Happy New Year and welcome to 2018! Is there a better way to start the year than tackle those new year resolutions with vigor and enthusiasm minus the guilt? I am sure somewhere in the top 5, is a bullet point to eat right and exercise. Well, in the spirit of healthy living, today we are in conversation with Monika Mahajan, a licensed registered dietician and nutritionist, a bariatric dietitian, owner of Appetite for Health and a mom of 3, based out of Maplewood NJ.
AM : Hi Monika! Tell us about your background and what led you to this field?
MM : Hi Anu, this is a wonderful opportunity and I’m looking forward to sharing. My background is in homeopathic medicine and Reiki. Nutrition and exercise were always inherent to me growing up. I think it comes from my dad, an ex-military officer who had a very stringent regimen about both and this interest grew even further when I was in medical school and worked as a model. And once I got into Columbia for a Masters in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, there was no looking back!
AM : Modeling! That sounds extremely interesting! Tell us about your experience in this glamorous world.
MM : It was a lot of fun! I enjoyed working with some celebrities and being in front of the lens. It definitely helps you toughen up and teaches discipline. It’s a whole new perspective on life. Even though the experience was short lived I learned a lot and part of my creativity is because of my exposure to the modeling or acting world.
AM : Most of us shy away at the very mention of the word ‘diet’. Why do you think this attitude is so deep-set within us and what can we do to shake it off?
MM : I personally don’t like it nor believe in a ‘diet’. It is a very superficial way of looking at change. The attitude is so deep-set because historically people consider nutrition and/or exercise only when they gain weight or have some other medical issue or in most cases when something becomes a trend. But people often forget that trends are only temporary. Why wait till the last straw breaks? It’s best to take every trend with a grain of salt and instead focus on a creating a sustainable healthy lifestyle.
AM : There is a common perception that healthy food is bland and boring, and does not satisfy our appetites. Your thoughts?
MM : Just like you said it’s just a perception not a reality mainly because back in the day the word healthy meant cooking foods a certain way and there were limited options. Not anymore though. Times have changed, food and cooking have evolved to another level and so have our taste buds. We can replicate cooking our mom’s palak paneer without adding any cream or ghee and yet make it delicious. Also, with globalization our taste buds are constantly exposed to new tastes and flavors opening more avenues and options.
AM : With so many people nowadays being strict vegetarians and vegans, is it true that we are robbed of critical protein sources in our diet? How can we compensate for the lack of animal protein in our food?
MM : That’s a pretty common myth but let me assure you that as a vegetarian you don’t need to be robbed of protein! As a vegan you just have to be mindful of eating a well-balanced and wide variety of foods to make sure you don’t lack protein. The good news is that we live in a country of plentiful and full of resources! Today many studies have shown that plant protein has lots of health benefits may even be better than animal protein. Having said that, it is also true that unlike animal protein plant protein tends to lack in one or the other essential amino acids. So it’s really imperative to make sure to have you focus on all food groups specially your whole grains like lentils, legumes, beans along with some dairy or equivalent non dairy sources, nuts and seeds.
AM : Do you agree that new fads come, take over for a while, and then leave us to decide whether to adopt them or not? Such as the gluten-free diet or low-carb or the Paleo diet. What is your opinion on keeping up with all the new developments?
MM : Isn’t it great that we have so many creative and bright minds out there? I’m always excited to read and or write about new trends. It’s human nature to want to explore anything new and trendy. But like you said it’s a trend and trends are short lived. Sadly, many are not based on any scientific literature like the apple cider vinegar diet. So one has to be careful, these are exactly the ways you can rob yourself of protein or other nutrients. What lasts long-term though is a lifestyle.
AM : I know many people are not pill-poppers. What is your attitude towards health supplements and protein shakes and the like? Are these essential parts of our diet or can we make up for these in other ways?
MM : They are definitely not essential unless your body lacks in them or if you can’t get them through diet. While protein shakes are not a problem by themselves, consuming them everyday can become one because firstly, they are not real foods, and secondly they tend to have preservatives and chemicals etc.
