Dana Carpender opens up about her life in my exclusive interview
What's not to love about bestselling low-carb cookbook author Dana Carpender? She has taken her success on a low-carb diet and parlayed it into a very successful writing career (check out all the Dana Carpender books on Amazon.com) that has won her critical acclaim and created a name for herself along the way. When I started my blog in April 2005, Dana was one of the first low-carb celebrities I came across and I have found her to be a very forthright, firm believer in the principles of livin' la vida low-carb. That's why I named her to my list of low-carb "movers & shakers" in 2005.
Then I learned that Dana was a fan of my blog and we began corresponding via e-mail. Despite being the well-known low-carb cooking goddess that she is, I found her to be nothing but a gracious and wonderful woman who would like nothing better than to help people live healthier lives with better food choices. That's why she has been so prolific with her numerous books, including her latest one called "Every Calorie Counts Cookbook."
But, she hasn't been without controversy this year when she removed the "low-carb" label from her popular syndicated newspaper column and her latest book. Nevertheless, with tens of thousands of subscribers to her Lowcarbezine! and the creation of a new URL for her web site entitled LowCarbohydrate.net, it's obvious this incredible woman is not even close to giving up on low-carb anytime soon.
I think you'll see how apparent that is in my exclusive interview:
1. Hey Dana, thanks so much for being a fan of my blog and what we are doing here to spread the good word about livin' la vida low-carb. You have been extremely successful in your writing career so far. So, how does it feel to be a bestselling author with over 1.5 million books sold so far (and counting!)?
Beats working for a living. ;-D
Seriously, it's been really wonderful. For a while there, in '03 and '04, it was very hard -- I was out of town on publicity a LOT, and learned that traveling on business sounds a whole lot more glamorous and exciting than it really is. It's mostly just tiring. And I turned in 6 manuscripts in 18 months, which I'm not sure is even supposed to be possible. But overall, it's been fantastic to mostly stay at home with my dogs, do what I love to do -- putter around the kitchen while listening to soaps and Law & Order reruns -- and be amply rewarded for it.
Even better has been the incredible feedback from readers. Knowing that my books have been a huge help to people in improving their health, and their families' health, too -- there are few things that have brought me that kind of joy. When people write and say stuff like, "My kids love your recipes -- now when I'm cooking dinner, they always ask "Is this a 'Dana recipe?'" -- that warms my heart like a blowtorch.
People send me their personal health stories, too. One woman even wrote and said that she and her husband had been trying to have a baby for a long time, unaware that she had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS,) a really serious carbohydrate intolerance disorder that causes massive hormal derangement, including infertility. But she'd read "How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds," gone low carb, gotten pregnant, and had a healthy baby. I LIVE for stories like that.
And of course, it was nice making some real money. I have a bigger house now (nothing ridiculous, but we've gone from 1500 square feet to 3000 square feet) and some investments. I may even get to retire some day!
2. You can definitely sense your genuine passion and enthusiasm for the low-carb lifestyle in your books and that is something that has obviously helped you connect with your fans. How did you get interested in writing and when did you think you could actually do this for a living?
I always knew I could write -- English was my best subject in school, and I made straight A's in creative writing -- but I really didn't know what to write about. As you say, I have a passion for nutrition, and particularly for low carb nutrition. It was the life-changing experience of going low carb that gave me something I wanted to share so much I just HAD to write about it. I was answering questions all the time anyway.
I didn't expect writing to turn into a full-time living, though. I wrote and self-published "How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds" after I figured out that I would have to sell 400 copies to make back our investment of $3000 -- that didn't seem impossible. But I didn't expect to make anything more than a little extra money doing it.
I confess, it wasn't even my idea to write a cookbook. It was my editor, Holly, who suggested it. I had agreed to sell a revised, expanded edition of "How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds" to Fair Winds Press, and was on track to give it to them by January of 2002. Long about November 1, 2001, Holly, who knew I published recipes in every edition of Lowcarbezine!, called me up and said, "No, wait! We want a cookbook first! You've got 500 recipes, right?" I did a quick count, and said, "Uh, no, only 300." "But you can have 200 more by March, right?"
