Marin nutritionist focuses on nourishing body and soul

Americans may talk a good game about eating and living healthier, particularly in fitness-obsessed California. But Sausalito nutritionist Deborah Kesten is nonetheless concerned.

The author of "Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul," Kesten will be teaching a four-week class on that topic at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael beginning Monday, Jan. 10.

"I have watched over the last 20 years I've been in this field," Kesten said. "As incredible as our nutrition information is, it's not working. Even with all of our weight watching and calorie counting and fat phobia, we're the fattest people in the world."

In addition, "other food-related health problems, such as heart disease, certain cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, continue to increase. Something's wrong."

Concerned about the problem, "I went on a nutrition journey around the world — from my computer — to find out not only what we ate, but how we ate, for thousands of years prior to eating by numbers."

What she discovered was that ancient wisdom, including that imbued in Judaism, offers profound lessons to contemporary Americans.

Food, she said, "has the power to heal us, not only physically, but also emotionally, spiritually and socially."

Departing from what she calls "fundamentalist foodism," Kesten advises taking pleasure in dining and relishing seasonal feasts — recognizing that it's one's day-to-day patterns that are most important.

To that end, she recommends eating a plant-based diet, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

"The key problem is that what we in America consider normal eating — white flour, sugar, processed meat, processed food — is not."

Topics in the class at the Marin JCC include eating to prevent or reverse physical ailments, demystifying optimal eating and not having to diet again. The focus is on food not simply as a means of nutrition, but as a means of nurturing. The program is based on Kesten's book, which won the 1998 Small Press Book Award in the spirituality category.

Kesten, a native of New York City, served as nutrition educator with best-selling health author Dr. Dean Ornish while completing her master's in public health at the University of Texas in Houston. She has long taken a proactive role in promoting well-being through better nutrition. The Ornish study she was involved in was the first clinical trial to suggest that heart disease can be reversed through lifestyle changes alone, without drugs or surgery, she said.

In recent years, she has been looking at food from a broader perspective — in its social and cultural context.

While presenting a talk at the first International Conference on Lifestyle and Health in New Delhi, India, in the mid-1990s, she met clinical cardiologist K.L. Chopra, the father of author Deepak Chopra. When he referred to the ancient Hindu belief that food must be prepared with love, Kesten began her own exploration, studying the role of food in different cultures.

In the American eat-and-run culture, the ancient view of food as sustenance is often transformed into a "food-as-fuel" attitude.

"Rather than seeing food, as Judaism does, as a social, ceremonial and sensual pleasure, we see it as something to be counted, analyzed and feared, and we see it ultimately as an industrial product," she said. "The truth is, it's life-giving and life-containing. The truth is, food is not a product. It contains the mystery of life, as do we human beings. And until we make that connection, America's disordered eating will continue."

Jewish tradition, she said, has much to teach about bringing an ethical attitude to the table.

"Judaism was one of the first religions to bring the concept of compassion to food and profound heart-felt appreciation for the life that was taken so we might eat. Noah came down and said: If you must take the life of an animal and eat it, do so with compassion. Do so by causing as little harm or fear to the animal as possible."

In Judaism, she added, the eating of animals is not forbidden, though eating particular animals is. Encino Rabbi Harold Schulweis, formerly at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, told her that what's forbidden is "based on the 'refined consciousness' of the animal." Carnivores, scavengers and bottom feeders are off limits, as are pigs.

"I interpret this [to mean that] the concept of unclean is not a matter of trichinosis," she said. "It's a matter of the emotional, the spiritual consciousness of the animal and how the animal lives in relation to the earth and other living entities."

Contrasting American eating patterns with those of the rest of the world, she said in most cultures, people eat with others, "they take their time and they eat fresh, whole food."

In addition, their diet is largely plant-based, with fresh, seasonal vegetables, whole grains, fresh fruit for dessert, and often, beans or legumes. Small portions of meat, chicken, fish or dairy products round out the diet.

Kesten recommends using nutritional knowledge to make a personal decision about the optimal way to eat. "And then I'm suggesting, once you've figured that out, enjoy your food, let go of the judgment, let go of the fear, let go of the obsession."

What does she eat?

Emphasizing that her decisions are based on "what is optimal to me," Kesten said she eats a no-fat added, plant-based diet.

"And when I feel like it, I have some fish, or chicken, or dairy, or chocolate, or cake, or chocolate chip cookies. And I enjoy every bite and every flavor and every moment of it."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].