Winnie Abramson’s One Simple Change | General Food & Drink | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Winnie Abramson’s One Simple Change 

The Moderator

click to enlarge Winnie Abramson in the garden with her favorite chicken, Po. - PETER BARRETT
  • Peter Barrett
  • Winnie Abramson in the garden with her favorite chicken, Po.

Winnie Abramson grew up in her parents' storied and influential restaurant, The Quilted Giraffe, which opened in New Paltz in the mid-`70s and moved to Manhattan a few years later, bringing new levels of hip refinement and glitzy gastronomy to the glitterati of `80s Manhattan. She and her brother helped out in the coatroom and kitchen some, but were left to their own devices a lot since their parents often worked until after midnight. Now 43, married and with two children, Abramson lives outside New Paltz, less than a mile from her childhood home but a world away from the bold-face names and lavish four-star trappings of that scene.

Because of her latchkey youth, Abramson made the decision to work from home so she could be with her children as much as possible. For the last five years, she has written Healthy Green Kitchen, a food and lifestyle blog that encourages readers to integrate scratch cooking and sound nutrition into their daily lives while encouraging pleasurable eating. Her new book, One Simple Change (Chronicle, 2013), originated in a year-long series of weekly blog posts she wrote to demystify her own journey towards health: bodily, but more importantly in her psychological relationship with food.

In the introduction, Abramson addresses her serious eating issues that arose during high school, and having broached the subject feels that there's more to say about it. "I say I dealt with disordered eating, but the reality is that I starved myself. There's no way to talk about it gently. I was impressionable, and I read magazines and books [during the 1980s] that insisted on a low-fat diet, so I thought that no fat would be even better. The real tragedy is that I didn't need to be on a diet to begin with, but I thought it was healthy." As a result, her health became seriously impaired: acne, depression, no menstrual cycle, thyroid and adrenal issues. She worked with a holistic doctor, who repaired her diet, and after college she went back to school, receiving her doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine so she could help others overcome similar issues.

click to enlarge food_one-simple-change-cover.jpg

A Journey of 50 Steps

The 50 chapters—one per step—are short and dense with information, specifically the conclusions she has reached rather than the research that got her there. The writing throughout is accessible and encouraging, and her tone avoids the sort of hectoring that is all too common in the genre. The steps in the book are based on the changes that Abramson made to return herself to health. "I would never tell someone to do something I'm not doing." Many of the steps will not be news to readers of this magazine: use green home cleaning products, shop at CSAs and farmers' markets, grow a garden and compost, eschew soda, get outside and exercise. Others might be surprising, like drink a glass of water every morning before consuming anything else to get your body running smoothly before introducing food or caffeine, don't skip meals, and reconsider your prohibition against meat if you have one. The first one, "Stop Dieting," is in many ways the most central to her message; calorie counting, obsessive self-weighing, and avoiding whole categories of food all do more harm than good.

Making the carrot soup recipe from the book in her sunny kitchen, which is both healthy and green (in the ecological sense: the cabinets, counters, and appliances all came from Green Demolitions), she expounds on her desire for balance. "We stress ourselves about our health, which negates the benefits. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," she says, stirring onions sizzling in the pot. "Teenage girls don't eat because they want to look perfect, but perfection isn't real." Elimination diets, those calling for abolishing all carbohydrates, or all grains, or all dairy or sugar, make it extremely difficult to eat in a balanced way. "Some people won't even eat fruit, because it has sugar in it. It has no basis in science at all." She sees this phenomenon as being ironically similar to the oft-derided pill-popping approach to wellness, where there's one easy solution to whatever ails you. What ultimately made her mentally and physically well was embracing variety. "It's definitely true that you can feel better for a while on some of these diets, and it's natural to proselytize when you feel good. The problem is that after six months or a year they can start to make you sick."

Carrot soup with crème fraîche. - PETER BARRETT
  • Peter Barrett
  • Carrot soup with crème fraîche.

Wary of Homesteading Chic

Lifestyle magnates have made vast fortunes preying upon people's insecurities, and to Abramson the images they peddle are the same as models retouched to impossible proportions. The DIY homesteader life is made to look awfully glamorous in many of the rapidly proliferating blogs on the subject, and she believes that it's important to be honest about the effort required to commit to that or any other health-oriented lifestyle, especially since it's so easy to fake things online. "Having chickens is not so glamorous. It's not hard, but my dog killed two of them in the first week. If you can keep bees, you should. But they're really time-consuming. I worried that I was doing it wrong, and even paid somebody to come help, and they still all died. Eventually, I asked myself: 'Am I doing this because I think I'm the person who's supposed to have bees, or because I actually want to be a beekeeper?' It was actually kind of a relief when they died."

