Diabetes : Moderation is Key to Chef's Weight Loss Success

Katherine Miller

These days it seems as if everyone is following some sort of special diet, whether it's vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, Paleo or low-carb.

But diet isn't a word that chef Ken Gordon subscribes to. Just over a year ago, the owner of Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen and two other local restaurants felt fine -- albeit a bit "hefty" -- and hadn't been to a doctor in seven years. But a visit to a naturopathic physician revealed Gordon had Type 2 diabetes, as well as metabolic syndrome, a group of factors that raise the risk of heart disease, stroke and other problems. There and then, he decided to make lifestyle changes -- and to write about his journey to reverse his diabetes diagnosis in a regular column for The Oregonian's Living section.

Today, Gordon is 40 pounds lighter. He says he is no longer diabetic and that his numbers for blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure are within normal range. Instead of relying on medication or a special diet, he made many smaller lifestyle changes that he could live with, from not putting cream in his coffee, to eating smaller portions, to making sure he walks three to four miles in the course of a day.

After your diabetes diagnosis, what was the hardest change you made?

Fear is a pretty strong motivating factor. I didn't give up anything completely. I think my palate and my diet were somewhat jaded before. You want a double cheeseburger, you have a double cheeseburger. If you want six strips of bacon, you have six strips. And now (those foods) have really become more of a treat. I think I've started to appreciate these things more, and they taste better. I don't know that any of it was that hard.

Does your new lifestyle complicate your work as a chef?

People ask, "How do you justify writing and talking about good diet and moderation and yet you sell pastrami and chopped liver and all that stuff?" It was something I was certainly concerned about earlier, concerned about the business ramifications. I'm going public with this; am I telling people not to come into my restaurant? It's OK to have a pastrami sandwich, just don't have it every day. If you have a weight problem, don't eat the whole thing. You can be smart about it and still have what you like.

Have you adjusted the menus at your restaurants?

We have. We came up with a part of the menu that's for healthy choices, where we offer a smaller pastrami sandwich, or healthier versions of some of the things we do (on the rest of the menu). But you can't eliminate all the temptation. You have to educate people to be smarter about resisting it or having it just once in a while. You can split something, or have a salad.

How will you approach your cooking classes this spring?

Flavor's always been a big thing with me, and it's still about that. I won't teach something or cook something that I don't think will taste really good. There are things you can do and choices you can make that are going to be healthier without compromising flavor. One of the classes I'm teaching is on French cooking. I think French cooking is very misunderstood. There's French restaurant cooking, which is very rich, but then there's grandma cooking and regional stuff that tends to be leaner.

I always like to teach things that pretty much anybody can do. I'm not training chefs here; I'm training people to go home and to be able to make these recipes. As opposed to the Food Network, which is very entertaining, but most people aren't going to do the stuff they're watching on that channel. I want to do things that are not intimidating so people actually do it.

Could you qualify the recipes as low-fat?

For the most part, they're fairly low-fat, with lots of vegetables and fish or lean protein. But I think using butter and olive oil and even lard is fine as long as you watch the number of calories you're taking in.

You talk about focusing your health on both the mind and body. Do you mean a holistic approach?

A naturopath starts out asking you these questions: What are you eating these days, how much exercise are you getting, and what's your stress level like? It starts making you think about your whole body and your lifestyle, and not just how you're feeling. Part of the problem with standard medicine is that doctors start out talking about medication and drugs. How do you get to feeling better but not necessarily taking care of the problem. I'm not a touchy-feely kind of guy. I never have been. But there are just certain things that you listen to, sit down and talk with someone about, and it just kind of make sense.

Are you tempted to transition to a plant-based diet?

Oh, God no! My naturopath said all studies show that the way to achieve what you want to achieve is to go vegan, or a plant-based diet. I told him, do you know who I am? We smoke 2,000 pounds of pastrami a week. I'm not going to do that. I love food.

I've gained a lot of respect for vegans and vegetarians since my diagnosis, but it's not a diet I subscribe to. It requires a lot of discipline and it's hard to do.

To see descriptions of Gordon's upcoming classes, or to enroll, go to www.ncnm.edu/ken-gordon.

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