Frances Largeman-Roth – Real Life Food for Real Life
Jonathan: Hey, everyone, Jonathan Bailor here back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Really, really excited about today’s show. I think we’re ready to have just a brilliant conversation with a brilliant woman. We have a woman who was the Food and Nutrition Director at Health Magazine, obviously a large magazine, for nearly eight years.
She is an internationally-known health expert, she’s a registered dietitian, she’s a New York Times bestseller, and she has some very interesting work in the past and coming up in the future that I think will just lend to a wonderful, wonderful conversation. We have none other than Frances Largeman-Roth with us today.
Frances, welcome to the show.
Frances: Thank you so much.
Jonathan: Frances, the thing I really wanted to get started on and chat about here was let’s back up and talk about your story and how you got here. You’ve been all around the country, all around the media talking about healthy eating; what was your evolution from Little Frances to today’s internationally-known Frances?
Frances: Well, that’s a great question, because there actually has been quite a journey. Little Frances wanted to be a veterinarian. From the age of five, I was really just focused on that, and I knew that I wanted to go to Cornell and I wanted to study animal science. Indeed, that is what I did; I went to Cornell undergrad, studied animal science, and did four years undergrad as an animal-science major.
Somewhere in there, I started getting a little disillusioned with what they were teaching us. It was about building a bigger, better cow, building a bigger, better sheep, getting the most meat off of the animal, the highest milk production, that kind of thing. I had been a vegetarian for 10 years, but I just was kind of starting to grasp, I think, what factory farming was and why I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
I was really enjoying my animal-nutrition classes and I thought, You know what, let me look into human nutrition and maybe that’s my path, maybe that’s a good way for me to go.
That’s what I did. I changed my major to human nutrition, stayed an extra year. Another thing that really influenced me, Jonathan, was that I lost my father at the age of 12. He had Type 2 diabetes, he also had high blood pressure, and he had central adiposity, which is the apple shape with the belly, and he had a stressful job.
He was a dentist and he ran his own business, and he did not really take care of himself; he didn’t manage his diabetes through diet and exercise. As I started taking these human-nutrition courses, I was connecting all the dots. I was seeing that his early death, really at the age of 62, could have been prevented, that he really just had to make some lifestyle changes. I wanted to help people do that. I wanted to help people enjoy food but do it in a healthy way and live long, healthy lives.
Jonathan: Well, Frances, that’s certainly a very, very touching story. Often when we have these personal experiences, so often I — you know me, I’m a science guy. The more time I’ve spent out there, not behind a desk doing research, the more I see that the science is certainly necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Because eating is so emotional; in our lifestyle, it’s such an emotional and deeper issue that making that personal connection and having a personal reason to pursue health is often so important to people.
I can only imagine that the movement you made over to Health Magazine was driven, again, by this passion. Just give me a little bit of insight into how one goes from studying at university to reaching the upper echelons of mainstream media. What is that path like?
Frances: Well, I knew that I wanted to write. Even when I was still undergrad and hadn’t become a registered dietitian yet, I knew I wanted to write. I actually called an alumnus from Cornell who was working, I believe it was, at Women’s World or Women’s Day Magazine. I said, Hey, I’m an undergrad and I’m thinking about becoming a dietician, but I’m not sure if it’s really that important for me to get my RD because what I really want to do is write.
She said, Well, that’s a great question, Frances; but if I was looking at two pitches, one from a journalist and one from a writer who also had an RD, and the story was about something related to nutrition and healthy eating, I would go with the RD. I said, Okay, that kind of seals the deal for me.
I went ahead and pursued the RD, knowing that I wanted to write, but knowing that I needed to get some sort of clinical experience first. So when I finished my RD at Columbia, I moved back to San Francisco. This was the ‘90s and there was such a health movement in California, and I wanted to be where the action was. I moved to San Francisco and I ended up getting a job right out of school at a place called the Jon Kaiser Wellness Center, and it was a really interesting place.
They had MDs on staff, they had me. It was a complementary-medicine clinic. There were massage therapists, there was a Watsu therapist, there was an acupuncturist on staff. So it was an amazing place to work, really kind of ahead of its time. Our focus population had HIV and AIDS. It was such an amazing education for me. It was also very intense because I had patients who were very sick, and I even lost some patients along the way.
I probably would have stayed out in San Francisco had my mother not gotten ill. She ended up developing multiple myeloma, and I wanted to move back east. It’s funny, there’s just that three-hour time difference, but you really feel a world away when you’re on the opposite coast of your loved ones. I ended up moving to Washington, DC.