AM : What do you think of serving sizes in the United States vs. other European and Asian countries? Is it that or the prevalence of so-called junk food the main reason for obesity in kids and adults?
MM : OMG. Yes, our serving sizes at restaurants have gotten out of control! Every dish in most places is supersized for four. It almost feels like we live to eat. Obesity is endemic to our lifestyle, and in danger of becoming a pandemic if not controlled. Junk foods are definitely one of the biggest reasons for it but so are the portion sizes. I see patients everyday who are 300 pounds to 500 pounds and it breaks my heart to see where we are today as a country. As much as individual accountability is needed, the food industry too needs to take some action. It’s the constant bombarding of food advertisements that brainwashes people into thinking that they should be eating that kind of food. The industry spends billions of dollars for campaigns. Food has become a drug. Obesity is also a reason why our health care costs are so high. People have multiple co-morbidities. Anu, it’s just sad.
AM : How do you ensure that kids of this generation develop healthy eating habits?
MM : By creating more awareness around them and that starts at home first and then schools and other places. As a parent we should always try and encourage our children to make healthy choices because this, over time creates an impression in their minds about healthy eating, that further transcends into an association with healthy foods.
AM : What is your take on programs such as WeightWatchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem etc. for losing weight? Are they worth the investment?
MM : One size doesn’t necessarily fit all. So it’s great to have different programs, but like any other diet the key is to stay on it for the long term. This can difficult and can be expensive. Also, most of these programs have very limited vegetarian options.
AM : Michelle Obama unveiled the new system for a balanced diet called MyPlate. How does this differ from the USDA’s food pyramid, and what are the salient points of this structure?
MM : MyPlate is the new food pyramid created by the USDA. Michelle Obama launched the Healthy School challenge to create a healthier school system and a healthier environment in school to fight childhood obesity. She successfully laid down the groundwork at the grass root level with this program across all public schools. MyPlate is a simple way to make anyone understand how he/she needs to eat or what food groups he/she needs to focus on. For example, half of the plate should be filled with veggies and some fruit, ¼ amounts of protein – beans, peas, lean meats, skinless poultry, ¼ amounts of grains mainly whole grains and a small amount of dairy.
AM : Smoothies and shakes are now the in-thing. But I know for many of us, the texture of the food in our mouth matters much. What would you say are the plus and minus points of drinking our food?
MM : Vegetable smoothies with some protein are a great choice if you are on the run. However, you have to be careful guzzling down the fruit smoothies since they tend to be high in fruit juice and blended fruits that is nothing but more juice! And juice in any form adds in calories very quickly. Plus when we have a stomach that is acts like a blender then why not use it?
AM : Do you recommend three big meals a day or several small meals, and why?
MM : Like I said before that one size does not necessarily fit all. However, having said that it is also very important to make sure to not skip any meals or graze because they always lead to overeating. I always individualize my patients/clients and tailor it to there specific needs and taste.
AM : How important is exercise in complementing healthy food habits, be it for weight loss, or increased metabolism or other health issues? Does it have to be cardio, or do other exercise forms such as yoga, pilates etc. help too?
MM : Very important. They are definitely complementary to each other. To live a better and healthier life you really need both. Exercise is crucial to ramp up your metabolism, and maintain good flexibility especially as we get older. Also, when you exercise you tend to always gravitate towards eating healthier foods. After all endorphins come in handy in stimulating moods, helping you make better food choices. Cardio is a great choice for heart health but other exercises are equally good for you especially for flexibility and core strength that is MUST for all most of all the women. Contrary to modern thinking that yoga is a form of exercise, it’s actually not. It is really about connecting your mind and body with your inner spirit. So in today’s stressful world that we all live in we all need it. It’s creating that mental space to be.
AM : What is the role of a healthy diet in maintaining healthy hair, clear skin and strong nails?
MM : Nutrition is a very important aspect of a healthy you. What goes in reflects on every part of your body – nails, skin, and hair. But most people run after trends and that’s why they end up not getting the results. The mantra for a glowing skin and hair is choosing a nutritious food that means eating your phytonutrients and antioxidants not once but every single time.
