For Dr. Amy Joy Lanou, health comes not only from nutrition, but also from connection. Every time she brews tea from the leaves of the massive mint patch that grows almost year-round on the shady side of her house, or when she cooks and delivers a meal once a week to her mother, Lanou says, her health benefits from nurturing relationships with and around food.
As a professor of health and wellness at UNC Asheville and executive director of the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness, Lanou brings this insight into the classroom, where she teaches nutrition, foodways, food politics, and health communication. Although she’s been thinking about food and wellbeing her entire career, the coronavirus crisis has made her reflect more than ever on that secret ingredient in our recipes for nourishment: connection.
Edible Asheville: The world seems to be making big strides toward combating the coronavirus, but we’ve all lived through a time of heightened fear and want to know how to eat in ways that support our bodies and minds. What do you suggest?
Dr. Amy Lanou: When we’re living in a time of fear of viral infection, we need to eat in ways that support the immune system. That means focusing on whole plant foods and limiting or avoiding highly processed foods. Infections feed on sugar and quick-release, highly processed energy.
It also means paying special attention to foods that are known to be immune-boosting, foods that have a lot of antioxidants: dark leafy greens, bright and orange-colored fruits and vegetables, berries, and legumes.
EA: So, we should think of food as medicine.
AL: Yes. It’s also best if you can eat foods that are grown locally. There’s something that just makes good sense about using fruits, berries, or leafy plants that you’ve grown or that someone you know has grown right near you. Of course there’s something about that food that’s going to be health-giving or life-giving.
EA: Yes, what is that about? Foods from the garden or from a neighbor just taste and feel different, almost energetically.
AL: This is how I would put it: What’s the difference between eating pancakes with applesauce that your grandmother made you and having pancakes at Denny’s at 2:00 in the morning? There’s some- thing different about your grandmother’s food. I believe it has to do with the attention that was put into that food—that care, that love—which you get when you eat that food.
In the isolation we’ve been living in, we’re missing some of that—the opportunity to share a crop or share food with our loved ones.
EA: Do you think foods can also affect our moods?
AL: Yes. People also eat differently depending on how they are feeling. There are ways to reduce anxiety through habits, including eating habits. We need to pay attention to how our bodies feel when we’re eating something. It’s harder to do that when we get to dark or anxious places.
Pay attention to how a particular meal makes you feel. If you feel energized after a certain meal or wake up with a clear mind afterward, you know it was a meal that supports your mental and physical health.
EA: How would you explain the term “foodways” to someone not familiar with it? How are foodways different from lifestyle choices or diets?
AL: I have always had trouble with the word “diet” because it immediately makes people think about restriction. What I like about “foodways” is that there is a cultural and human element to food that it conveys. What are the ways that people in a certain family eat? How do they think about food? Do they grow any of it, who does the cooking, what do they know from their ancestors about what it means to support life and growth in their communities?
A popular example would be the so-called “Blue Zones”—areas around the world that are longevity hot spots. These are specific communities in Japan, Costa Rica, Italy, Greece, and California. What contributes to the longevity in these places is not just what people eat, but the context of their lives.
Oftentimes, there’s a particular connection and even names for long-term connections people make with others over time, such as groups of women who meet regularly—weekly or daily—for their whole lives. Reverence for older family members, or the tradition of sharing a common living space with your older family members, is also often a part of this way of living. In our region, Brevard is actually aspiring to become a Blue Zones [Project] community.
EA: How can modern Americans build foodways in that wider context in which eating well supports life and wellbeing?
AL: Some things are happening in this area that are examples of bringing foodways back. Patchwork Urban Farms is one example: They are innovators thinking about food and sustaining the people of a place in a noncommercial way. The local network of tailgate markets and [community-supported agriculture program] farms and Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project supporting those networks, is another example. They help people engage in the food system.
A last example is when people bring some of their cultural heritage into their foodways. Some places in the world have done this well— I’m thinking particularly of people of Italian descent or Greek de- scent, or many parts of Asia as well. People who move away from those places often take their foodways with them and bring their way of eating to wherever they go.
It comes back to that idea of paying attention, really. There’s some- thing really meaningful about the whole cycle of food: from seed, to soil, to water, to sun, to tending, harvesting, to preparing the harvest for cooking, to cooking, to eating, to paying attention to eating. … And not just for an individual, but how that’s happening across a community. It would benefit many of us to get back to those processes.
EA: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work in the areas of food and health?
AL: My work life has shifted a lot in the last year. I’m doing a lot more lead- ing of teams and a lot less teaching. One of the things I’ve had the opportunity to do is to envision and support a Western North Carolina region-wide project engaging students at six college campuses to do peer-to-peer work on safety and health culture change. That has been really exciting because it has reinvigorated my interest in peer- to-peer education and support and peer-led culture change.
It’s like a university version of the community health care worker model, which engages members of a community to help others in the community to make healthy choices. The students are not just promoting the three W’s (wear a mask, wait six feet apart, wash your hands); they’re thinking about mental and emotional health and the ways that quarantine, isolation, or remote learning impact people’s lives. They’ve come up with some brilliant ways of connecting with each other: bringing back old-school pen-pal programs, having virtual walking campaigns, using social media, making videos, and engaging people who are the influencers or leaders on campus. ◊◊
Mari Stuart is an edible landscape designer, educator, freelance writer and carbon farming planner. Mari stewards an urban homestead in Asheville with her family and writes about local food and the connections between people and place at makegathergrow.com.
Dr. Amy Lanou of the NC Center for Health & Wellness