How to eat well & be happy (& healthy!) in 2015: An interview with Christine Dionese

Posted by Liz Downey on

We recently interviewed integrative health specialist Christine Dionese to find out more about her approach to eating healthy, and challenged her to take a roll of the dice to see what she could create. The good news is, eating healthy doesn't have to mean depriving yourself of the foods you love. (She even believes it's okay—and even healthy—to have a drink once in a while!) Read on to find out more about her practical approach to transforming your relationship with food, and then check out her recipe for Pan-fried cod with quinoa, mushrooms & fennel.   

FD: What do you think is the single most important key to health?
Christine: Being happy.

FD: What’s your approach to helping people change the way they eat?
Christine: You asked a great question… change the way they eat, not necessary change what they eat. Giving people the green light to eat the foods they love is my approach. Well almost. I don’t suggest, “hey, beer and chicken wings every night, go for it!” But, what I do say is, eat what you love, eat the healthiest version of what you love. My approach really is to help people transform the way they think about food first so they can create a relationship with it that allows them to enjoy it, to feel good about it.

I ask questions about where their ancestors came from, how they grew up eating, what their lifestyle is like and if they’re even interested in food at all. Prescribing a standardized diet just about never works long term if I don’t help people establish the food-matters-of-the-mind as I call them. Dieticians and classically trained nutritionists just “love” when I say this, but bottom line is, people need a personalized approach to nutrition, not just a list of healthy foods and recipes to follow. Any change depends on aligning with a person’s beliefs. For any of us to really want to change, it has to line up with our values. This especially goes for food.

Then we take a closer look at what those foods are that they love. Perhaps they simply need to switch from processed meats and sugars to organic or pesticide-free versions. Giving people choices is also very helpful. Empowering someone to become an active participant in shaping their health through food is likely one of the most effective ways to change eating patterns. So, instead of handing a patient a giant list of foods they can’t eat, I take their list of “loved” foods and go over the healthier version and offer them abundant options. Taking something away, it makes people feel bad, adding something healthy that they already love, well, that works.

And, my fancy way of referring to this process: a personalized approach to evidence-based food therapy.

FD: What’s the biggest challenge that your clients have in creating healthy meals and how do you solve that challenge?
Christine: So many of my patients love to cook so it’s actually much easier than I ever bargained for. Sometimes the hard part is getting them to spring for teflon-free or safe cookware. Other times its getting them to switch from conventional to organic or pesticide-free.

A very exciting project in the works is a personalized food therapy service that Garden Eats will be debuting in 2015. There are a ton of great food delivery services out there, this one will be different—prescriptive-based and, gourmet style! For those that face the challenge of wanting to transform the way they eat, but either don’t like to cook or are too busy or simply want someone to do it for them, we’re closing that gap.

FD: You encourage people to maintain a garden and believe that it can be done in even the smallest of spaces. What do you think are the benefits to doing so?
Christine: Study after study has been released citing the myriad of benefits of maintaining a garden in or around the home—from lowered incidences in lung cancers and upper respiratory illnesses, to improved mental health to overall enhanced health status due to growing pesticide-free foods.

There’s something exceptionally meditative about growing food for your family, your community, your restaurant…sun, water, green plants, colors—all vividly shape vitality. By creating gardens thoughtfully, we improve soil ecology, we take less trips to the store therefore burning less fuel, we eat the foods our body intended us to according the seasons. Becoming aligned with natural processes like this often surprise people how the positive effects carry over into all aspects of life. Many of our Garden Eats clients say that gardening has helped them pay attention to their intuitive sides more than ever and that they’ve now become better problem solvers and can see more possibilities. I love hearing feedback about gardens help people become more resourceful.

Speaking of small spaces, I live by the beach in San Diego and can only grow container gardens so I’ve had to relearn many of the things I thought I knew about gardening, but being in a small space has helped me personally become a better planner, more organized and a lot more patient! Also, gardening with kids, like my 2 year old, my goodness- pure joy watching her plant peppers one month only see the ear to ear smile when she sees the flower, then the pepper and then the ultimate of picking and eating it!

