She explains the importance of healthy eating to prevent illness and shares her favorite dessert recipe.
Christina’s love affair with food began at a young age when she spent many happy hours cooking with her mother, who centered family life in her Italian kitchen. “My mom was always so happy while she was cooking. It was the place where the whole family gathered, and it was a place I knew great joy came from,” she remembers.
That joy might have been the very thing that prepared Christina to be open minded about the healing power of food, because she would need it. At age 26, she was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. By the time her illness was identified, the cancer had already advanced to an acute stage. Her doctors gave her little reason to have hope for the effectiveness of conventional medical therapies and told her she had only months to live. Initially, she was discouraged and uncertain. Then a co-worker introduced her to Robert Pirello, a whole foods advocate who helped her adapt her lifestyle and diet based on whole, unprocessed food. With love, dedication and death-defying discipline, Christina overcame the odds, and in the process developed an expertise in cooking with whole foods. After just two months of eating beans, grains and vegetables, her doctors noticed a significant improvement in her condition. In fourteen months, her cancer was gone.
From that time, she was utterly convinced of the close relationship between diet and health. From that time, she was utterly convinced of the close relationship between diet and health. She knew her life’s calling was to help others discover the importance of this relationship in their own lives. To that end, she studied and became an expert in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and acupuncture and earned a conventional Master’s Degree in Nutrition. Today, almost 29 years later, Christina is a glowing example and inspiration on the power
that our food choices have on our overall health and wellbeing.
Beaux Sejours had the good fortune to sit down with Christina and here is what she had to say.
What types of foods are considered whole foods?
Ah, whole foods. We get so confused by it, because marketing tells what we want to hear, rather than the truth. Whole foods are unprocessed and in their natural state without additives, preservatives, colors, emulsifiers or anything Mother Nature would not add to food. Whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, barley, millet; beans like lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans; all vegetables and fruits quality as whole foods. If animal food is on the menu, we would consider it whole food if it is naturally produced, grass-fed, naturally grazed, humanely and sustainably raised; no hormones, steroids or antibiotics added. Whole foods are not breads and flour products, although these foods have a place in a whole foods diet. Good quality fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, avocadoes, nuts, seeds are all part of a whole foods diet.
Is it true once you are eating whole foods there isn’t a need for a lot of seasoning as you really can appreciate the flavor of the food?
Well, it’s not so much that you don’t need seasoning as much as it is that fresh foods can stand on their own. They need little adornment to shine. So simple cooking methods and delicate seasoning just enhances the natural sweetness and intensity of flavor. My mother used to say that the quality of your ingredients determined how hard it would be to make a delicious meal. The better and fresher the ingredients, the easier it is to make a tasty dish.
Do you have a few pointers as to transitioning from your old diet to a whole food diet?
It’s a good question. If you become inspired to change your diet, you want to run home and donate everything in your pantry to a shelter. But hold on! My advice is to take it slow. Where I have seen people have the most success is to remove one item from their pantry (diet) that they know does not serve their health and replace it with one item they know does serve health. Each week, repeat this process. In a couple of months, you have a new pantry, a new way of cooking and eating…and are well on your path to health. I also advise people to try a new fruit or vegetable each week. Do a search for recipes using it and give it a go. You expand your palate, your culinary horizons and you are nourished in a new way.
What are the health benefits of avocado oil and what are your thoughts on coconut oil?
Well, not only is avocado a high heat cooking oil, with a mild, buttery flavor, but it serves our health as well. A large body of scientific evidence supports a move from the traditional Western diet, rich in saturated fat and sugars, to one similar to that consumed in the Mediterranean area, as being more healthful. Avocado oil has a composition closely resembling olive oil and can be directly substituted for it in a healthful cuisine. Avocado oil is very rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (72%) and extremely low in saturated fat. It also contains no cholesterol. Studies show that monounsaturated fats can actually aid in lowering bad cholesterol. It’s a win-win-win…delicious, can be used at high heat and good for us.
For me, the jury is out on coconut oil. I know that there has been some very promising research being done on its effect in alleviating symptoms in conditions like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other nervous system disorders, as well as promising research with conditions like eczema.
It browns beautifully; has an incredibly high smoke point, but has a distinctive flavor that can alter a dish.
My big issue is that it’s a saturated fat and even though it’s from a plant and is a medium chain saturated fat, it’s still a saturated fat and I can’t think of many of us who need more of that in our diet.
Finally, I worry about the ‘footprint’ of coconut oil, from the way it’s produced to the shipping impact. Of course, the same could be said about imported oils, I suppose.
So, as I said, the jury is out for me.
Can agave syrup be substituted for sugar in baking?
I am not a fan of agave syrup, to be truthful. It has a very high concentration of fructose which has a serious impact on the liver’s ability to metabolize our macronutrients (fat, protein and carbs). I think there are better choices. I am a fan of brown rice syrup, which is a fermented glucose-based liquid sweetener with a delicate butterscotch flavor. Being glucose-based, it is the fuel our bodies crave.
