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Mindful Eating for Mental Health Awareness Month

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Cover artwork for "Midwest Mediterranean: Finding Health & Flavor with the Foods of the North"
Cover artwork for "Midwest Mediterranean: Finding Health & Flavor with the Foods of the North"

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so today we're exploring the food of this region, and how mindful eating impacts our health.

Today's segments:
The Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful, delicious ways of eating on the planet, but how can we apply these dietary principles here in the Midwest? In September 2021, we spoke with two collaborators for the cookbook Midwest Mediterranean, dietitian Megan Myrdal and olive oil importer Peter Schultz.

Pollution is linked to respiratory illness. But did you know it's also linked to depression? May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Famed Polar explorer Will Steger has a cookbook — "The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life" is a collection of recipes his niece and Steger Center head chef Rita Mae serves guests. The book promotes seasonal eating, foraging, and zero waste or fossil fuels. That conversation first aired in April 2022.

Midwest Mediterranean Transcript

Studies show that a diet high in refined sugars can impair brain function and worsen symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. It can also lead to oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body, which can sometimes manifest as fatigue muscle or joint pain, and even gray hair.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and today we talk about the difference between having a diet and being on a diet and other ways to incorporate mindful healthful eating and the impacts on both are mental and physical health.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful, delicious ways of eating on the planet, but we don't live near the Mediterranean. Can we apply the dietary principles here in the Great Plains and the Midwest?

In a conversation that first aired in 2021, we learn about the book Midwest Mediterranean, Finding Health and Flavor with the Foods of the North. And it features contributions from people with PhDs, sixth generation farmers, medical doctors, and registered dietitians. And we are visiting with two of the contributors to this book, registered dietitian Meg Myrdal and olive oil importer Peter Schultz.


Ashley Thornberg

I want to start with you, Peter, because early on in the book you talk about the word diet as not something that you just go on.

It's not really a verb. It's a noun. And more than that, it's a lifestyle.

Peter Schultz

That's right. That's right. That was one of the things that we talked about earlier when we first started working on this project, is that this is way more about, way more than about food.

There is a kind of holistic message that weaves its way through this entire project. And what it's really about is healthy bodies, but it's also about healthy minds and healthy souls, really, if you can say that. The ancient Greek word for diet, dieta, means sort of a way of being in essence.

So when you say you're going on a diet, that is certainly one aspect of that way of being. But for an ancient Mediterranean, they would understand that this was going to encompass your whole essence. And I think that's what we're after in the project.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, because Megan, you have been active in local food for as long as I've known you and one of the founders of Food of the North, formerly Ugly Food of the North, a movement to get people to realize that an apple doesn't have to be shiny and perfect to be edible. And the aspect that you bring to the book is this idea that we can take something well-established, like a thousands-year-old diet, and infuse it with local flavors. How did you get involved in this project?

Megan Myrdal

Well, I love that question. Yeah, so I became involved in this project. As you said, I've been active in working in the local food space for most of my career, really focused on North Dakota and the foods that are grown in our region of the world.

And Peter, I knew him from my days at Concordia when he was a professor there and I was a student. And we kind of got reconnected a few years back. Peter has been importing this fantastic olive oil from Greece for many years into our community, which is also a big component of this book.

And I was working on farmers market development and working with local community gardeners and really trying to get folks in our place in the world to celebrate the foods that we grow here and showing different ways that they can be cooked and prepared and hosting awesome markets where these farmers get to share their food and showcase their awesome goods. And so we got on this conversation and he's like, you know, I've got this really amazing olive oil. I'd love to see it paired with some of those foods that are grown in the upper Midwest.

And so we worked together to make a dish that we called the Midwest Mediterranean Bean Salad. It's filled with all the local seasonal vegetables that we grow here, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, onions, things that are just kind of the staples of our garden. It has dry edible beans, which we are the top producing region in the country for dry edible beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, navy beans, all of those awesome plant based proteins.

And then we made a delicious vinaigrette that uses the olive oil and balsamic and feta cheese and olives and some of those signature Mediterranean flavors. It's not a complicated salad at all, right? Like this is a very simple dish.

It can be made easily by anybody in their home kitchen, but it tastes so good. And this isn't revolutionary. This isn't anything that we're bringing any profound ideas here, but just kind of articulating that we can take the foods that are grown here and combine them with these techniques and ingredients in the Mediterranean and make something that is so good for our bodies and so good for our communities.

And it tastes really delicious too. And then we just had this little epiphany kind of. And we were both eating the salad and got super excited.

