Lisa M. McDowell

A Climate Nutritionist Tells All

At Wild Elements, we often say food is love—and it can be medicine, too. Just ask Lisa McDowell, a renowned nutritionist whose clients include Oscar winners, Olympians, and the Detroit Red Wings.

Lisa’s also a founding member of The Farm at St. Joe’s, which produces 40 acres of organically grown fruits and veggies for the patients and staff of St. Joseph Mercy Health System. “We’re basically prescribing fresh, plant-based food to people with health issues,” says Lisa. “Real, whole food makes such a difference to bodies recovering from injury or illness. It matters so much.”

This week, Lisa takes a lead role in Feeding Tomorrow, a documentary by food activist Oliver English about the power and potential of plant-based nutrition. The film is screening at the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt, but if you can’t make it to Cairo for Lisa’s wisdom, scroll down for her advice on smoothies, ordering room service, and Thanksgiving food shaming instead. “I’ve seen it all,” she laughs. “And I’m here to help.”

If food is medicine, then what should we be eating during cold and flu season?

So our body has literal routes—we call them biochemical metabolic pathways—to pull and distribute nutrients from our food. It’s very cool! To prevent viruses, you want plenty of diverse plants in your body. Some of the stars of the show would be mushrooms, leafy greens, spices, and herbs. We know that pomegranates are very protective for the immune system, too. And if you’re eating seasonally—the deep leafy greens like kale, butternut squash, garlic, broccoli—those are great for colds and flu, and also preventing cancer.

Lisa M. McDowell

In Feeding Tomorrow, you talk about your dad’s pancreatic cancer, and how changing his diet really changed his prognosis.

He’s a 20-year pancreatic cancer survivor. And looking at things like broccoli, brussel sprouts, onions—those have sulfur compounds that are amazing for you. But also green tea, dark chocolate, all kinds of berries…

What’s a food that’s overrated from a wellness perspective?

When you’re paying $20 for an acai bowl and it’s mostly sugar—that’s not ideal. I was ordering bowls for [The Detroit Red Wings] before a game, and I realized there are so many additives—apple juice, maple syrup—and that’s just a ton of sugar. Same with juice companies that sell “green” juice with 50 grams of sugar—like, what? A good smoothie or bowl is great for you, but it should be made with whole foods like fruits, seeds, maybe some nut butter. Not sugar or syrup.

Are there easy ways to optimize what we’re already eating?

If you’re an oatmeal girl, that’s fine. It's got water-soluble fiber to protect against bad cholesterol and it’ll keep you full. But you can turn oatmeal from a B+ food into an A+ food by going to Costco, picking up a huge bag of organic chia seeds or organic ground flax seeds, maybe hemp seeds, frozen wild blueberries or raspberries if you like that stuff, and load it in there. You can also top it with walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. And you’ve become a breakfast superstar, really, just by lining up those seeds and nuts on your counter in the morning.

What’s your recommendation for people with nut allergies?

Seeds! Sesame seeds, chia and flax, hemp seeds, sunflower butter, those are all fantastic alternatives. And again, pomegranate seeds are loaded.

Lisa M. McDowell

As a nutritionist, how do we separate conversations about health from ideas about body size, which often have nothing to do with health?

Absolutely. We have to get past the culture of setting prejudiced judgments against body sizes, because as you know, it's not about calories. It’s about health… so I always ask people about the whole picture: Sleep, exercise, thyroid health, food, emotional state. It’s not “what size are you?” It’s “Tell me about what you do outside? Tell me about how you’re moving your body, and what kinds of foods make your body feel powerful?”

What’s your advice for holiday dinners where family members get nosy about someone’s food and body size?

You say, “Thanks so much, Uncle Jim, but I’m really good at knowing what works for my body.” And that goes for whether they’re like, “Oh, do you need that extra slice?” or “Eat more, you’re too skinny.” It’s unfortunate that anyone feels like it’s okay to comment on someone else’s body, but we need to set an example to the rest of our family, especially younger members, that it’s okay to stop that kind of talk and immediately redirect the conversation. During the holidays, food should be something that brings people together. It’s a loving act!

What’s your holiday go-to for family potlucks this year?

I try to treat holidays as an opportunity to share a recipe I’ve really perfected. I’m really into roasted root vegetables and mushroom stuffing right now. But look, we all have Instagram, right? We drool over these great recipes. Let’s practice them a little now, and really wow our family by Thanksgiving.

Finally, what advice do you have to people who think they can’t cook?

Oh, you can! I swear! The secret is to keep the food you’re making as close to its natural form as possible. Butternut squash soup, caramelized onions, a little garlic, and you’re done!