As a creative thinker, my mind often hops from one interest to the next. I get all excited about painting. Then I move on to home décor. Then I’m on to cooking, writing, organizing, or crafting something or other. Then, I repeat, as I get re-inspired. One subject that remains a constant interest of mine, which only fuels my love for cooking and creating fantastic dishes, is how much the food we eat impacts our health. Not even taking into consideration our body weight or condition of our skin (semi-cosmetic reasons we may change our diet), there is an awful lot happening inside of our bodies. Of course genetics and the environment has an impact but what we eat greatly affects us in a cosmetic but so much more important way. The amount of processed food and sugar we eat is out of control. Many health problems follow.
While I am far from perfect and strongly believe in balance and quality of life more than being strict ALL the time, I am becoming more and more aware of little changes I can make. As a mom, it’s tough because my girls are surrounded by junk food and candy, at their sports games and at birthday parties. I can only ward it off so much. My goal is to regulate as much as possible and let the rest go. Importantly, I want to educate them while they’re young, as I have tried to do since they were teeny tiny so that hopefully one day, they will care too.
While I could go on and on about what I have picked up, lets consult an expert! Meet Niki Connor, Health & Nutrition Counselor and Personal Chef specializing in creating dishes to fit her client’s needs from both a taste and a health perspective. I had the pleasure of interviewing Niki, who is vegan herself but isn’t afraid to cook a great steak. She is so good at what she does, she doesn’t even need to taste it to know it will be fantastic.
What was your professional path?
Niki: I went to nutrition school and became a certified Health & Nutrition Counselor first, then became a self-taught chef. After working as a personal chef for a little while, I realized how important it is for me to have a formal education, so I went to culinary school. I also furthered my nutrition education in another nutrition school program that focused more on biochemistry, but due to how quickly work picked up after culinary school, I did not complete that program and have been focusing on my career.
How did you evolve to a strict vegan diet?
Niki: It was a process. Not everyone stops cold-turkey, it can be a transition that takes time for some, especially if you want to do it the healthy way. Many people go vegan and don’t do it the healthy way at first, they consume too many fake meats, too much soy and processed foods instead of more fruits and veggies. Some become scrawny and malnourished upon transitioning to veganism because of that, and there are also those who gain weight at first because they don’t know how to feel full without meat and simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, plant-based protein, and healthy fats help you feel full for longer. When you balance them out, you can stay lean and energized without as much effort!
As a Health & Nutrition Counselor, some of my clients simply refuse to conform to a plant-based lifestyle, so I educate and assist them on getting the help they need with nutrient sources that match their lifestyle. If they won’t go vegan, they’ve got to go organic, gluten-free, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild when making food choices. The good thing is that a formal culinary education and being ServSafe educated enables me to cook non-vegan dishes without ever having to taste them. I use my sense of smell, timing, and temperature control, so the client has no idea I didn’t taste it.
I’ve created so many vegan dishes that fool non-vegans into enjoying a plant-based lifestyle and get away with that 90% of the time. Many think “vegan” refers to soy everything or bland foods, but that’s far from the truth! Anyone can make a dish taste better with meat and dairy, but when you know your herbs and spices, you can really bring a dish to life.
Lactose is a hot topic. What is the biggest issue with adults consuming lactose from your perspective?
Niki: I wouldn’t focus solely on lactose, I for one am casein-intolerant, meaning I cannot digest any form of dairy, whether it’s from a cow, goat or sheep. Lactose is the sugar in cow’s milk that most humans cannot tolerate, but they ignore this and continue to do so because of the SAD (Standard American Diet). We are the only species on Earth that consumes milk after infancy, specifically the milk of another animal. It’s been proven that animal dairy doesn’t contain any more calcium than almonds/almond milk, tofu, leafy greens, oats, beans, etc.
Meat. Many diets revolve around lean meat. What is your take on this?
Niki: I understand that we used to have to hunt and harvest our own food in order to survive, and our only way of clothing ourselves was with the use of animal products until our brains grew and trade evolved. But, let’s also remember the fact that back in those days, the entire animal was used, it was not consumed on a regular basis, and we were often traveling 20+ miles at a time – by foot. As trade and farming developed, other forms of nutrients came about, such as a larger variety of plants. Today many humans are consuming red meat on a daily basis, which has proven to contribute to cancer and heart disease.
