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Conner Middelmann Whitney Interview Part Two

January 19, 2011 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

As luck would have it, one of the biggest snow storms in recent history coincided with our stay in Paris in December 2010. On one particularly frigid and icy afternoon, we stopped into a gastro pub located only a few blocks away from our hotel. It was just too cold to walk much further! There, Mrs. Healthy Fellow and I enjoyed a steaming bowl of cream of cauliflower soup and a dozen escargot gently cooked in garlic-parsley butter. During our meal, a lady seated at the table next to us politely commented on our food selection. She mentioned that she wished she could indulge in similar cuisine. However the diet she was on didn’t allow it. The dietary regimen in question, The Dukan Diet, is perhaps the most popular weight loss program currently making the rounds in France. My hope is that one day soon a similar scenario will unfold with someone telling me, “I’m on the Zest for Life diet”.

JP – You recently authored a book entitled, Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet. How do your recommendations in the book differ from the common perception of a Mediterranean style diet?

Conner – When I recommend the Mediterranean diet, I refer to the *traditional*, pre-WW2 way of eating in the Mediterranean region: lots of vegetables, fish, some fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, a little fermented dairy and whole grains, ideally ancestral grains like spelt or kamut that have been soaked or fermented (as in sourdough) before baking. This diet is packed with healthy plant chemicals and fats, high-quality protein and healthy fiber.  It’s not a time-limited ‘diet’ ­ it’s a way of eating that I can happily recommend people adopt indefinitely. And because it’s so varied, it really is easy to follow it without getting bored or feeling deprived, as with so many ‘diet-diets’.

At a more ‘philosophical’ level, I believe that the Mediterranean ‘food culture’ ­ which goes beyond mere biological aspects of the diet ­ can have powerful health effects. Mediterranean-style eating involves gathering and preparing your own food and, if possible, sharing it with others. It entails eating calmly and mindfully (at a dining table, not at a desk or in a car) and not feeling guilty about enjoying good food. All Mediterranean countries have strong traditions of mealtime conviviality. Sadly, Mediterraneans are increasingly adopting fast-food habits. Nevertheless, on weekends the two to three hour sit down meal is still a regular fixture for many French, Spaniards or Italians.

When I talk about the Mediterranean diet, I do *not* mean pasta, pizza and ice cream, which, because they hail from Italy, many people equate to ‘Mediterranean’ food. Sure, some wholegrain pasta or pizza every now and then is fine (especially when eaten with nutritious toppings and sauces), but not modern-style, frozen pizza or pasta with a sauce out of a jar.

The US non-profit organization ‘Oldways Trust and of course my book is packed with lots of great information about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, as well as offering recipes and practical tips. It’s available via its website and via The Book Depository (who charge no postage to ship books anywhere in the world). Click here for their Zest for Life page. A US e-book edition of Zest for Life will be available soon.

JP – Which five foods do you wish adults and children would eat more often? On the opposite end of the spectrum, which five foods do wish you could banish from the modern diet?

Conner – Eat more often:

  • Fish, especially the oily varieties (wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel), a great source of omega-3 fats, vitamin D, selenium and top-quality protein and ­ if you eat the bones (e.g. sardines) ­ calcium
  • A wide variety of vegetables, especially green leafy ones, for vitamins, bioactive phyto-chemicals, fiber, hydration etc.
  • Meat, eggs and dairy from pastured animals that live outdoors and are not routinely treated with antibiotics or growth hormones
  • Bone broth cooked from such animals and from fish bones (with the addition of sea vegetables) ­ a great source of minerals
  • Fermented foods (sourdough bread, sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented vegetables, kefir, yoghurt) to help maintain healthy gut flora (thus reducing the risk of intestinal permeability / leaky gut, allergies, fungal overgrowth and inflammation). The Weston A. Price Foundation offers lots of great information about fermented foods and bone broth


  • Sodas which contain unhealthy sweeteners and acids and no nutrients at all
  • Sugary and white-flour products which can upset blood-sugar balance, promote inflammation and cancer growth and encourage weight-gain
  • Processed vegetable fats such as heat-treated, deodorized seed oils (sunflower, corn, grapeseed, safflower, soy) and margarines, which promote inflammation
  • Boxed breakfast cereals which contain too much sugar and unhealthy fats, and don’t provide satiety, thus encouraging between meal snacking and fluctuations in blood-glucose levels
  • Processed ready-meals, most of which are low in nutrients, but high in cheap fats, salt, sugar and unhealthy carbohydrates (ie, empty calories) and generally cost more than vastly more nutritious, simple home-cooked meals such as the ones I propose in Zest for Life

JP – What is a typical breakfast, lunch and dinner like at your home? Are you able to sustain your dietary philosophy while you’re on the road?

