Healthy living with former
“Good Morning America”
Host Joan Lunden
The journalist and television personality is a passionate health advocate.
By Allan Richter
If there is a single question that dominates the thousands that journalist and television personality Joan Lunden has asked during her career, it is this: What is the healthiest way to handle change? Lunden’s personal experience, in addition to her reporting credentials, qualifies her to delve into that subject. Like many Americans, Lunden has found herself a member of the “sandwich” generation, caring for her elderly mother, now 94, and her seven children, ranging in age from 7 to 31, including two sets of young twins.
And if there is a single response the former “Good Morning America” host, 62, has found for that question, it is this: If you think you can only go so far, push harder and further. Lunden rappelled Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier, bungee-jumped off a 143-foot bridge in New Zealand and navigated the whitewater rapids of a Georgia river, just a few of the ways she has pushed her limits.
In imparting the lessons she has learned from these experiences, Lunden has become something of a health expert and advocate—on the speaking circuit, before the camera and in a growing list of well-received self-help books. She has channeled her kitchen savvy into Growing Up Healthy: Protecting Your Child from Diseases Now Through Adulthood (Atria) and the aid for her mother into Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers. And the many turns in her life have yielded Joan Lunden’s A Bend in the Road Is Not the End of the Road (William Morrow), among other works centering on health.
Lunden is back in the kitchen, this time turning the spotlight on toxins present in cookware. Her new ceramic-coated Twiztt cookware set is free of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a processing agent used in making nonstick materials in many cookware products, and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a chemical in commercial use since the 1940s. The main health effect linked with PTFE is the possible release of harmful fumes when coated pans are overheated. People can suffer flu-like symptoms from inhaling the fumes, and birds exposed to the fumes can die.
Lunden spoke with us about her thrill-seeking adventures and her approach to healthy living in and out of the kitchen.
Energy Times: Where does your passion as a preventative health advocate come from?
Joan Lunden: I grew up the daughter of a doctor. He was a cancer surgeon. When I was born he was a general practitioner. He grew up a Seventh Day Adventist so he had us practically before we were walking out planting vegetable gardens and trying to indoctrinate us with the fact that we could protect our health later in life and protect ourselves from chronic illness if we just ate fruits and vegetables. Way before it became popular, he had that passion to keep people from eating a lot of trans fats and processed foods. Unfortunately my father was also an avid private pilot and was killed in our private plane coming back from a cancer convention when I was about 14 years old.
But I’ve always had that desire to live up to the legacy that he left for me, which is basically to make a difference in people’s lives. It was never questioned that I would grow up to be a doctor. Then I went to work at a hospital and found out real quick that wasn’t going to happen. I’ve really enjoyed spending my life in an industry that disseminates information to people to help live their lives better and stay healthier. Since leaving [Good Morning America] I’ve really dedicated most of my career to health-related topics. And I love it. The most important gig in my entire life was last May, when the Loma Linda School of Medicine asked me to come back and give the commencement speech to the School of Medicine on the 75th anniversary of my dad receiving his medical degree there.
The book Blue Zones is about five spots on the entire planet that have been scientifically identified as places where people live exponentially longer. One of them is Loma Linda, California, and that is because of the way they eat and their lifestyle choices because of the Seventh Day Adventist community. They have that underlying understanding that we are much more in charge of our health than our heredity. That’s what I’m out espousing.
ET: Most people who have a diet epiphany do so privately, but yours was very public. Tell me about that.
JL: I was interviewing the experts [on “Good Morning America”] and still not taking their advice. I had three kids, and after each one you don’t ever lose that last 10 or 15 pounds. All of a sudden you find yourself 35 or 45 pounds overweight. It kind of sneaks on you, so you get used to it.
One morning I was interviewing a representative from the American Heart Association. We were given this little quiz to assess cardiovascular risk. It was one of those “aha” moments, and I really just decided to change my life. Actively pursuing it and dropping the weight, I became a different person. I learned about nutrition. I started shopping differently. Obviously my whole family and my children benefited by it. I just learned how to make different lifestyle choices. I put activity and play back into my life. I think my kids benefited by that, too, because they grew up knowing that those were expected lifestyle choices.
ET: You summarize your overall diet philosophy in your 1996 book Joan Lunden’s Healthy Cooking: Food should be low in fat, high in nutrition, delicious, easy to prepare, use readily available ingredients and adapt well to substitutions.