And I mean, how often do people get really excited when they're eating beans? But we did. And then we embarked on this journey of creating this book.

Two years later, here we are. Midwest Mediterranean is out. You mentioned that we have all these other contributing authors.

It's just super fun. And it's been such a gratifying experience to pull together all these awesome people in our community to connect with people over in the Mediterranean. And really, like Peter said, it's just this holistic.

The ideas are holistic, but the process has been really holistic too, which has been super cool.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, Peter, you have studied in Greece, you have taught this lifestyle, you have been living this. What first got you interested in that part of the world and this desire to to bring it over here to meat and potatoes country? Sure.

Peter Schultz

Well, that is an enormous question.

Ashley Thornberg


Peter Schultz

I'm going to drill down on the food piece. When I lived in Greece for almost a decade, I kind of became a Mediterranean diet addict by default. I didn't know what was really happening to me because that was just the cuisine.

But when I came back to the States and started hanging out with incredible local food folks, it became really clear that many of the values, especially about community and togetherness and kind of interconnectivity, are completely the same. The Greeks and the folks of the high plains share way more in common than you might think. And one of the things that's been exciting about this project in that regard is seeing this kind of blending that Megan is talking about, where you will have literally a local cardiologist from Fargo with a recipe right next to a chef from Crete.

And they actually are speaking the exact same language. So for me, it was sort of a basic acculturation at first that sort of translated into just sort of bridge building and probably most importantly, just having a really good time.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, so often with food programs, you get these ultra high end chefs and ingredients and things that look amazing, but they cost a fortune to make. And there is a role to high quality ingredients and starting with those because oftentimes they're expensive because they are the healthiest, the purest, the best tasting. But then we start to go on this level, Megan, of trying to make these recipes accessible.

And I think that's really where this book comes together.

Megan Myrdal

A hundred percent. If you look at the kind of concepts that we're talking about and then the recipes that are included in this book, I will say that there are a couple of things. Our wonderful cardiologist contributed a recipe for a lobster dish, which I mean, that's a special sometimes option.

But a lot of them are grain based salads that are featuring beans. And, you know, I think that beans are cheap, whole grains are cheap. And that's where, like, I really got excited about this idea because beans and grains are two things that we grow in incredible abundance in this place of the world.

And they are highly affordable things. So if you base a lot of meals on beans and greens, those are two awesome, nutritious ingredients that together they make a complete protein. So you don't have to maybe buy some of those more expensive animal cuts of meat.

And then, like we talked about, some of those really, really high quality ingredients that do cost a little bit more that are going to really provide that highly nutritional product as well as something that is going to make the food taste super good, like that really high quality extra virgin olive oil. It leaves space in your food budget to allow for some of those more expensive ingredients. So these awesome local foods that are nourishing our bodies, that are grown right here, that are highly affordable, too, that then we can make it work on our food budgets.

Ashley Thornberg

So what's going on with that high quality extra virgin olive oil?

Peter Schultz


Ashley Thornberg

Why the splurge there?

Peter Schultz

Why the splurge there? Well, I think that's a place where if you want to choose a staple for this kind of diet, that's where you want your dollars to go if you have the extra to spend. There is a I mean, I think we may have talked about this a couple of years ago.

Actually, there is this rampant fraud in the world of olive oil. And there was this famous study that came out from University of California at Davis where they're like, yep, it looks like about 80 percent of everything labeled extra virgin olive oil on your grocery shelves is actually not. And that has real consequences, not just for our farmers, but for you and for your health.

Because if it is garbage in, garbage out. If you really want to take care of yourself, you have to know what you're eating, obviously. And in this case, if you are consuming as what you think to be your healthy fat, something that's actually loaded with chemicals or dyes or blends or, you know, something else that you're not even quite sure of, you are actually going backwards in terms of what the diet is about.

So when it comes to olive oil, knowing just like any food, knowing who makes your food and being willing to actually have a conversation with these folks who are producing this nutrition and sustenance for you is key. And, you know, it is ours. You know, the stuff I bring in, actually, it is a little bit more expensive than what you'll find in the grocery store.

But I have seen similar quality stuff in Greece, in California, New York for 60 dollars a bottle. Right. And we're talking about 13 dollars a bottle.

So, yeah, it is on the high end for sort of what you might find in a Costco or sort of whatnot. But you know where it's coming from. You know who grew it.

You know that these people are taking care of their land. And most importantly, they're taking care of you.

Ashley Thornberg

What is the difference between a whole grain and what is a lot more likely that we're eating around here, Megan? I love that question.

