Fighting Sugar with a Knife, One Meal at a Time

Cindy Liu | May 15, 2018

PRINCETON, NJ - Every Monday morning, about a dozen people gather in a home kitchen to cook lunch. One is a practicing psychologist, another the executive chef of a school district, and someone used to keep birds at the Bronx Zoo. Others are teachers, amateur cyclists, and retired audio engineers. Above the whirring blenders, tap-tapping of knives against cutting boards, and simmering chili on the stove, they talk about yoga, cats, and reading glasses. The kitchen fills with smells of ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, turmeric, fennel, and chili. Occasionally, a blender mishap spews snow pea sauce into the air, covering the white window curtains with a silky green liquid.

Dorothy Mullen (who goes by Dor) manages the chaos, teaching people how to strip kale and mix lemon dressing into a beet, cabbage, and carrot slaw. She makes sure the 12-person meal is plated within the hour. Most of the ingredients are locally-sourced and organic, and as spring arrives, some come straight from the garden Dor keeps on her lawn.

The food is a feast for the eyes before anything else: fresh asparagus steamed to a soft green, chicken from a local farm baked to a crisp brown, blood orange, grapefruit, and parsley fused in a maroon, pink, and emerald citrus salad.

It’s important for the food to look visually appealing, says Dor, because most of it is not what participants are accustomed to eating at home.

Dor founded The Suppers Program 13 years ago, initially as meetings for recovering alcoholics called Suppers for Sobriety. Nowadays, several times a week, people with all kinds of diagnoses and predicaments walk through her door. Some hear about it from their doctor; many others through word-of-mouth. They come in search of the recipe for a healthier and happier life.

 Dor Mullen manages the chaos, making sure the 12-person meal is plated within the hour.

Dor Mullen manages the chaos, making sure the 12-person meal is plated within the hour.

The premise of the gatherings is simple: participants cook and eat whole foods together, and support each other on their journeys to better health. Some, like Karen Baldino, have been coming to Suppers for close to eight years. Through the program, people have reversed diagnoses like rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Others simply report feeling more energetic and informed about how to prepare vegetables for the family table.

With more than 300 events a year and over 30 facilitators, Suppers meals are currently hosted in close to a dozen homes within a 25-mile radius of Princeton, New Jersey.

“No judgment”

“Something smells good,” says one participant. “Oh I sure hope it’s our lunch,” replies Dor.

As activity in the kitchen winds down, everyone takes a seat at the dining table. Dor dims the lights, a simple candle chandelier that holds a reflection of the room in its golden center globe.

“Take a comfortably deep belly breath,” she instructs, “and let it go.”

The silent meditation marks the transition from the fun and noise of the kitchen to the “rest, digest, and relaxed” mode of the dining room.

“Notice where and how you’re anticipating your meal,” Dor says. “Does it have a location, a size, or a shape? How would you characterize the way you feel about the meal you’re going to eat?”

Moments later, participants say the opening statement together, which is read before every meal.

“Let gratitude fill me, family and friendship sustain me, and respect for my body, mind and spirit guide my choices.”

This recurring, beginning sequence reveals the program’s roots in addiction treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, which follow what’s known as a 12-step program. To Dor, there’s little difference between a recovering alcoholic and someone battling a food-related health problem like type 2 diabetes. Both have an attached relationship with a food or beverage, and require similar social support to give up an addictive substance.

In fact, Dor completed her master’s degree in addictions counseling rather than nutrition, because she realized that changing addictive behavior would form the basis of The Suppers Program.

Unlike fee-based health and nutrition courses that can last anywhere from days to weeks, Suppers is a continuous program and community. As long as participants cover the cost of a meal -- between $8 to $12 depending on the menu -- they can attend as many meetings as often as they’d like.

Although the program doesn’t force attendance, many participants find themselves missing Suppers when they skip meetings.

“It’s just so nice to be at Suppers,” said one woman. “I know I say it all the time.”

“No, we all feel that way,” chimed several others.

Part of what makes Suppers welcoming is its active practice of non-judgment. “People walk in and they’re so brutal on themselves and everybody else,” said Dor. “Well guess what? When you come into my house you’re not allowed to judge anybody.”

Posters of the word “judgment” crossed out with red circle-backslash symbols are plastered around the kitchen and dining room as constant reminders.

