Chances are, you know someone who follows a special diet: your parents, grandparents, maybe even you. Sometimes called "therapeutic diets," these can range from reduced salt for high blood pressure to a very complex renal diet for kidney disease, which sometimes requires months of learning what to eat. For many people, hearing their doctor say, "You're going to have to change your diet" evokes a fear of being sentenced to a life of tasteless meals. And there may be good reason. I've met fellow dietitians who just don't cook (I was guilty of that too early in my career). The irony of medical doctors receiving meager nutrition training is also reflected in dietitians generally not receiving enough culinary training. Nutrition school curricula may include food preparation courses that teach basic cooking techniques with proteins, vegetables, etc., but not how to prepare modified diets and use flavor enhancements. On the flipside, culinary schools usually skip the section on healthful cooking. There are some clinical and outpatient dietitians educating patients how to eat who do not realize that the diets they are preaching are not palatable or realistic. Thankfully, due in part to high profile foodie dietitians like Ellie Krieger, celebrity chefs who embrace healthful cooking, and an increasing number of television food/cooking shows, more dietitians are becoming true food experts.
I recently received a sample shipment of beautifully wrapped products created by dietitians in Alabama who counsel a wide range of patients. Their company The Delicious Dietitian sells food enhancements like high quality flavored vinegars and spice blends that are free of salt, sugar, potassium, MSG and gluten. Spices contain powerful plant chemicals that fight disease, and many have anti-inflammatory properties. Countries with low rates of cancer and heart disease generally have a higher intake of spices, which may reflect their greater use of fresh whole foods needing added flavoring, rather than processed packaged foods that are filled with salt and artificial flavors. I whipped up The Delicious Dietitian's recipes for a signature marinade and a salad dressing using their Red Muscadine Wine Vinegar and Zalea Zest All-Purpose Spice Blend. I added the marinade to skinless chicken thighs, which really sparked my taste buds with its pleasant tartness, and the olive oil-based salad dressing went perfectly with colorful greens and vegetables. When your mouth is processing all those complex flavors, it doesn't have time to miss the saltiness that may be lacking.
Tips for cooking therapeutic meals:
- Start with the best quality unprocessed ingredients available, which already taste great with few enhancements.
- If you have to reduce the sugar or salt in your diet, explore the "sour" taste bud with tart flavors found in vinegars and citrus foods. You can still use some sweet or salty additives but the overall amount needed may be less.
- Buy a spick rack and fresh herbs; learn how each tastes and which foods they complement. Try low/no sodium salsas and spice blends such as Mrs. Dash or those mentioned above. See Cooking with Herbs and Spices.
- Learn about food substitutions that are not as noticeable tastewise but make a big difference healthwise: Replacing whole wheat flour in baking for white flour, choosing low fat Greek yogurt that tastes richer and is higher in protein than highly sugared standard yogurts, using olive and canola oils in cooking to retain richness but without the saturated fat and high salt found in butter.
- Take time to make your plate visually appealing with colorful dinnerware and vibrant fruits or vegetables, which may increase your eating enjoyment.