Nutritionist: Americans Should Change How They Think About Food

Much has been made about how many prepared foods, and convenience meals are high in sodium, and high sodium diets carry a number of health risks, many of which disproportionately affect communities of color. Host Michel Martin speaks with nutritionist Rovenia Brock, a.k.a. Dr. Ro, and Chef George Stella about the risks of high sodium diets, and about some healthy, tasty and affordable alternatives to that frozen convenience meal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to talk more about salt. Last month, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, an independent non-profit, called on Americans to consume far less salt. Too much sodium, they said, leads to a greater risk of high blood pressure. But we wondered if people know what kinds of food have lots of salt and what foods have little.

Here to talk more about this is nutritionist Rovenia Brock, better known as Dr. Ro. She's the author of "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy." She's on the line with us from her home office in Virginia. Also joining us is Chef George Stella, author of "The Good Carb Chef: Real Food Real Easy." He's on the line with us from his home office in Kissimmee, Florida.

Welcome back, both of you. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Nutritionist, Author): It's a pleasure to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So Doctor...

Mr. GEORGE STELLA (Chef, author): Great to be back, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. STELLA: And hi, Dr. Ro.

Dr. BROCK: Hey, Chef George.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, now that everybody's all in love again, here we go. Dr. Ro, Americans are eating one and a half teaspoons of salt daily. What's the problem with that?

Dr. BROCK: Well, the problem with it is that it could lead to hypertension. And with the overwhelming numbers of people who are salt sensitive in America, minority groups such as African-Americans, who suffer disproportionately from high blood pressure, it's a real problem and it wreaks havoc on the body. From your kidneys to your heart, having excessive salt intake can really do some serious damage.

MARTIN: And Chef Stella, where are people likely to be ingesting salt where they may not know that they are?

Mr. STELLA: Oh my gosh. Dont get me started. Everywhere. Our food is so highly processed these days that it's hardly food anymore. And last night I was cooking Moho Chicken on the grill and all the flavor didnt come from salt. It can from the herb rub and a little Italian dressing. But today its cheaper to put salt to get flavor and that's not what salt was meant for. Salt was meant to bring out the natural flavors.

Dr. BROCK: Right.

Mr. STELLA: But they dont have any natural flavors left in the food. So any time youre shopping for a box or a can or going out to eat, chances are youre getting that teaspoon and a half in one serving.

MARTIN: You have also had the experience of having to change your diet radically over the course of time. Was it a surprise to you how much salt is in a lot of the food that we routinely consume when you first started thinking about it? Did you know?

Mr. STELLA: You know what? I became food aware. It surprised me not only how much salt was in the food but how much starches, how much sugars, and that the actual flavor of that so-called food was made up of all of these bad ingredients.

MARTIN: Dr. Ro, can I ask you, too - it's not like it hasnt been known for some time that too much sodium in the diet can be unhealthy. Why do you think we're having a hard time absorbing that message? Is it because you think a lot of the foods that are cultural foods in a lot of people's core cultures have a lot of salt in them or they use highly salted ingredients, or is it that weve become addicted to it? We just assume that's the way food is supposed to taste? What do you think?

Dr. BROCK: I think, yeah. I think that's a big part of it. Culturally speaking, for African-Americans, for the Hispanic, the Latino community, salt and fat are big sources of what we think are flavors in a food. But I'm on the same bandwagon with Chef George about the fact that you really miss the boat when you dont eat whole foods as fresh as possible and as often as possible, and when you start to eat foods out of cans and boxes. As he said, you really dont get foods anymore.

At the same time, I would say with this whole cultural thing, people are seasoning their foods with salt. And as he said, salt is really a flavor enhancer. It is intended to bring out the flavor of food rather than give you a perceived flavor of that food.

Having said all that, though, Michel, I would say that one of the ways that we can cut down in addition to reading the label, eating far less processed foods, cut them out if in fact you can, and even though there's a process involved there. The other thing that you can do is to switch from table or iodized salt to kosher salt or sea salt, which is fewer milligrams of sodium by far than that found in table salt.

MARTIN: Hmm. Yeah.

