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Chef Foster: Changing our habits key to eating healthier foods, improving our diets — give it a try

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It is a constant struggle I know, between what we want and what we need. I’m not talking mainstream concepts, ideas or trends, but the choices we make when we sit down, (or stand, or drive) to eat.

I am after all a chef, and while I may have opinions on other more worldly and important topics, I understand that food and its impact on us is my utmost concern. At this point in my career, both at The Sage Rabbit and at Sullivan University, I feel I have a fairly strong grasp of what the food issues are and maybe even how to address them.

Buoyed by educated and opinionated faculty and staff, we are constantly debating food policy, politics and the direction of FOOD in this country. I’m sure my first chef would find it amusing that this topic, at once so integral to our survival, yet in his time so trivialized as a mere social obligation, would be center stage in the press and drive several major media outlets as well.

I won’t be retelling the story of how I think we got to this point, that would involve many more words than I have at my disposal, but I feel there is a way to distill part of the journey down into three simple words; fat, salt and sugar.

The Bermuda Triangle of the food world takes its legitimate hits on a daily basis, and all, at one time or another have been the poster child with what’s wrong with our diets. It’s as if each of the three has sentient qualities, personalities that can affect how we free thinking humans react to them.

Our usual response is more, more, more which has obviously gotten us into trouble. When we have the research to suggest strongly that there are harmful sides to each of these ingredients, there seems to be some prehistoric urge to consume all of them in an ever increasing level.

Lexington’s Farmer’s Market (Facebook Photo)

There are many articles and studies which highlight the positive benefits of fat, sugar and salt. Fat’s usefulness in breaking down certain nutrients to better distribute them to the body. Salt’s ability to stave off dehydration and even sugar’s role in elevating certain flavor profiles are all noted.

But our issues with these three ingredients stem no from the nature of the ingredient but our unnerving habit of consuming far too much of a “good thing” on a daily basis. From the beginning of time we have consumed to our social standing and in many cases beyond that almost as a sign of wealth and privilege.

This habit has brought with it many benefits, as well as some demons. As we progressed, advances in agriculture, technology, medicine have all made life easier and longer. Hidden in among the triumphs though is our insatiable hunger for more, sometimes manifested in our over large appetites and our overindulgence of the big three.

Where once we needed more fat in our diet to run the engines of industry, we now find ourselves fighting the waistline as our work is has been co-opted in multiple ways.

Taken as an anthropological view our successes may sometimes lead to our downfall. As it relates to my field, I am grateful that steps to correct and corral our excesses are ongoing and in a large part effective. The mantra of “everything in moderation” is not some idle soundbite from a diet guru, but a constant drumbeat of responsible chefs everywhere.

There has been a concerted effort to reduce portion size. Cooking methods are constantly evolving to use less fat by utilizing the natural fats of the dish. Salt and sugar, two flavor enhancers are being reduced in favor of finding more beneficial ways to heighten flavor profiles, adding an acid like lemon instead of finishing with salt.

We find that in doing so we get the same definition of flavors that we used to only accomplish with a handful of salt. When we add sugar, salt and fat has become just as important as how much we add as the timing of seasoning is far more important than we once knew.

And behind all this “new” approach is the ever present aura of clean food, local food, food that needs very little in the way of enhancement to taste really good. In the hands of a chef who follows the moderate approach this food could begin to solve a lot of our issues with high blood pressure, diabetes and bad cholesterol. But here is one more, very important factor to consider and that is the question of choice.

It is oftentimes what we choose and how often we choose it that affects the way our diet develops. It may be economics, may be environment, and may be even the availability of food in general. The very notion that some of our most detrimental food is present in our most at risk communities still amazes me.

Food deserts do exist, and are perpetuated by choice (which truthfully is sometimes limited by many factors). To bring water to these deserts the choices have got to change.

Change always starts on the ground floor and can be something as simple and approachable as setting aside a night or two of eating healthy. Vegetables, fruits, little fat, little salt and sugar other than what is contained in the ingredients. Many people try to do this without even the conscious effort I’m calling for now. Inherently they realize that at least one meal a week should include vegetables.

Make your trips to the drive through a treat instead of routine. Once a month, to start, go to the Saturday or Sunday market, first as a social experience and then as a goal for local produce.

Finally examine your food weakness’s, we all have them. Try to actively contain them, not eliminate them, thereby leaving the door open to an occasional lapse into the luxury of a three course meal or a big piece of chocolate cake without the constant guilt of food as antagonist. Everything in moderation, to start, will yield to a higher appreciation of the things, the food and the beverage that make everyday life a bit more enjoyable.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit, in Lexington.

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