The good life

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Health and happiness - P H OTO G RAP H Y by JULIAN KINGMA

A pas­sion for food and fam­ily lies at the heart of Doc­tor San­dro De­maio’s mis­sion to change the world. He shares his vi­sion for tack­ling the obe­sity epi­demic with Sue Smethurst over a home­grown feast on the fam­ily farm.

At the De­maio fam­ily’s abun­dant Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula farm in Vic­to­ria, they’ve proven the old adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” well and truly wrong. The kitchen of the charm­ing wooden home is bustling with peo­ple. There’s cof­fee brew­ing on the stove, tomato pas­sata sim­mer­ing, pine nuts roast­ing in the oven and fo­cac­cia dough gen­tly ris­ing on the kitchen bench; and clearly an ex­tra pinch of salt or an­other stir of the pot from any­one who walks past is in­trin­sic to the per­fec­tion of ev­ery dish.

The kitchen is the heart of the De­maio home, and it was here over long sum­mer days bot­tling the bounty of his fa­ther’s tomato crop and mak­ing salami with his broth­ers that the ca­reer of the pop­u­lar ABC pre­sen­ter Dr Alessan­dro De­maio was born.

“Ev­ery sum­mer the en­tire ex­tended fam­ily would come to­gether to make pas­sata from Dad’s toma­toes,” says the host of Ask the Doc­tor. “We all had a job, whether it was pick­ing the toma­toes or peel­ing and chop­ping, boil­ing or bot­tling. There was al­ways a great sense of fun and fam­ily about those days, it’s a tra­di­tion we still look for­ward to.”

This joy of food and fam­ily to­geth­er­ness in­spired a pas­sion that has taken San­dro, as he is af­fec­tion­ately known, around the world, wag­ing a war on obe­sity and dis­ease, and prompted him to pen a book, The Doc­tor’s Diet, filled with sim­ple recipes and prac­ti­cal ad­vice that’s not just about waist­lines, but global well­be­ing too.

“In Aus­tralia, more than two in three adults are over­weight or obese. This is largely pre­ventable,” he says. “What my mum taught me in the kitchen as a five-year-old is the so­lu­tion to the world’s big­gest prob­lems, obe­sity, sus­tain­abil­ity and the rise of chronic dis­ease. It all comes back to ba­sics.”

It’s a beau­ti­ful early au­tumn day when The Weekly meets the De­maio fam­ily at “Wi­lan­dra”, their prop­erty near Bal­nar­ring. Un­der a sprawl­ing eu­ca­lypt, four gen­er­a­tions, from San­dro’s 95-year-old grandma Bette, down to his two-year-old niece, Mae, gather to­gether to share the bounty of a late-sum­mer har­vest, and they’ve in­vited us to join them.

These lazy lunches are par­tic­u­larly pre­cious to San­dro, who cur­rently lives in Geneva while work­ing with the United Na­tions’ World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO). At just 33, the Mel­bourne-born Har­vard grad­u­ate has be­come one of the world’s most sought-af­ter health aca­demics. Work­ing with 194 coun­tries ad­vo­cat­ing for bet­ter health so­lu­tions, he is at the fore­front of the fight against obe­sity. When he re­turns home to film Ask the Doc­tor, this sanc­tu­ary far

from the world’s prob­lems is wait­ing for him.

“I love get­ting into the veg­gie gar­den and Mum’s al­ways got about five cu­bic me­tres of mulch wait­ing for me to spread around!” he smiles. When San­dro’s par­ents, Lynn and Pi­etro, pur­chased the prop­erty two decades ago, it was rolling pad­docks and scrub. To­day the prop­erty is a lush green feast for the senses. To the south, Lynn’s na­tive gar­den is a haven for birds and wildlife; to the north is Pi­etro’s abun­dant or­chard, trees drip­ping with peaches, nec­tarines, plums, figs, grapes, per­sim­mons, toma­toes and veg­eta­bles of ev­ery kind. Be­fore us, stretch­ing to the hori­zon, is a vista of grape vines, the fruits of which will be drunk over lunch to­day. Ev­ery­thing on the ta­ble has been grown be­fore our eyes.

“I was lucky to spend time in the kitchen with Mum and Dad at an early age, so I as­so­ciate cook­ing and food with love and hap­pi­ness. This is handed down through gen­er­a­tions,” San­dro says, with a nod to his Ital­ian grand­par­ents who ar­rived in Aus­tralia il­lit­er­ate and had to grow their own food to sur­vive.

“The men­tal and phys­i­cal health ben­e­fits of get­ting out into the gar­den are well known.

The cook­ing of the food and shar­ing the food is the ic­ing on the cake.”

