In our February Book of the Month, The Longevity Kitchen, Rebecca Katz and Mat Elelson translate the latest research about how food can help us prevent illnesses like heart disease and live long, healthy lives into 120 delicious, colorful recipes that work hard to nourish both the body and the taste buds. We chatted with Katz recently about everything from the food wisdom of our elders to the exciting frontiers of nutrition research.
Books for Better Living: How can food help you live longer?
Rebecca Katz: If you have a healthy connection to food, you have a healthy connection to life. If you give your body a really good environment with the foods that you eat, you’re setting yourself up for success because as we age, we lose a lot of our ability to produce certain antioxidants that eradicate the little free radicals that that can change our cell DNA and lead us to chronic diseases. So if you’re putting really good food in your body, what you’re doing is assisting your body to be an environment that is inhospitable to disease.
Here’s an example: If you cut an apple and you leave it out in the air, it will turn brown. If you cut an apple you squeeze lemon on it, which is high in antioxidants, that apple will stay pristine looking. The same thing happens in our bodies. Do you want to be a brown apple inside? When you’re in that kind of shape, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable. If you are putting antioxidants in your body in the form of fruits and vegetables and other nutrients like omega 3 fatty acids, it’s like taking your body to an internal spa.
If you have in your family a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease or any number of diseases, what you choose to eat can actually shift your gene expression. I think that’s the absolutely coolest thing ever. So what you eat really does make a difference on the cellular level. It doesn’t matter what age you are. Don’t wait until you’re 60, this is the way you should start eating in your 20s and 30s and onward.
BBL: In The Longevity Kitchen, you write about your time cooking with grandmothers in Italy. What did you learn from them?
RK: One of the things I took away from that experience was that everything was fresh. In Italy, you have a refrigerator the size of a toaster. It’s not like you go to Costco and load up. They went to the market. They make do with what is available. You have to eat within the seasons. The other thing that I learned from talking to many, many of our elders is the reverence they have for food. They don’t take it for granted because it is their sustainable nourishment — without it they wouldn’t survive. When they were growing up, it was like, “This is what we have to survive and thrive on.” They used food in a different way than we use food today.
BBL: With so much new nutrition research coming out every day, how do you make sense of it?
RK: The science is always changing and evolving. Even I look at the latest research or the latest fad and I just want to throw up my hands. I encourage people to not take the science so seriously that it’s going to prevent them from cooking. Maybe you really don’t like kale. Fine! Maybe you like arugula, maybe you like cauliflower, maybe you like broccoli. Great, they’re all from the same family. I would rather people look at the top 16 longevity foods or the other foods we write about in the book and find what resonates with them. What do you enjoy eating? The science is there as an interesting factoid, but at the end of the day, it’s really about what you’re going to enjoy. Because eating is about joy. It’s about a lot more than the science. Trust your wisdom about it. That’s what I do. That’s my philosophy.
BBL: That being said, what new research areas are you excited about?
RK: I think the most exciting area that is just starting is this idea of nutrigenomics or epigenetics, which studies how food affects our genes. When we really start looking at this idea of food being able to shift gene expression, the way we eat will become more and more personalized. It gives us license to eat in a way that’s good for ourselves rather than according to the latest fad or diet. I think there’s a lot of personal empowerment to know that you can shift certain things going on in your body by what you eat versus being frustrated because there’s so much research you don’t know where to begin. You’re starting to see that in the cancer community, but I think we’re going to start seeing it not only when you’re in a disease state but prior too, from a prevention point of view. That’s where it’s going to get exciting and empowering.
BBL: What’s your take on the detox/juicing trend?
RK: Our body is set up to detox 24/7 if we give it the right fuel. The thing about getting too attached to any one way of detoxification, like juicing for example, is that you need fiber, you need protein, you need things to get all the debris out of your body. If you are living in a cold, damp environment, detoxing with juicing is not nourishing your body in the same way. In winter, I recommend eating detoxifying foods from the cruciferous and allium families, like garlic, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli and herbs and spices. Stick with really good, nourishing soups. Save the juicing for when your body is really ready for it in spring and summer, when it’s warm. Cue to the seasons. We’re set up in the spring for a whole new set of vegetables to come in that are unbelievable detoxifiers, like asparagus, arugula, dandelion greens, sugar snap peas and spring garlic. You don’t have to go to extremes is what I’m saying. Also, I think it’s always good to do a detox under supervision.
BBL: What are some foods that can lift our spirits in the cold weather and give us some energy to get through to spring?
RK: This is the time of year when you have to start changing your cooking technique and start getting creative in the kitchen. If you steam your broccoli, start roasting it. You’ll get a whole different feel. Take a new book off your shelf that you haven’t looked at for a while and twist up what you’re doing. Also, this is the time to consider changing your spices. Start adding chopped mint to your food — or parsley or cilantro — it will make everything taste brighter. Start zesting your lemons and oranges and adding it to your food. It’s going to give your food incredible pop. After you roast your broccoli, take your lemon and zest it all over it and toss it. You will feel like you’re eating a little bit of spring.
To learn more about The Longevity Kitchen, visit rebeccakatz.com.