I was born in Lafayette, spent my teen years in Mandeville, and currently live in New Orleans, where my family tree goes back nearly 300 years. I've spent my life (minus some picky childhood years) eating the cuisine that my family and most of the citizens in these areas had been feasting upon for a long time; however, I don't anymore. It's not that it's unappealing to my taste buds. I'm honestly worried about what it's doing to my body and my long-term health.
The Annual Health Report Card by the Louisiana Department of Health issued in March 2018 showing health statistics for 2016 concluded that Louisiana ranks 46th in death due to heart disease and stroke, 46th in percentage of obese adults, and 42nd in percentage of adults with diabetes. In 2015, we had the most obese citizens in America. The data shows that Louisianans love our food, alcohol, and other ingestibles so much that they're killing us. Or, perhaps, we're killing ourselves.
"The research is very clear that our diet is correlated with our general health," explained Chef Leah Sarris, RD, LDN, CCMS, Director of Operations/Executive Chef of the Goldring Center of Culinary Medicine. "What we think of as southern food and New Orleans food now isn't necessarily what it was 200 years ago. What it is now is not very healthy. It has a lot of animal fat, high in calories, a lot of fried food."
Through her research since taking the position at the Goldring Center in 2012, Chef Leah found that the typical New Orleans diet has taken an especially unhealthy nose dive in recent decades, leading to an uptick in obesity and all of the diseases that can come from generally bad health. She said, "If you look back in the past 100 or so years, traditional Creole and Cajun cuisine was actually not what it is to people today. It's become a lot of meats and heavy, heavy food with a lot of saturated fat. If you look back further, people were using what was local, what was available; they were using vegetables that they were growing in their yards. There wasn't as much meat around."
Chef Leah and the team at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, located at 300 South Broad Street, next to Whole Foods and Liberty's Kitchen, do community outreach work and host free cooking classes in order to show people different ways to make their old favorites and how to shop healthy on a budget. "We have to realize that the food is really ingrained into the culture here. We can't fight against it; we have to work with people and teach them how to make small changes that are sustainable to their diets in order for it to be realistic to them. I'm not going to say completely pull that meat out, unless you feel ready to do that. But if we can reduce that by half, and I can show them other ways to incorporate flavors, I consider that a win. Red beans usually has a ton of pork, sausage, or ham. We show them ways of how to go vegetarian or vegan with it, and we enhance that smokey flavor by using things liked smoked paprika," she said. The Goldring Center emphasizes using fresh, seasonal vegetables, more beans and less meat, and enhancing your knowledge of food preparation as ways to make small changes that add up to a healthier body. She continued, "Casseroles, one-pot meals, stews, soups, and jambalaya are where we can incorporate a lot more veggies, plus some of the meat. People don't really realize they're eating less meat because it's still really flavorful, and they feel satisfied. Meat seems to be the most expensive part of the dish, so we're showing people that when they use more plant-based proteins and more vegetables, you can lower the cost of your dish."
Luckily, there have been a slew of plant-forward restaurants and more plant-based menu options popping up around the greater New Orleans area in recent years. Chef Leah excitedly said, "In the seven years I've been here, I feel like there's a lot more restaurants that cater to foods that aren't traditional New Orleans foods. I see great places like Sneaky Pickle, Bearcat Café, and Seed that are really being innovative in their approach to the plant-based scene."
The founder of the vegan restaurant Seed (1330 Prytania Street), Edgar Cooper, has noticed more and more people getting comfortable with forgoing meat for at least one meal, if that meal is delicious, saying, "It is always satisfying when a group comes in and brings a skeptical friend. We really worked hard on the menu, so that it would be just good enjoyable food and no one would even think about what isn't in it. So whether plant-based full-time or just at Seed, we encourage and welcome people to try things. Obviously, in New Orleans, you need hot sauce and some local items as well."
People can begin to increase their health by incorporating more plants into their meals, decreasing portion sizes, and being aware of every ingredient on their plate. "At Seed, we love when people come in looking for that healthy option to start the shift in their diet. Everyone has guilty pleasures, so eating those in moderation is a great step forward, reducing portion size can help, and increasing portions of organic whole produce can help offset the volume and calories. I think that people sometimes fear being hungry on a healthier lifestyle, but things like carrots sticks and celery sticks can be very satisfying with no fat or excessive calories," stated Edgar.
Edgar fully believes that the food you put into your body correlates to your short-term and long-term health, and he prescribes making small changes now that can lead to larger diet changes down the road. "Quality of life is directly impacted by choices we make every day. Regularly feeding your body healthy foods will make you feel better and make you healthier; when coupled with exercise, a healthy plant-based diet can really shift mood and overall health. There are growing number of studies showing that healthy eating is directly linked to health and longevity. Childhood obesity continues to rise, and the U.S., in particular, is heading toward a major health crisis. The U.S. is lagging behind the rest of the world in recognizing the issue, and New Orleans, in particular, seems lost in time in regards to the shift in healthier lifestyles. The movement has started in New Orleans but is still in the early stages of developing."
Saying that we're all going to die eventually so we should just eat whatever junk food we feel like all the time is no way to live because the quality of your life will most likely be negatively impacted. Chef Leah said, "If we just take more of a preventative approach and use food as medicine rather than using the health care system that doesn't always work for us, [we can] prevent things like heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, and you don't go to the hospital as much and end up with all these high bills or have financial woes. That's not to say that food and medicine can't be synergistic because they definitely can be, but we can prevent a lot of the hardships that we would otherwise fall into if we just start to think more about what we eat now. I'm sure we can all relate because someone in our family or people we know has hard health hardships because they haven't taken care of themselves. If we can live a life that's happier and that's better for the ones we love, why wouldn't we?"
Take a look down at your next meal and think, "What can I do to make this just a little bit healthier?" It could lead you to a healthier and happier life.