FD: You have a 2 1/2 year old, how do you get her to eat well?
Christine: We don’t really do “kid” food, she eats what we do because we expose her to variety by taking her to the markets, involve her in the choices around food, show her how to prepare food etc. Instead of negotiating “okay, 3 peas and you can play XBox”, a kid could roll the foodie dice and then go on a field trip to the market to pick everything out or roll the dice and help make dinner. 

FD: What was your favorite food trend of 2014 and which would you like to see go away?
Christine: Fave trend—mainstream chefs feeling the pressure to create menus that include super foods! I love when I teach culinary students and they ask which power and super foods they can incorporate into their dishes. My fave super foods everyone should try: cacao, turmeric, camu and sumac.

Worst trend—charred vegetables! Please oh please stop charring your vegetables. Steam them, wilt them, yes! But another charred item on the menu is just riding the road to... cancer! 

FD: Do you tend to cook from recipes, or do you select your fresh, seasonal ingredients and use your favorite cooking methods to create meals?
Christine: The latter, but I can’t take the credit for this. As a kid I said to my parents what all kids say, “I’m hungry, there’s nothing to eat.” My dad would (and still does) walk over the fridge and offer to make me ten different things! I learned to be creative and resourceful with what’s around and excited about what’s in season by adopting his concocting method. And, I’m not afraid to fail in the kitchen- I love trying new things and luckily usually end up with something that my friends and family love.

I do love Julia Child’s French cooking book—it keeps me on my toes in the kitchen in terms of method—I’ll give myself a pat on the back for the tastes I can create, but my method, eek, I’m lucky I have not taken a finger off with my poor chopping ability. I have started following more recipes than ever before since I’m friends with so many cookbook authors! They always want food testers and I’m up for that—also helps me know what books to suggest for patients and friends learning to cook.

FD: We’re so excited that you took the Foodie Dice challenge and created a recipe with a roll of the dice. After you rolled, what was the thought process that went into creating a meal from the ingredients that came up?
Christine: My daugher actually rolled the dice for me! She rolled fish, fennel, quinoa, mushrooms, cilantro and pan fry. I asked myself, with so few ingredients, which ones will accentuate one another, are there any natural digestive herbs or ones that improve metabolism and does any special care have to be considered based on the cooking method I rolled? Pan frying and fish easily go together, so boom, cilantro and cod (Pacific hook and line caught—sustainable if doing cod this time of year), shitake mushrooms and quinoa and fennel as a digestive aid on the table for after dinner. I used ghee and coconut oil because of their awesome high flash points in both the quinoa and fish (won’t oxidate til over 400 degrees F) and added a little organic white wine to the fish. Tons of essential fats in this dish and the ideal ratio of short, medium and long chain fats (immune and brain building). And, if you haven’t finished a meal with fennel, a must try to naturally aid digestion and a regular fare on my family’s dinner table!

FD: You co-authored a book on craft cocktails, which we can’t wait to read and start incorporating into our drinks! Do you believe that spirits can be part of a healthy lifestyle, and how do you incorporate health benefits into the drinks you concoct?
Christine: I asked myself whether or not my patients would still take me seriously if I began to publicly start writing more about cocktails and spirits, pulled the trigger and decided, it’s absolutely fitting—alcohol has been used in medicinal preparations dating back centuries and it still is. I haven’t taken an antibiotic in over 20 years now, but if I have a cold or the flu, you bet the (evidence-based) herbal formula I’m using has been prepared using alcohol. As I explained in a talk I gave to culinary students earlier this year, some herbs and plants can not even elicit their medicinal effects unless they are prepared using alcohol!

And let’s face it, we all love a good drink. I absolutely love to entertain—pleasing people through food and drink whether medicinal or social brings me endless happiness. Being able to create a book that people can enjoy at home and that also drew on my background in herbal and plant-based medicines was something I couldn’t not do!


C H R I S T I N E  D I O N E S E has dedicated her career to helping people understand the science of happiness. She is an integrative healthcare specialist, medical journalist and food writer. Her research, writing, speaking and consulting highlights how endocrine and immune wellness are shaped by the ever-changing epigenetic landscape. To balance this more serious side of her work, Christine loves to concoct, write about and connect people with food. Christine is passionate about helping people become their own advocates for change and thinks everyone has a shot at designing the lifestyle they envision.

Connect with Christine:
On the web:
Instagram: @christinedionese

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