President Obama's former chef in Florida, talks fitness, healthy habits at Kravis Center event
We are what we eat.
As hard as it is to accept, there’s no way of getting around it - “Food and getting basic nutrients is the foundation of health for all of us,” says Sam Kass, who spent six years in the White House as the chef for President Barack Obama and his family. That’s especially crucial, he says, for aging populations, which is why he accepted the invitation to appear at “More Than A Meal,” a breakfast event at the Kravis Center’s Cohen Pavilion on Wednesday for Meals On Wheels.
“They’re suffering from more and more critical conditions over time that are food-related, including irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, indigestion - all of these have the roots in what we’re putting in our bodies,” says Kass, the author of “Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World,” who was also the executive director of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!’ campaign.
The former senior policy adviser on nutrition in the Obama administration, Kass spoke to The Palm Beach Post about why attention to the diets of the very youngest and very oldest among us is so crucial, the business of White House life and why that cookie on your counter is messing up your healthy eating plans.
Question: Why are you doing this event with Meals on Wheels?
Answer: I’ve always believed in and know how important the service is that they provide, that’s dealing with a population that is often forgotten about, that is incredibly vulnerable, and that has earned our respect and our care. Especially as we get older, good nutrition can stave off these diseases that we spend millions and millions fighting...getting them a good meal can go a long way.
Q: January is a time that people are interested in revisiting or starting healthy habits. What are the basics for starting or regaining such habits?
A: I think the key is that everybody gets dedicated to kind of make this big push, and as quickly as they made that push, they forget that they ever said they were trying to do it. You have to make eating well as easy on yourself as you can. How do you set yourself up for success? People have a bunch of unhealthy foods at home, with cookies and chips out on the counter. Just because it’s January 1, I’m not gonna eat all the food surrounding me in my own home? That doesn’t work, and willpower is a fiction. It doesn’t work. Over time, if there’s a cookie in front of you, you’re gonna eat the cookie. Try to set yourself up in a way that makes it as easy as possible so you don’t even have to think about it.
Q: In the White House, you were working with kids, who are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the seniors that use Wheels On Meals. Why is it important to focus on the youngest among us?
A: Once we have our habits formed, it’s very hard to change them. And not just our habits, but what actually tastes good to us. If young kids get used to really salty, really fatty and especially really sweet food, something that’s not that sweet doesn’t taste good to them over time. We’re training palates and getting them off to a good start so they like the taste of vegetables and don’t like hyper-sweet things. You kinda can’t blame them if they’re only used to drinking sugary drinks - water with some other flavoring in it is going to taste really bad.
Q: How did you come to work at the White House? I know you are from Chicago, like the former First Lady.
A: I sort of cooked and traveled around the world and came back to Chicago to work with food issues. I connected through friends with the Obamas. Michelle was a working mom with two kids and Barack was on the road campaigning and I started helping them and out and it went from there.
Q: Tell me about how you all worked together.
A: It was a pretty intense life there. I wore a few hats. During the day I was the point person on all the health (issues) from planting the garden to working on policy issues, to school nutrition. That was the day job, and then at night I cooked dinner for them. We were all working pretty hard.
Q: The “Let’s Move” initiative was part of that work. Why are both eating and movement more important?
A: Part of the problem is how long it takes to burn calories. You go on a long run and burn 250-300 calories, and you’ve worked off one soda. We think we’ve burned off more than we have, so people say “I worked out, so I’ll have two muffins and a soda.” That’s 1000 calories. When it comes to weight and our overall health, what we are eating is much more of a problem. But we’re never really healthy unless you’re getting good exercise.
Q: What is your favorite moment of working in the White House?
A: I can’t pick one! I was there for six years. It was the ride of a lifetime. Whatever you think about politics, one way or they other they are wonderful people, really decent humans. It was an amazing experience.
Q: What is the single most important nutrition concern facing the country right now?
A: I would say that diabetes is the biggest health concern. There are over 30 million diabetics, and more than 84 million pre-diabetics, which is almost entirely food and sugar related. We have a huge problem with over-consumption, and not getting vegetables and whole grains into young people’s diets. And short-term, the biggest threat to kids is the current administration undoing the basic nutrition standards in schools...If you talk to teachers, they’ll tell you that kids come to school on Monday having not eaten the whole weekend sometimes. These programs support kids who are the most vulnerable. This affects their ability to perform and learn. We are going to pay for this in the future when the taxpayers are footing the bill for (health issues). The idea of not doing everything we can to make it easier for kids to eat better is unconscionable.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.
IF YOU GO
What: More Than a Meal Breakfast, hosted by Meals on Wheels of the Palm Beaches
When: Wednesday, 7:30 a.m.
Where: Kravis Center Cohen Pavilion