These days, many diseases, health conditions and disorders are lifestyle- or diet-related, among them high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Nutrition experts Julienna Hever and Raymond J Cronise are adamant that if food can wreak havoc on your health, then a diet can be designed to remedy certain health problems. You just need to pay extra attention to what you eat and how much you eat.
Their answer to modern lifestyle problems is a “whole food, plant-based diet”, a new lifestyle trend conceptualised in the US and now making inroads to Thailand where wellness tourism is growing.
NASA scientist-turned-nutrition expert Ray Cronise and registered dietician Julieanna Hever recommend a whole food, plant-based lifestyle for a longer and healthier life. /photo courtesy of Julieanna Hever and Ray Cronise
Hever and Cronise recently conducted a plant-based culinary and nutritional classes at Evason Hua Hin, attracting health-conscious individuals from around the world including physicians, students and other professionals from Brazil, Britain, Australia and China, all of them determined to improve their health through, well, healthy cooking.
“A whole food, plant-based diet consists of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, which can be consumed in infinite combinations,” Hever tells The Nation.
She asserts that a plant-based diet promotes consumption of wholesome and unprocessed foods, saying: “If you process rice into flour, you lose lots of nutrition.” While plant-based diets include vegan and vegetarian foods, some of these are oily, salty or very sweet and cannot be described as healthy. “It’s worth noting that there are vegetarian and vegan versions of burgers, ice cream and cookies. They are not healthy,” she stresses.
Cronise explains that like both these diets, plant-based food excludes animal products. “Think about Thai dishes, whole grains, mushrooms. Most Thai dishes have all of these. That can’t be said about most American dishes. Here mushrooms aren’t foreign,” he says.
Both Americans have been conducting classes on plant-based diets around the world as a team for two and a half years. However, Hever, a registered dietician with a master’s degree in nutrition, has professionally conducted classes on plant-based diets for the past 14 years.
Cronise is a scientist-turned-weight-loss and nutrition expert who studied chemistry and worked for 15 years as a Material Scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in microgravity, biophysics, and physical & analytical chemistry. A household name in the US’s weight-loss world, he has helped many celebrities and ordinary folks achieve their weight-loss goals through his knowledge of metabolism, mild cold stress, dietary restriction and nutrition.
Cronise and Hever are also the authors of “Plant-Based Nutrition, 2E (Idiot’s Guides)” that extols the virtues of a plant-based lifestyle as beneficial to the “healthspan”, or longevity.
By bringing their concept of plant-based food to Thailand, both are hoping that their recipes can make a difference to the lives of those who are looking for ideas for healthy living and cooking as a way of overcoming personal medical problems and attaining longevity.
Plant-based food is beneficial to the health in many ways.
In their article titled “Plant-based nutrition for healthcare professionals” published in 2017 in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, they wrote that plant-based diets are associated with lowering overall and ischemic heart disease mortality; reducing medication needs; supporting sustainable weight management; reducing incidence and severity of high-risk conditions, such as obesity and obesity-related inflammatory markers, hyperglycemia, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia; and even reversing advanced cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
These advantages are likely the result of both the consistent consumption of innate health-promoting compounds found in whole plant foods and the reduction of exposure to harmful substances found in animal products and highly processed foods.
Meat (including processed, red, and white assortments), fish, dairy, and eggs contain health-damaging saturated fats, heme iron, N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), carnitine, and chemical contaminants formed when flesh is cooked, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic amines, and advanced glycation end products.
Julieanna says plant foods exclusively contain two critical nutrients: fibre and phytonutrients. Fibre, found in multiple varieties in all intact plant foods, gives powerful protection of the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and immune systems, while phytonutrients, a vast class of thousands of compounds including glucosinolates, carotenoids, and flavonoids, work synergistically to reduce inflammation and oxidation, providing protection from disease initiation and progression.
“There are two reasons why plant-based diets are healthful. First, you’re avoiding excessive protein, saturated food and animal products that are harmful. Then, plants contain fibre that can be found in plants, not animals. Plants cannot fight and run, so they create phytonutrients as a defence mechanism to protect themselves from bacteria. These nutrients work to protect us too,” she says.
Cronise asserts that aside from its multiple benefits, plant-based food in principle promotes “healthspan”: how long and well someone can live with quality of life. He says plant-based food is a way of implementing dietary restriction that’s beneficial to human health, citing a 20-year study by the Wisconsin National Primate Research Centre in Madison.
In the study, which was conducted from 1989 to 2009, 38 rhesus macaques that were allowed to eat whatever they wanted were nearly twice as likely to die at any age than were 38 monkeys whose calorie intakes were cut by 30 per cent. The study also suggested that the monkeys on a reduced-calorie diet lived longer than those that ate as much as they wanted.
“You may be able to eat more food, and not gain weight, but when you start restricting, you get to a point where body goes into a protective mode. Eating every hour or so, every day is a kind of modern concept. Whole food, planted based diets help people eat less, but swallow more,” Cronise says.
When it comes to plant-based food, Hever says there are infinite combinations and options to be found in our daily life. Half the plate should consist of vegetables and fruits in order to ensure adequate intake of fibre, potassium, magnesium, folate, iron, and vitamins A and C, nutrients that tend to be low in the standard Western diet, she says.
Hever doesn’t use oil when cooking and indeed advises against using cooking oil, however good it may be. In their classes, both cook all vegetables with water and broth or by steaming.
“Oils are a way of getting enough calories to survive. You can get calories from other sources. Our dishes contain mostly no oil, even extra virgin olive oil. Do you need olive oil to survive? If you can get calories from elsewhere, then oil is not necessary – as long as you have enough mango and sticky rice. Today we have the luxury of just eating plants.
“Michelin-starred food, fast food and street food are the same things. Think about that for a second. A meal at a five-star restaurant has sugar, salt and oil. That’s what we love. They make it pretty. Street food is high in sugar, salt and oil. The point is if you eat that every day, you’re likely to develop all the non-communicable diseases we are talking about,” says Cronise.
Both believe Thai food is a great example of health food, but this doesn’t include the greasy curries.
“Traditional Thai food like miang kham is mostly healthy food. Small portions help, but it depends on the type of food and the quantity. What we are trying to do is focus on those foods that the literature has said are the most healthful and make those into flavourful food. So we recommend vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. That’s just every Thai dish,” Hever says.
“You have the best fruits every day in Thailand. You can’t walk down the street in the US and buy a coconut or have coconut water,” adds Cronise.
To them, Bangkok is the best place to find plant-based dishes from regular restaurants. They like to order pad thai without shrimp and egg on top or tom yum without oil or go for raw sushi, spring rolls and roasted vegetables.
“If you don’t have time to cook, time for your health, you’ll have time for medical procedures later in life. We want to live longer, not just live healthy. We eat what we can eat to survive and reproduce. The point here is when we look at our age, we just can’t eat almost anything. You eat the plants or eat the animals that eat the plant? But the nutrition came from the plant. We need to restrict our diet and we need to eat more plants,” says Cronise.
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