Happy New Year! As we come out of the holiday season, many of you may be coming out of food comas and resolving to lose a few pounds in 2013. If so, you may want to check out Slim Peace, an international weight loss program holding its first U.S. meeting in Boston on January 8. Inspired by the documentary A Slim Peace, the program brings together Jewish and Arab and/or Muslim women to learn about healthy eating and one another's cultures.
The Boston group is being led by two registered dieticians, Emma Samuels and Aminah Herzig. I asked them about healthy eating habits – and their holiday guilty pleasures.
Although your religious backgrounds are different, are there certain ideas about healthier eating habits and self-esteem that you've discovered are universal?
EMMA: Absolutely. Making smart choices for your body and for yourself cross through all religious, cultural, gender, age and any and all other borders. Being healthy is a universal concept, even when practiced slightly differently according to one's faith. At the heart of it, our bodies are our own temple, or mosque or church or whatever else we consider holy. We are what we eat. We can embrace specific dietary restrictions and/or cultural foods and recognize that there is always an opportunity for keeping meals healthy and nutrient-dense. Celebratory foods can be healthy too! Eating healthy requires knowledge of balancing meals, creativity of exploring new foods, and awareness of how our body is feeling. Too often we are mindless in our eating; eating from habit, boredom, stress, thirst. Being able to listen to our internal signals of how we feel physically and emotionally are steps toward eating well.
AMINAH: While many religious events and celebrations are centered around food, what resonates is appreciation of food and mindfulness. I see this in religious fasts, where abstaining from food and/or drink for a certain period of time helps us to really appreciate our food when we are able to eat again, or when religious script specifies foods that are good for us. I think that the idea that moderation is key and that food is meant to sustain us and give us good health and energy and not give us disease and make us sick is universal. The difficult part is not understanding this, but putting this into practice.
I always read about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. What tips do you have for us Bostonians trying to follow that sort of diet in the dead of winter?
AMINAH: While you may not have access to the freshest of fruits and veggies in the winter, it’s a great time to take advantage of more seasonal items. The great thing about healthy fats, lean proteins and whole grains is that they are available year-round. I would recommend checking out your local farmers markets and grocery stores for farm-fresh and in-season produce, like sweet potato, winter squash, apples, beets, broccoli, broccoli rabe, peppers and pears, to name a few. If you’re missing out on your favorites, check out the frozen food aisle!
EMMA: We are in the process of “Americanizing” the Slim Peace curriculum, and therefore we will likely focus on the current American guidelines of MyPlate method, set by the USDA. Both Aminah and I agreed that while we could easily promote this diet, it made more sense to remain consistent with the American guidelines since we are moving Slim Peace to the United States. Healthy eating tips are followed more easily when they are accessible and consistent with your environment and culture.
And yes, there is a way to maintain good intake of fruits and vegetables, even in the dead of winter in Boston. Frozen vegetables, for example, do not get enough attention. They are usually flash-frozen in the prime of their season so they maintain maximum nutrient benefits.
You both have worked with senior populations. What attracted you to working with that age group?
AMINAH: I had a quick rotation in long-term care while doing clinical nutrition in a big hospital. It was one of my favorite rotations because unlike working in a busy hospital, it didn’t feel like speed dating! I got a chance to sit and speak with the residents, to better know them and to help individualize their diet plans. I also found it challenging to work with very sick and frail elderly, and those with dementia, and felt I was up for the challenge.
EMMA: After completing my internship, I wanted to maintain my clinical experience as a registered dietitian. At the time, I had two young children and was not able to work full-time. It was, and continues to be, unusual to find an inpatient and part-time R.D. position. Honestly, it just so happened to be in the field of geriatric nutrition and not necessarily what I would have picked for myself.
Not long after accepting this job, I soon realized that professionals who work with geriatric and, often, end-of-life patients, are exceptional human beings. This working experience has opened my heart to the patients themselves; their lives and past and stories. They are not just "old"; they are human beings, many who have lived amazing and full lives, and who deserve attention and respect and care. And I will add that the friendships that I made in this workplace are the strongest work relationships I have ever had. Hence working now with Aminah!
Every culture has holidays, and every holiday has diet-busting treats. What are yours?
AMINAH: I love to never diet, but to always eat mindfully. And the holidays are a great time to really focus on eating and enjoying favorites. Anything warm and chocolate is a favorite of mine. I also am a sucker for a good pie topped with a scoop of ice cream.
EMMA: We just finished Chanukah, where cooking with maximum amounts of oil is encouraged to symbolize the oil candles that lasted miraculously for eight nights, not just one. Sufganiyot (jelly donuts) are everywhere. Potato latkes are another. My mother makes a mean zucchini and sweet potato latke – still fried in oil and so good!
Slim Peace Boston launches January 8. Find out more and sign up!
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!