I joke that I spent that winter proving you can gain weight on a low carb diet -- all you have to do is cook and eat FIVE NEW RECIPES A DAY! (Do you know what the hardest part about cooking that much was? It wasn't all the cooking, or all the grocery shopping, or even all the dishwashing. It was eating all those leftovers with only two people in the house! I had a couple of single male friends who would come haul leftovers away once a week, and I still ended up throwing away way too
But I discovered I really liked the job, and was pretty good at it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
3. Your low-carb weight loss success story has been an inspiration to people who have tried and failed at diet after diet, mostly low-fat ones, because you proved there wasn't anything wrong with them regarding their weight problem. How did you discover the low-carb lifestyle and do you still adhere to this way of eating today?
Today, tomorrow, for the rest of my life. I can't imagine going back to a carb-heavy diet, the very idea makes me shudder. I'm not as strict as I once was; I'm more likely to eat fruit, and not worry about stuff like root vegetables, but go back to eating cereal and rice and potatoes and bread? And (brrrrr!) SUGAR? Never.
I've been fascinated with nutrition since I was 19 and read my first nutrition book. (Psychodietics, by Cheraskin and Ringsdorf, still in print.) Once I "got it" that how I ate had EVERYTHING to do with how I felt, physically and emotionally, it never occurred to me NOT to eat as healthily as possible, though I sadly made the mistake for a while of believing that a low fat/high carb diet was healthy.
Your younger readers may be interested to know that when I got interested in nutrition in 1978, all the nutrition books advocated eating lots of protein, NO sugar or white flour, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of healthy fats -- and to go easy on even unrefined grains if you had a weight problem. It's embarrassing that I fell for low fat/high carb mania. I can only say in my defense that I wanted to believe. It was like telling an alcoholic that their best dinner was a six pack and a shot.
By the summer of 1995, I was eating low fat/high carb and GAINING weight, despite plenty of exercise. When I discovered that my blood pressure was borderline high for the first time in my life, I was panicky. I was doing EVERYTHING the AUTHORITIES told me should make me slim, energetic, and healthy, and I was getting WORSE.
I was flipping through a nutrition book from the 1950s, Gayelord Hauser's New Treasury of Secrets, and one sentence jumped out at me. It said, "Obesity has nothing to do with how much you eat; it is, instead, a carbohydrate intolerance disease." I thought, "What the heck do I have to lose?" I dropped the carbs out of my diet. By three days later my clothes were loose, and my energy level was soaring. I never looked back.
I LIKE eating low carb. I enjoy it. The food is great. Last night I had Thai chicken panang -- red curried soup with homemade chicken broth and coconut milk, lots of chicken, plus mushrooms and green peppers. I'm supposed to prefer macaroni and cheese? I don't THINK so.
And I haven't forgotten the nasty, nasty energy dropouts I had when I was eating low fat/high carb. I could barely keep my eyes open every evening between 5-8 pm. Who wants to go back there? Or, for that matter, back to a size 20? Or high blood pressure? Who wants to develop diabetes? Go blind? Lose her toes?
4. Recipes are obviously your field of expertise and you stuff your books with literally hundreds of them. How do you come up with all these recipes for your books? Also, please share a little bit of the behind-the-scenes process of what you do to create these delicious dishes.
There are a few ways I come up with recipes. Sometimes I just have an idea, and I run with it. My recipe for Mediterranean Turkey Stir-fry (15 Minute Low Carb Recipes) is an example -- I just thought, "Hmmm. Bet that would taste good..." So I tried it, and sure enough it did.
My biggest source of recipes is other people's recipes. I do a LOT of adapting existing recipes to my nutritional standards -- substituting Splenda for sugar, shredded cauliflower for rice, turnips for potatoes, cutting back on "borderline" ingredients like onions, that sort of thing. I own a LOT of cookbooks -- four full bookcases and counting -- and I flip through them constantly, looking for recipes to adapt.
I also take ideas for flavor combinations from existing recipes and use them in a different way. For instance, just last week I took a recipe for gorgonzola-walnut stuffed tortellini with roasted red pepper sauce, and turned it into an omelet recipe. Made a filling similar to the tortellini filling, and a sauce similar to the roasted red pepper sauce (but without the flour thickener; I used guar instead,) then used the filling in omelets and topped them with the sauce. Divine. (Did I mention I like eating this way?)
I'll even get inspirations from menus, and from the grocery store deli case and the like. When I was writing Low Carb Smoothies, I sat in an Applebee's writing down all the descriptions of those fruity umbrella drinks, to get ideas for flavor combinations. And when I saw two layers of salmon fillet with feta and spinach sandwiched between them in the fish case at my local grocery store I thought, "I can do that."
5. What is your favorite kind of recipe to make?
Anything one-dish. Soups, stir-fries, skillet suppers, main dish salads. I find this sort of thing more interesting both to cook and to eat than a slab of whatever sort of meat, poultry or fish, with a veg on the side.
