Baby boomers are embracing vegetarianism as a way of protecting their bodies. What not go that one step further and look at eliminating the oils?
BY: Eleanor Yap
You are what you eat. The food that we eat can protect us from many lifestyle diseases including diabetes, obesity as well as heart disease. Nutritionist Mayura Mohta along with Vegetarian Society Singapore (VSS) president George Jacobs is asking the public to go beyond vegetarianism with their first oil-free cookbook written in Singapore called “The Heart Smart Oil Free Cookbook”.
Agelessonline chat with Mohta (pictured on the right) about the book, her own vegan journey, and the conundrum of oil-free and vegetarianism:
How did the idea of the book come about?
The idea of writing the book was triggered with Dr Caldwell B Esselstyn Jr’s visit to Singapore in March 2011. A pioneer in developing a non-invasive treatment for coronary heart disease, Dr Esselstyn’s book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease” records the evidence of his plant-based diet in reversing heart disease.
Dr Esselstyn is possibly most famous for his treatment of former President Bill Clinton (along with Dr Dean Ornish). After his failed bypass Clinton began Dr Esselstyn’s plant-based diet programme. As reported, “Over the next few months, Clinton lost 24 pounds, returning to his high school weight, feels great, and his heart disease is in reversal.”
We had the good fortune of interviewing Dr Esselstyn and spending considerable time with him and his wife Anne.
Any favourite recipes you would like us to take note of?
I like recipes that explore the use of different/unusual grains. My favourite in this book is the soba noodle pasta contributed by Doodle! (a pasta, noodle and wine bar in Singapore). Its chef used buckwheat soba and tossed it with white wine (instead of oil) and roasted garlic. It is mildly flavoured and has a good combination of fresh vegetables and tofu. It is quick and easy to prepare and a gratifying dish.
You said it was a challenging book. How so?
Firstly, we had to adhere to the strict dietary guidelines set by Dr Esselstyn. This meant that all recipes had to be oil-, dairy-, nut-, seed-, coconut- and avocado-free! To quote Dr Esselstyn –“do not eat anything with a face or a mother”. VSS took it a bit further by abstaining from the use of any animal products including honey!
Since chefs, dieticians and nutritionists contributed the recipes, as well as doctors and other experts across the world, we had to convey Dr Esselstyn’s principles and constantly ask for suitable substitutes. For instance, agave nectar instead of honey.
The other challenge was to request easy to make recipes and to use ingredients that are easily available in Singapore. Many recipes have the local substitute for the original ingredient.
Lastly, we worked hand-in-hand with Lauren Ho, the nutritionist at Singapore Heart Foundation, to do the nutritional analysis of all the recipes. Those that were high in salt, fat or calories (unsuitable for those with a heart condition) had to be modified after informing the recipe contributor.
I learnt all the oil-free cooking techniques that I have shared in the book. Also I learnt to cook more healthy meals and to use more natural flavourings such as herbs and spices. Besides this, I made a small (amateur) attempt at food photography!
Oil-free and vegetarian – isn’t that a conundrum?
Indeed it is. Quoting from the book – “Some people may say vegetarianism itself is too strict. Oil-free takes it to another level of strictness. However, as Dr Esselstyn points out, it is better to be safe than sorry. We agree, especially when one is dealing with a critical heart issue.
Can oil-free vegetarian food be also good on the palate? This is important as there is a school of thought claiming that unless you enjoy your food it does not have the desired effect. This is because taste and smell of food trigger digestive juices, without which we would have trouble not only digesting the food but also making use of the nutrients present in the food. So we took up this challenge of finding oil-free recipes that also taste good and we have found that does exist. All our contributors took special effort in developing the recipes for this book.
I understand you switched to plant-based meals after your mother got cancer. Can you share your experience? Are you a vegan or a vegetarian? (Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish or poultry but they tend to consume dairy products and eggs – which are not consumed by vegans.)
My mother was 40 when she was diagnosed with cancer. During the course of her treatment, her doctor suggested adopting a vegetarian diet rich in antioxidants and other cancer-fighting phytochemicals. To support her recovery, the whole family switched to a plant-based diet.
My mother returned to her job and lived an active life for the next 20 years. After she passed away, I stuck on to the vegetarian diet. At university, I switched briefly to eating some poultry and fish, however I had quit as soon as my body reacted unfavourably to them.
Switching to veganism has happened after meeting the giants of preventive medicine in Singapore. VSS hosted the visit of Dr Colin Campbell (author of “The China Study”) and Dr Esselstyn. Both these doctors have dedicated their life to research in plant-based nutrition. Their research papers published in science journals reveal the long-term harm caused by meat and other animal-based products. My choice to be a vegan is strongly influenced by their studies and after completing the plant-based nutrition certification offered by Dr Campbell at Cornell.