JL: Yep, always shop the perimeter of the store where all the fresh stuff is.
ET: How has your approach to diet evolved since then?
JL: It’s evolved in this way. Instead of just saying choose fresh nutritious foods I now, like so many Americans, have identified what the superfoods are—those really terrific foods, the broccoli and blueberries of the world, that are really power-packed with nutrients. That will be the basis of my next book, Live Younger Longer. I’m really looking at foods that are highly nutrient-dense. I want this book to simplify it. You can add so many years to your life by making a simple lifestyle choice. My interest in this subject has intensified.
ET: What are some of your favorite food substitutions?
JL: You can replace a lot of fats in cooking chickens and meats by adding more flavor. I grew up with my mom in the Midwest, and she was a real meat and potatoes girl. Anything that had sauce on it was okay in her book. Instead, these days I learned to use mango or papaya salsa. You can take a piece of fish and put it in a piece of tin foil and put a little mango salsa on it, wrap it up, put it in the oven and you have one of the most nutrient-dense, lean meals that’s incredibly tasty.
The biggest mistake Americans make when they go on a diet is they eliminate all the taste. They start making food that doesn’t taste good, and they’re never going to stick with that. It won’t happen. You have to replace the fats that you’re taking out with flavorful foods that you’re putting in. You can do that with seasonings, and we now know that some of those seasonings, red chili peppers, for example, boost your metabolism. And you can use fruits and vegetables in ways that add flavor to your dish, otherwise families will revolt.
ET: I read that your daughter was a vegetarian.
JL: She was for awhile. All three of my older girls are amazingly healthy eaters. I did something right. Of course they were all in their formative years when I was going through my transformation. But I certainly can’t take credit for all of it because that takes initiative and discipline and willpower to make healthy choices.
We have a nanny who lives with us because I have two sets of twins who are 7 and 9. She’s a vegetarian, and she is responsible for most of the cooking in the house. I love that she’s doing that and I prefer to have two or three vegetables at a meal. One of the things parents can do, instead of putting mac and cheese over the entire half of the plate, and then one little carrot, I say make that mac and cheese a quarter of the plate. Then we usually have three vegetables. Last night we had broccoli and cauliflower, carrots and peas. At my house I have green bean eating contests.
Everybody scrambles to get their green beans. It’s up to us as parents to create our children’s likes and dislikes, and to create their eating habits. It’s really in our hands. I’m insistent that when we make up their snacks for the day and their lunches for school, I don’t care what your choice is—one likes apple, one likes a banana—but I insist on a healthy choice being there.
It is hard when you’re in a house with little kids to always make healthy choices, but the more you put in front of them, kids eat them. We have fresh fruits and fresh vegetable trays every night at the table. My little Jack, who’s 7 years old, would prefer eating yogurt and fruit at every meal if I let him. And the kid doesn’t like french fries. That wasn’t me; it was somehow his little brain saying he doesn’t like french fries.
You have to make it available. If you put it out there every meal, you’ll be amazed. You’ll find they will eat it.
ET: Women who get older tend to supplement their diet with vitamins. What supplements do you take?
JL: I take CoQ10, omega-3 fish oils, calcium and a good multivitamin that’s appropriate for my age. Those are the supplements I take daily.
ET: Your healthy diet focuses not only on food and vitamins, but on the cookware in which we prepare our meals. Your new cookware has a ceramic coating. What is the biggest flaw in the old cookware?
JL: The old pans were made of something called PTFE, a toxic chemical that starts as a hard substance, so you have to melt it so it can be sprayed into the pans. PTFE was invented back in the ‘30s. Then back in 1951 it started being used in cookie-making and bread-making. Then in the 1960s it really came to this country in a big way and it completely revolutionized cooking in American households. There was an advantage in cooking faster and having faster cleanup.
The big problem is [PTFE] uses PFOA in order to melt it down and spray it into the pans. PFOA is the big fight that the EPA launched back in the early 2000s. They identified PFOA...as a persistent chemical, which means it takes 88 years to break down. They told the industry that they have until 2015 to stop using it.
There are two big issues when it comes to why PFOA is so much of a concern. It is a concern to the environment. It goes into the rivers and oceans. Some of these big companies that have used it have been heavily fined because they’ve dumped it into rivers in the US. Overseas it’s been dumped into rivers and oceans, and they have found levels of PFOA in polar bears in the North Pole. It’s present in [most] humans and in almost every newborn baby born in the United States. That’s the global environmental issue.
