We all know that Americans’ poor eating habits are responsible for the obesity pandemic. Many people still don’t know what good food is or believe that eating well just isn’t possible. Fighting those assumptions has transformed Health Quest nutritionist Roufia Payman’s job into a mission.
Payman works out of Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck. She said she’s much busier than when she started her career 30 years ago. She’s seeing many more young people now. More people are coming to her with gastro-digestive problems that are a direct result of eating junk food. Others suffer from hypertension, elevated cholesterol and elevated triglycerides. Unhealthy food is the cause of at least 40 percent of the cases of diabetes, cancer, stroke, and other diseases, Payman said she had calculated. Poor diet impacts even a disease such as arthritis, since too much animal fat and sugar causes inflammation and excess weight puts stress on the joints.
Forget the fad diets. Payman, one of the speakers at Health Quest’s women-only Better than Chocolate event this past Thursday night, June 28, said she coaches her patients to change their eating habits permanently. They are told to eat fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, nuts, and whole grains and to avoid processed, refined foods, which she calls “poison.” One of her patients, a schoolteacher who was a couch potato when she first consulted Payman five years ago, has lost over 110 pounds and now is a fitness enthusiast, teaching Zumba classes. Another is an 85-year-old who lost 15 pounds in two months and now enjoys rounds of golf.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Payman said. “You eat bad food, which makes you tired and depressed, [and] which causes you to eat more to comfort yourself. My mission in life is to teach people that food is your medicine. Don’t make medicine your food.”
Payman grew up in Iran, where everyone shopped at local markets, bought their meat from butchers, and only ate fresh foods. Spinach, cilantro, eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, onions, parsley, radishes, and scallions were key components of the Iranian diet, with a few tablespoons of plain yogurt served at each meal.
Educating people to deal with marketing hype is a big part of Payman’s job. “The most important think I teach them is how to read labels,” she said. “Sugar is poison. Soda, fruit punches and other juice, even sports drinks — are garbage.”
She reads the ingredients from a box of raisin bran to her patients, showing them that the cereal, contrary to marketers’ claims of its cancer-fighting antioxidants, is full of sugar and refined carbohydrates. The additives in food are particularly designed by food companies “to get you hooked,” she said.
Her program includes consultations and recipes tailored to each person. “You have to really get to know your client, their background and relationship with food,” she said. “You teach them step by step.”
The basic message, however, is the same: “Learn to love the food that loves you back.”
“We’re too focused on a number on the scale or vanity,” Payman explained. “It’s about wellness, the quality of your life. I always say life and death are in the hand of God, but the quality of life is in your hands. What determines that quality is how you fuel your body.”
Payman advises her clients to avoid “anything white” — choosing brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain bread over white. Refined carbohydrates affect blood sugar, leading to dangerous swings, she said. For breakfast, a meal that she says should never be skipped, she recommends eating a lean protein like an egg. Natural almond butter or peanut butter on a slice of whole-grain bread is an excellent option.
Payman advises eating six meals a day — three smaller sit-down meals and three snacks and eating smaller amounts of good food more frequently. Protein is particularly important. It keeps blood sugar stable and prevents the kind of ravenous hunger that causes people to eat a bag of chips in one sitting.
Nuts, such as almonds or pistachios, fruits (washed, of course), raw carrots, grape tomatoes, and low-fat cheese are excellent snack foods. Busy commuters can keep some nuts in the car and bring pieces of cut-up apple or other fresh fruit or vegetable along. For drinks, water is best, along with herbal and black teas and coffee in moderation.
Given people’s busy lives, planning is key, she said. “Make dishes such as vegetarian chili or turkey burgers in advance and freeze them, so when you come home you simply take the food out of the freezer and it’s ready. If you don’t plan your meals, you won’t succeed.”
There’s never an excuse for not eating well, she added. “Today I was screaming at some poor man: Don’t tell me you don’t have time. Boil a dozen eggs in the morning and take one with you. For lunch eat a peanut-butter sandwich.’”
It’s a myth that good food costs too much. Payman said she was in complete agreement with a point made by keynote speaker Jessica Applestone, co-owner of Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, Such foods as hormone-free, grass-fed beef don’t have to break the bank. Applestone said $50 worth of beef, sausages, chicken, pork, and bacon was enough to supply 10 meals, an affordable $5 per meal.
A small, three-ounce serving of meat is sufficient and in fact healthier, said Payman. Your dinner plate should be filled half with dark green leafy vegetables, a quarter with a whole grain such as brown rice, bulgur wheat, quinoa, or barley and the remaining quarter with a lean protein. Payman also recommended an eight-ounce serving of seafood a week.
In her talk, Applestone lambasted the labeling that prevails at the supermarket. Except for “organic,” all other health-suggestive labels, such as “free range,” “all-natural” and “artisanal” should be suspect, she said, given that they aren’t backed up by a certifying organization. Similarly, a consumer shouldn’t assume that a meat branded with the name of a farm means the animal was hormone-free and raised in a free-range pasture. Usually, it’s just another marketing ploy.
Better than Chocolate, held at Poughkeepsie’s Grandview, also featured Kelli Mayfarth, a board-certified genetic counselor at Health Quest. In her talk about genetic testing for breast cancer, Mayfarth said that genetic testing continues to evolve, with a new test for 20 genes introduced just this year. However, she noted that only 10 percent of overall cases of breast cancer are attributable to heredity.
Payman said that the best way to avoid falling prey to one of modern society’s common diseases was to eat well, exercise at least half an hour five days a week — and enjoy both. “Food isn’t just one thing. It’s the body, mind, and soul,” said Payman. “Always take 60 seconds to meditate before you eat. It’s about learning to love yourself. Good food is love.”