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The Kitchen Shrink
by Natalie Savona

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

Nineteenth Century French food essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savaran began his classic Physiology of Taste with a list of twenty of his own aphorisms. The one we probably know best is the fourth: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," the motto of the popular Japanese television import Iron Chef. The culinary gladiators of Iron Chef get just 60 minutes to create masterpieces from surprise ingredients as diverse as lobster and bean paste. Despite the time crunch, Iron Chef Japanese Rokusaburo Michiba calmly takes up brush and ink and carefully paints his intended menu for the evening on a paper scroll in beautiful kanji characters before ever wielding a knife. We viewers are guaranteed a civilized performance, while the chef battles on to dignity in either victory or defeat.

Michiba's calligraphy suggests that artfully prepared food and drink can certainly lift our spirits. But what about the nutritional content of the food we eat? Can food ingredients themselves affect the way we think, act and feel? Can good food create good mood? British nutritionist Natalie Savona thinks so. A follower of food, not Freud, Savona has given us The Kitchen Shrink: Foods and Recipes for a Healthy Mind (Thorsons Publishing, 2003). I had to admit that when I first encountered the title of this book, I succumbed to an abiding uneasiness. Who, I thought, knows better than anyone else what constitutes a healthy mind? What if there's some aspect of my brain that varies from the definition? What if I eat what she recommends and end up turning into somebody else? If I am what I eat, shouldn't I change what I eat only with the utmost care?

Further, in matters of nutrition, I am wary. I firmly believe that people do not have opinions on nutrition; they have convictions. Whenever I catch wind of a looming nutritional crusade, I run lest I be targeted as the infidel. There's nothing worse than sitting down to a meal you love and not being able to enjoy it because you're worried about what other people will think.

But Natalie Savona is not the kind of nutritional writer who thinks you should be burnt at the stake for eating burnt steak. She has attracted rather than repelled me with her concentration on the blood sugar/mood connection. In my case, she's preaching to the choir. I remember what all that ice cream used to do to me in my younger days.

The Kitchen Shrink is a beautifully produced, large format book, filled with Savona's food doctrine. Though Savona includes some interesting recipes at the tail end of the book, her writing on the food/mood connection is the gist. She comes to the point quickly. Blood sugar balance isn't the whole story, but it comes first for a reason. We've heard it before (but we can stand to hear it again): the "blood sugar seesaw" puts our bodies through an unnecessary daily workout. It makes our daily stress worse; it is itself stress. Stimulants like alcohol and coffee, sweet, sugary and starchy foods give us temporary highs, then more pervasive, longer lows.

Savona suggests adding certain foods to strengthen the adrenal gland and build up the body's ability to handle stress. "At least three times a week," she writes, "eat pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, hemp, and flax seeds and/or oil-rich fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, or herring." She follows with predictable advice about choosing fresh foods, then specific advice as to which foods, vitamins and minerals enhance levels of serotonin, dopamine, and other mood maintaining neuro-transmitters. She covers familiar ground in talking about good and bad fats, essential fatty acids, and the virtues of olive oil. But then she has an interesting section I found very useful: a complete strategy to use nutrients to give the body's "waste disposal" systems, like the liver, a needed break. Fiber and water are important here, but we should also avoid processed foods, too much alcohol, too many prescription and over the counter drugs, too much food in general. For the truly motivated, she lays out a complete 21-day body cleansing program.

After a short concession to issues of food sensitivity, Savona moves on to what I consider her most original work, individual sections on how to use food to alleviate specific mind/body complaints. She covers, in turn, energy deficit, premenstrual problems, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), insomnia, binge eating, brain fog, and depression. She indexes her back-of-book recipes to menus designed for each particular problem; for pre-menstrual problems, you'll cut down on salt and perhaps start your day with Savona's "Designer Muesli," an amalgam of oats, barley, rye, wheat germ, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins and dried apricots, with soy milk or yogurt. Can't sleep? Have a "Baby Spinach and Goat Cheese Salad" for dinner, or perhaps "Quinoa With Roast Vegetables." For every mood, there's a menu.

Just as Savona was seeming too much the crusader for my particular taste, she presented me with a side bar, designed to get on my good side, that conceded the value of chocolate in maintaining good mood. She even admits that this "food of the gods" (as the Aztecs originally named it) "has been scientifically shown to have built-in feel-good factors, including mental stimulants such as caffeine and theobromine," as well as the important mineral magnesium. Even though chocolate releases coveted endorphins into the brain, Savona counsels moderation because of its high sugar and fat content. (We all know that with chocolate, moderation is more easily preached than practiced.)

There's plenty of material in The Kitchen Shrink to warrant a purchase, even if you've heard much of it before. The book is truly handsome, suitable for gift giving or displaying on your coffee table. My nutrition conscious sister has already appropriated my first copy. If Brillat-Savarin were writing his Physiology of Taste today, significant parts of his work might be strikingly similar to The Kitchen Shrink. But Brillat-Savarin's scope would be much wider than Savona's. For example, there's the question of timing. "The most indispensable quality in a cook is punctuality," he wrote in 1825, "and no less is required of a guest." Surely those expertly nourished cooks and guests whose serotonin levels qualify them for brain function awards can see the wisdom in this. Think of the Franklin Planners and time management software programs they could buy with the money they save on psychotherapy. Think how well-adjusted they will seem to others when they arrive, and leave, on time. Top -- Book Reviews Home

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