Why We Must Cook Our Way to Health

Guest Post by Mark Hyman, MD

Recently, I flew to Greenville, South Carolina to meet with the Kluge family. I talked with them about their health, looking to understand the roots of their family crisis of morbid obesity, pre-diabetes, renal failure, disability, financial stress, and hopelessness. We talked about how they could dig themselves out of their scary downward spiral, a spiral that is affecting more than 150 million Americans (including tens of millions of children) struggling with the physical, social, and financial burden of obesity and its complications.

I thought that, perhaps, in knowing one family intimately, I could understand how we might find a way out of this slow motion disaster, a threat to the security of our families and our nation far greater than al-Qaeda or terrorism.

What I learned was this: we have to cook our way out of this mess.

Food Terrorism: Our Biggest Threat

The threat is food terrorism—the wholesale hijacking of our health, our palates, our brain chemistry, our kitchens, homes, and wallets by Big Food. Lobbyists working on behalf of the $1 trillion food industry have staged a takeover of our government. The average congressman spends five hours a day pandering to Big Food and other corporate lobbyists to raise money to stay in power. This leads to policies that support the production, sale, and promotion of disease causing, hyper-processed, industrial, factory-made Frankenfoods.

Why should the USDA pay $4 billion a year to soda makers by allowing food stamps to be used to purchase sodas? Our government serves up 29 million servings a day—over 10 billion servings a year—of soda to our poor. So much for the food stamp mission of "good food for hungry people!"

Government agricultural subsidies, food programs (like Women, Infant, and Children nutrition; school lunch; SNAP or Food Stamps; etc.), Food and Drug Administration policies (such as classifying high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners as generally recognized as safe), and Federal Trade Commission policies (like allowing $30 billion of junk food marketing mostly to kids), directly results in our obesity and chronic disease burden.

The costs are staggering. By 2040, 100% of our federal budget will be needed to pay for Medicare and Medicaid. Our federal debt soars, our kids are sicker, leading to an achievement gap that limits our capacity to compete in the global marketplace, and 70% of our kids are too fat or unfit to fight, threatening our national security. These are not small problems. They threaten our future, not just the fat and sick among us, but all of us.

A Visit to a Food Desert: Rescue Mission on One Kitchen

So, with this in mind, I traveled to the South, the epicenter of our obesity and diabetes crisis. If I understood the obstacles to turning the tide of obesity for just one family then, maybe, just maybe, it would help me find the key to ending this madness. I went there to help with a new documentary on childhood obesity with Laurie David and Katie Couric called Fed Up, coming out in late 2013 or 2014, which I hope will be for childhood obesity what An Inconvenient Truth was for climate change.

Pickens County, South Carolina, where the Kluge family lives, is a food desert, not just because there are almost 10 times as many fast food and convenience stores there as supermarkets. The Kluges' kitchen was also a food desert with barely a morsel of real food. There were no ingredients to make real food, only pre-made factory food science projects with unpronounceable, unrecognizable ingredient lists. Unless you look at the glossy pictures on the front of those packages, there is no way to know if what's inside is a Pizza Stuffer, Pop-Tart, Cool Whip, a corn dog, or Hamburger Helper. They all contain the same processed ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, flour, salt, hydrogenated fats, MSG, colors, additives, and preservatives, all squeezed into injection-molded inventions of different colors, shapes, and textures, but all containing nearly the same ingredient list.

A government health survey of South Carolina found that 90% of people there don't get enough exercise, 92% don't eat more than two vegetables a day (which includes fries and ketchup), and 33% had at least one soda a day.

And so it was with the Kluge family. The parents Tina and John and their 16-year-old son Brady are all morbidly obese. Brady has 47% body fat and his belly is 58% fat. He said he is worried he will soon be at 100% body fat. His insulin levels are sky high, which drives his relentless sugar cravings and food addiction and promotes storage of more and more belly fat. Being obese at 16, his life expectancy is 13 years less than thin kids and he is two times more likely to die by the age of 55 than his thin friends. His father John, at age 42, suffered renal failure from complications of his obesity. The whole family is at risk.

They desperately wanted to find a way out but didn't have the knowledge or skills to escape from the food terrorists. They blamed themselves for their failure, but it was clear to me that they were not the perpetrators but rather the victims. When I asked them what motivated them to want to change, the tears started to flow, and John said he didn't want to die and leave his wife and four boys. His youngest, Nicholas, is only seven years old. John cannot get a kidney transplant to save his life until he loses 40 pounds, and he had no clue how to lose the weight. He was trapped in a food desert and in the cycle of food addiction.

Now that science has proven that processed food—and especially sugar—is addictive, the conversation has changed. When your brain is hooked on drugs, it is a fiction that willpower and personal responsibility alone will solve the problem.

Cooking Our Way Out of Obesity and Disease

None of Kluges knew how to cook real food. They didn't know how to navigate a grocery aisle, shop for real food, or read a label. They had been hoodwinked by "health claims" that made them fat and sick, including "low fat," "diet," "zero trans fats," or "whole grain." Whole grain Pop-Tarts? Zero trans fats in Cool Whip? It is 100% trans fat, but since the serving size is small, and the food lobby forced Congress to permit them to label a "food" as having zero trans fat if it has less than 2 grams per serving, they can legally lie. The Kluges didn't know that chicken nuggets have 25 or more ingredients and only one of them is chicken. Actually, it is a chicken-like substance.

