Nashville-based chef and restaurateur Mee McCormick doesn't like to use the word "healthy" when talking about cooking.
"Because we really view healthy food as punishment," she explained. "We look at it as a timeout or we're grounded, and I think it's the opposite. It's about finding the balance and changing ingredients."
For McCormick, that balance meant shifting the focus to her gut, specifically, the microbiome, all that genetic material made up of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses that helps us digest food, regulate our immune system and can even affect one's mood.
"Understanding the microbiome is super liberating because it's the future of medicine," said McCormick, whose own healing experience with Crohn's disease and immune-system issues she details in her book, My Pinewood Kitchen: A Southern Culinary Cure.
"I think it's empowering to empower people on their own path, and that's why in my book I wrote that every recipe can be meat, it can be vegan, it can be gluten-free, it can have dairy or not. I love presenting five different yellow brick roads, and you get to discover your own."
Cognizant of the stress and anxiety people are currently feeling, McCormick was clear that doesn't necessarily mean giving up your favourite indulgences. Dark chocolate, for example, has been shown to lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease as well as improving our gut bacteria.
"Cocoa is a pre-biotic plant food—this means it feeds the good probiotic bacteria," she said. "It feeds the particular bacterias that science is now proving are linked to cortisol and stress levels. We're supporting our mental health by what we're eating. To me, all of this is thrilling."
A 2019 study from the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research tested whether eating chocolate could mitigate the stress-related effects on the microbiome, dividing participants into two groups: high anxiety and low anxiety. Each of the study's subjects ate one 74-per-cent cocoa chocolate bar a day for two weeks, with the findings showing that participants' cortisol and adrenaline had decreased. By the end of the study period, the high-anxiety group's stress levels had dropped down to the levels of the low-anxiety group.
It is revelations like this that McCormick feels are essential to convincing people that their diagnosed illness doesn't have to be a life sentence.
"Right now, living in the South, I just read all these articles that the COVID-19 virus is going to do more damage in rural Southern communities and cities than anywhere else, because we have such a high rate of obesity, diabetes and chronic illness. But a lot of this stuff we can control with diet," she said.
"I have been on this journey for 12 years, healing my own intestines from a large ulceration the total circumference of my small intestine—and I did it all with food. When I did it, this light bulb went off and [I realized] the only thing touching the lining of my intestines is food, so I've got to be able to influence that."
Gaining a better understanding of the food we cook and its impact on us is one of the positive side effects of spending more time in the kitchen during the COVID-19 crisis, McCormick feels.
"This is an opportunity to reset the family table. This is the opportunity to cook with your kids, to get your husband or wife in the kitchen with you. This is the time to try things you might not try any other time because you don't have time," she said. "It's all about shifting your perspective, just through changing your food. If we shift our perspective to: 'This is the blessing handed to us today, getting to cook with my kids. I get to introduce my kids or inspire them to try something new,' then we shift our perspective to eating this because it does this for my body—it changes it. It's no longer health food, it's food for my own wellness."