From a consumer point of view, the problem is heating up the pan. If you heat a pan, commonly around 500 degrees, at that point the PTFE starts melting and decomposing and it begins to release toxic fumes. When it starts to release those toxic gases, several things can happen. Something that people get is the polymer flu, and a lot of people never know this because they write it off as eating something bad or having a flu. And if you have a bird in the kitchen, if you don’t open the window every time you cook, the bird can be killed.
This is like trying to get Americans to understand the impact of smoking and make them stop smoking. Here we are as a nation finally embracing the importance of cooking in a healthy way, but we have to be careful that we’re cooking on healthy pans. The PFOA is a known carcinogen. It’s also associated with low birth weight in babies, with elevated cholesterol levels and with Alzheimer’s.
ET: You’ve written a lot about positive thinking and its impact on physical health. When did you first become aware of the power of positive thinking on your own health?
JL: I was raised by a guru of positive thinking, my mom, although I don’t think I ever recognized that until I became an adult. I truly believe that it’s like turning a switch in your brain from “I can’t do that” to “I can do that.” When I started doing my show “Behind Closed Doors,” I challenged myself week after week to do what my husband calls my “stupid human tricks,” different adventures that required me to stay in shape and to push myself beyond my limits. Each one of us creates our own limits, nobody else does. I love the saying that it’s never trespassing if you cross your own limits. That’s what I’ve really done. Why did I come up with “Behind Closed Doors”? Because I lost all this weight in front of America, and I wanted to stay in shape. And that set me up for that. Look who I married. I married a guy who owns summer camps for kids. I married a guy with a 50-foot climbing wall and 18 tennis courts. From that I started my women’s wellness camp. This year, a byproduct of the women’s wellness camp is that I’m taking a group of women on a trip to Machu Picchu [in Peru] in June.
ET: In other words, you put yourself in situations that support your goals and healthy living.
JL: Everybody can do that. You can look in your local paper for a walk in your area. You don’t have to do the New York City marathon. When I worked at “Good Morning America,” I went to a gym across the street. When you signed up, he required that you pick an activity. He had all kinds of activities. One was climbing the Grand Tetons. One was doing the New York City marathon. One was doing a 5K run. But you had to pick something. Intellectually what you just did was turn yourself into an athlete in training. So instead of going to the gym because it was your drudgery to go there, to try to stay a size 8, now you were an athlete in training for something. I signed up to climb the Grand Tetons. Every now and then we’d have special classes where he got us ready for that, and we trained really hard for it. Climbing the Grand Tetons was definitely stretching my limits. I pushed myself farther than I thought I could go, and if I did that in that part of my life, wow, what other parts of my life could I really push myself and go beyond what I think my limits are?
Everyone who reads this can look in their local area and find things of interest. Having a goal, something to work towards, helps keep you on track in terms of exercising, and eating.
ET: With two sets of twins and three older daughters, you’re qualified to give parenting advice. What would you say?
JL: My biggest rock-solid piece of advice to moms: Be as organized as possible. I’m a list maker. I pre-plan. I don’t buy one gift for a birthday party, I buy 10 or 12 at one time, have them wrapped and put them in the closet so I don’t have a nervous breakdown every Saturday when I have to go to a party with the kids. And have a sense of humor and try not to react to everything that happens in the house. If you react every time your 10-year-old pushes your button, it mounts too much stress on you. Try to be non-reactive. Non-reactive behavior is not an easy thing to learn, but once you do, you kind of start to catch yourself every time you go down that spiral. That’s probably one of the most lifesaving lessons I’ve learned along my lifelong journey.
Upside Down Pizza
One of Joan Lunden’s flexible recipes for use with her Twiztt cookware, available at Bed Bath & Beyond, is her upside down pizza. It calls for a pizza crust, low fat and low sodium mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce and the toppings you want, whether you use luscious yellow peppers or vegan pepperoni.
Spread your sauce on the pizza crust. Sauté your vegetables (adding salt and pepper to taste), add cheese and place the crust on top of the cheese. “When it’s ready,” says Lunden, “you can take a rubber spatula, flip it over and you can have a pizza that is incredibly delicious and you can pack it full of nutrients, depending on how creative you become with your kids.”