Before I moved there, I pitched myself to the Discovery Channel, which was launching the Discovery Health Channel at the time and I said, You know, I’m a dietitian, I don’t have any writing clips, I do have patient handouts. Can I send you my patient handouts as writing samples? They said sure. Amazingly, they hired me as a staff writer, and I moved to DC.
I worked for the Discovery Health Channel for a couple of years, and then I moved on to a website called foodfit.com. I was their managing editor for three years, and that was a pretty amazing start-up. We actually had a chef on staff, and I worked with her to develop the healthy recipes that we had. We came out with a newsletter every week with a new recipe in it. That really kind of laid the groundwork for the next step, and that was Health Magazine.
Jonathan: Well, Frances, I love hearing this story. Not only is it an engaging one, but it seems like in some ways, one could characterize your career as an evolution. You then were a wonderful influence at Health Magazine for nearly a decade, and certainly published some New York Times bestselling books, which I would love to talk a little bit about, but then went off on your own, and even have a new title coming up called Eating in Color, which I’m excited to get into because I, too, very much promote eating in color.
Just to quickly pause and to continue that story of evolution, the work you did over at Health Magazine, I know some of our listeners are going to be interested, I know they’re going to check out your work, as they should, and I know they’re going to look you up, and they’re going to stumble upon a book which on the back of it says: Eat the carbs you love, lose weight fast. And then there is pasta, bread, potato chips, pizza, all with exclamation points next to them and then the statement, These foods will make you thin. Can we talk a little bit about your work with the CarbLovers Diet and then what you have maybe transitioned to in your new journey in life?
Frances: Sure. Well, you know, the CarbLovers Diet was really kind of — we were taking a risk, because this book came out in 2010, and even though people had kind of come off of the extreme low-carb bandwagon, which was really hot in the ‘90s and the early 2000s, there was and there still is a lot of anti-carb sentiment out there. At the same time, you have a lot of folks, especially women, who just love their carbs and really don’t function well without them.
They might be able to cut them out for a few weeks at a time, maybe a month, and they will lose weight. However, they are extremely cranky while they’re doing so, and it’s not something that they can stick to, especially when you’re raising a family like I am. I have a 4-year-old and a 19-month-old. You find that a lot of these carbs end up on the dinner table. Of course, you can always go for the healthier versions, the whole-grain versions of them, but you can’t really raise a family on steak alone or steak and chicken alone.
Our approach to this diet was really about something that worked and something that people could follow that didn’t make them crazy. We found that the dieters that we put on the CarbLovers Diet loved the diet, loved the food, found it very easy to follow, and they lost weight.
Jonathan: Certainly, we all know, myself included, there’s things that need to be done to, for lack of better terms, sell books. Certainly, we look on the back of this book, we see potato chips, pizza, with exclamation points next to them; I would imagine that the actual intention of the CarbLovers Diet is to say, If you love carbs, and if trying to get rid of them makes you hate your life, certainly stop doing that – that’s not the goal of anyone – maybe shift to more fiber-rich and nutrient-dense sources of carbs, increase the quality of the carbs in your diet. Am I on the right track?
Frances: Yes, but there was also something else, Jonathan, and that was resistant starch. We kind of landed on some research regarding resistant starch, which is a type of carbohydrate that acts like fiber. It isn’t actually fiber, but that’s how it acts in the body, and it helps you feel full longer and it also helps to kick up the fat-burning process. We incorporated the foods that were the highest in resistant starch, and the No. 1 resistant-starch food is actually a slightly green banana.
Also barley, a healthy carb, potatoes, pasta. But potatoes and pasta, when they’re cooled, when they’re cooked and then cooled, have higher rates of resistant starch than when they are hot. We used a lot of beans, we used a lot of other whole grains, and we tried to make the carbs that you were eating the most filling carbs that you could possibly get. We ended up putting ground-up oats in the pancakes and things like that, and so people really felt satisfied, but they were losing weight.
Jonathan: Fascinating. What we always talk about here at Smarter Science of Slim is we talk about SANE versus inSANE calories. SANE calories are calories that are more satisfying; they have a less-detrimental hormonal impact on the body, or they’re less aggressive. They’re nutritious, meaning they contain a lot of nutrition per calorie, and inefficient, meaning that the body is less likely to store them as fat simply because it would take longer to convert into triglyceride, to geek out for a second.
It sounds like what you’ve done is you’ve identified that if getting rid of starchy carbohydrates makes me so crabby that any health benefit I may get from doing so is mitigated by the mental impact or the practicality impact, negative impact it has on my life, what you do is you identify starchy carbohydrates, which might be best defined as more SANE or more satisfying, unaggressive, nutritious, and inefficient than other starchy carbs. Is that somewhat a fair characterization?
