Sara Rue (center) on the set of Less Than Perfect.
Actress Sara Rue lost 50 pounds, ran a half-marathon, and wore a bikini for the first time in 2010. She had been a Jenny Craig spokesperson at the time. Dieting changed her attitudes toward eating, and now she's carrying those lessons over to her life "after Jenny," eating for a healthier body as well as a healthier environment. Last year, the actress -- who has appeared in Less than Perfect, Rules of Engagement, Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men -- married my friend Kevin. She and I spoke recently about cooking, contaminants in food, and altering habits.
"It's definitely been a transition," Sara says. "Instead of just thinking about food from a fat and calorie perspective, I've also begun thinking about what else I'm consuming, such as pesticides and chemicals, and about the impact of my diet on the planet."
General concerns about health, reproductive health (she hopes to have children someday), and her interest in the environment sparked her desire to learn more. Scientific studies have linked pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals in food and food packaging to numerous health problems, including fertility issues, nervous system disorders, and cancer.
"I have to admit it can be overwhelming," Sara says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm swamped with information about canned tomatoes or what kind of fish you can eat. How are you supposed to keep up with all this stuff?"
I'll be the first to admit that it's a total pain to make sense of (and then act on) the multitudes of information we come across about what we should and should not be eating. That's one of the reasons I started this blog -- to bring forward the tips and facts we need to keep ourselves, and our families, healthy and safe.
Take tomatoes, for example. Like many of us, Sara heard canned tomatoes aren't good for you because of concerns over bisphenol A. The acidity of tomatoes increases the likelihood that BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical, will leach out of the can liner and into the food.
"That really stinks," she says. "I have this great recipe for turkey chili that we eat all the time, and it calls for canned tomatoes."
But there is no need to toss out that chili recipe. I tell Sara that whenever I can find them, I use jarred tomatoes from my farmers’ market instead of the canned stuff. And as the body of scientific evidence on BPA's potential health effects grows, more options are appearing on store shelves, too. Some supermarkets carry tomatoes in cartons (aka aseptic containers) and BPA-free cans.
Learning to cook was another transition Sara faced after her successful weight loss. In order to maintain her healthy lifestyle, Sara knew she would have to get into the kitchen. This way, she could control her fat, sugar, and salt intake, as well as her chemical exposure.
Although Sara’s dad was "an incredible cook," she never picked up the skill herself. While she was on the Jenny Craig diet, she relied on the program's prepared food. And Kevin -- well, while I can attest that he' s a great guy, I’m told he's not exactly a whiz in the kitchen himself.
Together, they're finding ways to eat at home more and getting comfortable preparing healthful dishes. "We're not that good at cooking meat," Sara says, "so we pretty much stopped eating red meat at home. That was an easy way to keep calories in check and also be lighter on the planet." (Eating grass-fed beef instead of conventional beef is another way to go easier on the planet, and it's more nutritious, too.)
Fish is an important part of Sara's diet. Many health-conscious people I know choose to eat fish instead of other animal proteins, but it's not always easy finding fish that is sustainably caught and low in the toxin mercury. (This is a perpetual source of confusion for me, too. I'll write more on fish choices soon, but as a general rule, small, plant-eating fish, like tilapia, catfish, and barramundi make for healthy, sustainable eating. In the meantime, see this sustainable seafood guide.)
"The one thing my husband and I know how to cook pretty well is vegetables," Sara says. "So we usually end up having less starches and proteins and more fruits and vegetables on our plates." In general, eating fresh, whole, unprocessed food is better for your body and the environment. It maximizes nutrients while minimizing the need for chemical and energy-intensive agricultural production.
When buying fruits and vegetables, Sara consults the Dirty Dozen list to avoid produce that's heavy on pesticides. An easy rule of thumb: if the produce is thin-skinned, go organic.
Like many of us, Sara's journey toward healthy eating is a work in progress. "In a way, it's like dieting," she explains. "As I learn more, I slowly change the way I eat. But you can’t expect to do it all at once. Altering the way you think about food doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. That is one thing that I know for sure."
Image: Disney/ABC Television Group