The good life
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.