Soup finished, she sets out lunch: superb homemade kimchi, lamb salami from Full Moon Farm down the road, some suspiciously imported-looking cheese, and a batch of crackers fresh from the oven which she describes almost apologetically. "They're gluten free, actually, but I just made them because I like them." Made from almond flour and olive oil, they have a pleasantly shortbready quality. She ladles the soup into bowls, and seeing that the crème fraîche she has fermenting on the counter is not yet thick enough, grabs some from Vermont Creamery out of the fridge to garnish the soup with. 

Because of its necessity and pleasure, Abramson sees eating as a complex nexus for people's unhealthy tendencies and also a key means to wellness. "Food and eating are easy for people to grasp, and they think it will solve all their problems." Correcting her diet fixed the problems her previous diet caused, but she cautions that it is all too easy, especially for people for whom food is intertwined with complex psychological issues, to go too far in the other direction. "Orthorexia [extreme avoidance of supposedly unhealthy foods] is a growing problem. When I was doing these things, it truly was socially isolating. Now there are whole communities; it's become acceptable to eat in a disordered way. It's OK to have food allergies, even if you made them up—it's not only expected, it's encouraged."

Recently, Abramson has been writing more outspoken posts, like one about how sugar in moderation is fine, or another saying that the Paelo diet didn't work for her (Michael Pollan recently weighed in on the subject, debunking many of Paleo's central tenets) and the responses have been revealing: scorn, fury, and personal attacks befitting indignant zealots, not healthy, happy people one would feel inspired to emulate. "People don't think critically about this stuff; they see a meme on Facebook and glom onto it. It's really hard to figure out what's true or not," especially when anyone on the Internet can publish an "article" that further validates a falsehood. It's unfortunate collateral damage in the right-wing war on science and expertise when some ostensibly progressive people embrace increasingly crackpot nutritional theories, and the problem is only exacerbated by quacks and movie stars looking to sell books. She notes that the hysteria surrounding fads does a disservice to the positive aspects of some regimens; the fact that too much processed or refined food is unhealthy doesn't mean that it must be purged altogether.

Abramson puréeing the carrot soup. - PETER BARRETT
  • Peter Barrett
  • Abramson puréeing the carrot soup.
Gluten-free crackers adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen. - PETER BARRETT
  • Peter Barrett
  • Gluten-free crackers adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen.

"I'll Eat Anything"

Abramson's biggest regret in the book is her favorable mention of William Davis' Wheat Belly, a controversial bestselling diet book that at best cherry-picks evidence to support its weight loss claims and at worst misrepresents the science. Leaving aside people suffering from celiac disease, she now believes that a variety of whole grains, especially sprouted or fermented, can and should be eaten by anyone seeking nutritional balance. Making sourdough bread, for example, that ferments overnight increases its nutrition dramatically (and improves its taste) just as fermenting raw milk into cheese makes it easier for some people with lactose intolerance to enjoy it. Her stance on sugar has softened, as well, in keeping with her new one-word mantra: moderation.

"People are shocked to find out that I'll eat anything," she explains, saying that she has no problem eating a burger and fries on a night out or some pizza at a kid's birthday party. "I eat what I want, and I usually want something healthy." A rough guideline of 85 percent healthy, 15 percent less healthy serves as her general rule, and allows for stress-free flexibility when eating out or socializing. "I used to be a pain in the ass, though. The root of the issue is that this craziness makes life harder instead of easier. I want my life to be easy." Besides being a useful guide for anyone looking to integrate healthy practices into their life, Abramson hopes most of all that the book will help people with deeper problems related to food.

Writing the book has been a big step for her, and as she ponders the future of her blog and formulates a plan for what comes next, she continues to practice and advocate incremental changes as the key to lifestyle modification: gradual, unintimidating steps to try out for a bit before moving on to the next one. And she's walking the walk; her current focus is on maintaining the blog and promoting the book without having her virtual life eclipse her actual one to the extent that it did over the last year. "Can I have a blog and limit my social media time? Can I cook a meal and not take pictures? It's hard to balance them with doing the things [cooking, gardening, CrossFit] I write about doing."

Remembering the militant anti-fat craze of her youth, she is quick to remind people that fad diets come and go, and every decade seemingly hatches a new prohibition against some food or another, which then goes on to be overturned by the next batch of profiteers and charlatans. "As if eating a bagel is going to make you fat. But I'm empathetic; I don't like to make fun of people for their crazy thinking, because I used to be like that. It's a sexy theory that not eating carbs is going to keep you alive for longer. It just doesn't happen to be true." She wonders what the point is in prolonging life if the supposed means to that end is neurotic self-deprivation. "What is everyone so afraid of? I'm not afraid any more. I'd rather have a bagel."

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