Frances: Yes. I think the other thing that people learned on this diet was what a serving size is. They learned that they could have pasta, whether it was plain white pasta or whole-grain pasta, but they learned, Wow, I can have one cup cooked. So you did have to actually measure out, especially when you were first starting the diet, what you were eating for the diet to actually work for you. I think that was another message in the book, was that, Yes, you can have these foods, but you cannot eat entire, huge serving bowls full of pasta and lose weight. As with any diet, if you also add exercise to it, it’s going to be much more effective.
Jonathan: I think that’s really the key. We talked about focus and evolution of your career, and I would love to start to talk about the focus of your next work. There are two things I’m hearing when we talk about the CarbLovers Diet. One is that, and correct me if I’m wrong with this first one, the focus of your diet is not necessarily on eating as many sources of resistant starch as possible; it’s probably not the 11 servings of starch that the USDA food guide pyramid recommended, of course correct me if I’m wrong.
Then secondarily, this is a program designed for individuals who, if they try to give up starches completely, just feel terrible. The reason I make that second point is if hypothetically I’m an individual who does not feel terrible when I give up starches, would you prefer that an individual fills up their plate with nutrient-dense vegetables and nutrient-dense fruits in place of resistant starches? Or would you say, Actually, no, resistant starches are so good that they should be prioritized above fruits and vegetables?
Frances: Definitely never above fruits and vegetables. If you look through the CarbLovers Diet, especially the CarbLovers Diet Cookbook, you will see a ton of fruits, vegetables and legumes mixed in with the carbohydrates. The resistant-starch thing, as you know, every diet book has to have a gimmick. So I would say that that was our gimmick.
Fortunately, there was a lot of really sound science around it, but it’s kind of a funny thing, because you find resistant starch in really healthy whole grains such as barley, but you also do find some of it in potato chips. That kind of allowed for us to make the diet appeal to a lot of different people, and it also was very inexpensive to follow.
I think that that was one of its key selling points. Some of those diets out there, like Paleo, very, very expensive to follow. Definitely not saying that resistant starch is any better than any other food group, but saying, Hey, look, it’s really filling if you want to lose weight and you want to also be able to exercise. I think that’s something that athletes really find challenging on low-carb or reduced-carb diets, is that there’s no way to replenish their glycogen stores, or no way to do it quickly enough so that they can exercise on Monday and also exercise on Tuesday without bonking and without feeling like they don’t have any energy. That’s sort of where we were coming from.
Jonathan: Well, Frances, I think that is a very wonderful distinction. It’s fascinating because we talked about the ‘90s and the approach taken to conscious carbohydrate consumption in the ‘90s and how there may have been — not may have been, there was.
If you look at, for example, the new Atkins book, The New Atkins For The New You, the term well-formulated low-carbohydrate diet is now very important. Because if you look at the early Atkins books — and again, everything’s got to have a gimmick, right?
They say, What foods are low in carbohydrate? Well, fatty corn-fed beef, and you can eat hamburgers all day, and you can eat butter on top of your bacon. If you actually look, for example, at The New Atkins For The New You book written by three amazing researchers, they talk about a properly- formulated low-carbohydrate diet, which focuses much more on nutrient density and much more on having… If you’re going to eat a low- carbohydrate diet, make sure you’re getting it from the most nutrient-dense sources possible. It seems like almost with the CarbLovers Diet, there was a similar thing there.
You needed that hook, but at its core and as very much reflected in your new book Eating in Color, if you’re going to go a little bit higher-carb route, there’s a well-formulated way to do that and there’s a poorly-formulated way to do that. You’ve identified a component, resistant starch, which can contribute to a more well-formulated, higher-carbohydrate diet, should that be the route that gives an individual the most success; is that fair?
Frances: That’s fair. I think the one thing that you keep touching on is if that works for you. I absolutely agree that there’s not one diet that works for everyone. Some people need more protein. Some people need animal protein. Some people don’t. Some people can be extremely athletic on a vegan diet. I can’t personally do that. I was vegetarian for 10 years and those were probably the 10 years that I was least healthy.
I certainly also probably wasn’t doing it optimally as a college student, but I think that it actually does take a lot of tinkering and a lot of trial and error to find out what works for an individual.
With Eating in Color, I don’t like to write about where I am in life and so I wanted to do a cookbook that was for families but that really wasn’t about that these are sort of kid meals that the whole family will love; it was more about we know all of the studies done in this country on produce consumption show that we are way behind. We are not getting the five to nine servings a day. I wanted to do something that really just got people, instead of trying to focus on serving sizes and measuring things, I wanted it to be fun, I wanted it to be just based on color.