People can’t change when they feel judged, Dor believes. Non-judgment both forgives participants when they make “mistakes” and helps them feel comfortable being open with the group. At the table, only one person speaks at a time, and they must hold a wooden spoon engraved with the letters “TSP” (which stands for “The Talking Spoon,” “The Suppers Program,” and of course, “teaspoon”) when doing so. Facilitators enforce the use of “I” language to ensure everyone recognizes they are speaking only from their own opinions and experiences.

 The Talking Spoon (or “TSP”) ensures there’s only one conversation going around the table at a time.

The Talking Spoon (or “TSP”) ensures there’s only one conversation going around the table at a time.

The rules might seem superficial, but their intention and impact are not. Many participants are revealing their moments of greatest weakness around food — extra brownies at a wedding over the weekend, an irrational dash for cheese fondue after a bad day — and their vulnerability deserves respectful attention. Some stories are celebratory, like losing a craving for Milano cookies because they now “taste like cardboard,” and then everyone shares in the joy.

The journey to better health is not an easy process, and there is no single, quick fix. What is universally applicable, however, is the program’s tenet of biological individuality: everyone’s body is different, and instead of assuming they know what’s right for someone else, participants are asked to focus on finding their own pathways to healthier living.

The ideas of no judgment and biological individuality appeared at the very beginning of The Suppers Program, when an outspoken vegetarian in Dor’s first group of recovering alcoholics made it clear the program would not be about “Dorothy Mullen saving people with whole foods.”

“It whipped me into shape very quickly,” said Dor. “And she was absolutely right.”

“How you feel is data”

The theme of every Monday’s menu is “Vegan Plus One,” so-called because all dishes -- except one with animal protein, which can be adapted for vegetarian needs -- are vegan and gluten-free. Other meetings can be neither, depending on the facilitators’ interests and needs.

While diets like being gluten-free are sometimes regarded as “fads” and “crazes,” Suppers encourages and supports participants to perform food experiments to discover what whole foods work best for them, not to follow trends. Members might conclude that they are gluten-sensitive, or that their bodies can tolerate the substance. Some might have to cut fermented foods like kraut and vinegar, while others need to add more. The program doesn’t promote any one diet, nor does it sell any products. There are no foods you “should” eat or “must” avoid; the only requirement for participation is an openness and desire to change.

How you feel is data, Dor says at every meeting. A core idea of The Suppers Program, this phrase explains how participants find their individual paths to healthier and happier lives. The program teaches that feelings, both emotional and physical, provide insights into whether the way people are eating is helpful or harmful to their bodies.

Last fall, Jack, a practicing psychologist who often recommends his patients to Suppers programs, noticed pain in one of his toes. After visiting a podiatrist who immediately recommended surgery, he decided to first remove yogurt and wheat, two inflammatory foods that can worsen the symptoms of arthritis, from his diet. A week later, the pain was gone.

Jack’s story is one among many participants’ that involve medical professionals suggesting extreme -- and sometimes unneeded -- treatments. Even the most prominent experts and national guidelines are divided on questions such as who should take drugs like statins and how much they actually reduce the risk of stroke or heart disease.

“How do you make decisions today when the experts disagree?” Dor asks the group.

For her, it goes back to understanding that how you feel is data.

“I work on gratitude for symptoms,” she tells those at the table. “As long as I regard them as data and not as victimization, it’s helpful.”

“Progress over perfection”

When Barbara Jennings first came to Suppers around four years ago, she took one look at the food and said: “I’m not eating that.” Her Sunday food preparation had included baked mac and cheese, fried chicken, cornbread, and peach cobbler, not vegan chili with beans, zucchini and kale. She was also newly diagnosed with prediabetes, a condition which if not treated often leads to type 2 diabetes within five years. A 2017 CDC report showed that in 2015, 9.4 percent -- or 30.3 million -- of Americans had diabetes, and another 84.1 million had prediabetes.

Now Barbara’s not only a regular attendant of the Monday lunch meetings, she’s also a member of Soulful Sunday Suppers, a newly formed gathering for black women that meets on the third Sunday of every month. The group focuses on addressing health and nutrition issues in the African American community where, according to the same CDC report, 12.7% have been diagnosed with diabetes, one of the highest rates in the country.

