Australian dietitian Sue Radd talks about her new award-winning cookbook, the village-inspired plant-based recipes it is filled with, and the research behind them.
Question: Congratulations on winning the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for “Best Health and Nutrition Book” for 2016. How many other books was yours up against? Were you surprised to win?
Answer: I don’t know all of the details. All I know is that for the last year, more than 10,000 cookbooks altogether were entered, from more than 205 countries. At the 2017 award ceremony in China, more than 600 people representing 52 countries attended. These worldwide awards have been held annually for the last 22 years, and are run by the family that runs Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools.
Signs Publishing Company, the Seventh-day Adventist publisher in Australia, published my cookbook Food as Medicine, and entered it into the Gourmand awards. Last year we won best in country, and that meant we were in the competition for the world title. Andrew Irvine, the publishing director at Signs, represented us at the awards.
I thought Signs focused on publishing books within the church. Your book is not a specifically “Adventist” book.
Yes, this is the first to go into secular bookshops, I believe. If this book does well, hopefully it will open the doors for other Adventist writers to get out to the world. Why not share the love? I see this as a part of God’s plan.
What do you think set your book apart?
First, it’s beautiful. The book has a very contemporary design. Every recipe has an image. Most cookbooks don’t provide images for every single recipe.
Second, the topic is a trending topic of great interest to the public and health professionals. In the US, more than 10 medical schools are offering food as medicine as an elective subject. This is new.
The third thing is that the ingredients and methods are all based on scientific evidence. My book is evidence-based. Yet it takes inspiration from traditional cultures and eating patterns.
How else is Food As Medicine different from other recent healthy cookbooks? What makes your recipes different from that of other vegetarian nutritionists?
All kinds of people are publishing “healthy” cookbooks, but most don’t have qualifications. The recipes and ideas in my cookbook are not just based on personal opinion.
For example, I deliberately set out to illustrate specific cooking methods to avoid formation of chemicals that are bad for your health. These are safer methods. My recipes also use ingredients that have been tested in scientific studies, and found to be powerful when it comes to providing antioxidants. One such example is the combination of extra virgin olive oil, tomato, onion or garlic.
My recipes are based on unrefined plants foods. I have used the concept of replacing unhealthy ingredients with healthier options while creating dishes most people can recognize.
I have borrowed from traditional dietary patterns, like the Mediterranean diet. I’m interested in traditional patterns and what people used to cook in home kitchens. Traditional eating is sustainable and simple.
I like borrowing from traditional cultures. I have visited a lot of kitchens in villages in Greece and other parts of the world, and talked to a lot of older people, and a lot of “seasoned” home cooks. I wanted to find out what they did and why they did it that way.
I am also a big believer in cooking once and eating twice. Every day I take my own home-prepared lunch to work. I don’t buy convenience food. I freeze lunch sized portions in glass containers.
Do you like to go out to eat?
I do, but I am pretty short on time these days. When I do, I seek out places that offer whole foods presented in interesting ways. Like, there is a new restaurant in Sydney called Yellow, which is all plant-based but you’d never know it or miss meat because the food is so thoughtfully prepared and delicious.
And that is what I say about my cookbook: it’s plant-based. I don’t call it vegetarian or vegan. That’s because this book is not for vegetarians or vegans only — it’s for everyone. Few people are eating enough legumes, or enough wholegrains. Everyone needs to eat more unrefined plant foods to benefit their health.
The underlying premise is to adopt as much of a plant-based diet as you can stand. Maybe going totally plant-based is not for everyone. People are at different stages in their health journey. That’s okay as long as we nudge everyone to go in a plant based direction.
People don’t need more recipes for chicken. They need more recipe ideas to fill the gap due to a deficiency in unrefined plant food intake.
You have been doing this for a long time. What has been your most popular recipe over the years?
Technically this is my first cookbook, but I have written other health books with recipes in the back. This one has recipes in the front, and health information in the back.
I have been running Culinary Medicine Cookshops in my Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic in Sydney since 2009. We have a demo kitchen that can seat 20 people. The workshop is a blend between a nutrition talk and a cooking class.
I have been demonstrating and creating recipes for years, so it’s hard to answer this question! It depends on the audience and the purpose.
I supposed if I had to picked just one maybe it would be the “Succulent Eggplant and Tomato Bake” because I saw it made in a village in Greece (village food is always best!), and it uses two of my favorite ingredients: eggplant and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil. It also has that sofrito combination, and thus is a potent source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. I would have it with a dark green leafy salad. A heavy, grainy sort of bread would complete the meal.
Eggplant is particularly important and under-utilized, I think. It has a meaty texture, and is very rich in dietary viscous fibers. Specifically, they work to lower elevated blood cholesterol and blood sugars. At my clinic, we use eggplant recipes as part of a prescription for people who needs to lower their cholesterol.
I also cook a lot of legumes. I am a big lover of the concept of beans and greens — to create a typical Italian peasant dish, for example. I add lots of garlic and some fresh chilli to the cooked beans, then toss through some lightly boiled bitter greens. For example, endive. Boiling in a small amount of water is the traditional way to reduce bitterness. One dish, and that’s it — with everything you need.
What or who has had the biggest influence on your cooking and your recipes?
I can thank my grandmother for inspiring me about good food. I spent my first six years of life with her in her kitchen and garden in Croatia, making everything from scratch. She always stressed the value of homemade and organic food — well before the term “organic” became fashionable.
I turned seven in Australia, but before that I lived in Croatia. Both my parents are Croatian. My husband is Greek. I think I probably understand the Mediterranean diet better than many people might, because of my exposure to it in different ways.
Did you first study nutrition in university? What made you decide to take this career path?