AM : Top 3 healthiest foods you recommend eating daily? And top 3 foods to avoid at all costs?
MM : There is no such thing as the healthiest foods but yes eating three good tips would be to – eat small, move more, load up on vegetables esp green leafy and fresh fruits. The 3 A’s are –1. Avoid processed carbs like cereal, protein bars, cookies, chips because no matter what they do contain some trans fats. 2. Avoid over consumption of saturated fats because they not only increase your bad cholesterol and triglycerides but also reduce your good cholesterol. 3. Avoid skipping meals since that tends to backfire in the long run.
MM : I’m really fortunate to have worked closely with dietitians such as Ellie Krieger and Keri Glassman. It was a great learning experience. They are both very accomplished dietitians and I see a lot of similarities between us. To begin with they are both entrepreneurs, love to cook and believe it or not Ellie Krieger is an ex-model. But most of all they love to be in front of the lens! Working with them I got to hone my writing skills, think like an entrepreneur and learn about private practice.
AM : Do you support animal rights groups such as PETA, WWF and the Humane Society ?
MM : I’m a pescatarian but I mostly eat vegetarian food and absolutely love it! Currently, I’m not an active member of any of the groups you mentioned. But recently I have been reading a lot about palm oil and how most processed food products contain it because of how cheap it is. What many people aren’t aware of though is the fact that it is leading to massive deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change and most of all animal cruelty. It is a huge concern and I strongly feel about it.
AM : I know you are really into Vedanta. Do you also follow Ayurveda? And what have these taught you about living a healthy life?
MM : I do. I believe that Ayurveda has a lot to offer and can be used as a great resource to treat many maladies. But just like anything you have to go to an authentic resource who is trained and understands this system of medicine. Both Vedanta and Ayurveda talk a lot about how we should focus on eating a healthy, balanced and plant based diet. Vedanta also talks about controlling our mind and sense organs and come to think of it food is mostly about the mind not the body. If we control them both we wouldn’t get carried away by the ambrosial foods or eat big portions or have midnight cravings. Personally, I try to triangulate my knowledge about nutrition, Ayurveda, homeopathy and Vedanta to get the best of all worlds. I start my day with a Surya Namaskar – praying to the Sun God first thing as that gives me energy, boosts my metabolism and helps me think in the right direction.
AM : What are the new food trends we can expect to see in 2018?
MM : Anytime I look at trends it scares me because it means more demand of those foods, and to meet that demand it means overproduction which may lead to more GMO foods or a high carbon foot print. 2018 is interesting since many of the Indian foods and spices are going to available and used widely by the food industry such as 1. Turmeric – because several studies show that turmeric helps reduce inflammation. 2. Moringa/drumsticks – Most Indians use it in sambar or to make chutney etc. But recently, it is gaining popularity in the West since there is more evidence-based research that points to a list of benefits like anti-aging, inflammations, cancer & diabetes. 3. Fermented foods (kimchi, tempeh, lassi, kefir) – There is going to be more production and demand for fermented foods which is great since they act as natural probiotics that aid in digestion.4. Crickets – The focus on protein in huge in the West to say the least, so anytime there is a new source of protein people like to gravitate towards it. Crickets have all 9 essential amino acids and have high amounts of protein and iron. You are going to see pasta made with cricket flour and availability of cricket protein powder.
The three diets that are going to be popular are 1. Plant based diets – there is already a lot of awareness about plant based foods but this is going to only increase with time. 2. Intermittent fasting and 3. The ketogenic diet.
Once again remember it’s a trend so don’t get carried away by it. You may want to still eat seasonal and local.
AM : And in conclusion, what is your mantra to live by? What inspires you to lead the life that you do?
MM : My mantra is to live a balanced life and my background really helps me follow that. My inspiration are my children, friends, family, and patients and last but not the least nature. I love watching the sunrise; it’s the most beautiful creation. And I’m always thankful when I can get my run in with the rising sun!
Thank you Monika, and we wish you and everyone a healthy start to 2018!