Kim Booker, the initiator of Soulful Sunday Suppers, remembers bringing a bowl of salad to a recent family event, only to be told to bring all of it (minus the portion she ate) back to her house. “I even brought ranch dressing on the side for those who wanted it,” she laughed.

 Kim Booker (left) and Barbara Jennings (right) share stories about why they started coming to Suppers and the changes they’ve experienced since.

Kim Booker (left) and Barbara Jennings (right) share stories about why they started coming to Suppers and the changes they’ve experienced since.

People become so accustomed to what they eat, Kim said, that when they don’t know what a new food tastes like, they may be reluctant to try it.

“If it ain’t good, ain’t nobody tryin’ to hear that,” Kim’s been told by family members whom she’s talked to about Suppers.

The challenge is to have delicious, healthy recipes that still leave people feeling satisfied, she said. Healthier ingredients can be substituted for ones high in sugar and fat in soul food or traditional holiday meals, like finding alternative ways to make the creamy filling and gluten-based crust in sweet potato pie.

“You won’t feel like you can’t ever have sweet potato pie again,” Kim said. “You can. It’s just a healthier version.”

“Nutritional harm reduction,” which has origins in harm reduction strategies for substance abuse, highlights the idea that even the smallest change is better than none, and reiterates non-judgment for occasional lapses in execution.

Among the actions people can take are replacing sugary drinks with water, keeping only healthy snacks at home, and exercising control at the grocery store around processed foods.

The phrase also applies to situations where organic, whole foods are not readily accessible, either because of financial or geographical reasons. In those cases, Dor suggests prioritizing organic versions of produce on the “dirty dozen” list, which have been tested to contain the most pesticide residue. On the contrary, foods on the “clean fifteen” list are usually safe in non-organic form.

When Barbara was a little girl, she spent the summers with her grandmother in Georgia, and looked forward every time to seeing the lady who lived next door. One year, her grandmother told her the woman had passed away.

“She died from being diabetic,” Barbara said. “It just did something to me, and I’ve always been afraid of diabetes.” She came to Suppers to be with like-minded people who were interested in changing the way they eat.

Studies continue to show the link between dietary habits and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Kim hears people say “they got sugar” about diabetics in her community, and she hopes people will start developing a more long-term mentality towards food-related health problems.

If people eat healthy now, they won’t be dependent on a pill five or ten years down the line, she said, and their health is less likely to become a burden for those around them.

“I’ve learned to avoid a lot of things that will not give me vitality in later years,” said Kim.

Unlike with drugs and other addictive substances, it’s not possible to completely abstain from food. The goal is to teach people how to live to eat, not eat to live, Kim said. "There needs to be a cultural shift to seeing food as fuel for the body."

Suppers has met some resistance expanding into African American congregations usually because the church doesn’t have a wellness mission, but at home, Kim has already seen the impact she can have. Her uncle, who weighs over 400 pounds, recently told Kim that her voice was in his head at the grocery store, telling him to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“You should be proud of me,” he told her.

Last month, both Kim and Barbara completed training to become Suppers facilitators. They hope to expand the program to communities that are important to them, in Irvington and Trenton, New Jersey.

“They say knowledge is power,” said Kim, “but only applied knowledge is powerful.”

Her wish is that Suppers will spread like wildfire into every community, as people grasp hold of the concept and see the value of the program.

“This is the best kept-secret in Princeton,” she said. “The world needs to know about Suppers.”

~

At the end of the meal, with most plates now empty, the group reads the closing statement.

“Thank you for joining our family table, for offering your friendship and sharing your self. Our parting wish for you is that you find the healthier life you seek in body, mind, and spirit.”

Dor is in her early sixties, is medication-free, and still has pretty high energy. Looking forlornly at the boxes of Suppers materials that have taken over her living room, she sighs, but says she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“I just have to stay in it for the long haul,” Dor said. She knows what her work is up against: big pharmaceutical companies, the processed food industry, and even the government. An estimate from the CDC projects the incidence of diabetes to rise as high as 1 in 3 US adults by 2050, if current trends continue. According to the American Diabetes Association, the total cost of diagnosed diabetes in the US for 2017 was $327 billion.

Beyond the future physical and financial prosperity of the country, what sustains Dor’s daily work are the small changes that happen in her home.

“There’s just nothing better than watching these transformation experiences happen at our tables,” she said.