Megan Myrdal

Thank you, Ashley. So, as I mentioned a few times already, we live in the breadbasket of America, right? We live in a place that produces an abundance of grains, wheat, barley, oats.

But probably 95, if not more, percent of the grains people are eating are a processed grain. And so if you think about that whole intact grain, you have a bran, a germ and an endosperm. Those are the three components that make up most grains.

When they process those grains, they remove the bran and the germ, which are two highly nutritious components of that grain. They can obtain a lot of the nutrients and a lot of the fiber. And then they mill it down and create different flours that are used in all of the different baked goods that we're eating, our breads, our pastas, a lot of the cakes and cookies and all of those things.

And when you process that grain, one, I already mentioned, you're removing a lot of that high nutritional quality, but you're also reducing the amount of work the body has to do to break down that grain. And if we really think about it, one of the big tenets of the Mediterranean diet is eating as much whole, unprocessed, plant-based food as we can. And so having those grains in that whole intact form, and what I've been mentioning, these dishes that are based on beans and grains, one of my absolute favorite things to make for a dish is a whole grain salad, cooking up farro or barley or wheat berries and having that as a cold grain and mixing that into a salad.

Instead of having the hot dishes and the pasta salads that we eat so much in this place in the world, can we do more salads with those whole grains? Diabetes and chronic diseases are two conditions that are running rampant across the country. And one of the things that I talk about in my chapter of the book and our cardiologists and our gastroenterologists talk about as well is that we have some pretty significant health issues here.

We have really high rates of overweight and obesity. We have high rates of chronic disease, diabetes, cancers, heart diseases. And we really live in a state with the diets that people are eating where our bodies are chronically inflamed.

We have our blood sugars are out of control. We're eating foods that are just not treating our bodies well. And these whole grains, the way in which they digest in the body, cause a much slower blood sugar response that keeps our immune systems in check.

It keeps our blood sugars in check. It the way in which we were intended to eat those foods. The body is eating it in the form in which it is meant to do the work to break it down slowly to provide that slow release of energy that is going to to nourish the body and keep all those metabolic systems in check.

So that's really one of the big things that I try to stress in this book is that we really need to rethink grains and get people more on this whole grain message.

Ashley Thornberg

And additionally, just the impact of the health of the gut on the health of the rest of the body as the person talking about this holistic approach to living. How is it that we can have a mental health component that is directly related to our gut health?

Megan Myrdal

We're really lucky that we had a mental health practitioner who was involved in writing this book and wrote a couple of awesome chapters or excuse me, one chapter that talks about that mind body connection and mind diet connection, as well as our gastroenterologist, because you bring up the gut health piece of it, too. So there's been an overwhelming amount of research that has come out in the last 10 years about this gut brain connection and that people had often thought that all the decision making that happens and how we feel and how we interpret the world around us is related to the health of our brains. But there's actually the second brain that resides in our gut.

And we are actually, as humans, we are actually more microbe than we are human. There are more, which kind of freaks people out a little bit, but there are more microorganisms living in our body, the majority of which are residing in our gut, as well as on our skin, actually all over our bodies. And the way that we eat has a profound impact on the health of those microbes and which ones live within our bodies, too.

And I know you know this very, very well, Ashley, through your work with the gut microbiome and your family's business. But it is really fascinating. And the diet in which we eat, the majority of in this country, the standard American diet or the SAD diet, as it's sometimes referred to with those processed grains, the sugar sweetened beverages, just not eating a diet that is providing that collection of organisms that live within our bodies, the nutrition that they need, it is impacting our health in so many different ways.

And one of those is a mental health piece. And I think that that is, I mean, I think the whole book is very interesting, but the mental health piece is just fascinating. We live in a country that is just rampant with mental health issues.

And not saying that this is the end all, cure all, but we know that people's physical health is impacting their mental health. I mean, that is a well understood thing. So if you are walking around inflamed with a misbalanced gut microbiome and undiagnosed diabetes, of course, that is impacting your mental health and well-being.

And diet plays such a profound role in that. So it's really exciting to think about this book with hopefully all the different messages that are shared in that, that if heart disease isn't your biggest concern, but you might be thinking, you know, maybe the mental health piece is something that will motivate people, or maybe it's wanting to connect and support a farmer in Greece or support a farmer here. And that's when we talk about this word holistic, I feel like it comes in so many different ways of how we think about this book.

