Comedienne nutritionist rocks healthy food choices at Wikwemikong

WIKWEMIKONG—Nutritionist Mairlyn Smith’s website announces that she is a nutritionist with a signature difference. “As the only professional home economist in the world who is also an alumnus of the Second City Comedy Troupe, not only do I bring knowledge about foods and nutrition to the table, but I do it with a smile and a giggle.”

The billing proved more than accurate, judging by the giggles and guffaws that came fast and furious during Ms. Smith’s presentations on ‘Healthy Starts Here!’, a companion workshop based on her latest book of the same name, and ‘laughter. Is it what the doctor ordered?’ delivered at the Wikwemikong arena hall on Friday, February 27.

“I had to add more humour to my laughter workshop,” admitted Ms. Smith, noting that her laughter workshop actually started out being less humourous than her health nutrition offering.

Ms. Smith was introduced to the audience by Gail Shawande, a community health representative with the Wikwemikong Health Centre who had invited the nutritionist/comedienne to come to the community to deliver her hilarious take on all things nutritional.

Ms. Smith, who has a doctorate in home economics from the University of British Columbia to complement her studies at California’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, admitted to being a big fan of Manitoulin Island ever since she first visited the area with her husband shortly after moving to Toronto 30 years ago.

“As we docked at the Island we felt this magical thing, no wonder the Island is called spirit,” she said. “It just grabbed me. We only spent a day and a half here but I knew I had to come back. When I sent my prayer out to the heavens, maybe I should have said ‘maybe not in February’. In Vancouver, 10 degrees is winter to us.”

Ms. Smith went on to say, however, that having complained about the weather in Ontario for 30 years, she has decided that it “doesn’t do any good.”

“The only thing you can change about the weather is your attitude,” she said, so she has committed to starting a new phase in her life of not complaining, adding with mock solemnity “I am going to start next year.” For her trip to Manitoulin, she was suitably attired in long underwear, Sorel boots and a big winter coat her mother gave her several years ago. “I now dress for the winter,” rather than fashion she said. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this years ago?”

Ms. Smith explained her choice of home economics as a career after telling her parents that she wanted to pursue a career in acting. “When I told my mother and father I wanted to be an actor,” she explained, “they heard hooker.”

“Then I discovered that you could get a degree in home economics,” she said. “’Wow’, I thought, ‘you can get a degree in eating!’”

Her passion for food choices received a new impetus when her father was diagnosed with a heart condition. “He was told he basically had two choices, ‘you can change your lifestyle’ or ‘you can die’.”

Ms. Smith emphasized that she is not a dietician.

But as a professional home economist she bases her practice, and her best-selling books and cookbooks, on long term science behind food choices.

“The first thing I can tell you is eat more vegetables,” she said. “People who live long and healthy lives eat a lot of vegetables. They are really economical and seasonal. I like eating in season.”

The benefits of sticking to seasonal and local vegetables in your meal planning is the ability to avoid the many chemicals that are put on vegetables that have to travel long distances to your table and avoiding the loss of the nutrients in vegetables that are picked too early and ripen as they travel.

In order to live a healthy lifestyle, it is important to eat seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t as much as it sounds,” she said. “When you look at what a serving of vegetables is, it can be a cup of salad, half a cup of fresh fruit or vegetables, a half cup of juice (don’t have more, there is too much sugar) and a quarter cup of dried fruit.”

Ms. Smith holds up an apple. “Based on that, when you cut it up, this is two servings,” she said. Ms. Smith added that the old adage ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is based on some hard science. Apples contain both soluble and insoluble fibre. “The insoluble cleans you out while the soluble removes toxins and lowers your cholesterol—apples have both.”

The list of good vegetable choices included asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, squash and, very importantly, leafy greens. “Anything that is bitter for you is probably good for protecting your DNA,” she said. “People who eat a lot of leafy greens have lower instances of cancer.”

Mushrooms are also a key food when it comes to avoiding the big C. “Mushrooms are a miracle food for fighting cancer,” she said.

In what might sound like heresy to a current fad, Ms. Smith asserted firmly that “whole grains are good for you. If anyone puts their hand up and mentions ‘Wheat Belly’ I will have to hit you. There is science and there is pseudo-science.”

Ms. Smith said that studies can be very misleading, citing an instance where she received two submissions from different companies. “They both sent me the same study, with two different spins,” she said. “Just because something is being touted by crazy celebrities does not make it true. I am so upset about misinformation.”

The home economist said that the simple truth is that cutting any food group completely out of your diet can lead to you losing 100 pounds. “You look at centenarians,” she advised. “They all ate grains and they are doing well.”

When you cut out grains, you are usually cutting out the junk food in your diet. Skip the middleman and just cut out junk, she advised. The science behind the anti-grain movement is anecdotal. “There are no long term studies to substantiate what he is talking about,” she said.

Another astounding fact conveyed by Ms. Smith concerns what is termed the glycemic rate of pasta. She related her experience of travelling to Italy to study under a renowned dietary scholar. “She said ‘pasta, low glycemic’,” recalled Ms. Smith. “Well I put my hand up.” The response of the professor was clearly designed to shock some sense into her North American student. “She said, ‘in Italy, we don’t cook the shit out of our pasta’.”

It turns out that if pasta is cooked to the el dente level (still chewy, say five to six minutes in the pot instead of the package recommendation of seven to eight) then the food is absorbed more slowly, hence, low glycemic. When it comes to fresh pasta that has not been dried, simply cook it even less, she said.

“Beans, beans, the more you eat the more you toot, wrong!” laughed Ms. Smith. Turns out, the more beans you have in your diet, the less gas you get from eating them. When you just eat beans occasionally, the enzymes in your gut ferment the beans instead of cleanly digesting them. “You are basically making beer in your belly,” she quipped. If beans make up a steady and regular part of your diet, your digestive system adapts to process the food without the excess fermentation process.

Ms. Smith is the founder of National Farting Day, March 5. She began the celebration as a lark while working on a television news cast. The hashtag CANFART15 went viral the way her previous celebrations of National Farting have on Twitter, proving that this is no ‘passing’ fad. She also celebrated the national ode to odious, or is that odorous behaviour, on Toronto’s Cityline Breakfast Television recently.

Nuts were another good food idea touted by Ms. Smith. “Have a small handful every day, but keep it within limits. “This is a place where size matters,” she said. “Two tablespoons for women, guys can have a quarter cup.” One good sized brazil nut contains all the trace selenium necessary for good body health.

Ms. Smith went on to note the health benefits of many herbs and spices, as well as the positive impact of many indigenous foods and medicines.

The other secrets she delivered on a platter to her audience included the importance of exercise to a healthy life. “If there is a magic bullet, it is exercise,” she said.

The second seminar Ms. Smith delivered after lunch focussed on the health benefits of laughter. She noted that the muscles and nerves in a person’s face are connected to the neurons in our brains. Simply put, forcing yourself to smile every day will not only trick your brain into making you happier, studies have proven that it will make you healthier.

“It actually increases the antibodies,” she said. Ms. Smith noted that the basis of laughing yoga works on the infectious nature of laughter. “When you laugh, your blood flows faster,” she noted, just as it does when you exercise. “The plaques don’t get a chance to bind to the walls of your cells.”

“A smile is the beginning of laughter,” she said. It seems that good health, while serious business, really is a laughing matter.