I advise my carnivore clients who have no interest in going plant-based to only consume red meat once a week at most to improve their health. It takes your body about a week to digest one steak – one steak. Think of all the people consuming that every day, they think that if they still poop on a daily basis, they’re healthy, but that’s far from the truth. We are stressing our bodies out with overconsumption. Overconsumption of chemical crap, sugar, and animal products.
Though there are plenty of studies supporting this information, for anyone interested in a plant-based lifestyle, I highly recommend watching ‘Food Matters’, ‘What The Health’, ‘Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead’, ‘Cowspiracy’, and am eager to see the new documentary ‘Wasted’ which addresses our country’s issues with food waste.
For a vegetarian or vegan, what is your opinion of the best source of protein?
Niki: I get asked this all the time, yet I don’t see any hospitalized protein-deficient vegans. I often have friends and clients tell me “I’m blood type O, so I need more red meat”. Really? There are plenty of healthy vegans with the same blood type. I believe in getting the most vitamins and minerals as you can from food before supplements, and more studies are being released that vegans may get B-12 more easily than meat-eaters. This is due to the fact that much research has been done regarding how much B-12 is destroyed in meat’s cooking process. Some vegan sources of B-12 are certain nutritional yeasts (like Bragg’s), nut milks, organic soy, etc. I personally take a B-complex supplement daily, but otherwise I don’t consume any other supplements unless I’m traveling.
It’s easy for a vegan to get an adequate amount of protein! As someone who has a thyroid condition and only consumes organic soy once or twice a month, I also do what’s called protein-combining. Meat contains complete protein, but if you combine two incomplete plant-based proteins, you can get complete protein in one meal (brown rice and lentils, quinoa and beans, etc).
On vegetables. For me I try and eat a wide variety but often get a stomach ache if I eat too many raw. Are there certain foods that shouldn’t be consumed raw and are better cooked?
Niki: I understand where you’re coming from and if you weren’t raised consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, it’s best to add those foods to your diet at a pace that works best for you. When it comes to fermented foods, I advise clients to try a couple of bites first to see how they react before consuming more. You could give me a bowl of sauerkraut and I’d eat the whole thing, but I’d never recommend that to someone easing into fermented foods.
The same goes for other fruits and vegetables, so you can “hide” more of them in dishes (blend into sauces, etc) and balance what is cooked and what is consumed raw. I’d never recommend for someone to have raw kale on a daily basis, in spite of how healthy it is, it’s too intense to be consumed raw daily. Carrots actually release more beta-carotene when cooked in a high fat (like olive, avocado, and olive oil), and they’re easier to digest that way as well. I almost never consume cauliflower and broccoli raw, that’s just asking for gas and discomfort. Instead, I’ll lightly steam them or cook further. Roasting all of your vegetables would not be beneficial enough, it’s best to go raw, steamed, and leave further cooking for other parts of a meal.
What do you think is the #1 issue with the American diet that causes disease?
A processed lifestyle: Processed foods, processed drinks, chemically laden environments, fast food, factory farming, GMO’s, overconsumption of medications, and overconsumption of alcohol.
Have you had any pushback from the western medicine community when it comes to the holistic approach you take?
Niki: I have, but that is quickly changing! More studies are being released regarding the importance of a plant-based diet and organic, healthy lifestyle to help prevent and heal disease. I understand the marriage of Eastern and Western medicine as well, a surgeon can save your life, but the help of a health and nutrition expert can prevent problems and help you heal from them. There are many conditions that can be reversed through diet alone, it’s incredible! That’s one of the many reasons why I love my job!
Wow, what a powerful woman with big ideas. I am so pleased that Niki took the time to share some of her knowledge with us. When I took a nutrition class, all of the students were tasked with taking note of everything we ate and drank for three days. At the end, the program we used interpreted our levels. I thought I ate a pretty good balance of foods. However, I was greatly deficient in many vitamins and minerals. That is when I realized that I needed to focus less on protein and more on eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day. The more colorful, the better. I also realized that I needed to get rid of the empty food that gave me little nutritional value. For those of you who are not so good in the kitchen, think about something you tried at your favorite restaurant that was super healthy, that you don’t think you could make. Email me, and I’ll give you suggestions on how to prepare it! Health and flavor are both attainable – in the same meal!