The best medicine

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 

Feb. 20, 2007 -- You don't need a prescription for the best medicine against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and dementia.

Look in your kitchen cupboards.

Combined with sleep and daily exercise, good food provides powerful protection against a host of ailments, says Dr. Miles Hassell, director of the integrative medicine program at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

"Good health is way too important to leave to physicians, and good food is a key component," he says. "The rules that constitute good food are much simpler than we're led to believe."

Forget egg substitutes, margarine, fortified breakfast cereals and low-fat microwave dinners, he says. Think real eggs, olive oil, whole grains, beans, fish and lots of vegetables.

Don't worry about the latest edicts from nutritionists, he says. Instead, adopt a more traditional approach to cooking and eating.

He lays out these guidelines in "Good Food, Great Medicine: A Homemade Cookbook," which includes recipes by his sister, Mea Hassell, who works in his office.

Mea and Miles, both fit and energetic, live next-door to each other in Portland. As children in the 1960s, they lived in Australia, where their family owned a health-food store. They credit their mother, Jane, for their interest in food and health, and dedicate the book to her.

The siblings cooked up the idea for a book after Dr. Hassell found himself calling from an exam room, "Hey, Mea, we need some brown rice recipes in here."

The book is full of simple, easy-to-prepare recipes based on whole foods.

In developing the recipes, Mea Hassell says she asked herself, "What's the maximum amount of vegetables I can cram in without people complaining?"

Dr. Hassell encourages his patients to view meals as "a delivery system for vegetables."

The Hassells say the list of foods to avoid is short: hydrogenated oil, preserved meats, white flour and rice, refined sugars, and "fake" foods invented by science, such as margarine.

Other than that, anything goes as long as it's part of a varied diet. So nuts, caffeine, chocolate, cheese, butter, meat and a little alcohol are OK - assuming fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains constitute the foundation of your diet.

Fat can be your friend

Don't be afraid of fat, Dr. Hassell adds. One study found the Mediterranean diet, with 35 percent of calories from fat, to be more satisfying, kinder to the waistline and easier to maintain long-term than a low-fat diet. Hassell cites several studies that have concluded that the Mediterranean diet reduces risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer and other health problems.

That doesn't mean you can't eat well with little fat. There's a wide range of healthful diets, Dr. Hassell says. If you exercise every day and don't eat too much, any traditional diet with foods that are minimally or traditionally processed is probably fine, he says. "I tell my patients that any food commonly eaten for more than 150 years should be innocent until proven guilty," Hassell writes, "and any food created by man in the last century is guilty until proven innocent."

That includes foods marketed as healthful, Hassell says, pointing to textured-vegetable protein and egg substitute as examples.

Other attempts at healthful eating can be just as misguided. Why give your kids skim milk to drink, Mea Hassell asks, only to feed them from a fast-food drive-through?

Home cooking

Dr. Hassell suggests a quick trip home between school and soccer practice. "How much time does it take to make a toasted cheese sandwich?" He paused. "With tomato, of course."

He does offer a caution when it comes to home cooking, however. Cooking in microwaves kills some of the beneficial micronutrients in food.

"Microwaves are nothing to be afraid of. They just knock out the phenols," Dr. Hassell says. Mea Hassell advises warming food in a covered nonstick pan on the stove burner set to low.

On the flip side, don't worry about buying organic foods. Studies showing that fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease were all based on consumption of conventionally grown produce, Dr. Hassell says.

The Hassells are skeptical of government regulation, so don't look for them to rally for a ban on trans fats.

"We make our own choices," Dr. Hassell says.

To truly transform our diets requires a simpler approach to life, he says. He stresses that same simplicity when it comes to his health advice: "Eat good food and get exercise every day and your chances of staying healthy are very good."

To order "Good Food, Great Medicine: A Homemade Cookbook" ($20 or $25 with shipping), e-mail mea.hassell@providence.org .

Kedgeree

Serves 4

From "Good Food, Great Medicine: A Homemade Cookbook," by Mea Hassell and Dr. Miles Hassell.

This recipe is Mea Hassell's favorite from the cookbook. "The traditional kedgeree calls for smoked haddock and chopped hard-boiled egg and certainly doesn't mention canned tuna, but this rendition is practical and delectable." She notes that flaked smoked salmon can be substituted for the tuna, and 2 cups of frozen petite peas, thawed, can be added with the rice.

¼ cup olive oil

2 cups thinly sliced celery, including leaves

2 cups diced onion

1 teaspoon crushed fresh garlic

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 cups cooked brown rice

12 ounces solid light tuna, drained and flaked (or substitute flaked smoked salmon)

¼ lemon juice

½ cup minced fresh parsley, if you have it

Heat oil in a deep 10-inch skillet and sauté celery and onion for 10 minutes or until barely tender. Add garlic, curry powder, salt and pepper, and sauté for another minute.

Add rice, tuna, lemon juice, parsley and rice. Toss gently, breaking up any lumps of rice, until mixed and thoroughly heated through.

Luscious Lima Beans

From "Good Food, Great Medicine: A Homemade Cookbook," by Mea Hassell and Dr. Miles Hassell.

This recipe is Dr. Hassell's favorite one from the cookbook. "The lima bean is a victim of cultural bias," Mea Hassell writes. "Unlike canned peas, which some consider irredeemable, lima beans don't deserve their reputation."

1 16-ounce bag frozen baby lima beans

1 cup water

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon fresh crushed garlic

½ teaspoon salt

¼ to ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Bring water to boil in a 2-quart saucepan, and add salt. Add frozen lima beans and bring back to a boil, gently breaking up any big clumps of beans. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 7-15 minutes. Beans should be tender but not mushy.

Meanwhile, combine the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper in your mixing bowl. When lima beans are cooked, drain in a colander and add to the oil and vinegar mixture and toss. Let sit for 10 minutes, and then toss again. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Tips

• Aim for nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day, but eat at least five. You can combine frozen with fresh, but check labels on canned vegetables for sodium.

• The ubiquitous onion counts toward your vegetable requirement. Onions contain vitamin C, potassium and folic acid, as well as quercetin, a type of antioxidant.

• Get your nutrition from food. Controlled studies on nutritional supplements show no benefit, Dr. Miles Hassell writes in "Good Food, Great Medicine."