And I'd eat dog food if you curried it. Yum.
6. Low-carb was the "in" thing as little as a couple of years ago, but it has quickly fallen out of favor with the media who continues to misrepresent and taint what it is to the general public. What do you recommend people who are livin' la vida low-carb do to share with others about this amazing nutritional approach to help them lose weight and get healthy?
I'm not big on forcing advice on people who don't want it. My friends often will apologize to me for eating things I wouldn't eat. (True story -- a friend called one day, and before she even said "Hi, how are you? she said, "You'll be mad at me. I ate a Butterfinger at work today.") My response is always, "I'm information, not enforcement."
But I do think we should be upfront when people ask us how we lost weight, or why we're not having the potatoes and the dessert. You can look for the "teachable moment."
It's also a good idea to keep an eye on the research, so you can intelligently counter any flak you get. Your blog and Regina Wilshire's are a great place to do that, and a Google News Alert on "low carbohydrate" and "glycemic load" are also helpful, though often I get news stories about how a low carb diet is baaaaad because after all, it's full of fat. But I can ignore those, since they rarely include any actual research.
I confess to taking some wicked fun in having people say negative stuff about low carb around me -- especially when they say things like "It may work short term, but you just can't stay on that diet for the long haul." Uh, it's been more than eleven years now. Am I supposed to explode or something?
7. Your nationally syndicated column and latest book both removed the term "low-carb" recently because of the negative association that has been attributed to that term. Where do you see the future of the term "low-carb" as a description for eliminating and/or reducing refined carbohydrates from our diet going? Is there a better term we can be using instead?
The current shift is to low glycemic load diets. The medical research is stacking up that a high glycemic load is a risk factor for a lot of the stuff doctors have blamed on fat for the past 20-30 years -- heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.
Too, as I've discussed with you, Jimmy, for some odd reason, the more syllables you use to describe something the less threatening people find it. So "low carb" is scary, "low glycemic load" less so. I find "controlled carbohydrate" also scares people less. We can use this odd quirk of psychology to our benefit -- and society's benefit, too.
The media tends to use the term "low glycemic load" incorrectly, but then they never got the difference between "simple" and "complex" carbs right, either. (FTR: "Complex carbs" are starches, whether refined or unrefined. "Simple carbs" are sugars, again, whether refined or unrefined. White bread is a complex carb, fruit is simple one. The common misuse of these terms drives me mildly batty, an eccentricity for which I hope I may be forgiven.)
They keep listing the whole grains they're currently pushing as having a "low glycemic load," which is simply untrue unless you eat them in teeny portions. Glycemic load equals glycemic index times the *number of grams of carbohydrate eaten*, so limiting the total number of grams of carbohydrate eaten is a VITAL part of keeping glycemic load low. And most grain foods don't have that low a glycemic index to begin with (and it goes through the roof if you process them. Cheerios have a glycemic index of 74!) By definition, a low glycemic load will strictly limit non-fiber carbs.
Still, the media cluelessness doesn't have to affect us! We can simply -- and accurately -- describe our way of eating as a low glycemic load diet.
(I might insert here that the best low carb book I've read in the past year is "The Glycemic Load Diet" by Rob Thompson, MD. Dr. Thompson points out that if you go by glycemic index alone, some veggies look forbidding, while some grains look pretty good, but if you sort by glycemic load, it becomes clear that carbs pretty much sort themselves into grains and potatoes, bad, versus fruits and vegetables, good -- simply because the starchy foods have so MUCH carbohydrate in them. Obviously, this parallels how most of us long-time low carbers eat -- lots of veggies with our protein, and some fruit, but virtually no
grains or potatoes.)
I confess, though, I still pretty much refer to myself as "low carb." As in "Could I get an extra serving of the steamed vegetables instead of the potato? I'm one of those low carb types.") Truth to tell, in my day to day life I don't much care what others think of how I eat. I do care about what it takes to gain a public forum, which is why the change in the books and the column. It doesn't do anyone any good for me to be a linguistic purist but not have a public voice.
8. Obesity rates keep getting worse and worse as the years go by. What is it going to take, either from the grassroots level or from the government, to turn the tide of this literally "growing" problem?
Gosh, I really hope it's mostly grassroots. I don't think the government should be in the business of dictating what we may and may not eat. Especially since even confining themselves to recommendations they've been disastrously wrong.
