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Deb Kennedy, Author of a New Culinary Medicine Textbook, Dishes on Building Healthy Food Habits

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Deb Kennedy - COURTESY
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  • Deb Kennedy

Deb Kennedy is not a fan of so-called "energy" drinks. In fact, the health and nutrition consultant landed in the New York Times in 2013 for plainly stating in her Build Healthy Kids newsletter that children should never drink them. Monster Beverage, which makes Monster Energy, threatened to sue her for defamation even though she had not mentioned the product by name. "I am known as the mom who took on the monster," Kennedy said.

For her latest project, the South Burlington mother of two took on a task perhaps even more challenging — though less litigious. Kennedy's newly released The Culinary Medicine Textbook: A Modular Approach to Culinary Literacy aims to help people change the way they eat.

It's composed of five volumes, three of which were published on January 1. Part 1: The Basics explains and explores the field of culinary medicine. Part 3: The Diets reviews the facts and myths of popular diets. And Part 4: The Kitchens describes how to organize and use kitchens for teaching and promoting healthy eating.

Part 2: The Food will be released in mid-February. It digs into the specifics of food groups, including their history, science and culinary approaches. And Part 5: The Specialties will follow in May, addressing dietary recommendations for specific populations, such as athletes and those with food allergies.

The ambitious textbook is targeted mainly to health and nutrition professionals and includes contributions from a deep roster of scientists, dietitians and chefs. But of the parts published to date, those on the basics and the diets offer plenty of gems for laypeople willing to sift through the sometimes dense material.

Kennedy moved to Norwich from Connecticut in 2015 for a job as opening director of the Weight and Wellness Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center. She has previously published three books for a more general audience on how to raise healthy eaters, including Beat Sugar Addiction Now! for Kids: The Cutting-Edge Program That Gets Your Kids Off Sugar Safely, Easily, and Without Fights and Drama (Fair Winds Press, 2012).

Kennedy spoke with Seven Days about her own sugar addiction, cooking crave-worthy broccoli and how to improve your diet one manageable step at a time.

SEVEN DAYS: Let's start with your food and nutrition background.

DEB KENNEDY: I'm a nutritional biochemist with a PhD from Tufts University. Before that, in my teens and twenties, I apprenticed with a pastry chef and worked in restaurants and at hotels up to a sous-chef level. I know food from the scientific point of view and from a chef's point of view. But the most important point of view is someone who has struggled with sugar addiction her whole life. I get what it's like to have to fight those demons.

SD: In part one, you explain that culinary medicine is an approach that "teaches and empowers individuals to translate clinical nutrition recommendations into culinary skills." What does that mean in practice?

DK: It's helping people cook again. My goal is really to make people fall in love with food and with cooking real food, true food, nourishing food. Anybody who can cook can do freakin' culinary medicine. I love to cook, and I see how people make food the enemy. It's why they're not in a relationship, why they didn't get the job advancement or — you fill in the blank. It's: "When I can get to this weight, then everything will be fine."

SD: You write that many people "are tired of being told what to eat and not eat, so they tune it all out." How do you combat that?

DK: When we ask someone to change their diet, we're asking them to do over 160 different [clinical nutrition recommendations] at once. Add the 220 food decisions [most people make] a day, and people just implode. They don't even know where to begin.

I took a deep dive into how people change behavior. I've researched and spent 13 to 14 years on this modular approach. I just want you to focus on one thing at a time. [For example,] this month, focus on fruit. By the end of the month, the goal is for you to eat two fruit servings a day. When you focus on one thing and you have success, you want to try another.

SD: Did that work for your sugar addiction?

The Culinary Medicine Textbook: A Modular Approach to Culinary Literacy - COURTESY
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  • The Culinary Medicine Textbook: A Modular Approach to Culinary Literacy

DK: The first step was me figuring out why I had it. We all have our own food stories we carry with us, and if we don't understand those, it's gonna be really hard for us to make healthy dietary changes.

I grew up in an alcoholic, Irish Catholic family. Sugar was my one and only safe place. And it wasn't until I was able to honor and thank sugar for saving my life [that I could] then take away the shame and the guilt. Today, I have my one piece of chocolate a day, 1.5 to 2 ounces. I don't beat myself up and tell myself I'm a failure and [that] if I ate the chocolate then I'm gonna eat the cookies and I'm gonna eat the ice cream.

SD: Is there a way to create cravings for broccoli to match many people's cravings for chocolate?

DK: Chefs know how to make craveable, delicious food. We need to teach people how to make healthful, craveable, delicious foods. Like, adding a source of acid to your food, mostly lemon and lime, will take your dish and brighten it, elevate it to the next level. And salt is not the enemy. We get most of our salt from processed food. When you're cooking at home, you can totally use salt, but know when to use it. If you use it throughout the cooking process as opposed to throwing it in at the end, you'll use less of it. Then there are various cooking methods like caramelization. If you've never had caramelized, roasted vegetables, you don't know what you're missing.

SD: Can you highlight the benefits of mindful eating you describe in the book?

DK: In order to mindfully eat, you can't have your phone at the table and chaos all around you. You need to listen to your inner voice, which is really getting drowned out by the outside noise. I know almost every single one of your readers has had the experience of eating something, and then you don't even remember you ate it. It could be a chocolate chip cookie, for example. It was a craving and you ate it, but you didn't savor it; you didn't give yourself the chance to really enjoy it and connect with it. So, in the end, you just want more and more.

I always say food is about connection. Eating with others is a connection, and we can actually connect with the Earth, based on food choices we make. It's really that connection that feeds us. If you eat without connection, you will always be hungry.

SD: One part of The Culinary Medicine Textbook is about creating kitchens that promote and teach healthy eating. What is one thing we can do in our home kitchens?

DK: Again, the modular approach works here. You've got your freezer, your fridge, your countertop and your pantry. Declutter them and then put the healthful items within easy reach. Always make the healthy item the easy option. Pre-COVID, I used to get together with a friend on Saturday or Sunday, and we [would] cut up a gallon of vegetables that sat in our fridge to throw into stir-fries, soups, omelettes or whatever.

SD: We all know we're supposed to eat more vegetables. Other tips?

DK: I use the word plant-forward. When you can choose more plants, do that. I look at my protein source when I'm planning breakfast, lunch and dinner, but that's only the tiny bit in the middle. The other whole cast of characters is my vegetables and my whole grains. If you eat no vegetables, let's just start with getting one in a day. And once you get one in and that's OK, let's try for two. Then try some different varieties and different colors, because each color has a different superpower when it comes to health.

SD: I love your "dilution" approach. Can you explain it?

DK: If I go out to get Chinese food, I will bring half home with me. I can make a dinner for four out of that, because the sauce is all there. I'll add about three cups of steamed veggies on top of the leftovers. [Or] if you're making a taco, add a can of black beans to the ground turkey.

It also works in helping people to eat whole grains. For example, I would have them do three-quarters white pasta with one-quarter whole-wheat pasta, and then half and half, and so on. If you can make it all the way, great. But if all you get to is a quarter, yay for you.

It's not all or nothing. Every little decision you make throughout the day — make more of them healthful choices, and that's the direction you're going.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Crave Worthy"