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Food as Medicine

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others.

So, the topic is food as medicine. And I have today a company called Food Hak, which is the first company that takes clinical research in food and brings it to life. And we’re chatting with the founder, Sakshi Chabra Mital. She has a background in biotech. She’s worked at Pfizer, doing clinical trials. Then she went on to do an MBA, after which she joined SoftBank and she was investing in health and food sciences there. And now she set up the Food Hak. Why food as medicine? Tell me your thoughts behind starting Food Hak.

Sakshi Chabra Mittal: I have a biotech background. Most recently,  I was investing in healthcare. I’ve looked at many diseases and the sort of curative solutions around it. And for a lot of the diseases, actually, for most of them, there was always a link between food. But I wouldn’t necessarily hear the doctors talk about food as curative medicine unless something very wrong happened. 

AB: Okay.

SCM: Plus, I have two kids and during my first pregnancy, I developed a rare liver breakdown called obstetric cholestasis, which is very stressful for a new mom because if you leave the baby in too long, it can cause stillbirth. And if you take the baby out too soon, you deal with premature-related defects for a long time. Yeah, your liver function, you keep on doing these blood tests multiple times in a day and your LFTs liver function tests are like shooting through the roof and it causes a lot of anxiety. And apparently, it comes back with a vengeance the second time around, as it comes back much earlier in the pregnancy. So, the baby is even more premature and it’s a lot harder to control. After my first pregnancy is when I kind of went into the clinical science of OC and pregnancy and a woman’s body. I actually then discovered a lot of clinical data on food that shows that food can be your medicine, it can help you avoid diseases, prevent diseases, and reverse diseases. But I could never order anything on delivery with the principles that I had come up with when I was trying to change the food. So, I realized the food that we are surrounded by is wrong. And I just thought that it’s basically leading people into one direction, which is that of chronic diseases without us having any control over this. So yeah, so I changed my food and during the second pregnancy, OC never came back. Doctors kept on doing the tests. The only difference between the two pregnancies was that I was following these five or six principles and I was on this anti-inflammatory diet and basically managed to avoid obstetric cholestasis.

AB: That’s magnificent. I mean, that is incredible. Tell me a bit about the clinical research that you talk about, that you’re doing at Food Hak.

SCM: I realized that I was the bottleneck. I had to read clinical research. And there are a lot, of about 30,000 papers that come out every year, and not all of them are good and solid research. They’re funded by public versus private, sometimes a very small group of people. And so, I had to kind of sit there, sift through this research, and then kind of create these recipes. And it was going to be a very difficult task for me to scale. 

AB: Okay.

SCM: I hired a bunch of engineers who would, by using natural language processing and machine learning, look at all this clinical research, clean it up, rank it, and understand ingredient disease links. We have a lot of medical doctors that we work with and we ask them to kind of rate the score of these papers to cross-validate and keep improving this technology engine. And then you take those ingredients and you go to your chefs and you create all kinds of cuisines around it, right? And then you take that dish, because that dish could have medicinal properties, but it could be very high in fats. So, it goes back into another software which helps us understand. Maybe let’s reduce the coconut milk by 30%, 20%. And so, at the end of it, you end up getting a personalized dish, which could be disease targeted or does not have to be disease targeted, but it has superfoods that have medicinal properties. It’s delicious. It’s like your favorite Thai green curry or something. And our belief is that if you consistently eat like this a few times a week, but you show consistency in doing that, for someone like me, luckily, I don’t suffer from any medical illnesses. For me, I know I can avoid that cardiovascular disease that’s waiting around the corner for me ten years later.

AB: So, tell me, based on your scientific research, what are the three most important findings that you’ve implemented at Food Hak?

SCM: I think the first one was consistency. I know this is like a very obvious one, but just like, you pop a pill and you don’t expect the next day your cholesterol to come down, just like you exercise one day and you don’t get your six pack the next day, it requires consistency. Similarly, if you want to experience the effects of food, you have to be consistent at it. And consistency doesn’t mean twenty-four, seven, right? You can decide. It could be three days, four days, five days of the week. You commit to eating a certain way with certain principles, right? And the other two days, life is a balance. So, I think consistency, which is why we’ve launched a subscription model, is that once you’ve decided how much you want to give to this food every week, you should stick to it. You can change the foods you want, but that’s why it’s a subscription. I think the second big learning was inflammation is the root cause of 90% of all diseases, literally. And lots of things can cause inflammation. But a big factor is food, right?