What are some benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Many scientific research studies done in the past decade indicate that the consumption of a vegetarian diet rich in whole grains and whole grain products, legumes and lentils, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruits along with the avoidance of meat, eggs, milk and other animal products, help prevent and even reverse many life threatening diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, cancer, obesity and mortality.
Vegetarian diets contain more whole foods and therefore are higher in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These foods also contain a host of anti-ageing and anti-cancer phytochemicals such as carotenoids, flavonoids, isothiocyanates, ellagic acid, curcurmins, liminoids, lignans, saponins, phytosterols, isoflavones, sulfide compounds, tocotrienols, etc. These alter the biochemistry and change metabolic pathways that lead to the development of degenerative diseases such as cancer.
Vegetarian protein sources such as beans, peas, lentils, etc, lack saturated fats found in all animal proteins and are therefore suitable for optimal heart health. Vegetarian diets are also cholesterol-free.
Vegetarian diets are fibre-rich and therefore, prevent constipation. Fibre lowers cholesterol levels and helps eliminate toxins from the body.
Although nuts are high in fat, they are naturally low in saturated fat. Seeds such as flax and chia are a good source of healthy Omega-3 oils and fibre. Nuts and seeds also contain potassium, magnesium, vitamin E, folic acid, copper and dietary fibre along with health beneficial compounds such as tocotrienols, and protective polyphenolics such as ellagic acid and flavonoids.
Vegetarian diets aid weight loss and are suitable for weight maintenance.
I read in an article in “The Washington Post” that baby boomers are embracing vegetarianism as they are heading into “prime time for health issues and sees vegetarianism as a way to protect their bodies”. However, the article warns that there are some risks for baby boomers going this route, saying “such regimes, if poorly planned, may be relatively low in protein, calcium, Vitamin B12 and zinc” – nutrients that support wound healing and boost the immune system. Can you comment on this?
My co-author Jacobs responded to this article and it was published in “The Straits Times”. Sixty-year-old Jacob has been a vegetarian for more than 30 years and a vegan for the past 10 years. He did agree that vegetarians must pay attention to nutrients such as protein, calcium and vitamin B12 and shared that it is important to plan a healthful, plant-based diet.
He said, “With the exception of vitamin B12, a vegetarian or vegan can obtain the necessary nutrients while enjoying a range of delicious, widely available plant foods.
For instance, calcium is found in sesame seeds, almonds, bok choy, broccoli, lady’s finger, tempeh and tofu.
Also, some foods are fortified with nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12, and supplements are widely available.
While baby boomers were taught that animal-based foods were our only protein source while we were growing up, we know now that protein is also found in many plant foods, including beans, grains, nuts and seeds.” To see the full response, go to: http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/nutrient-needs-vital-planning-healthy-vegan-diet-easy-20120824.
What advice could you give someone in their 50s who would like to switch to a vegetarian diet?
Switching to a vegetarian diet requires planning. Best way would be to go meatless some days of the week and then make the complete change. Collect recipes and browse through cookbooks and websites for easy to make tasty meals so that you will not miss meat. Learn to make some veggie versions of your favourite dishes.
Opt for nutrient-dense rather than calorie-dense meals. Include whole foods such as whole grain (millet, quinoa, buckwheat, whole-wheat, etc) and whole grain products. These are not too refined and contain more nutrients than refined products. Also, try and have more unprocessed foods such as muesli, porridge, etc, and shun processed food such as cookies, nachos, etc. Have at least five or more portions of fruits and vegetables every day. Greens are a must everyday. Vary your fruits and vegetables with the season. These are rich in many disease-fighting phytochemicals, anti-ageing nutrients and fibre.
For your protein needs, opt for legumes and lentils such as kidney beans, black beans, peas, mung beans and sprouts, etc. Combine them with rice or protein containing grains like quinoa to get all the essential amino acids. Besides these plant proteins, tofu and tempeh are also good sources of protein when combined with other foods and are a tasty replacement for meat.
Avoid fried and fatty vegetarian foods and sugary foods as well. All these provide empty calories that accumulate as fat. As the metabolism slows down with age, it becomes difficult to lose excess fat.
The vegetarian diet you adopt should be healthy. For the right fats, consume small amounts of seeds, nuts, avocados, etc. All fats should be in small amounts to prevent age-related obesity. Cooking with virgin olive oil is a better option than other vegetable oils.
Eat in moderation and never binge or eat until you are too full. Drink plenty of water and avoid fruit juices or sweetened drinks.
Consult your doctor for a good multivitamin-cum-mineral supplement. Most vegetarians tend to have low levels of vitamin B12 (only found in animal-based foods).
Anything to add?
My favourite quote is by Hippocrates – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
** “The Heart Smart Oil Free Cookbook” is available at Kinokuniya at S$25.68. Discount can be given to those who order in bulk.
** Look at three recipes from the book, here.