Eating in Color is, as the name implies, based on color, based on the rainbow, actually. That’s how the chapters are organized, is by color, red, orange, yellow, green, and then I have a blue, indigo, violet chapter. I also have a black-and-tan chapter, because not all the healthy foods are colorful. There are certainly plenty of nuts and seeds and beans and grains that fit into that black-and-tan chapter that are extremely healthy for you, and so I wanted to throw that in as well.
It has over 90 recipes in it, and then interspersed between the recipes, you’ll find ingredient profiles. I think this is one thing that people seem to be getting really excited about as I talk about the book, because you might, within a season… For example, right now it’s spring; asparagus is in season. So you might sort of be thinking about asparagus and how to use it right now.
But then you forget, and you forget that it’s in season in spring and how to pick it out. So all of these ingredient profiles tell you what it is, what’s so great about it for you, how to choose it, how to store it, and how to use it. This is something that you’re going to refer to all year round, and that you’re going to come back to not only for the recipes but also for this additional information.
Jonathan: I love that. I think certainly the eating in color and the focus on fresh produce is so important. I recently had a conversation with Dr. Joel Fuhrman, who I’m sure you, like me, have much respect for, obviously a great contributor to the field. He makes a wonderful point about ensuring we don’t crowd the most nutrient-dense sources of calories off our plate with less nutrient-dense sources, and really not sacrificing.
If we’re looking at this from a purely nutritional perspective, which is an incomplete perspective, but it’s a perspective, which is to, again, ensure that we don’t sacrifice the best, we don’t push the best off our plate and fill it with the good unless we have to for financial reasons or unless we want to for emotional reasons, and then we’re okay with the results.
The reason I mention this, Frances, is you mentioned early on that some of the concerns with other dietary approaches may be based around practicality and may be based around affordability. It seems like your approach really prizes those very highly.
They say, I’m going to assume you cannot exclusively fill your plate with locally-grown produce, with non-farmed grass-fed meats and fish, and not exclusively with high-fiber nutrient-dense fats such as cocoa, coconut, avocado, nuts, seeds, yada, yada, yada. Because of that, you’re going to need some things like beans and grains.
Ignoring practicality and ignoring pleasure for a moment, do you ever see individuals potentially conflating that which is, I would argue, the best, which would be the fresh nutrient-dense produce, the fresh and non-farmed sources of protein, and the fiber-rich nutrient-dense fats, conflating those with beans and whole grains, which are better for you than McDonald’s but really aren’t in the same ballpark as the three quote, unquote food groups I mentioned earlier. Is that fair?
Frances: I would love to know, Jonathan, actually why you put them in that order. For example, why would a legume, let’s take the black bean, which is rich in antioxidants, rich in fiber, and can really help to stabilize blood sugar, and many studies have shown that beans can play a vital role in preventing diabetes; why does that fall lower in the hierarchy for you than an avocado?
Jonathan: I would say a couple of things. I would only eat an avocado if my goal was to take in nutrient-dense fiber-rich fats. If my goal was to take in fiber, my number one choice would be non-starchy vegetables, because calorie for calorie, you aren’t going to find a better source of fiber than a non-starchy vegetable. Purely from a mathematical perspective, I would choose non-starchy vegetables.
They may not be the most delicious, but mathematically they are the most fiber-rich. Then if my goal was to eat protein, I would look for the most protein for my calorie buck. I would look for things like grass-fed meats. I would look for things like wild-caught fishes, because those will provide me with more protein per calorie than any plant would. If my goal was, like I said, to eat fats, I would look to eating fibrous fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds, cocoa, coconut, things like that. If I’m eating a bean because my goal is to get fiber and to get full and to get some protein, I would say, Well, why not eat some grass-fed beef along with some kale, spinach, and broccoli, wouldn’t you get even more for your calorie buck?
Frances: I think that you are an optimal eater, and I think that you optimize every meal. That is because you are a professional and you have all of this knowledge at your fingertips. Most Americans don’t, and most Americans have to create seven dinners a week for their family, or at least five dinners a week, let’s say.
Maybe they eat out the other two nights. I don’t think that it’s practical for most people, including myself, to have the grass-fed beef five nights a week, or even to have the grass-fed beef and the wild-caught salmon and maybe some free-range eggs in there. It is just not practical from a financial standpoint.
Also, I truly believe that God put all these things on the planet for us to eat, and certainly to pick and choose from. There’s a reason why we have such a variety of food. I have never been a big fan of excluding whole groups of foods.
