A Full Plate of Limited Choices

02/08/2011 09:49 am 09:49:28 | Updated May 25, 2011

Like models representing everyday women and men - picture perfect, slender, toned + tall bodies - so is the image of food in contemporary media. It's a Garden of Eden not only in terms of abundance, but limitless variety - and all of us are invited to the table of endless bounty to indulge in the latest food creations.

Being able to eat everything and anything is as idealized as the 6' tall models in the pages of Vogue Magazine. For some readers, the notion of a restrictive diet might suggest an association with weight control or perhaps religious beliefs. For others, the notion of any limitations of gastronomic intake is heresy - the world is their oyster, literally and figuratively. And then there is the rest of us, who have discovered that while food nurtures, comforts, delights and entertains - it is capable of damaging the very organism it is suppose to help.

The unprecedented explosion of diet related diseases like obesity and diabetes are clear examples of how we might be eating ourselves to death and has created a panic amongst health and government officials who have suddenly realized that perhaps we are what we eat. We are 2 or 3 generations deep into a ruptured connection to home cooked meals with old-fashioned food values that ensured nutritious meals and healthy food values, precisely why we are so dedicated to our work at The Sylvia Center.

But it doesn't end there. And it doesn't end with the diets of the baby boomers resisting the Lipitor siren, opting for morning meals of oatmeal laced with flax seed, or lunches rich in Omega-3 or 6, and dinners sans red meat but laden with rich greens.

There is an exploding connection between what is in our food (and hence in our bodies, duh) and illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal to behavioral. There are so many who understand the mechanics of how specific foods as well as the toxins we have introduced and incorporated into the food system, influence our engines (our bodies); from antibiotics in our milk and meat, to toxic pesticides in our veggies and water, to unimaginable chemicals and elements in food processing (there are times when it feels better to be ignorant).

I am not an expert - I am one of those who until recently indulged in just about anything that seemed interesting and edible. And though I was raised in a household that excluded shellfish and pork as well as the combination of meat and dairy products, I certainly made up for lost time over the course of a multi-decade career in the high-end food industry - special event catering. But things have been changing - or should I say, evolving unexpectedly. And as I am halfway through my second year as a vegetarian, I have - late in the game - developed empathy for people who have to literally hunt to find foods their bodies can tolerate.

Let me share some of the restrictive requirements of certain diets. I have become familiar with them because they now dictate the meals I cook for dear friends and family.

Cholesterol conscience diets: No dairy - so no wonderful cheeses, one of the most beautiful and sensuous foods in the world; no red meat, totally resistible until you smell freshly grilled lamb chops or steak (or for all beef hot dog); no potato chips or chocolate or high fat content snack that is the perfect mid-afternoon reward.

Gluten-free diets: It is amazing to learn about the substitutions in everything from bread and cookies to cereals and snacks. Moreover, it is the discipline of reading the labels and seeing how wheat has crept into so many corners of the food supply. I have heard, and now have witnessed, the startling and dramatic difference the elimination of gluten from a diet has on health and well-being. I don't know why, but it has a profound effect.

Dairy-free diets: Do you know how many milk substitutes there are? How many different dairy free "cheese" are available? How about combining gluten AND dairy free - what do those pizza's look like? Can you find a decent hamburger bun? I have a friend who adores Passover for the same reason everyone else hates it - no bread. She revels in the dairy free Passover selection even more. And we can be very grateful to the vegan resurgence for aiding in the creation of even more dairy free alternatives. Oh, so sad to acknowledge that the secret ingredient behind soooo many exquisite dishes is simply a ton of butter or heavy cream.

Sodium-free: What more can I say, try cooking or eating without reaching for the sea salt. Or go out to a restaurant where sodium isn't everywhere in everything. Or buying shelf stable products - its almost not possible to find sodium free items.

Low-carb: Sugars that are found naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables are unwelcome. The iconic healthy carrot and magnificent beet are now villains. An entirely new way of looking at what we thought was healthy and above suspicion now is on the do not cook or eat list if blood sugar is an issue.

Raw foods, Fibrous foods: This category is comprised of foods that are great for you, that we grow with pride at Katchkie Farm, but not so great if you have digestive tract issues. These restrictions are sometimes accompanied by the elimination of other food groups, and might be temporary or long term. In either case, it makes the process of selecting proper nutrients challenging at worse and frustrating at best.

I have never had to understand the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber. And while I recognized the vegetables that cause gas, I never put them into categories of heal or harm. And the topic of fats, cooking oils, eggs and nuts....I will save those for another day.

So, this is the tip of the iceberg. As I cook I try to remember who can have salt but no dairy; who can have cooked veggies, omit the carrots; chicken, but only light meat and no skin; good fish - bad fish (lets not forget the sustainability or mercury issues); and how to create big beautiful flavors.

My mantra - "Life Happens around Food," suddenly, has a lot more meaning.