They grew up in homes where things were either fried or eaten out of a box or a can. They made only two vegetables, boiled cabbage and canned green beans. They didn't have basic cooking implements, such as proper boards for cutting vegetables or even meat. They had some old, dull knives they never used, hidden under the cupboard. Everything they ate was pre-made in a factory. They lived on food stamps and spent about $1000 each month on food, half of that spent eating out in fast food places. Eating out was their family sport.

Tina's mother had a garden, but Tina never learned how to grow food, even though they live in a beautiful, temperate rural area. She didn't know how to chop a vegetable or sauté it. She knew grilled chicken is healthy but said she couldn't feed that to her family seven days a week.

The Cure Is in the Kitchen: A Doctor's Recipe for Health

So, after much thought, as a doctor, I realized the best way I could help them was not to shame or judge them, not to prescribe more medication or tell them to eat less and exercise more (a subtle way of blaming them) but rather to teach them to cook good, real food from scratch, even on a tight budget, showing them they could eat well for less.

We got the whole family cooking, washing, peeling, chopping, cutting, touching real food: onions, garlic, carrots, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, even asparagus. Tina, to my surprise, pulled out a bunch of fresh asparagus from her fridge (which, I suspect, she got knowing I was coming to their home) and told me how she hated asparagus. "Once, I had asparagus out of a can, and it was nasty," she said. "But then a friend told me to try one off the grill, and even though I didn't want to, I tried it, and it was good."

My theory about vegetables is this: if you hate them, you've never had them prepared properly. They were likely a canned, overcooked, boiled, deep-fried or highly processed and tasteless mush. Just think of overcooked Brussels sprouts or mushy canned green beans.

I showed Tina and the kids how to peel garlic, cut onions, and snap asparagus to get rid of the chewy parts. I taught her to sauté them in olive oil and garlic, to roast sweet potatoes with fennel and olive oil, and to make turkey chili from scratch. We even made fresh salad dressing from olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper instead of using gummy bottled dressings laden with high fructose corn syrup, refined oil, and MSG.

The little boys came running into the kitchen, lured away from their Xbox by the sweet, warm smells of chili and roasting sweet potatoes in the oven, smells that had never come from their kitchen before. They all ate the food and were surprised at how delicious and filling it was.

After a happy, filling, healing meal of real food, cooked in less time and for less money than it would have taken them to drive to Denny's and order deep fried chicken nuggets, biscuits, gravy, and canned green beans, Brady, the morbidly obese, nearly "super obese" teenager with a body mass index of almost 40, Brady, who struggled to get healthy against all odds, who wanted to go to medical school, who wanted to help his family, said to me in disbelief, "Dr. Hyman, do you eat real food like this with your family every night?" I assured him I did.

I left for home amidst tears of relief and hope of a different future for the Kluge family. I wish I had time to take them shopping, to show them how to navigate a supermarket, to teach them to plant a simple garden in their backyard, to take back their health.

Eating and Cooking Well for Less

I left them with my cookbook, The Blood Sugar Solution Cookbook, and a guide from the Environmental Working Group called "Good Food on a Tight Budget" about how to shop for, cook, and eat real food for less. Five days later, Tina, the mother, texted me to let me know that the family had lost 18 pounds and was making chili again from scratch. We can end this mess one kitchen at a time, one meal at a time.

Time and money are the biggest perceived obstacles to eating well. Neither is real. We have bought in to the insidious marketing messages: "You deserve a break today." Give me a break!

Americans spend eight hours a day in front of a screen. We spend two hours a day on the Internet, something that didn't even exist 20 years ago that we have now somehow found time for. What's missing is the education, the basic skills, the knowledge, and the confidence. When you don't know what to buy or how to cook a vegetable, how can you feed yourself or your family? The Kluge family taught me that it is not a lack of desire but the prison of food addiction and food terrorism that holds them hostage. But there is a way out, a Navy SEAL raid on our captive millions.

Michael Pollan's new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, brilliantly lays down the argument that we have to cook our way out of our healthcare, environmental, and financial crisis, that cooking is essentially a political act, or, as I have said, cooking is a revolutionary act. His new book beautifully re-acquaints us with the essential act of cooking, the act that uniquely makes us human but which we have abdicated to the food industry. We have, he argues, become food consumers, not food producers or makers, and in so doing, we have lost our connection to our world and ourselves.

He says, "The decline of everyday home cooking doesn't only damage the health of our bodies and our land but also our families, our communities and our sense of how our eating connects us to the world."

Cooked is a beautiful mediation on cooking and the use of fire, air, water, and earth—the ancient skills of food preparation that we have lost. But the subtext here is that cooking is fun, freeing, and the most essential and real activity we can do every day.

And as a physician, one who is deeply concerned about our fat and sick nation, about my children's and your children's future, I say the best prescription for this ailment is something so simple, so easy, so healing, so affordable, so revolutionary, and so accessible to almost everyone. It's this: cook REAL FOOD in your HOME with your family and friends.

I dream of one day creating a national Eat-In day like the one I just celebrated with few thousand from my online community, only on a larger scale, during which millions participate, a day where we all cook, share, and eat real whole food, made from scratch with family and friends. It's simple but revolutionary.

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below-but remember, we can't offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD


Dr. Hyman is dedicated to identifying and addressing the root causes of chronic illness through a groundbreaking whole-systems medicine approach called Functional Medicine. He is a family physician, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in his field.