Mr. STELLA: But herein lies to rub.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. STELLA: No pun intended. We as a society are conditioned to need more and more salt because of the over-usage for so long in our processed foods, in our restaurant foods, our fast foods, that now the more we get, the more we need, so it's not enough to just sprinkle a dash or this or that, because weve grown accustomed to needing more to please our palette.

The only problem is, we can do like Dr. Ro says and what I agree is substitute fresh herbs and healthy super spices like cayenne and cinnamon and cumin and turmeric and allspice, and we can do all that at home, but our kids, who become us, we go out, we eat out, and we get that salt and we come home and that's just not enough at home so they want more from us at home...

MARTIN: Chef, but pick up the thread on that, Chef, because we hear all the time, you know, buy local, buy fresh, prepare your own food, you can control what goes into that food. But you know, you hear it all the time. Youve got a lot of parents - both parents working out there. Youve got some single parents out there. And they say, look, I'm just barely getting through my day. So Chef, tell me how people can cook more and actually follow those guidelines and still feel that they can get what they're supposed to get?

Mr. STELLA: I know the answer. Dr. Ro?

Dr. BROCK: I know the answer too. I mean first of all, weve got to move off the excuse bandwagon, because we give ourselves permission to make excuses in instances where we really dont need to. There are things that we can do. First of all, we've got to get back to basics and we need to cook more. And I know Chef is going to chime in here, because we eat the majority of our meals now as families and individuals outside the home rather than in the home. But there are foods that you can prepare quickly (unintelligible) cook.

You can go to any rotisserie or deli section of your local grocery store and get a rotisserie or grilled chicken, throw together some green vegetable like saut´┐Żed spinach and a little olive oil and garlic and put together some tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and throw in some fresh basil and you've got a meal. You dont have to be a chef, but Chef George can speak to the fact that it's easy to get back to basics in order to live better.

MARTIN: Alright. Chef, help us out here.

Mr. STELLA: Ten years ago, my family was totally impoverished. I was on food stamps, Social Security disability and totally disabled, being 470 pounds. Back then we changed our eating habits and I started cooking - I'm a chef - and because I could cook, we actually saved money off the processed foods. We were able to buy the 10 pound bag of chicken leg quarters for 69 cents a pound and make all kinds of meals on them, from family-style chicken that you just throw in one pot. We started growing our own herbs. Instead of buying a bunch of parsley for $1.99, they had the little plants right there for $1.99 in the soil; you take them home and you get quadruple in size. They keep you in fresh herbs all for the rest of the year, even on your counter, and you know, now that's, of course, we grow everything.

So, but youre not going to believe this. Besides the fresh food that youve got to buy, and you can buy the produce that's on sale, that's the first place I always used to go - you know, I took my store coupons with my wife, Rachel. She's an expert at it. We took a cooler and we went to two or three stores and then we cooked all in one day for the week and froze things. And then when my kids came home, they had frozen cheeseburgers individually wrapped. They could microwave them instead of reaching in for a box of macaroni and cheese.

So use your freezer. You can buy frozen good bag vegetables that you can have there so that you have them available. Stock your spice rack. I could go on and on. But once you have your arsenal, you can start painting. You wouldnt paint without paints. You need your spices. You need some frozen vegetables. And buy in bulk and cook in bulk.

MARTIN: So before I let you go, do you feel that that message is getting through?

Dr. BROCK: I dont think we're doing a good enough job, because as Chef George had said before, our taste buds have become accustomed to having more sodium or more salt in the food than our bodies actually require, than we need. You know, to change your life you've got to first change your mind.

Mr. STELLA: You got that right.

Dr. BROCK: So weve got to change the way we think about food, what it means to us, discover what our relationship is with food, because we're overweight at an alarming rate because we have a dysfunctional relationship with food in America.

MARTIN: Alright.

Dr. BROCK: Salt being a part of it.

MARTIN: Dr. Rovenia Brock is a nutritionist and the author of "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy." She's joined us by phone from her home office in Virginia. Chef George Stella has been a personal chef for over 30 years. He's the author of "The Good Carb Chef: Real Food Real Easy." He promises that. He joined us from his home office in Kissimmee, Florida.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. BROCK: Always a pleasure.

Mr. STELLA: My pleasure.

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