Be­com­ing a world health ex­pert, par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas of obe­sity and food, was prob­a­bly al­ways San­dro’s des­tiny. At pri­mary school around the age of seven he ini­ti­ated the school veg­gie gar­den with the idea that it was some­thing all of the kids could par­tic­i­pate in, com­mon ground be­tween the sporty kids, “who were the cool kids” and the bul­lies, of which he was nei­ther.

At high school he con­tin­ued with a re­cy­cling pro­gram fo­cused on en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and cli­mate change. The themes of sus­tain­abil­ity, health and in­equal­ity were more than a pass­ing pas­sion. When it came time for univer­sity, he was torn be­tween a ca­reer as a park ranger or fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s foot­steps into medicine. At the last minute he chose medicine and “ev­ery­thing fell into place”.

It was dur­ing a place­ment in a re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity while he was study­ing that he be­gan to re­alise the health cri­sis caused by obe­sity.

One of his pa­tients was a 30-yearold mother suf­fer­ing type 2 di­a­betes whose kid­neys were giv­ing out. She at­tended an ap­point­ment with her two-year-old daugh­ter, who was car­ry­ing and sip­ping from a cola bot­tle al­most the size of the child.

“It dawned on me this wasn’t a prob­lem for rich old men in the sub­urbs,” San­dro says. “It was af­fect­ing the most dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple in our com­mu­nity. I saw an enor­mous bur­den of suf­fer­ing I knew could be solved through ac­cess to af­ford­able, healthy food and the knowl­edge of how to use it.” His work in re­mote Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ties won him a schol­ar­ship to at­tend an in­ter­na­tional health con­fer­ence, af­ter which he trav­elled to places in­clud­ing Sri Lanka, Cam­bo­dia and Mon­go­lia com­plet­ing a Mas­ter’s in pub­lic health. He con­cluded obe­sity and a lack of nu­tri­tional food was an in­ter­na­tional prob­lem.

“I be­gan to re­alise the power of food as medicine and the neg­a­tive im­pact poor di­ets were hav­ing on our so­ci­ety – 800 mil­lion peo­ple around the world go to bed hun­gry ev­ery

night, while two bil­lion wake up obese. So much suf­fer­ing world­wide is caused by things we can pre­vent.”

In 2015 he landed a role with the WHO, and to­day San­dro trav­els the globe cham­pi­oning the cause for change. He ar­gues gov­ern­ment can play a vi­tal role in chang­ing health out­comes of bil­lions of peo­ple through mea­sures such as a sugar tax and re­strict­ing junk food ad­ver­tis­ing, ar­gu­ing gov­ern­ments need to make good health “the path of least re­sis­tance”.

“Two-thirds of Aus­tralians are over­weight and obese, this isn’t a prob­lem caused by be­ing lazy, it’s caused by gov­ern­ment mak­ing the wrong de­ci­sions,” says San­dro. “We have to make it sim­ple and ac­ces­si­ble for peo­ple to drive changes in their health and the health of their kids.”

His work in­spired him to write

The Doc­tor’s Diet. The book is not a tra­di­tional reg­i­mented diet, and San­dro is at pains to point out this is not about re­strict­ing food, it is a cel­e­bra­tion of food and the lessons he learned around the fam­ily’s kitchen ta­ble.

The Doc­tor’s Diet takes a holis­tic view and in­cludes 100 prac­ti­cal, de­li­cious recipes he hopes will change the way we think about food, re­duce food waste and change our waist­lines. Among them is De­maio’s Sem­plice – the fam­ily’s tomato pas­sata recipe.

“Food doesn’t need to be com­pli­cated; you don’t need to be on MasterChef to be in the kitchen mak­ing good food to feed your fam­ily,” says San­dro.

Al­most on cue, lit­tle Mae of­fers an ap­ple from Nonno’s or­chard. “How about one that hasn’t been munched on?” Narnie Lynn smiles. Mae fol­lows Nonno Pi­etro into the or­chard, pick­ing grapes and pop­ping them in her mouth as she goes.

“I see early as­so­ci­a­tions formed in our psy­chol­ogy, love and food, par­ents and food, laugh­ter and food,” says San­dro, “I see that with my nieces now too, when they think of food they think of Narnie and Nonno.” He knows wag­ing a war against obe­sity, tak­ing on multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments is a David and Go­liath bat­tle, but he’s in for the long haul and pas­sion­ate we can make change.

“Cook­ing and eat­ing with friends has amaz­ing health ben­e­fits,” he en­thuses. “Take time, slow down, con­nect with the food, en­joy the food – do that and the world will be a bet­ter place.”

The Doc­tor’s Diet by Alle­san­dro De­maio (Pan Macmil­lan Aus­tralia), RRP $39.99, avail­able from May 29, 2018.

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