And that's one thing that I hope that this book does, too, is that you find a reason to get excited about eating this way for your own well-being as well as the well-being of others.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to go back to that holistic approach. After I graduated college, I had a job in France and I was able to move overseas. And I remember knowing that it was an amazing opportunity, but also I used to get so bored on my two hour lunch break because all the businesses were closed.

Everybody had this two hour lunch break and I was used to, you know, since kindergarten having 20 minutes to eat lunch and recess. And so you have a vested interest in eating quickly so that you could maximize, you know, fun. But if you could just talk, Peter, about the difference in the approach to mealtime between what you saw here and in the decade that you were living in.

Peter Schultz

Sure, sure. Well, that's a great question. I think that especially around the Mediterranean Basin, things slow down a bit.

There is kind of an expectation that, you know, it's going to be a long lunch one way or another. And dinners, I mean, I remember sitting down at 10 o'clock and we didn't get up until three o'clock in the morning. I mean, we were just I mean, they just kind of roll on.

And there is something to be said, I think, for a gathering where you are really engaged with your friends or family that doesn't really seem to have an end. There's no pressure to go out to recess. There's no pressure to worry about tomorrow in that moment.

It's a very different kind of mentality. It's like, you know, let's savor this right now. Like right now, hanging out with Megan and you, Ashley, you know, let's let's take a little time here.

It's nice. I know we only have limited time, but the idea that there always have to be deadlines is itself a cultural construct that we have sort of locked ourselves into or maybe bought into. That does not have to be the case.

And we know that because there is a whole massive population that is not living like that. And it just turns out they're living really long lives and they are profoundly happy on various indices. And they're operating and eating in a way that goes back for millennia.

So maybe it's worth thinking about doing it super old school and just slowing it down a bit.

Ashley Thornberg

Megan, you often call yourself a farmer's daughter. Your people are of the land. They've worked the land.

But we have this stereotype, for better or for worse, of farmers being stubborn and the approach to food just being, like I said earlier, the meat and potatoes. And I'm wondering how accurate do you think that really is?

Megan Myrdal

You know, I think that we are in a time when people are becoming much, much more enlightened to the idea of the profound impact food has on health and we are becoming a more health minded consumer. The farmer in rural America, I do agree that there might be some barriers to overcome. As Peter was talking about the dinner that goes until 3 a.m. And I'm thinking about my very like German father, who is like the most time pressed man ever and just likes everything to be.

Ashley Thornberg

That's about when he probably has to get up to work.

Megan Myrdal

Yeah, exactly. I'm like, that's probably not going to appeal to him. Maybe I can get him to eat a bean salad, but I'm probably not going to get him to drink wine with me and toast till 3 a.m. But I think that the world of food is changing so much. People are becoming so much more aware of these global flavors, global food. People are excited by food. They think of it as a way to adventure and learn something new.

I think that generationally it is changing a lot, too. I would love to see some folks that are, you know, like the 65 year old farmer, Harold, that is pretty established in his cereal, orange juice and milk every morning. Sorry, dad.

Maybe consider some more of these whole plant based ingredients. He does eat very well, so I need to say that, too, for the most part. But I think that we have a lot of opportunities with younger generations, too, to be young people who are really interested in food.

We have a lot of opportunities to get folks excited about this. And, you know, I've read a number of things that younger children have a pretty profound impact on their parents, too. So if they're interested in health and well-being and they're trying these new things and they bring it to their parents and get them excited about it and show them, people are motivated by so many things to live longer and healthier.

Parents, grandparents, they'll want to be there for their grandkids. They want to be active and healthy much more than generations before. So I think that this is an interesting time when some of these stereotypes that we've had in the past around the farmer from rural North Dakota that is not interested in changing.

I think that we could be at a unique point right now where people are open to some change. We've and then again, I will just say this, like I know I talk the health piece of a lot, but just the food tastes so good. Like I would say, I mean, this might be a little too confident, but I'm like, put some of these dishes up against your steak and potatoes.

And I mean, I love steak and potatoes every now and again, too. I'm not saying don't eat that. And we talk about like potatoes are awesome.

We're yes, red meat is kind of a sticky wicket on this subject. But you can have some of those foods as well. But this food tastes super, super good.

Just try it. And you could be very surprised.

Ashley Thornberg

The book is called Midwest Mediterranean Finding Health and Flavor with the Foods of the North. There are chapters from a cardiologist, a psychotherapist, an archaeologist, a dietician, a farmer. And then there are recipes like the summer chickpea salad, oat groats with crispy kale, wild mushrooms and caper butter.The famous Mediterranean beet salad. We have spicy potatoes and so much more. And it is available through Theron Press.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.