AB: Yes.

SCM: So, one should be eating in an anti-inflammatory way, which is why we are built on those principles where we avoid using any foods that have inflammatory properties and we end up doing a lot of ingredient swaps to make the dish anti-inflammatory. I think the last big learning for me was sugars. And I think, everybody kind of knows about it, but that really plays with your organs a lot. In your pancreas, the more kind of sugar you have, the glycemic response in your body. Your pancreas is in an overdrive and organs constantly working in overdrive is where they stop working properly and that’s when you develop these chronic lifelong diseases. Right? So, avoiding refined sugars we saw was a big link. I mean, there’s a bunch of other stuff, but yeah, I would say these are the three big learnings.

AB: So, then give us some guiding principles on what food and food types would you say are the healthiest. Like you said, sugar is a big no no.

SCM: Yeah.

AB: What would you say are things that people should try and stick to?

SCM: A big inflammatory marker is dairy. I would think it’s probably the biggest inflammatory marker. So, avoid dairy these days. You have amazing alternatives if you have the time and you’re fortunate enough. If you can make your own kind of nut milks at home, I think there’s nothing like it. Be wary of some of the dairy milk on the market because a lot of them are made up of sugar and canola oil. Reducing or avoid your meat intake a lot. There is a very strong correlation we are seeing in the studies between meat and cancer like meat when it’s cooked. And this is not just red meat, red meat for sure. My thesis is like what the cigarette industry went through in the 19, whatever it was in the 90s or 80s where they were saying whatever they wanted to in their advertising, and suddenly the government stepped in and said no. Cigarette (companies) used to advertise saying we help you with weight loss. So, suddenly everybody, yeah, that was their advertising, appetite suppressant. And the government stepped in saying “no, start adding pictures of lungs and showing people the bad impact it can have on your body”. I think processed red meat will be my thesis, this is my hunch. It will go through something similar because processed red meat has super high correlations, almost causation with cancer. And I think generally eating meat has also shown these kinds of correlations. So, I would say reduce that, avoid it wherever possible, and introduce 30 plants. The guiding principle should always be in a week. Introduce 30 plants. Try and eat 30 plants. And then within plants, actually, there are certain families of vegetables that are very good for you. And there are certain things that can be inflammatory. For example, we don’t use any eggplants or aubergines. They’re almost toxic. I know they’re delicious, but try to avoid that. Tomatoes, potatoes, and nightshades can be inflammatory or they can have digestive issues; like cauliflower can cause bloating, even. Look at the beans that you’re eating. The larger the bean, the more bloaty and inflammatory it is. So, just be mindful of even the plant-based, whole plant-based food, which ones you want to double down on, and which ones you want to avoid. Like I would double down on your family of courgettes. Button-up squash. We’ve got bottle gourd in India. Bitter gourd is amazing for diabetics, carrots, I would like to have more of the courgettes and the carrots and the spinach and squashes and have less of the nightshades.

AB: I know, your food has helped you and that’s what encouraged you to start Food Hak. Can you give me an example of when your food has helped someone else?

SCM: Actually, recently we got introduced to this really lovely human being. She’s actually now a friend. Her name is Feryna Wazheir. She’s an actress, a Bollywood actress. But a couple of years ago, she developed a form of an autoimmune disease that causes mast cell activation. And as a result, it shows up on her skin. Like, her skin becomes very red, inflamed, and swollen. And acting is her career, her face is her career, right? So, her career has kind of been on a bit of a halt over the last couple of years. And she’s been seeing lots and lots of doctors, and they’ve put her on really strong steroids and nobody wants to be on. She’s young, she’s got all this energy, she’s got this positive attitude toward life and she’s beautiful, the last thing you want to do is be on these really strong steroids. We obviously understood all that was going on. We had our medical professionals involved as well. And so, we put her on this very strict two-week detox and it was broken up into two parts. The first detox, the first part was four days of nothing but khichdi every day. khichdi is made up of red lentils, bone beans, rice, turmeric, garlic, ginger, and fennel seeds, just keep it very simple, a bit of salt and one vegetable was added to it. And this was, even though it’s not technically a mono diet, but it is very similar to a mono diet. Right?

