Summer and dieting go together like shrimp and rice. While it may be intuitive to move from the caloric-heavy comfort foods of winter to a lighter fare in summer, there’s another powerful incentive to decrease summer caloric intake: Warmer weather means less clothing and more visible flab, especially when a swimming suit is involved.

Even with the lighter foods of summer, excess calories still flow, what with snowballs, ice cream and other foods associated with summer sweetness. An example is corn on the cob, a starch that’s only one biochemical equation away from a sugar molecule, even before it’s lathered with butter.

As a Tulane Medical School graduate and also a degree holder from Tulane’s even more prestigious School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, I thought I knew a thing or two about nutrition. One hot day last May, a farmer put me in my place. This farmer was no hayseed.

 “Eating raw vegetables is a good way of reducing calories,” says Joel Hitchcock Tilton, an English major turned urban farmer to whom top local chefs turn for local sourcing of herbs and vegetables. “Raw vegetables give you less calories. I am constantly nibbling raw beans, edible flowers and salad greens as I garden. They have fewer calories.”

Tilton and Jim Seely, another post-Katrina transplant to New Orleans, established Paradigm Gardens. They leased a vacant lot from Felicity Redevelopment and transformed it into an urban oasis of plants growing, hens laying and goats making milk.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “A calorie is a calorie. Five hundred calories of carrots equals 500 calories of cake. A calorie is a calorie regardless of what food you eat.”
“I disagree,” said Tilton. “Cooking makes foods easier to digest. Eat raw and your body burns more calories in breaking it down to digestible molecules and your intestines work harder churning the undigestible fibers.”

So what exactly is a calorie? According to the Urban Dictionary they are tiny, microscopic creatures that sneak in closets like clothes moths. But instead of making holes in your woolies, calories go to work with miniature needles and threads to tighten all your clothes. (A warning: adult discretion required when using the online Urban Dictionary. I recently received a hospital email inviting me to a meeting for new providers. I responded with a blast email citing the Urban Dictionary definition for providers that caused me to be called on the carpet. But I digress.)

Officially chemists measure the caloric content of a specific food by placing a weighed portion of a specific food inside a sealed metal container pumped to capacity with high concentration oxygen to hasten combustion. The metal container is submerged in a measured amount of water, a spark inside the oxygen rich container catches the food on fire, and the chemist measures the rise in the water temperature as the food turns to ash. A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 2.2 pounds of water 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The more heat the food source produces, the higher its caloric count.

Tilton and I agree more than we disagree. The less you mess with your food, the more nutritious it is and the less likely it is to carry any foodborne illness. The proof is literally in the pudding. Foodborne outbreaks traced to central food processing abound. Hamburger meat is more likely to be contaminated with disease causing E. coli than a single hunk of beef. The recall of Blue Bell ice cream shows how easy it is to contaminate the processed food chain. You increase your chance of bringing foodborne pathogens into your kitchen by buying even partially processed vegetables such as pre-chopped green onions.

For low-cal eating, the trick isn’t just in the food but in the preparation, or lack thereof.

Joel Hitchcock Tilton’s Paradigm Gardens

“The path to better health is imminently attainable, even in the Crescent City during the dog days of summer. Our best foods are not processed. Every living thing on Earth can get every bit of nutrients they need from the natural world. That doesn’t mean that supplements or fortified foods are necessarily bad, just that they’re acting as a replacement for proper nutrition.

“So what is proper nutrition? This is a question that Dr. Westin Price sought to answer in the early 20th century, and it took him around the globe. His fascinating discoveries are documented in meticulous detail in his paradigm-shifting book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Dr. Price wrote that our Western diet rich in canned foods, sugar, devitalized fats and oils, refined grains and pasteurized milk was causing all manner of tooth decay, infectious diseases and degenerative illnesses.

“Each group of remote indigenous peoples that Dr. Price visited had wildly different diets, as you would imagine between groups as geographically and culturally separated as Arctic Inuits and African tribesmen. However, they shared certain elements in common in terms of food and preparation. The types of foods that allow humans, despite geographic or ethnic differences, to thrive are whole, natural foods like whole grains, tubers, insects, fish, fruits, vegetables, organ meat, bone marrow, raw milk and milk products and meat with its fat. These traditional cultures often prepared their foods in ways that increased the vitamin content as well as the bioavailability of minerals. These methods include sprouting, fermenting, sour leavening and soaking.

“New Orleans often gets a bad rap for decadent, artery-clogging cuisine, but we’re also a city full of healthy food options. In addition to the numerous farmers markets open multiple days of the week, there has been an explosion of urban gardens around the Big Easy. Many have sprouted up in myriad blighted lots left in the wake of Katrina, and many more have taken root in yards and lots of nonprofits.”

To sample produce, herbs and flowers from Paradigm Gardens, book a reservation at supporting restaurants Meauxbar, Patois and Coquette. Event planners are using their venue for business brunches, wedding receptions and simple sunset picnics centered on a homemade wood-burning oven for roasting meats and cooking pizza. And if the timing is right, you just might get to milk a goat in the shadow of that church with the golden steeple in downtown New Orleans.