Now, junk food is a different story, because that’s all man-made. That’s all stuff that we’ve created that was not existing here. I really try not to just put certain foods on pedestals and other ones a step below; I really think that you should mix it up, just like you should mix up your fat sources, you should mix up your protein sources, and just like a diet of only kale is not optimal. Again, there is the rainbow. You’ll be happy to hear that in that black-and-tan chapter, coconut is one of the featured ingredients.
I did try to bring a lot of what are now trendy but have been sort of in the health arena for a long time to light, things like quinoa, chia seeds, hemp seed, coconut. I think that when you take a look at Eating in Color, Jonathan, you’re going to really sort of see a lot of things that gel with you. But again, this book is not a diet; it is a cookbook. It’s also a way of eating, it’s a lifestyle, and it encourages people to shop their local farmer’s market. It encourages people to sign up for a CSA, which I did for the first time last year, and it really kind of changed my life and the way that I fed my family. So I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to get you a copy.
Jonathan: Frances, the thing that I actually love about this is an unquestionable fact that humans are a very diverse group of individuals, and that if you do look at even our anthropological record, the diets which we ate very wildly, if you look at some Pacific Islander cultures, we’re talking a 90%-plus carbohydrate diet. If you look at some Arctic cultures or some African cultures, we’re looking at a 90%-plus fat diet. Certainly, there is a diversity of things that work.
The distinction that I love here, and the thing that I love about your messaging with Eating in Color, is we have to be specific about our goals. If our goal is to eat like a caveman, then that’s a specific goal. If our goal is to find the perfect diet, and let’s define perfect by providing truly the absolute maximum amount of essential nutrients and components and the absolute minimal amount of everything else at the expense of practicality or enjoyment or anything like that, that’s a different goal.
If you have a goal which is to be healthy, to be slim, to not die prematurely, to not become diabetic, and to really just take more of a practical approach, that is a different goal and certainly, you’ll eat differently. I think that’s what’s reflected in Eating in Color is this is more, I’m not here to try to be perfect, I’m here to enjoy life and focus on practicality and focus on maybe getting the most bang for my buck; is that fair?
Frances: Yes. Because it is a family cookbook, you certainly don’t have to have a family to enjoy the recipes, but it assumes that you want things to be fairly quick, you’re not spending two hours creating a meal, and that you are going to be working with some pantry staples. Some things that you have on hand, some things that are fresh, putting them together in a really quick, simple way, to me, I think it’s the way that makes sense, to be incorporating those really healthy things but in a way that suits our crazy lives and in a way that also helps to reduce our impact on the planet at the same time.
Jonathan: Well, I think it’s such a key point, Frances, to say that it’s so easy for individuals, probably me more so than you, to get wrapped around the axle of science and that which is perfect and sometimes losing sight of the fact that if 99% of Americans, for example, just ate any sort of thing found in nature, beans, whole grains, whatever, if they were actually eating those instead of eating soda and chips and just garbage, oh, my gosh, they would be so much healthier, right?
Jonathan: I think that’s really the key thing to remember here is, listeners, remember that if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably in the one percent. I appreciate that, and that’s awesome, and let’s all pat ourselves on the backs. But let’s also realize that our example is a profound influence, but we also need to give tools and we also need to give baby steps or on-ramps to the rest of the population; and it sounds like Eating in Color is just that.
Jonathan: Well, Frances, obviously Eating in Color is coming out; what’s next for you? You’ve had a pretty varied career; what’s next?
Frances: Well, that’s a great question. I’m always looking into every opportunity that comes my way. I’m also a spokesperson, a TV spokesperson, for Cooking Light Magazine so through that, I get a ton of opportunities in the media and have been doing a lot of guest appearances on Dr. Oz and the Today Show and also on Access Hollywood Live. We will see, I’ll keep you posted, but I’m just trying to keep it interesting.
Jonathan: I love it. Well, it certainly sounds like if we want to keep up on your work, we should just turn on our television, and it sounds like it would be pretty hard to miss you.
Frances: Your listeners can also go to FrancesLargemanRoth.com and I post all of my appearances on my website; and they can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
Jonathan: I love it. Well again, that URL is FrancesLargemanRoth, and that’s F-R-A-N-C-E-S, L-A-R-G-E-M-A-N, R-O-T-H, and her brand new book coming out, Frances, am I correct, is it January 2014?
Frances: That’s right.
Jonathan: January 2014, coinciding with another book called The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor. I’m just kidding. It’s called Eating in Color and I certainly can’t wait to see that, Frances. I appreciate you so much for joining us and for all the good you do out there to help bring our culture along into a more healthy and fit lifestyle. Certainly, the more people we can get out there spreading that message, the better, so thank you.
Frances: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Jonathan: Listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast as much as I did, and remember, this week, and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.