Conner – I make sure that we eat some protein at every meal, especially breakfast, to help us sustain steady energy levels throughout the day and avoid getting caught in the snack-trap. Breakfast usually consists of dishes such as:

  • Soft-boiled egg with whole rye sourdough toast
  • Tuna or salmon melt on sourdough toast topped with sheep’s milk cheese
  • Waffles made with our own chicken’s eggs, ground almonds, spelt flour and almond milk and topped with nut butter or low-sugar fruit spread
  • Home-made Bircher muesli
  • Marinated raw salmon on sourdough toast, buckwheat crackers or sweet-potato blinis

This may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. ­ I make a lot of things in large batches and freeze them, and others, like eggs or waffles, can be quickly whipped up on the morning.

Lunch: on weekdays the kids eat at a school cafeteria where food is cooked on the premises, most of it fresh. My lunch varies: leftovers from the previous day’s dinner, a bowl of soup or an avocado half filled with mashed sardines or hummus. If I eat out for lunch, I’ll have a soup or salad and some fish or meat with vegetables; I rarely have dessert.

Dinner: usually consists of meals like the ones featured in Zest for Life; we eat a fair amount of fish (2-3 times a week), chicken and duck, some organic pork and occasionally beef, mostly stewed or roasted at low temperatures. This is accompanied by at least one vegetable and often a salad (green leaves, beetroot cubes, chopped walnuts, raisins, apple cubes ­ whatever’s in the refrigerator). Dessert can be anything form a square of dark chocolate (75-80%), a sheep’s milk yogurt with honey, stewed or raw fruit or, when I have time, a fruit crumble or ‘clafoutis’ (a fruity egg flan).

On the road: my dietary survival kit consists of mixed nuts and a few dried plums and apricots in a zip-lock bag. When planning a longer trip, I’ll pack a hard-boiled egg, a yogurt or a can of sardines to spoon down discreetly, or I’ll prepare a sandwich made with sourdough bread and a high-protein filling (e.g. chicken breast & pesto, feta cheese & tomato, fish paté). When I go on vacation, I bring a few packs of nut milk and some vacuum-packed pumpernickel to avoid hotel-breakfast carb-fests that send my blood-sugar levels plunging. I don’t worry about lunch and dinner ­ I just try to order fish/meat and veg/salad and don’t guilt-trip about small transgressions because I know they’re exceptions.

JP –
Even the most stalwart of natural health advocates have personal struggles. Are there certain aspects of nutrition and wellness that you still have to work on?

Conner – I’m fairly happy with my diet; while there’s always room for improvement (I’d like to eat more seaweed, and find the time to make bone broths more often!)  I manage to eat a varied, healthy and tasty diet.

In the past, I have struggled with exercise, though I am getting better at it. My main challenges were perfectionism (I wanted Olympian feats at every workout) and lack of time. A few months ago I decided that even a low-impact workout is better than none at all, and that there had to be no specific ‘goals’ other than moving and breathing energetically for 30 minutes most days. Taking the pressure off myself has helped me enjoy physical activity more, which in turn motivates me to do it. We have a rowing machine at home which I use most days; when the weather’s warmer, I like to go for a jog or a cycle ride through the surrounding countryside.

Sleep remains my biggest challenge; because of the many calls on my time I often find myself working late and getting less than my seven hours. Amazingly, I feel fine even on less sleep, but I know I feel *even* better when I sleep more, so I am working on getting a healthier sleep hygiene in place. I wrote a blog post about the health benefits of sleep a few months back. And another on how I was going to improve my own sleep habits which I’m working on implementing.

TPC (Antioxidant Content) of Fresh Vegetables Consumed in France

Rank Common name Fruit lot Mean TPC1 Min2 Max3
mg of GAE/100 g FEP
1 Artichoke heart 3 321.3 202.4 438.1
2 Parsley 1 280.2
3 Brussels sprout 1 257.1
4 Shallot 1 104.1
5 Broccoli 2 98.9 89.3 108.4
6 Celery 1 84.7
7 Onion 1 76.1
8 Asparagus 2 14.5 8.0 72.2
9 Eggplant 2 65.6 53.6 77.6
10 Garlic 1 59.4
11 Turnip 1 54.7
12 Salad4 7 35.6 18.7 145.0
13 Celeriac 1 39.8
14 Radish 1 38.4
15 Pea 1 36.7

Source: J Nutr. 2006 Sep;136(9):2368-73. (link)

JP – Has the concept of grass fed dairy and meats taken hold in France? Do you see any added value of foods derived from animals raised in this more traditional manner?

