NHS doctor Rupy Aujla of The Doctor's Kitchen talks to us about why a Mediterranean diet is best, what to eat if you’re recovering from long COVID and how regularly he really has meat, alcohol and pizza. Hint: it’s not often.
It’s not every day we look to doctors for cooking advice. Everyone knows the basis of delicious food is copious quantities of fat, sugar and salt. But with everything that has happened in the last year, with COVID-19 and the physical and mental implications of not being able to go out much, we were interested to know how we could be eating in a way that better supports our immune system and overall health.
The story of how Dr Rupy started writing cookbooks is a unique one. In 2009 he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition where your heart beats fast and irregularly. However, he managed to make a recovery – which he believes was down to improving his lifestyle. Now he’s helping patients and other people do the same through evidence-based advice about nutrition.
On his website you’ll find podcasts on a range of health-related topics including ADHD, brain health and stress, as well as lots of quick and easy, veg-laden recipes. You can also find more detailed information in his books: The Doctor’s Kitchen, Eat to Beat Illness and Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1.
We caught up with the foodie doctor to get to the bottom of what foods we can eat to improve physical and mental health, how he got into creating recipes in the first place and what he eats on an average day.
READ MORE: Dr Rupy's cashew curry recipe
What are your childhood food memories?
I come from a really foodie family. My mum used to cook a whole bunch of different dishes, she was pretty explorative with different cuisines. We would have Italian, American and Thai. In fact, the first dish she taught me how to make was a Thai dish.
We'd always watch cooking channels and Saturday Kitchen is still my favourite programme ever.
How did you get into developing recipes from being a doctor?
When I went to medical school my mum taught me a couple of recipes and I got this reputation as someone who could cook really well. But in reality, I could only cook two or three recipes. I was in a household with a couple of non-medic mates who were always experimenting and using spices, so I learned the amateur ropes there and how to cook on a budget.
I haven't done any courses. My education in food was TV: The Food Channel, Rick Stein shows, Keith Floyd, Saturday Kitchen, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater. I learned a lot from those guys.
My mother had a huge collection of cookbooks as well. So we would use that as a basis and I built up knowledge of what goes with what, and how to experiment.
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What can we eat to improve mental health and why?
I did a whole chapter in my second book Eat to Beat Illness on eating for mental health and why this is an important area of research. The subject matter is called nutritional psychiatry. It's basically how we can eat to prevent mental health issues like low mood, anxiety and even severe depression.
There are studies that demonstrate how we can treat mental health conditions with food as an adjunct to traditional therapy. We have pharmaceuticals, which is the last step, talking therapies and a whole bunch of other tools, and food is a very important one. There are a number of reasons why.
Food can modulate your gut microbes, by giving them different sorts of interesting and diverse pieces of food to consume. They in turn create neurotransmitters, short chain fatty acids and look after the gut lining, and all that tell our brains that everything's going okay, because we have this gut-brain connection.
The other thing about food is that it balances inflammation, again by the gut microbes. Inflammation is a really important process because without inflammation, we wouldn't be able to fight off viruses or signal from cell to cell. However, when inflammation goes out of whack, it can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause irritation to the brain.
We also know that if we have appropriate weight, i.e. we don't have excess adipose tissue, that has an impact on mental wellbeing too.
Felice Jacka, who's one of the pioneers of nutritional psychiatry, tested a modified Mediterranean diet in a series of studies, the most famous of which is called the SMILES trial. It showed that moderately severe depression was improved to the extent where people actually came off medications.
That should be really eye-opening and accelerate the need for more research in this area to examine how this happens and how we can change behaviour to improve mental health.
Can you give a few examples of what a Mediterranean diet looks like?
A Mediterranean diet is characterised by eating mostly plants, lots of fibre, plenty of colours, quality fats and eating whole. So less refined sugars and processed food. Basically, your diet is around 85% to 90% plant-based.