AB: Yes. In Ayurveda they consider it a mono food, so to say.

SCM: Yes, exactly. So, we put her on that for four days. So, on day two, she obviously felt a little low in energy, because it’s a shock to your system. No tea, no coffee. On day three, she felt her energy levels were back. She was waking up at, like 5:30, doing her yoga. More importantly, by day three, her skin had gone back to normal, like it was two years ago. And when she uses steroids, it takes her about ten days. I didn’t expect the effect to be this powerful, but it shows you how powerful food is as a medicine when taken appropriately in the right amounts, in a well-educated way, compared to drugs.

AB: I mean, I’ve seen response to things, but day three sounds absolutely amazing, actually.

SCM: And then, it was a weekend, so we introduced a few other foods from Food Hak, like brownies, soup, something different from a khichdi. And then Monday, again, she was back on that Monday to Friday, khichdi diet.

AB: I mean, you had said that sugar is really, really bad for you. How do you work with the sugar and how do you work with the glycemic index there?

SCM: Yeah, so that’s a good point. I mean, we don’t use any refined sugars. We use more plant-based natural sugars. But these are not for your everyday, but these are to replace those times when you feel indulgent. When you feel like having a brownie, I’d rather you have this brownie because it has no white flour. It’s made up of millet flour. Millets have actually shown to help with diabetes.

AB: Wow.

SCM: It’s got very clean ingredients. It’s still low-cal. When you eat it, it feels like the real thing. So, your craving is gone.  Right. And you don’t go for that sugar, sort of white flour-based market brownie. So, these are kind of more indulgences. Yeah. So we sent her these things because she has a sweet tooth. And after four days she had done so well, the doctor thought that, let’s start introducing other things into her diet and then put her back on khichdi again, just to make sure her gut was completely cleansed. So, that was the whole point of a khichdi; any parasites in your stomach a very, very strong gut cleanse, right? Because that is what’s linked with autoimmune and mast cell activation. The result was obviously the attack had been reversed very quickly. It was under control. But I think she had sort of learned this 80-20 or 90-10 rule in life.  Okay. But she told me that it’s all under control because I know how to eat, like, 90% of the time, and the 10% when I go out, I don’t want to deprive myself of when all my friends are eating and drinking. And so that’s the kind of balance she found.

AB: That’s a great story, but tell me, is it meant to replace the food that you cook at home?

SCM: It just depends, right? So, like, you eat three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You’re going to cook a few times. But you do get tired, right? You do want a bit of a change; you feel a bit lazy. Life got in the way. So, our premise is built on the fact that after eating it, it’s still that complicated maku-tofu, which, I mean, let’s be honest, who can make maku-tofu at home? But it’s still that maku-tofu. But it’s vegan and it’s got superfoods like ginseng. It works on your energy and well-being, so it’s supposed to supplement you with your cooking. It’s supposed to replace the unhealthy take-outs, those people who don’t cook. There are different demographics of people, right? I feel like the younger generation now are so focused on the planet and their health, and they’re not really cook-friendly because they’ve all got, like, these two gigs. They’ve got a full-time job, they’ve got a side hustle and a social life and they earn well working in tech companies or whatever. For them, this is a perfect solution. They don’t have to go grocery shopping. It’s priced at the market. It’s not like we didn’t want to make it a premium product, we want the masses to be able to aspire to it, access it, and be able to afford it. So, it just depends on which demographic you fall under. A lot of our families, like mothers, want their kids to eat veggies. A big problem that customers have in the market is that it is very difficult to find vegan, vegetarian, plant-based food that has lots of veggies as we have. Every dish has like five vegetables.

AB: And is it as healthy as home food?