Conner – Some studies show that milk from pastured cows contains higher levels of omega-3 and other healthy fats, as well anti-oxidants such as beta carotene and vitamin E, than grain-fed confined cows. Similar results have been found for meat and eggs; for instance, while free-ranging chickens eating weeds, seeds and worms lay eggs with a healthy omega-6-to-3 ratio of 2:1, eggs from battery hens have been found to contain as much as 20 times more inflammation-promoting omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3.

In France, most traditional butchers sell meat from pastured animals as a matter of course. Many producers also sell meat at farmers markets or directly at the farm. All the meat we buy at our local butcher is from pastured animals reared in a 100-mile radius; the duck, pork and lamb meat we eat at home comes from producers who are no more than a 15-minute drive away. We buy in bulk and freeze, which keeps costs down and means a steady supply of top-quality meat.

In supermarkets, meat quality varies; some is very good (especially when it carries the ‘Label Rouge’ logo, which means it has been subject to stringent production guidelines and quality controls), but many cheaper cuts are produced outside France and their quality is hard to assess. When I see the ridiculously low prices some supermarkets charge for meat I shudder to think what makes this meat so cheap.

I prefer to eat small amounts of high-quality meat and pay a little more for it than eat large amounts of cheap meat that may contain unhealthy fats and residues of antibiotics, hormones and agrochemicals. I also prefer to support farmers who treat their animals with respect and care (our local organic beef farmer plays his cows a classical music radio station when they are in the stable!) rather than perpetuate industrialized animal husbandry.

JP – There are few places in the world that take wine as seriously as France. In your view, can red wine contribute something of value to a healthy diet and lifestyle?

Conner – I enjoy red wine and generally drink it twice a week (a glass with dinner on the weekends). The health benefits of moderate red-wine consumption ­ especially with regard to heart health ­ are supported by a large body of research. I also believe red wine contributes to the feel-good effect of the Mediterranean diet. However, I would stress that wine-drinking should be moderate (no more than one 125-ml glass for women, two for men each day) and should accompany food.

I wouldn’t recommend that teetotalers take up wine-drinking purely for health reasons; many foods (e.g. cocoa, apples, cranberries, raspberries, pomegranates, persimmons, walnuts, cinnamon and tea) contain the sorts of beneficial polyphenols that wine does. But if you enjoy a glass of wine and you drink high-quality wine (I generally drink organic wine) it can support an already healthy diet.

Because my main area of interest is cancer prevention, it’s worth noting that alcohol is a known carcinogen; therefore people wishing to prevent cancer in particular should exercise caution, sticking to the quantities mentioned above and not drinking it every day ­ perhaps only 1-2 times a week.

JP – What forms of alternative and complementary medicine have you found most effective both personally and in your clients?

Conner – For me, the combination of healthy food, regular sleep and physical activity is generally sufficient to keep me well. Over the years I have tried many treatments like acupuncture, herbal treatments or lymphatic drainage but I rarely noticed them having a particularly beneficial effect. (This is not to say they aren’t effective, but simply that they didn’t work *for me*.)

I used to take lots of nutritional supplements, but gave these up completely a year ago (I wrote about it on my Psychology Today blog) and haven’t felt noticeably worse-off. On the contrary, *not* taking supplements makes the ‘holy trinity’ outlined above (food, sleep, exercise) even more important ­ I can’t use supplements as a ‘health insurance’ the way I used to!

JP – During our week-long stay in France I developed a certain outlook about how French people eat. I superficially based this on what I saw at the farmers’ markets, restaurants and street corners. But as a visitor one tends to miss many of the finer details of the daily lives of local residents. Thankfully, this insightful exchange with Conner Middelmann Whitney has helped to fill in many of the gaps that I couldn’t possibly know otherwise. Conner’s life story also inspires me to continue forward on my own path to spread the good news about natural health. I hope it’s done the same for you.

Be well!


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.

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Posted in Food and Drink, Interviews, Nutrition

One Comment to “Conner Middelmann Whitney Interview Part Two”

  1. JP Says:

    Gents and Ladies,

    Please check out this wonderful account of Conner’s fine work courtesy of the Daily Telegraph:


    Be well!


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