The Midwestern Health Diet

by Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD


I grew up in the heart of the Midwest and so did my taste buds.  Church potlucks with scalloped potatoes, tuna casserole, and jello salad were my idea of a good time.  My mom was an excellent (and healthy) cook, but leading the charge in the snack food category was my unreasonably thin father.  He followed the farming tradition of eating a big lunch (called “dinner”) and having a light “supper” or, his preference, none at all.  To this day his favorite meal in the evening consists of popcorn–and I’m talking GALLONS of it—popped, these days, in canola oil with plenty of salt and sliced apples and cheddar cheese neatly arranged on top.  He should be a representative for the Stir Crazy corporation as he has run through probably thirty of their poppers in his lifetime.  He buys two or three at a time when they’re on sale at Wal Mart and runs each one into the ground before pulling a new one out of the closet.  My brother, sister and I all follow in this “supper” tradition from time to time.   Nuts of one kind or another round out his meal and dessert is, of course, chocolate.   Which he buys in half-pound bars and stores in cabinets and drawers around the house.   And he washes it all down with a nice cold beer.


Now I can really appreciate that kind of meal.  In fact, I could freely admit that there are few things I would rather do than have an enormous bowl of freshly popped popcorn in oil (don’t even TALK to me about that lame air-popped version), apples, chocolate and a nice cold beer, in front of a great movie.  Despite this, I have teased him mercilessly for years (it’s a Midwestern tradition) for his unhealthy eating habits.  And over those years I have had to, as we say, “eat crow”, as his health is about as good as it gets for a 76 year old man.


Imagine my surprise when we began to learn of all the health benefits of a serving (that is, one, or two if you’re tall) of beer or wine.  Incredible decreases in mortality, heart disease and stroke for the moderate drinker—as long as your blood sugar is normal, which, unfairly enough, given his proclivity for all things “pie”, his is.  Score one for dad.


And those fattening nuts he snacks on?  Turns out that nuts are perhaps one of the healthiest food groups, rich in inflammation fighting omega-3 fatty acids and an excellent source of protein.  We know that apples are good for you and, in fact, right behind berries, they are the fruit highest in antioxidants.  The cheese….well, if you’re cholesterol is good and it’s organic and you’re not watching your weight, a little won’t hurt you.  And it sure tastes good with the apples.  I recommend sharp cheddar, my dad’s favorite.  Okay, score 3 for dad.


But still.  Chocolate?  And in half-pound bars?  Once again, over the last 5 years, LOTS of research on the health benefits of chocolate.  It’s a potent antioxidant and an ounce a day lowers your blood pressure.  Now, I would certainly recommend dark chocolate (less fat and sugar per healthy cocoa bean) and I’ll include my version of truly “healthy” truffles at the end of this blog.  Do NOT eat a lot of those before bed because all that healthy chocolate will keep you up until 3 am.  Trust me.  I’ve been there.  Score 4 for dad.


All right, the last standout.  Popcorn.  I mean, I LOVE it.  Doesn’t the smell of it popping in your kitchen fill your home with HAPPINESS?  The nasty movie theater version of popcorn has little to recommend it as it is popped in hydrogenated oils and covered with artificial colors (orange) and that horrendous fake butter.  Just don’t go there.  I like to be a rebel and sneak my own popcorn into the theater in a large purse.  Don’t tell the theater security.  And if you think microwave popcorn is a good option, forget it.  The hydrogenated oils in microwave popcorn give it a higher content of trans fats (very, very bad) than DONUTS for goodness sakes.  But.  If you pop it at home in olive or canola oil or, get this, coconut oil (ah, heaven…), it’s actually not bad for you.  It’s a whole grain and these oils have essential fatty acids and actually reduce your cholesterol.  And it’s good fiber.  Now, imagine my total shock when I read this year that of all the whole grains, corn, and POPCORN in particular, is the highest in antioxidants.  I had to call Dad immediately.  Score 5 for dad.


I think, like his parents who fried everything in bacon grease (do not expect a blog on the benefits of bacon grease any time soon), that my dad is going to live happily into his mid-nineties.  Who knew that he was eating the Midwestern Health Diet all along?  And if you add all the antioxidants and cancer prevention properties of his sweet tea, he may just hit the triple digits.  The pie, of course, is another story.  Who knows, maybe I’ll discover the health benefits of banana creme pie for my next blog?  Or….maybe not.


Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, is a family practice physician and the Medical Director of the Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine & Chi Center, a multidisciplinary holistic health clinic serving Santa Cruz County:


Dr. Rachel’s “To Die For” Raw Cacao Truffles


The “wing-it” recipe (meaning, mix until it tastes good) is:


Raw cacao powder

almonds (or any nut)

agave nectar (I recommend using vanilla stevia extract in part if you’re watching your blood sugar or cutting calories)

coconut oil (also called coconut butter), just a little

liquid (just a little) of some kind–rice/soy/almond/cow/coconut milk

If desired, shredded coconut


Blend until thick and sticky (careful not to burn out blender…)

Then pull out in tablespoon sized pieces and roll in raw cacao powder or shredded coconut and place on parchment paper in the refrigerator.



Good for you!

But still pretty calorie intense, so good to serve a few up to friends and neighbors.