SCM: It’s healthier than home food. These are data-driven recipes, right? Like, we want them to be low-cal, we want them to be anti-inflammatory, low glycemic index, free from gluten, free from refined sugar, and free from dairy, right? Very difficult to get all these six characteristics in a home-cooked meal. You’ll be surprised, like, even like, we’re Indian, you make like a vegetable Indian style. You’ll be surprised at how many calories there are in that vegetable and what is the nutrient content of that dish because sometimes you end up overcooking it. The more you cook the food, the more nutrition you lose, right? The vitamins, the small molecules evaporate away. So, I would say these are definitely healthier than restaurants or home-cooking.

AB: Sakshi, in this chat, we always try to give people some tools and techniques that they can take back. We have a global audience. I know you’re currently only in the UK. Can you give us some tools and techniques that people can take back to so that they can lead healthier lives?

SCM: So, let’s try and replace things, right? So, we are free from dairy, right? For those of us who eat cottage cheese paneer, you could replace that with tofu. It has very good protein content, it’s a great source of plant protein. I think this whole soy-estrogen link is very controversial. I would just take that with a pinch of salt. That’s an example, again, where very large companies, they built these very large empires around you eating dairy and they funded these clinical trials. So, I would just take that with a grain of salt. So, yeah, let’s talk about ingredient swaps. If you like tomatoes and you like a Mediterranean style thing, let’s swap them out with maybe cherry tomatoes. Tomatoes are quite acidic.

AB: Okay. So, I didn’t know that cherry tomatoes are less acidic.

SCM: They’re sweeter. They’re better than tomatoes. I would swap out the potatoes for sweet potatoes. I would avoid aubergines. Right now, gluten is a big one. You won’t find a lot of clinical studies showing that gluten has been associated with X, Y, and Z. But if you speak to doctors who are highly experienced, who spent their time there, for example, let’s say pregnancy, for example, right? So, my doctor, she’s a very well-known obstetrician. She spent her entire life, and she’s in her sixties and seventies now. She spent her entire life-giving birth to kids for patients. And she tells you that there is a big difference between the uterus lining of women who eat gluten and those who don’t eat gluten. The walls are a lot softer when you’re gluten-free, so it makes it a lot easier for the baby to come out. I would avoid gluten. It’s a protein that we don’t necessarily digest very well and it can cause a lot of issues.  Yeah, how can you avoid gluten? Rice flour, buckwheat, millet, and gram flour, there are so many different ways, right? But yeah, if you’re buying bread, just buy the gluten-free rather than the normal. Let’s be a little bit more proactive about it, sugar-free. Like, I would avoid walking into bakeries and trying to find something to eat. Just give it up. There’s no point. Get your coffee and go somewhere healthier to pick up a snack with the coffee. The meat part, I would repeat, just try and make a conscious effort to reduce that because there is a lot of research that’s linking meat with issues, with the kidney, and with cancer.

AB: What is your view on the meat substitute?

SCM: I think they’re highly processed. They have very high levels of sodium, and I would not necessarily think of them as healthy. If you want burgers, make them out of vegetables. Very easy to do with mushrooms, and very easy to do with soy. And then you can add a bunch of grated veg, bind it with gram flour, rice flour, whatever it is, I wouldn’t go for the meat substitutes. Rather go for the real stuff then.. it’s highly processed.

AB: A lot of us would want to know any weight loss tips?

SCM: Weight loss tips? I think soups work really well. Soups are very low-cal. At least our soups are very low-cal. They come in a big bag of 600 grams. A cup size is about 300 grams. And it just also reduces if you have it in a cup for me, psychologically, also reduces the need to have tea and coffee because you’re sipping through it. Especially, in winter, you can have two of those cups and it will just be hardly like 100-something calories. I think, soups are great for that, especially at night. Have an early dinner. I think, intermittent fasting is really good. There’s actually research showing that intermittent fasting really helps with autophagy, which is linked with longevity. How do you live longer? So, if you can do 16-8 fast, like skip breakfast in the morning, try and push your lunch to as late as you can. Ayurveda says, you should only really be eating this much, right? So, you find that after fasting, you’re not able to eat that much anyway. So, that’s a good way of keeping your stomach from expanding.

AB: Sakshi, that was such an amazing chat. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life.