Conner Middelmann Whitney Interview Part OneJanuary 18, 2011 Written by JP [Font too small?]
Mrs. Healthy Fellow and I recently went on a business trip to France. While there we visited as many historical sites as time and weather would permit. One of the most memorable destinations was the lively Organic Farmer’s Market in Paris. If you’d like to take a visual tour of the Marche Biologique Raspail, click on the following links (a, b, c, d, e). We also had the pleasure of visiting several natural food stores and restaurants that showcased healthy, local cuisine. During our travels we became aware of a unique advocate of just the sort of foods we enjoyed while in “The City of Lights” and the countryside. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Conner Middelmann Whitney.
JP – Prior to becoming a nutritionist, you worked in a completely unrelated field. Can you please explain what you used to do and why you decided to change career paths?
Conner – After college, I spent nearly 10 years working in finance, first in securities sales and then as a reporter for the Financial Times in London. During this time I suffered chronically infected sinuses, constant digestive complaints, eczema and constant exhaustion. Fatalistically, I assumed I had what the Victorians quaintly called a ‘fragile disposition’. I hit rock bottom in my early 30s when a routine Pap-smear revealed ‘carcinoma in situ’ – early-stage cancer. The cancerous cells were surgically removed but this was my wake-up call: something needed to change.
One day, while interviewing a nutritionally oriented doctor Dr. John Briffa for an article on stress and health for the FT, it began to dawn on me that nutrition might be a factor in my health problems. I was subsisting on a diet of coffee, pastries, sandwiches and chocolate biscuits throughout the day and would drink half a bottle of red wine with take-out dinner most evenings; vegetables made almost accidental appearances occasionally. I consulted Dr. Briffa and he suggested a complete overhaul of my diet. It was a struggle, but soon I began to feel so much better I decided to pack in my journalism job and become a nutritionist. I graduated from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in 2000 and have been working in nutrition ever since. My strong interest in dietary cancer prevention – which prompted me to write Zest for Life, a cancer-prevention nutrition guide and cookbook I recently published in the UK – is rooted in my own brush with cancer.
JP – What steps did you personally take to reclaim your health? Was it a challenging process for you?
Conner – It was tough. I had been instructed to cut out wheat, dairy, yeast, sugar and alcohol and replace it with vegetables, meat, fish, raw nuts and seeds. For someone who couldn’t cook, this was a tall order! But I persevered and began to notice improvements within about 4 weeks. My sinuses cleared up, the bloating and burping improved and my skin healed up. This helped keep me motivated, though I did backslide regularly, only to pay the price of my transgression in the form of a stuffy nose and abdominal bloating. Because it makes me feel so good, I have come to love fresh, unprocessed food; and I can honestly say that I have become largely indifferent to pizza, sugar, cakes and pastries, foods I used to love and think I wouldn’t live without.
JP – Part of your personal and professional transformation took the form of learning to cook healthier foods rather than relying on “processed convenience foods”. Please tell us more about this transforamative process.
Conner – Because my diet was severely restricted for a while, I was unable to find convenience foods that were wheat-, dairy- and sugar free. So I bought a few health-cookery books, signed up to an organic vegetable box scheme and started experimenting with home cooking.
I had some disasters along the way, but thankfully my culinary skills improved over time. Luckily for me, my mother was (and still is) a fantastic cook, and although I hadn’t done much cooking while growing up, I had watched her as she prepared our meals and so I knew how to clean a leek or chop parsley. My mum’s cooking also taught me to appreciate the taste of home-cooked meals, which I was thrilled to rediscover when I started cooking myself.
JP – What are a few of your favorite recipes and why? Do your three children enjoy your healthy recipes as much as you do?
Conner – That’s a tough question because I love to eat and have more ‘favorite recipes’ than you could fit on this website! No, seriously, I firmly believe that in order to fulfill its full nourishing potential, food shouldn’t just be healthy, it should be delicious and enjoyable. Only a delicious, satisfying healthy diet can be sustainable long-term.
My favourite recipes are those that taste so good you forget they’re actually good *for you* (I provide some 25 such recipes free of charge on my website, www.nutrelan.com, and there are many more in my book, Zest for Life.
Many people think healthy food tastes dull and is the antithesis of pleasure. In my cookery classes, I try to show how unpopular vegetables e.g. Brussels sprouts or beets can be prepared in such a way that they become almost sinfully delicious (my book features a chocolate-beetroot cake with not even a hint of beets’ earthy taste, and crunchy Mediterranean Brussels sprouts stir-fried with sundried tomatoes, garlic and herbs that taste sweet and herbaceous).
I love dishes that are in sync with the seasons. Right now, I am enjoying every manner of brassicas: tonight we ate a cauliflower-broccoli gratin with an almond-milk béchamel sauce and topped with grated ewe’s milk cheese; yesterday we had red cabbage stewed with apples and gingerbread spice. Mushrooms are another current favourite; we ate them in a ramekin topped with a soft-boiled egg yesterday morning. I am lucky enough to live near a farm where I buy all my vegetables, so we buy whatever’s available, and then I build my ‘dish of the day’ around that.
My kids, aged 13, 8 and 8, have approved all the 170-odd recipes in my book. Because I cook for children every day my recipes have to be child-friendly; for instance, in ‘Zest’ there are quite a few dishes with crunchy textures (e.g. sardine crumble, falafel) or eggy dishes (e.g. frittatas, Spanish sweet-potato tortilla, various omelettes) that they seem to enjoy all times of day. Predictably, my kids particularly like the book’s dessert section which contains quite a bit of dark chocolate, nuts and fruit.
