The heat is on, with temperatures soaring nationwide. That means it’s time to break out the backyard grill and enjoy summer foods like corn on the cob, grilled vegetables and fruit, and your favorite main dishes. Most of us can tolerate a bit of sweat as we barbecue our favorites, but individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS) can struggle with even minor temperature elevations. Cooking indoors, let alone outside when temperatures get hot, can be intolerable.
Chef Ben Ford has a special interest in helping individuals with multiple sclerosis. His mom was diagnosed with relapsing MS while he was growing up. The son of actor Harrison Ford, Chef Ben developed a love of cooking from his mom. After she was diagnosed with MS, the disease progressed and began to impact her ability to navigate the kitchen and continue to cook and entertain. He witnessed firsthand her struggles with heat intolerance and dexterity challenges.
I recently interviewed Chef Ben and Nurse Practitioner Courtnee Roman, who works with MS patients. I asked Ms. Roman to quickly explain MS and specifically relapsing MS. “Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system attacks the nerves in the brain, the spinal cord, and the optic nerves. When the coding along the nerves is damaged or removed, you can get a host of neurologic symptoms including numbness, tingling, weakness, difficulty walking, heat sensitivity, and fatigue.”
She went on to explain that many individuals experience symptoms for days, weeks, or even longer periods of time. In some cases the symptoms resolve, while in other cases, the individual can continue to experience flare-ups of neurological dysfunction, hence the term “relapsing MS.”
Ms. Roman emphasized that heat sensitivity seems to occur because the lesions that typically occur in the brain and spinal cord are heat-sensitive, so if core body temperature goes up, the nerves will malfunction – clearly making any activities during summertime, especially cooking, a challenge for someone with MS. In general, cooling kits, cooling vests, hats, and cooling wraps and towels can help an individual to maintain a cooler core temperature. The key is to diminish the impact of heat because people with MS have this heat sensitivity.
Chef Ben relayed how his mom, nearly 40 years ago, was beginning to show symptoms that “back in the day” were not easily linked to an MS diagnosis. What was obvious was the fact that the symptoms she was experiencing were beginning to limit her abilities to entertain and cook. Back then the family pitched in, helping her in small but meaningful ways so she could continue to enjoy her passions, albeit with limitations. Chef Ben has since become inspired to join a campaign called Reimagine Myself, bringing awareness of MS through personal stories and tips as well as helpful information to individuals managing relapsing MS.
I asked Chef Ben specifically how they helped his mom to continue to engage with the joy of cooking, and he shared that they began to break down recipes, “so she was able to cook small amounts or certain phases of recipes over time.” This allowed her to be exposed to the heat in the kitchen or outside in smaller increments – a great tip for individuals who are heat-sensitive or susceptible to relapses. Many recipes are set up for an approach like that.
Chef Ben has a love of grilling, and he pointed out that grilling is set up for this method – most foods can be prepped in a cool kitchen, and the actual heat-exposure cooking time can be mitigated with help from others at a family BBQ, for example. Summer entertainment really lends itself to others pitching in, which can be incredibly helpful to someone who enjoys entertaining and cooking but has heat-sensitivity issues or dexterity issues. “Think of summer as seasonal simplified cooking, if grilling is your passion,” he says, and he suggests identifying any utensils or cooking apparatus that may be challenging for you and enlisting the help of family and friends.
Chef Ben also pointed out that he’s not big on lifting the grill cover a lot – adopting that approach can also help to minimize heat exposure. He loves kettle grills because the height lends itself to someone who may need to sit, or someone in a wheelchair. “It also allows great 360 degree access to it if you have dexterity issues,” he says.
Chef Ben and Ms. Roman agreed that though there is no specific diet for individuals with MS, keeping red meats as a treat food rather than a protein staple is prudent. Minimize processed foods and foods associated with inflammation. It’s also a good idea not to char or burn surface meats and foods you’re grilling, since that creates nitrosamines, chemical byproducts associated with cancer risk. Ms. Roman emphasized that individuals with MS can benefit from a diet filled with mostly whole foods, cutting processed food consumption, eating fatty fish, and avoiding salt, which is inflammatory, similar to sugar.
Remember these basic cooking tips from Chef Ben and Ms. Roman:
Do prep work in a cool environment.
Cook items that lend themselves to preparation in several phases. You can sear meat on the stovetop quickly and then put it in the oven to finish, or cook it in the oven and finish it on the grill.
Find tools that are forgiving if you have dexterity issues – there are incredible new gadgets and different versions of kitchen gadgets. Spiralizers, for example, come in a variety of dimensions and use different techniques to create vegetable noodles.
Use cooling towels and vests when cooking for extended periods of time and drink cold water.
A kettle grill with its circular top may be the perfect grilling apparatus for someone confined to a sitting while cooking.
Minimize heat exposures as much as possible by enlisting prep and cook help from others.
Chef Ben, author of Taming the Feast: Ben Ford’s Field Guide to Adventurous Cooking, hopes his personal participation in the Reimagine Myself campaign and sharing stories and life lessons from growing up with a mom who has relapsing MS, along with sharing cooking tips and practical ideas that can help individuals with MS, will help to inspire others to life their life fully, to reimagine their life, and especially, to cook and grill!
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”