I was always interested in food. But I was also interested in medicine. So when I learned in Year 12 that a course existed at university that combined both interests, I was instantly hooked on nutrition and dietetics.
It seems to me that the Adventist church, with its emphasis on health long before it became trendy, has had a real chance to be a leader in the area of healthy eating. But I feel like we have lost our advantage in the US. Maybe Australia has done better, with Sanitarium staying such a big player in the market. How can we do better at promoting our message of health, and thus enhancing our Adventist identity and helping people at the same time?
Australia has not been perfect either, though perhaps we have done a little better than the US. But when I look at church members, there has been a dropping off of adoption of the Adventist health message over the last 30 to 40 years. That needs to be addressed. If the members themselves adopted the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, they could share their learnings with other people in their lives.
I mostly work with non-Adventists. They are adopting the Adventist health message in droves. Of course, they don’t call it that, but science is adopting this message that Adventists have championed for years: eating no meat or less meat, and eating more legumes and vegetables, for example. Other people are doing those things you would expect all Adventists to be doing.
In Australia, Sanitarium is one of the most trusted food companies in the country. Of course, one has to keep up with the trends. The trend is toward fresh food. Loma Linda and some other Adventist food companies tended to just stay with their canned products. But these days people are not interested in that kind of packaging anymore. Sanitarium is always looking at its line, deleting products, and coming up with innovative new products. The way the foods are packaged and presented is important. Companies have to look at what is selling and why. The people adopting more plant-based meals want fresh and healthy. Unfortunately, cans don’t convey that message even though they might be meat-free.
But it’s going to take every individual member of the Adventist church to re-learn what is this so-called Adventist health message is all about. I hope Food as Medicine will go some way toward being a resource book to help people to achieve that. In Australia, some churches are already using the book to run community health and cooking events.
When I wrote the book, it was to help everyone. You don’t have to be an Adventist to use this book. It’s not written for Adventists — but I do hope it will also help Adventists to help others.
You have a focus on helping parents to feed kids healthfully. What is your top tip for making that happen?
I don’t have kids myself, but I will tell you what the research says. First, you have to start early. You can’t expect to change teens’ diets overnight.
Next, make one meal for everyone. And the role modelling has to be given by both parents. If it this does not occur, that is an early indication that the children might become fussy eaters. If both parents eat healthy food and comment about how yummy it also is, that makes a huge difference.
Parents should provide variety over time. It doesn’t have to all happen in one meal. Research shows that parents should never give up after the first few attempts at offering a new food. Even with babies, it can take at least 10 different times offering a new food before the child decides to eat something. You can also try serving a new food with something the child already eats and enjoys.
We can remind our kids that healthy food helps us do better at sports, and perform better in the classroom.
In the 1800s, there were no reports of fussy eaters. We have too many options now. We are spoiled. But it’s never too late to start working with a fussy eater, although but it’s much better to start early.
You are working on your PhD now at the University of Sydney, researching the effects of the Mediterranean diet on thinking and memory to reduce the risk of dementia. Why did you choose this area of research? What have you learned so far? When will you finish?
I am beginning my third year now, and will finish in 2019.
I am very interested in different dietary patterns. I am particularly interested in the traditional Mediterranean diet (not the modern one you might get in an American restaurant). This was characterized on the island of Crete and in southern Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the southern islands, people were poorer and lived off the land; they were not so influenced by industrialization.
I am also interested in the brain — the last frontier in science.
In Australia, dementia is the second leading cause of death, after cardiovascular disease. It is predicted that dementia will become number one in the world in the not-too-distant future. This is partly because we are living longer, and we will have a lot more older people. The primary risk factor for dementia is age. The other major driver, we believe, is a western lifestyle, including diet.
But there is a window of opportunity, potentially to slow progression of cognitive decline. This is what we are studying now. Once you have dementia, there is no drug to reverse or stop it. We know that lifestyle factors are important predictors in who gets dementia. There is research now in also targeting risk factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, to see if we can slow the progression.
For every age group there is appropriate brain performance function — we have normative data for all that. Generally speaking, as we get older, these functions start to decline. But when it comes to dementia (and the most common form, Alzheimer’s), underlying factors come into play years before, and probably decades before. We are learning that the changes are subtle, and not measurable at the early stages, but usually people start presenting with memory problems. We can now determine, however, whether someone is in a pre-dementia stage (similar to pre-diabetes). You can now have tests to see whether you fit that description. If you do, we are trying to work out whether making changes in your lifestyle can slow the progression of memory and thinking problems. If we can slow the progression by just by five years, we can effectively halve the prevalence of dementia. So far there is lots of good information from observational studies, showing that the Mediterranean diet may really impact this and assist our brain and mind. We are now testing this in clinical trials.
When you go into the kitchen really hungry, what do you prepare for yourself?
My husband is a fabulous cook. I have learned a lot of simple Greek ideas from him or his aunties and other relatives.
I love Greek food so I think probably brown lentil soup, with oregano.
I am a big believer in the pressure cooker. We actually have six between us! I might use two or three at once. It’s an economic and environmentally-friendly way to cook. The lentil soup only takes 10 minutes in the pressure cooker!
Then I drizzle on more extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. And I usually eat my lentil soup with a cabbage salad or some wilted greens called “horta.” Yum!
Any other advice for us?
The whole premise of my book is to adopt as much of a plant-based diet as you can stand. Some people can go all the way, some people half the way. Of course, if you want big results you have to make big changes. I would prescribe a 100% plant-based diet to some patients. How much you put in is how much you will get out of it. A plant-based diet is good for everyone — good for the whole family and the planet.
See links to some of Sue Radd’s recipes and information about ordering Food as Medicine and more about Sue Radd’s Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic, with additional resources.