Taking a Cue From Julie & Julia: Can More Time in the Kitchen Make You Thin?


By Shaun Chavis

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Have you read Michael Pollan's New York Times Magazine article, "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch"? He interviewed Harry Balzer, who's been analyzing American eating habits since the 1970s. Pollan's article ends with a quote from the food-research guru:

“….You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want—just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Balzer and Pollan are just two of the many who say that cooking at home can help fix the West's obesity problems. British chef Jamie Oliver made the same point to policy makers in his own country when he argued that cooking should be taught in school. He's bringing that same message to the U.S. next year in an ABC reality show in which he helps Americans slim down via cooking. Lifetime's Cook Yourself Thin, another British import, does the same thing; guests learn how to lighten up their favorite recipes.

Kitchen skills don't ensure a slim physique
I love cooking. I've been doing it since I was 6 years old. I've been to culinary school and I've studied gastronomy (both, by the way, through programs started by Julia Child, one of the subjects of the film Julie & Julia, which inspired Pollan's article). My job here at Health is food related, and I occasionally teach private cooking lessons.

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But my kitchen skills alone haven't given me a trim body. (I wish—oh, how I wish!) And eating healthfully, or eating to lose weight, isn't simply a matter of avoiding all things processed. Brian Wansink at Cornell University did a study comparing several editions of one of America's most enduring cookbooks, the Joy of Cooking. Between 1936 and 2006, the average number of calories per serving in the Joy of Cooking's recipes jumped by 63%. Portion sizes are bigger, and there is more sugar and fat in the most recent versions of recipes.

Recipes have changed for the worse
I also spoke with two registered dietitians at Health's sister magazine, Cooking Light, who told me that many of the recipes they lighten are loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. "You may avoid additives by cooking at home, but that doesn't mean you're cutting calories," Kathy Kitchens Downie, RD, says.

For example, she explains, the magazine recently worked on lightening a TV chef's recipe for Nachos and Queso. The original recipe had 1,257 calories, 29 grams of saturated fat, and 2,199 milligrams of sodium per serving. Since that version had at least half a day's calories and almost a full day's worth of sodium, you wouldn't be any better off making it at home than you would eating it at a ball park or movie theater. (Cooking Light's lightened version will appear in the Recipe Makeover column of the October 2009 issue.)

Both of the Cooking Light dietitians agree that more people need to learn and use portion control at home. "There's a risk of being overserved with family style meals," Mary Creel, RD, says. That has been exactly my problem: Some of the most helpful words I ever received from a friend came from my former housemate, who said she noticed I didn't really eat between meals, but that I tended to load up at meals. (Smaller plates, portion control, and a "no seconds" rule help me.)

Turn cooking into a weight-loss tool
Cooking is just a tool, and it's up to the cook to determine how to use it. Moderation is a great tool to take into the kitchen—it's what Julia Child believed in.

I do hope that Julie & Julia and Pollan's article encourage more people to explore cooking or even to plunge into Mrs. Child's books. I'm not going to flip through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and give you calorie counts; I think that would direct attention away from Child's message that some of the world's most enjoyable cuisine can be successfully prepared in American home kitchens by anyone with a little patience, care, and a sense of wonder for cooking.

But if you endeavor to cook as a means to control your weight, I'd like to add to Balzer's advice. God knows that more than once in my life, I've cooked a casserole of mac 'n' cheese and eaten a third of it in one sitting, and that clearly is not a sound weight-loss strategy. Cook, and apply moderation. Learn cooking techniques that maximize flavor and texture, and use less of the stuff that we all know we should cut back on.

You probably already know some light cooking techniques: grilling, roasting, broiling, steaming. Here are some more to try.

  • Start with simple recipes. Use Jamie Oliver's home cooking weight-loss solutions. (Remember to go easy on the dressing.)
  • Borrow other cultures' healthy dishes (like Moroccan salads) and eating habits.
  • Cook in parchment (en papillote). Basically, it's a flavorful way to steam foods in their own juices, and you can make up your packages a few hours in advance. Try this Cooking Light recipe for Mediterranean Mahimahi in Parchment With Couscous. Once you get the technique down, you can make up your own combinations and add different vegetables and flavors inside the packet. You can use most any fish or shellfish, along with julienned leeks or carrots, olives, thinly sliced fennel, tomatoes, orange slices, capers, different fresh herbs, or white wine, for example.