latest studies—we’ll forever be inundated with contradictory data from varying sources—but a simple, 30-second reflection on what feels to you like the right thing to do.

What feels right to you?

Eat Chocolate

Dark chocolate. An ounce or so a few times a week (to borrow Michael Pollan’s formula). For many of us, this little prescription flies in the face of a decades-deep divide between what we want to eat (chocolate) and what we feel we should eat (carrot sticks and celery). But nature didn’t intend it to be that way.

The cocoa in chocolate, like most plant-based foods, boasts a cocktail of compounds that fall under the collective category of phytonutrients (which simply means “plant nutrients”). There are thousands and thousands of phytonutrients that impact our health in all sorts of ways, from lowering blood pressure to preventing cancer to boosting the immune system. The irony is, these little powerhouses are also what make plant-based foods look and smell and taste the way they do. Think about that a second; the very stuff that makes food pleasurable is also making us healthy. Now there’s a paradigm shift.

So back to that chocolate.

I could go into the details of which phytonutrients play a role in making chocolate so healthy and cite statistics of how much they lower the risk of this or that. Or I could just tell you that if you finished off a few evenings this week savoring a square or two of dark chocolate* it would be a very good thing.

* This is one time you’ll want to look at the label. It’s the cocoa in chocolate that packs the nutritional punch, so a good rule of thumb is to choose dark chocolate bars with a cocoa content higher than 50%. Sugar may sweeten the deal, but it also adds empty calories. If you’re not yet used to dark chocolate’s strong taste you’re in for a treat; it can be enticingly complex and nuanced. Keep it interesting by experimenting with several brands and flavors.

Experiment with Mushrooms

Heh, heh. No, not those kinds of mushrooms. Not even wild mushrooms. I’m talking run-of-the-mill brown cremini. Humble fungi like these (and their even humbler cousins, white button mushrooms) have nutrients like niacin that help regulate hormones, and potassium, which helps lower blood pressure. Mushrooms are also known to combat certain cancers. Cancer like my friend Merede is fighting.

When I got the call last week that Merede wanted some girlfriend encouragement and was looking for ways to eat healthier, I brought along a big pot of whole-grain “risotto,” dense with cremini mushrooms. Sure it was healthy. But as Merede inhaled the scents, tasted its rich flavor, and shared the meal amid the laughter and voices of her friends, I guarantee the nourishing benefits went well beyond the nutrient value of the dish.

This week, experiment with cremini in a variety of ways both raw and cooked. Try slicing them thinly and tossing them with shaved celery and garlicky vinaigrette. Or sautéing quartered cremini in olive oil with minced shallots and rosemary and mounding them on top of a sautéed chicken paillard (a thinly pounded chicken breast). Or . . . try my recipe for Merede’s Mushroom “Farrotto” with Roasted Butternut Squash and Shallots. I speak from experience in saying it will truly nourish both body and soul.