Candace La Fave wanted to help her 83-year-old mother, Carol Armstrong, become healthier. For years, she lived with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Following a heart valve replacement in 2017 and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Dementia in 2018, Carol needed a big infusion of positive energy.
At the same time, 56-year-old Candace knew she had room to improve with her lifestyle choices. Diagnosed as pre-diabetic with very high cholesterol, Candace — at 5 feet and 230 pounds — was ready to join her mother and do something good for herself.
The mainstays of the family diet — red meat, butter, cheese and fast food — were like a ticking time bomb, and Candace knew it. She was ready to help her mother, herself and her partner of 25 years, Dan, who stands 6-foot-5 and is also overweight.
Candace and Carol’s diet is not unusual, especially in Wisconsin. Breaking lifelong habits that often go back generations is never easy. Yet once Candace and Carol started attending a 2-hour UW Health group medical visit called Kitchen Wisdom: Cooking, Eating and Living Well, seemingly magical things began happening in just weeks.
In Kitchen Wisdom — normally offered four times a year for people with risk factors such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes — Candace and Carol learned that preparing and eating healthy food is not only good for you, but lots of fun as well.
Eating healthy is not 'dieting'
They learned that eating healthy has little to do with dieting, a word most of us associate more with deprivation than making an enjoyable lifestyle change.
They learned how to read food labels, so they could be more cognizant of sodium, sugar and saturated fat levels.
They learned that assembling colorful foods on a plate can be as joyous as creating a beautiful piece of art.
And they learned that eating mindfully — actually taking the time to savor rather than snarf food — can be an incredibly fulfilling experience.
“In Kitchen Wisdom, we focus on the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, fruits and whole grains,” said Lisa Grant, DO, a UW Health internal medicine physician who leads the session with UW Health chef Matt Plath and health coach Katie Schwartz. “We also practice mindful eating, making the whole experience of preparing and consuming food an emotional and physical joy.”
Big changes at home made willingly
After just a few sessions of Kitchen Wisdom, Candace and Carol saw tangible results once they said goodbye to fast food and soda and started preparing the same dishes at home that they learned in class. Foods that seldom appeared on their radar screen — such as roasted asparagus, baked salmon with lemon and olive oil and brown (not instant white) rice — became regular staples in their kitchen.
“I lost 30 pounds without exercising and my cholesterol dropped by more than half in four weeks,” said Candace. “Part of that was because of my medication but scrapping the junk food also was huge.”
Despite her mother’s dementia and Alzheimer’s, Candace noticed improvements with Carol’s memory and recall.
“I used to keep repeating stuff all the time for her,” said Candace. “I don’t do this as much as I used to.”
Even Candace’s partner, Dan — whose middle name could be “Meat-eater” — has gone along with the new menu without too much complaining.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care if you want to eat meat outside the home, but you won’t find it here,' " said Candace.
Kitchen Wisdom, along with another group medical visit they attended called Relaxation and Stress Reduction, also yielded plenty of social benefits for Candace and Carol.
“It was a small group and we all looked forward to seeing each other every week,” said Candace. “We also learned about eating mindfully by focusing on what we put in our mouths without distractions like television or cell phones at the table.”
Dr. Grant also said participants learn as much from one another as they do from her.
“We actually have a party atmosphere in Kitchen Wisdom,” she said. “There is lots of laughter and much joy. Plus, we learn in a beautiful environment and then share a wonderful meal together.”
For Candace and Carol, the idea of food as medicine was transformational.
“Healthy food is so delicious — and it actually heals you,” Candace said.