Her parents owned a bar where her mom cooked Italian food and pizza, but after Marilyn Biggica’s father passed away and her mom had to work elsewhere, it was up to Biggica to cook dinner after school. She struggled at first, but eventually found success in the kitchen, leading her to a life of cooking, health and nutrition. Today, she’s an associate professor of food and nutrition for the San Diego Community College District, where she’s been for almost 35 years.
When she started teaching in the early 1980s, her focus was on gourmet menu planning, but switched to health and nutrition after losing more than 150 pounds and turning to a new focus on changing her lifestyle and learning balance. As part of her focus on health, she took a sabbatical in 2014, spending time with the nutritionists, dieticians and staff of the cancer center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. As they were starting to work on plans for a new hospital, she learned of the plans for a rooftop café at the facility and was inspired to make a donation of more than $1 million, naming the café and its outdoor patio.
Biggica, 74, lives in Bankers Hill and took some time to talk about her own health journey, her work with Sharp Chula Vista, and her work with her students in the community college district.
Q: What led you to make the switch from teaching gourmet menu planning to health and nutrition?
A: When I moved to San Diego, I was a morbidly obese person and with the exception of walking from my car to the store, I did no exercise. A friend and neighbor who was a nurse at the time suggested I see a doctor in La Jolla who could put me on the path to a weight-loss program. At the appointment, I learned I weighed 326 pounds and the nurse took my blood pressure … (the doctor came) in with his nurse and a wheelchair to take me to the emergency room at the hospital. He told me my blood pressure was so high, “I was a walking time bomb.” After the hospital visit and taking medication to control my blood pressure, he suggested I start a weight-loss program. After losing 100 pounds, I felt like “OK, I’ve suffered and now the party can begin again.” Wrong, the party can never start again and it took me many years to realize that, so for the next few years, I yo-yo’d up and down. Finally, I realized that there is no such word as “diet,” it has to be a way of life. Not until the early ’90s did I put that plan into effect and start eating healthy and changed the format of my continuing education classes from gourmet to health and nutrition.
Q: How did you stay motivated throughout this journey?
A: Staying motivated was a challenge, but I knew it could be done. One key word I live and teach by is “balance,” meaning I do not constantly deprive myself. Deprivation causes binging! I allow myself the occasional pizza, piece of cake, bagel, etc., but look at the next few days for eating healthy and getting in more exercise. One thing that works for me is, if I want a frozen yogurt, I walk the few miles to buy and enjoy it. Another thing that helps me is to put a lot of good food on my plate to satisfy my constant desire to eat. An example would be grilled chicken, beef or fish, a whole grain (like bulgur), a vegetable and two fruits. And, eating slow helps. Then, I am happy and satisfied. A healthy diet is a lifestyle, not a fad, and it shouldn’t be difficult to maintain.
Q: What do you teach in your health and nutrition courses?
A: How to prepare healthy food that is low-fat in nature, has a gourmet flair and is easy to prepare. Consumerism plays a good part of the class: How to be a good shopper and know where and when to shop and what to look for in fresh produce, meats and fish. A written menu is provided with the nutritional analysis given for each recipe. This helps the students know what they are eating.
What I love about Bankers Hill …
I love this area and living in a high-rise with great views. I am close to freeways and can walk downtown or into Hillcrest.
Q: What’s your personal approach to health and nutrition?
A: Keep things simplified and within your reach.
Q: You also arrange trips for your students to travel to Mexico to experience the food and culture?
A: Yes, those trips started in 2002 and were made available because of a wonderful former student of mine, Ricardo Munoz Zurita. Back in 1988, a very young Ricardo walked into my class expressing interest in cooking. He stayed for six semesters when I taught both gourmet and healthy classes, getting the benefit of both. He was definitely a student that was exemplary and always went above and beyond to learn and share. Ricardo left San Diego after he finished my classes and went to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu and then The Culinary Institute of America in New York, graduating from both. He returned to his home in Mexico City armed with knowledge to open the first of six restaurants, and recently completed his 13th book. He has never forgotten me or his continuing education classes and has returned numerous times to host fundraisers and share his experiences with students. He invited me to Mexico City in 2002 and we discussed bringing my students for annual culinary and cultural field trips, which started in 2003. He was a gracious host, we went to 10 different states, learned about indigenous cultures and foods, and ate very well.
Q: How did your relationship with Sharp HealthCare begin?
A: I met the CEO of Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center six years ago and we developed a wonderful friendship. When I was awarded a sabbatical in 2014, he invited me to meet the nutritionists and dieticians, and he allowed me to visit the cancer center as well as the food manager and their chef.
Q: What did you do during your sabbatical with Sharp Chula Vista?
A: My activities and experiences there were incredible. My days spent with the nutritionist at the Barnard Cancer Center was so informative about the relationship between lifestyle and cancer. I learned that we can prevent 30 to 40 percent of most cancers by maintaining a healthy diet, healthy weight, and physical activity. I also learned that eating well can delay the start of cancer and play a significant part in maintaining remission.
The hospital nutritionist shared the recipes and ingredients they utilize for meal service. Every patient is different and requires a personalized menu each day. In the kitchen, I came to learn exactly how each tray is prepared and that it has to be checked and approved before it is put on the serving carts. This medical center uses words like “balance” and “mindful.” If you are positive with patients and model that in their food service, it will certainly help them to make good choices when they leave the hospital and recover at home.
Q: What’s been rewarding about your work in food and nutrition?
A: That’s easy: When a student comes to me to thank me for giving them recipes that have been beneficial to their medical issues, that just makes me smile. Some say they have been able to lose weight or lower their blood pressure, or now exercise more. I am happy to share my personal story with my students. They can see that I am a real person who has overcome obesity and made myself a better person through diet and exercise.
Q: What has it taught you about yourself?
A: Not to give in to obstacles and to know that there is always a better route to travel without falling into a hole.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: “Never worry about anything you cannot control.”
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I love to sleep in and sometimes sleep for 12 hours.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Shopping and buying clothes. Also, having some friends to my home to be guinea pigs for new recipes I have prepared for class, but mostly on Sundays when I get to walk with a good friend through Balboa Park and catch up on what we both have been doing.