We worried about Auntie Doll, a longtime patient with diabetes and heart disease, when we learned she had stopped taking her medication and rarely saw her doctor, both due to finances.* Amazingly, she lived almost 2 decades after her heart attack.
Auntie Doll was a beloved member of my husband’s family and the last time she cooked for us, at her home in Trinidad, I understood one of the reasons why she was able to live so long — she had figured out how to heal herself with food. She replaced the white flour in her roti (Indian flatbread) with her custom blend of oats, flaxseed, and whole wheat. She paired it with Trinidadian dal, also known as yellow split pea soup, which can be made with pretty much any legume and can be enjoyed as a soup or a side dish, depending on how thick or thin you make it. In Trinidad, it is made on the watery side and served as a sauce alongside roti.
Instinctively, Auntie Doll understood the power of food as medicine.
*This is not medical advice. Before starting or discontinuing any medications, please consult with your provider.
Listen to Linda Shiue, MD, tell the story behind 2 recipes she learned from Auntie Doll. See below to make the recipes for yourself!
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Nutrition information for Trinidadian dal does not include added salt.
LINDA SHIUE, MD: I don't know that she used the phrase food as medicine, but that's what she was doing.
LINDA SHIUE: Auntie Doll was so beloved to my husband that I think he thought of her as a second mother. The first time I met her was the first time I went to Trinidad. Auntie Doll welcomed me into her home with this huge table covered in food. She had obviously spent hours or days to welcome me.
A little after I met her, she was diagnosed with heart disease. In Trinidad, even though they have some form of universal health coverage, it's really very limited and doesn't include medications. The one most expensive medication for Auntie Doll was her statin – she really couldn’t afford it. She never really told us, but after a while just stopped taking them and saw her cardiologist very briefly because there really wasn't much more that he could do.
I didn't really know this, um, until the last time that she cooked for us ... I noticed that she had been making her homemade roti a different way. It was clearly whole grain and at first, I thought it was just whole wheat, like chapati, the Indian whole wheat flat bread, which is kind of dry tasting and a little bit dense. But hers was really moist and pliable. Again, she was a very skillful cook, so I thought she just had some secret technique or recipe. But I asked her what she made it out of and she told me, Oh yeah, she'd been experimenting with whole grains because it helped with her blood sugar control and was better for her health in general.
When I asked her more about her health, that's when she shared with me that she really was just kind of taking care of herself and, you know, she knew that's what she had the skill for and that she was able to control was what she could feed herself, but really took it upon herself to figure out how to keep herself as healthy as she could with what she was cooking.
LINDA SHIUE: It's amazing to me as a doctor who takes care of many people with heart disease and with diabetes, that Auntie Doll lasted so long, you know, a decade or more, maybe even two decades after her initial diagnosis with heart disease, but she didn't really have a choice and so she managed it much longer than I thought anybody would be able to through food and exercise alone.
I think like a lot of mothers and grandmothers and aunts who want to keep their secret recipe secret, she would often leave out a little bit, but you know, anyone who cooks a lot knows that you can often recreate things if you eat enough of it. I think I come pretty close so I'm happy about that.