You have lots of beans, lentils, legumes and quality fats, like nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils like olive oil rather than refined oils like vegetable oil. Cooking from scratch is advised. Whole grains are fantastic from a nutritional profile because of the B vitamins and minerals in the husks.
What can we eat to support our immune systems and why?
It feels like I’m constantly repeating myself whenever I talk about these different subjects because it is the same: eating whole, quality fats, lots of fibre, plenty of colours and largely plants.
So you're increasing fibre, which means you're improving your microbes. You're lessening the inflammatory ingredients that you consume in the way of high sugar and refined carbohydrates. You have less inflammatory oils usually found in processed foods. You're eating more whole foods, so reducing your sugar consumption. You're eating a collection of different colours which contain phytonutrients, the plant chemicals that we find in greens like broccoli and rocket.
There's no real hierarchy of food. It's more about variety than types. So I'm certainly not an advocate for saying you should have broccoli every day. The reality is you need broccoli one day, kale another day and tomatoes another day, or whatever is in season.
What can someone eat to help if they’re recovering from COVID-19 or have long COVID?
Long COVID is a complicated topic because there aren't any research studies about recovery. I am doing a podcast around what long COVID is, how it occurs from an immune perspective and the experience of long COVID. We've got a patient who's a medic, a consultant of infectious disease, and the lead doctor of the only nutritional intervention trial going on in the UK. We talk about a particular nutritional intervention: polyphenol-rich foods in supplement form. So, pomegranate, chamomile tea and green tea.
At the moment there isn't anything we can say you should definitely be eating, but it stands to reason we need good gut health. So lots of fibre, probiotics may have an impact, lots of different colours and chlorophyll-rich foods.
Is there a reason you don't include much meat and dairy in your recipes?
We tend to eat too much of those products in our diet which is why I try to entice people to eat in a way that is more evidence-based – by and large a Mediterranean diet.
I don't have anything against people eating meat or fish as long as it's in the appropriate quantities. We're talking once a week, maybe once every two weeks.
I'm no vegetarian or vegan, but most of my recipes are plant-based because we don't eat enough plants.
What do you think of diets like 5:2, fasting, keto and calorie counting?
There are some therapeutic uses of low-carbohydrate diets for people who have type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome. There are some therapy uses for ketogenic diets for chronic pain, chronic migraine and even epilepsy in kids. The 5:2 might be a good strategy for people who are looking to improve their weight over a period of time. But most of these diets are fairly extreme.
What I'm hellbent on is trying to get people to think about their long-term diet, rather than the short-term.
All the research demonstrates you’re more likely to stick to a way of eating if it's conducive to your environment and convenience. So if you can get more plants into your diet every day, regardless of whether you call it a diet, that has a bigger impact.
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What do you eat on a typical day?
I'll give you an idea for today. I had two pieces of wholemeal bread with loads of seeds, chopped avocado and sauerkraut. Just before this, I had kimchi fried rice with chickpeas, rocket and an egg cracked into it – so a rice bowl. Tonight, I'm going to make a masala curry with plantain and roasted veggies.
Are there any foods you absolutely won’t go near?
I stay clear of anything over-processed. I wouldn't even look at processed cheese or foods that don't taste nice and are high sugar.
I love chocolate, but dark chocolate. I'll still have a doughnut, but it has to be a nice doughnut. I still eat pasta at restaurants. Every now and then I'll have a pizza. Maybe once every two weeks. I'm more of a quality guy. There's nothing that is off the menu.
I don't really drink. I'm prone to getting hangovers the next day, even if I have two or three drinks and I'm busy with so many things I need to be on top. I don't feel like it fits into my lifestyle anymore.
READ MORE: Dr Rupy's almond chicken curry recipe
Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1 by Dr Rupy Aujla (Harper Thorsons) is £16.99. Find Dr Rupy on Instagram @doctors_kitchen.
Lead image is by Andrew Burton.
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