For granular sweeteners I use a sustainably produced coconut sugar made from the sap of the coconut tree. With a flavor similar to brown sugar, it works as a one to one substitute for sugar in any recipe.
For people who need a no-calorie sweetener option or for people with diabetes, I use stevia.
Do you have a favorite food?
That’s like asking a mother if she has a favorite child! I guess I could give you my top five favorites; they are in no particular order, except number one.
- Dark chocolate
- Whole grain bread
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Pasta…any kind in any recipe
- Bitter greens like endive, arugula and escarole Please explain the effects of GMO on the body (I am so against GMO)
- We activists would like to say that the effects of GMO’s on the body are clear and proven, but they are not. Biotech giants like Monsanto refuse to allow any testing outside the testing they have done internally (sort of the like the inmates running the asylum) so we have no way of truly proving the effects.
That said, we are living in a huge experiment with no one knowing the long-term effects of GMOs on humans or on the planet. Are they safe? Who knows?
I can tell you that research is showing a distinct correlation between the rise of the use of GMOs with the rise in specific digestive disorders in humans, like leaky gut syndrome, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies and even autism.
All of this new information has stemmed from the use of Round Up in, particularly corn products. Glyphosate, the main ingredient is both an herbicide and pesticide and is now being shown to cause digestive distress in humans from micro tears it causes in cell walls.
In the end, biotech giants will tell us that GMOs are safe for humans; help us produce more food; help us produce more nutrient-dense foods; help farmers to use less volume of pesticides; and can go a long way to solving world hunger. Not only have none of these claims been proven, but in particular, the use of pesticides has increased dramatically since the advent of GMOs.
The question is simple. If GMOs are safe for humans and do as much good as claimed, then why do the biotech companies like Monsanto fight tooth and nail to prevent them from being listed on food labels? If they were safe and good for us, I would gladly put them on my label. In fact, I would go out of my way to let people know my food had GMOs in it. And yet, they fight and fight against our right to know what is in our food.
It’s a question we should all be asking.
The old saying “You are what you eat.” Certain foods contribute to inflammation in the body which ultimately leads to disease. What top 5 foods do you consider anti-inflammatory?
I love this question. Almost any plant-based food will serve the body in an anti-inflammatory way. It’s rare that a plant-based food will cause inflammation. Even sugar, which is a problem for us, is not inflammatory by nature, but it has become a problem because of the volume we consume. But here are my top five anti-inflammatory foods…in this order:
- Green head cabbage (used topically to relieve bruises, burns and other inflammation, eaten often cabbage can reduce inflammation better than just about anything.
- Brown rice (with a unique ability to balance the pH of the body, regulate moisture and help control sugar cravings, brown rice is the great equalizer)
- Berries (with their rich anti-oxidant concentrations, high fiber and very low sugar concentrations, berries give us moisture, reduce inflammation)
- Extra virgin olive oil (the ultimate in traditional anti-inflammatory foods, this monounsaturated provides us with anti-inflammatory ingredients, polyphenols and heart healthy compounds)
- chia seeds (nature’s perfect food, these tiny seeds provide us with just about every nutrient we need, from macronutrients like protein to minerals, vitamins and essential fatty acids, in particular omega-3 which lands these seeds on my top 5 list)
If you were having a dinner party what would be a typical meal you would prepare?
Well, that depends on who is coming to dinner…and the season! But let’s say that I am cooking for the former President, Bill Clinton (my dream dinner guest). Let’s say it’s summer and we will be dining in my tiny city garden. The mood is set now.
I’d begin the meal with a richly spicy white bean dip, laced through with roasted cherry tomatoes, served with toasted whole grain bread. Accompanied by a crisp sparkling white wine, like Prosecco, it would set the tone for dinner.
Our first course would be a brothy minestra, a light Italian vegetable soup, garnished with fresh basil and lemon zest.
The main course would be a series of dishes that combine to make a perfectly balanced meal. It would include a farro salad as our whole grain; cannellini beans with tomatoes and basil as our protein; sautéed bitter greens with hot chili peppers to keep us cool; and we would finish the meal with a salad of bitter greens like endive and arugula with grapefruit sections and a crisp citrus dressing.
Dessert would be homemade biscotti with a homemade vegan mocha gelato made from almond milk.
In the end, this looks like the menu I would make for any summer feast, Bill Clinton or not. But I can dream…
Would please share a recipe with us?
Chocolate Raspberry Almond Biscotti
These plant-based versions of the Italian classic cookie are just as crisp, just as crunchy and delicate as the egg and sugar-laden classics. The secret? Chia seeds which act like eggs. And the benefit of their nutrient density. So does this mean these cookies are super food treats? You bet it does. Enjoy!
Makes 30-36 cookies
1 teaspoon chia seeds, soaked in 3 tablespoons water for 30 minutes (at least)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) vegan butter substitute, softened
3 tablespoons coconut sugar
½ cup brown rice syrup, raspberry flavored (I prefer Suzanne’s Specialties Raspberry Rice Nectar)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Pinch sea salt
½ cup slivered almonds
¾ cup freeze-dried raspberries (unsweetened)
1 cup non-dairy, dark chocolate chips or chunks