I will admit, however, to toying with the idea of national health insurance funded by a great big tax on anything made with sugar, corn syrup, or hydrogenated vegetable oil. I figure that way those who need the most health care will be paying the most.
Political action will come locally, from the grassroots. There's a growing movement among parents to pressure the schools to get soda and candy machines out of the schools, which can only be for the good. I've also read of school systems that have started sending home notices asking parents not to send sugary treats for their kids to share with classmates for birthdays, suggesting non-food treats like stickers instead. I'm all for stuff like this.
But overwhelmingly, it's going to have to come from the individuals. It's going to require a shift away from the overwhelming American reliance on convenience foods, and a willingness to do basic home cooking. It's also going to take a willingness for parents to say "no" to their children, to refuse to buy junk, or to allow it in their homes.
It's going to take roasting a chicken instead of stopping at KFC. It's going to take banning soda from your home. It's going to take endless confrontations with people who think your children are poor deprived creatures deserving of pity because you don't feed them garbage.
It's also going to take a major shift in the adult mindset regarding what constitutes pleasure. I had a conversation just last weekend with a woman I'd just met (we were camping.) I said, in response to an offer of candy, that I didn't eat sugar. She said, "Oh, boy, I do. You only live once!" To which I replied, "Yeah, I want to live feeling good." She was obviously impressed by the answer; it had never occurred to her that *not* eating junk could be its own reward.
Our society needs to increase exercise too, of course. As gas becomes more and more expensive, we're learning that it was sheerest folly to build whole communities where it's impossible to safely walk or bike anywhere, but it's not just the price in gas that should concern us, it's the price to our health, as well. Local government will come in, here, because adding the sidewalks and bike paths we've left out of all those sprawling subdivisions of winding streets and cul-de-sacs will take a series of public projects. Decentralizing commercial districts, so that every neighborhood has a little grocery store residents can walk to will require changes in zoning. But again, changes in local government come from the grassroots.
As gas becomes prohibitive, I hope that people will decide to use muscle power instead, for a million things. Rakes instead of leaf blowers, walk-behind lawn mowers instead of yard tractors, canoes or peddleboats for fun instead of jet skis, cross-country skiing instead of snowmobiles, these are the sorts of changes that will add up to a healthier America.
But I hope it starts to snowball soon. The latest research regarding Alzheimer's disease indicates that it's a form of diabetes of the brain. If that is, indeed, the case, we're in for a terrifying time as the "never drinks anything that isn't sugary" generation ages. We low carbers may be the last sane people left standing.
9. What's next for Dana Carpender? Is cookbook writing still the fire that burns within you or do you have a desire to write any other kind of book? What other projects are you working on?
I would LOVE to write another cookbook. It's been just a year since I turned in the manuscript for "Every Calorie Counts Cookbook," and I have found I really miss writing cookbooks. However, low carb cookbooks are hard to sell to the publishing industry these days, and I refuse to write a cookbook full of grains and sugar. I'd rather go back to massage therapy, my previous occupation; I always liked it anyway.
I'm toying with the idea of returning to self-publishing. I was a self-published author to begin with, and did okay with it. It's hard to beat the editorial freedom. But I haven't given up on selling another book to a publisher, and I'd LOVE suggestions from your readers as to what sort of cookbook they could use. They can send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My agent has suggested I write a follow-up to "How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds," covering the research that's come out since, and where the whole issue of carbohydrate control is going. I'm working on getting a handle on it, but it's an appealing project; there's SO much bad information out there. It kills me that people are STILL afraid of egg yolks, but think of soy as health food.
In the meanwhile, I'm working on a proposal for a book on fashion with a good friend of mine who's a top-flight professional stylist. It's a BIG change, and a little daunting, but fun.
10. You have a considerable following with your books, syndicated column and your wildly popular Lowcarbezine. Is there a parting message you would like to say to all of your supporters out here in the land of livin' la vida low-carb?
Thanks for your love, support, humor, intelligence, ideas, and all the great recipes you've contributed. You've taught me my job. And I'm proud to be part of this community.
Also, thanks for your patience. I started last January going back to a weekly publishing schedule for Lowcarbezine!, but got derailed by the Year From Hell. The response from my readers has been overwhelmingly kind, and I thank them.
And thank you to every single one of you who's bought one -- or more! -- of my books. I hope you like them and find them useful.
THANK YOU, Dana, for your many years of service to the low-carb community. I hope people who read this interview will sense the same thing that I did about you--that you haven't changed a bit! And we like it that way! :)