Noe Valley Voice July-August 2008

The Jungle Effect: Dr. Daphne Miller Finds Clues to a Healthy Diet

By Doug Konecky

Dr. Daphne Miller orders oatmeal with strawberries and blueberries and asks the barista behind the counter at Café XO to mix her coffee half house-blend and half high-test. Her breakfast, eaten before starting another busy day at her clinic on Sanchez Street, looks delicious. It is indicative of her nutritional message: Eat healthy, but enjoy what you're eating.

According to Miller, a 1993 graduate of Harvard Medical School, a physician in private practice since 2000, and now the author of her first book, The Jungle Effect (HarperCollins, 2008), there are four common features of successful diets around the world ("diet" as in the way people eat, not "diet" as in the way people try to lose weight). They are: consuming local grains, using spices, eating fermented foods (such as yogurt), and--get this--communal eating, actually sharing meals together. Miller says people who do these things live longer and stay healthier, no matter which part of the globe they inhabit.

"Look at how long it's taking us to drink our coffee," she says, "because we're talking, listening, using our hands to communicate. It's relaxing. It's good for the body." She's right. My cup is still practically full. "Most of my patients know the right thing to do," says Miller, who shares her family practice with Avril Swan, M.D. "I run into them at the farmers' market or at Whole Foods. Where they go wrong is they pick up 'healthy' convenience food and then eat it in the car on the way to driving their child to soccer practice. Then they wonder why Johnny won't eat his vegetables."

Eighty percent of Miller's patients are from Noe Valley and surrounding areas, she says. And of that group, many are her neighbors. Miller and architect husband Ross Levy have lived in Noe Valley for 13 years. They have two children, Arlen, 13, and Emet, 9.

The one health risk factor "Dr. Daphne," as she's known, sees over and over again is stress. "My patients are working very hard just to survive," says Miller, 42. "And yet they also know that slowing down and enjoying their food is synonymous with healthy living."In other words, stop and smell the oatmeal. Miller quotes a kidney specialist at San Francisco General Hospital who told her during her residency there: "Once people get end-stage kidney disease, they discover they have plenty of time for dialysis."

In her book, subtitled "A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World--Why They Work and How to Bring Them Home," Miller chronicles how healthy people eat in locales as disparate as Greece, Japan, Mexico, and Iceland. The traditional diets in these places may include more or less meat, low or high fat, or heavy or light carbs. What they all have in common, however, is the consumption of few if any processed foods, processed oils (olive oil works great, corn oil not so great), or foods with chemical additives.

Miller traveled for three years collecting information for the book. "It's a travel adventure as well as a nutrition book," she says, "though I do give lots of simple recipes." (See her Crete omelet recipe at right.) She says the term "jungle effect" was inspired by a patient of hers who kept feeling better every time she returned to her village in the jungles of Brazil. "It refers to the idea that we can improve our health by reconnecting to ancestral ways of eating, eating traditions that have been refined for hundreds to thousands of years."

Miller, who was born in Israel, also keeps a small container of lard by her stove and uses a little of that from time to time. Lard? Healthy? "It all depends on where it comes from," she says. "I believe it's important to know what my meat eats. Meat has a strong taste. My family likes it. We just don't overdo it."

(Of course...those veal chops my own family ate last night probably contained more meat than a week's meals at Daphne Miller's house. But there were garlic, rosemary, and raspberries from the garden, olive oil and shiraz from Mendocino, and lettuce and strawberries from, well, Watsonville. Not so bad.)

Yes, moderation is another theme. Still, Miller's most resonant statement is the one about joy, and sharing food with family and friends. "The idea of food is a glue within the traditional community," she says. "These traditional ways of eating have survived for thousands of years because they work."

Dr. Daphne Miller's Jungle Effect is available to chew on at Cover to Cover Booksellers on Castro Street.

Horta Omelet or Scramble From Crete

-- Dr. Daphne Miller, author of The Jungle Effect (HarperCollins, 2008)

This is a breakfast that can easily double as a lunch or dinner. The secret to making a delicious omelet is to have high-quality free-range eggs. Squeezing fresh lemon over your omelet enhances the flavor and increases your absorption of the nutrients in the greens. I often serve this dish with fresh tomato slices and whole grain toast.


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups chopped fresh greens (such as purslane, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, carrot greens, beet greens, or a mix--remove center woody stems before cooking)
2 tablespoons crumbled feta or other slightly salty sheep or goat cheese
3 to 4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons chopped Kalamata olives (optional)
1 lemon, cut into wedges (optional)

Heat olive oil over medium heat, add garlic, and stir until soft but not too brown. Add greens and stir until soft.

Evenly distribute your greens on the bottom of the skillet and then sprinkle with the feta. Pour eggs over the top and cook until eggs are just as you like them. (You can cover with a lid to hasten the cooking time.)

Top with olives and sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt. Serve with lemon wedges.

Serves 2.