JP – There is a generalized perception about French cuisine. Do you think most foreigners have an accurate view of the typical French diet? If not, what are some of the most common misconceptions?
Conner – Most foreigners especially Anglo-Saxons think of French cuisine as being ‘sinful’ and overly rich in animal fats – butter, cream, meat, foie gras, cheese. Sure, if you eat at a three-star restaurant you will probably be served a meal brimming with flavor, nutrients, pleasure and, yes, calories, that will keep you sated for many hours. However, most French people don’t eat these kinds of meals more than a few times a year. And while they do eat cheese, cream and butter regularly, they do so in small quantities, and without feeling guilty about it!
For your average French(wo)man, lunch is generally a lightish affair of fish or meat with a vegetable (the bread is only meant to be used to mop up sauce on the plate, not to be eaten on its own) and a fruity or egg-based dessert. Dinner can be quite frugal, featuring a soup, quiche, omelet or salad with nuts, cheese, fruit or tiny pieces of ham. Portions are modest and second helpings discouraged. Generally, meals are accompanied by water or wine, not sodas. All this may explain why France still has much lower obesity rates than other countries though even here, they are on the rise.
Daily Fluid Intake of Six Types of Beverages (ml) in France
Source: Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 April; 64(4): 350–355. (a)
JP – Please tell us about some of the current nutritional trends in France. Are the French becoming more health conscious in your estimation?
Conner – Yes and no. A ‘common-sense’ health consciousness prevails among many French people, who learned from an early age that it’s important to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep and be physically active. Many people walk and cycle and generally move around in the fresh air, generally in low- or moderate-impact types of activity.
Playing a proactive role in their health seems to be a fairly new idea in France. Because the French state health system takes such good care of people when they get ill, there is very little awareness of the importance of preventive healthcare. Also, because visits to most doctors are almost free, patients are less motivated to see private practitioners like nutritionists.
However, obesity is increasing, more slowly than elsewhere, but noticeably nonetheless. The reasons are the same reasons as elsewhere: a vast network of fast-food outlets offering nutrient-poor but calorie-rich meals, increased consumption of pre-prepared meals at home, a decline in home cooking and decreased levels of physical activity.
JP – In my recent travel to France, I encountered a weight loss plan known as The Dukan Diet which appears to be quite popular. What is your opinion about that particular dietary program?
Conner – The Dukan diet is an updated version of the ‘Protein-Sparing Modified Fast’, a high-protein, low-fat, low-carbohydrate (i.e. low-calorie) diet devised in the 1970s for morbidly obese people. From what I have read about it, it is not a weight-loss method I am comfortable with. While fast and substantial weight loss can be attained when the diet is followed closely, I am not convinced of its long-term success rate; as with so many calorie-restricted diets, people who have done the Dukan diet report putting the weight back on after they stop the diet. The diet’s reported negative side-effects include nutrient deficiencies due to the low intake of vegetables, constipation (due to low fiber intake), nausea and bad breath.
I also feel that this extreme type of diet cannot help people acquire healthy eating habits. The Dukan diet’s so-called ‘attack’ phase features 10 days of eating *only* low-fat animal protein (meat, fish, eggs, low-fat cheese & yogurt etc), followed by a longer consolidation phase where you alternate 5 days of non-starchy vegetables with 5 days of animal protein.
This diet will not help people who already have haphazard eating habits (e.g. who skip breakfast, snack a lot, eat lunch in front of their computers and dinner in front of the TV all of which contributes to obesity!) develop healthy food patterns (e.g. eating in synch with seasons, differentiating healthy fats and starches from unhealthy ones, eating a wide variety of vegetables, etc).
JP – Agriculture biologique or organic foods are featured in many farmers markets and supermarkets in Paris and beyond. Is this becoming a major factor in the buying decisions made by your clients and the population at large?
Conner – Organic farming has been on the rise in France and demand for organic food is increasing steadily, especially among middle-class city-dwellers. However, as elsewhere, organic food commands a hefty premium, especially when sold in supermarkets.
Many of the small farmers near me don’t use pesticides and artificial fertilizers but don’t have an organic certification because it entails a high cost to them that isn’t worth investing in for the relatively small volumes they produce. I often buy my fresh produce from them, and they are perfectly willing to tell me whether it has undergone any chemical treatments. I prefer buying non-organically certified food that’s super-fresh and whose producer I know and trust, than get organic produce that’s less fresh and in some cases has traveled around the globe. I do buy mostly organic animal products meat, eggs, dairy because I don’t feel comfortable with mass-produced animal foods.
JP – While in Aix en Provence, Cannes and Paris we made it a point to visit eateries and markets that are frequented by the local community. Simply put, we didn’t want to be treated like tourists. Instead, our goal was to experience the unique differences between this distant land and our home base of southern California. This was made considerably easier due to my wife’s ability to speak French fluently. After all, many of the ingredient lists and menus didn’t contain a word of English! There’s obviously no replacement for actually being in France and experiencing things first hand. But I think the insights presented in this and an upcoming Q&A can help provide a good sense of what the culinary climate and health care priorities are like in modern-day France. Learning how other cultures stay well or not only serves to help us all. I hope to see you tomorrow for the conclusion of my exclusive interview with Conner Middelmann Whitney.
Special Note: 25% of the royalties from the sale of “Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-cancer Diet” supports the efforts of the UK-based charity, Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. This is an organization that offers encouragement, health-nutrition workshops, psychological counseling and treatment advice for cancer patients and their loved ones.
Tags: Cancer, Mediterranean Diet, Recipes
Posted in Interviews, Nutrition, Women's Health