When it comes to good food, Prof. Mindy Kurzer is the expert.
Director of the Healthy Food, Healthy Lives Institute on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, Kurzer oversees an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to bringing together specialists in fields as varied as applied agricultural economics, agronomy and nutrition to tackle problems and promote solutions directly related to better eating. Yet she insists that definitions of healthy food are as individual as the people who make them.
“There’s no one definition,” she says. “Native American people might use the words in a cultural sense, while for others the definition of healthy eating involves avoidance of processed food. … My personal definition of healthy foods are foods that contribute nutrients to the body, are not heavily processed and ideally contain healthy anti-oxidizing or anti-carcinogenic compounds … but more important than the health of individual foods is the overall pattern of eating.”
However you define it, healthy eating has a major role in disease prevention, says Kurzer. “Diet has been linked to one-third to one-half of all cancers,” she says, explaining that dietary factors also play a role in cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Research at the institute focuses on projects that cross academic boundaries, Kurzer says. A typical research strategy has been to enlist agronomy to develop plant breeds with exceptionally high levels of cancer-fighting compounds. Nutritionists and medical researchers then test the effectiveness of these antioxidant-rich food stuffs on the health of individual subjects.
Other projects are less involved with biochemistry than with the sort of produce that eventually ends up at the area’s farmers markets. “We funded a project to teach beekeeping to local Hmong-American truck farmers,” says Kurzer. “We asked the farmers to [record] their production levels and see if the [increase in] bee populations improves productivity.”
The institute also provides a community grant program that funds efforts to encourage gardening and healthier food-preparation techniques among Native American, African American and Latino communities, in order to address high levels of diabetes in those populations.
“And we funded a project led by a farmer in the Arrowhead,” Kurzer says, “to see if they could grow all the food they needed locally” in the harsh conditions of northern Minnesota. The verdict was, they could.
Defining ‘healthy foods’
When Kurzer talks about healthy foods, she tries to avoid narrow definitions that depend on “natural” or organic ingredients, which may be out of the price-range of those on a budget. “The diet I aspire to consists of low sugar, moderate alcohol and salt, with high plant content, moderate amounts of meat and lots of fish,” she says. Instead of being overly preoccupied with labels like “natural” and “organic,” Kurzer suggests visiting the institute in the Food Science and Nutrition Building, 1334 Eckles Ave., for suggestions on “cooking on a student’s budget.”
“Cooking from scratch can be cheaper and healthier than buying fast food or prepared meals,” she says. Is lack of time the barrier to home-cooked meals? “Try cooking in bulk on weekends and freezing stuff for use later in the week.” Every year in October, the institute sponsors an Annual Food Day on campus to promote ideas like these to the public.
Kurzer concedes that to stop smoking is both the simplest and most-effective health decision that most people can make, but that’s partly because “smoking is simply one thing.” The human diet is infinitely more complex and—depending on an individual’s current health or susceptibility to certain diseases—dietary recommendations may vary. “Changing your diet is very complicated,” says Kurzer. Nonetheless, she’s able to offer some suggestions that will benefit almost everyone.
“Minimizing sugar is No. 1,” she says. “The amount of sugar the average American consumes is astounding. … [I]f sugar intake was reduced, diabetes would fall dramatically.” Kurzer refuses to blame food manufacturers for America’s obesity epidemic, but she thinks they do have a responsibility to their customers. “[Soft drink] companies have to make a profit, and it’s difficult to pull successful products off the shelf,” she says, “but can’t the formula be modified in a less sugary direction?”
The $64 million question
Her second piece of dietary advice is to increase the proportion of plant foods in your diet. This is all standard nutritional counsel, and chances are most readers may have heard it before. But that raises another question. Why are dietary recommendations so easy to understand and so hard to follow?
“That’s the $64 million question,” Kurzer says. “The study of human behavior is one of the most important aspects [of promoting good nutrition].” For those who want to lose weight, Kurzer has a string of discouraging research findings. There’s more and more evidence to suggest that sugar may be addictive. The same receptors in our brains that are activated by certain drugs may also be stimulated by sugar, she explains.
And there’s more. “As we age, we require less food,” she says. To maintain a healthy weight, “either we eat less or we exercise more.” Of course, diet and exercise are closely related, but here there’s even more grim news for half the population. “When men exercise, they lose weight,” says Kurzer. “With women it’s not so simple. Women tend not to lose weight when we exercise, because exercise tends to make many women eat more.”
And one of those women is Kurzer herself. At age 65, she confesses with disarming frankness, “I’ve struggled with body weight all my life.” She speaks from experience when she says, “What people need to realize [to lose weight] is that they have to be willing to change their lifestyle for the rest of their lives.” She’s also in favor of individualized solutions. “We each need to find out what motivates us and remove the barriers.”
Kurzer thinks she has found the key to her own well-being. Despite the handicap of the female metabolism, she says, “For me, the answer is exercise. It makes me feel great. I work out with a personal trainer to exhaustion. It elevates my mood and helps me eat healthfully.” There is a psychological factor at work. “[After a workout] I’m not going to wreck my day by eating that candy bar.”
When it comes to dieting, she says, doing what it takes to feel healthy is the goal. “If feeling better was the motivation rather than the figure on the scale, we’d all do better.”
You can find out more about the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute by visiting their website www.hfhl.umn.edu.