Planting the seed

Photos: Linda Robertson
Jono Drew and Anna DeMello at the Healthy and Climate Friendly Food Choices workshop held in Dunedin recently. PHOTOS: LINDA ROBERTSON
An idea to start a consultancy half a world away is developing into a mission to change the way people think and eat for nutritionist Anna DeMello. She tells Rebecca Fox about her plant-based eating initiative.

Eating a more plant-based diet lowers the risk of chronic disease and helps the environment, nutritionist Anna DeMello says.

DeMello, who qualified as a dietitian in her home country of Canada, and her partner Jono Drew, a medical student at the University of Otago, are on a mission to educate people about the benefits of a plant-based diet.

The pair are dedicated plant-based eaters, otherwise known as vegans, but encourage people to gradually integrate more plant-based eating into their diet.

''The information is valid and strong, but it is not out there enough or at all.''

DeMello moved to Dunedin 18 months ago and set up Plant-based Living Initiative as a one-on-one nutrition consultancy.

However, her real passion is group education and recently the pair held a two-part workshop in Dunedin on healthy and climate-friendly food choices.

Through group education, DeMello hopes to get across that by eating less meat and more plant-based foods people reduce their risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancer and heart problems.

A 2016 study that followed more than 200,000 US adults for more than 20 years found that eating a diet high in plant foods was associated with a 20% lower risk of diabetes compared with individuals eating a diet low in plant foods.

While people often thought their genetic heritage predisposed them to such diseases people could still make choices to minimise the risk, DeMello says.

''It's making that step in the right direction.''

As part of his studies, Drew has investigated the co-benefits, in relation to climate change mitigation and population health, of ‍‍‍plant-based eating patterns with the view to setting new policy guidelines.

''He looked at the impact of all kinds of foods commonly eaten in New Zealand and modelled a sustainable eating pattern which looks more and more plant-based.''

That means basing a diet around unprocessed vegetables and legumes with fruit, nuts and seeds (in moderation) and herbs and spices.

Small amounts of lean, mostly white, protein, dairy and grains can be added.

Recent publicity around ''fake'' or ''synthetic'' meat alternatives also muddied the waters. They were highly-processed products although there were environmental benefits to them.

''Healthwise there is no good reason to consume them.''

Comments that a plant-based diet is expensive is challenged by DeMello, who says if people buy seasonal vegetables and use canned or frozen alongside buying legumes, such as peas, beans and lentils, in bulk it is affordable.

''Using legumes as your protein source does make your grocery bills affordable.''

She believed healthy people could get enough minerals and vitamins from the vegetables and legumes they ate.

DeMello hopes to branch out into talks for businesses and organisations to help them reduce illness in their workplaces.

''I'd especially like to talk to people in the policy-making realm as there is not a lot of education on it.''

Organisations needed to be more accountable for the food they bought and made available to people, she says.

Fast-food companies are noting the increasing popularity of vegan choices with Dominos announcing it will offer a vegan cheese option for a limited time to see what demand is like. Competitor Hells Pizza already offers the option. Both use a vegan cheese from Angel Food in Auckland.

Even travel companies are jumping on the vegan wagon, with Intrepid offering three new trips for 2019 dubbed Vegan Food Adventures. The trips - to India, Thailand and Italy - are aimed at culinary-minded travellers who are already on a vegan diet or who would like to try it out.

Pumpkin chickpea curry

Serves 2

2-3 cups pumpkin (chopped)
1-2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
2-3 whole tomatoes
1¼ cups corn kernels
2 cups chickpeas (canned, or dried beans that have been soaked and boiled to soften)
2 Tbsp curry powder
1 Tbsp cumin
1 Tbsp garam masala
1 tsp coriander
pinch of salt

Cook the pumpkin separately first, by removing the skin and chopping into medium-sized chunks, then boiling for about 10 minutes.

Add a thin layer of water to the bottom of a non-stick pot, and saute the onion, tomato, and spices first for about 5 minutes. Add corn kernels and chickpeas and cover pot with a lid.

Turn the heat to medium and allow to sit for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. (You may wish to add small amounts of water as needed, to keep the bottom of the pan moist.)

Drain the cooked pumpkin and mix this into the pot with the rest of the ingredients, turning the heat to low and allowing all ingredients to sit for 5 more minutes.

If desired, serve over 1-2 cups of cooked whole grain rice or quinoa


Blackbean quinoa pilaf

Serves 2

1-2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
1 Tbsp garlic paste
1 whole carrot, grated
2 cups blackbeans (canned, or dried beans that have been soaked and boiled to soften)
1½ cups quinoa
water (about 2 cups)
3-4 Tbsp cranberries
30ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp cumin
1 tsp coriander seeds
⅓ tsp ground chilli (or more, if spice is desired)
½ tsp black pepper a pinch of salt

Add a thin layer of water to the bottom of a non-stick pot, and saute onion, garlic, lemon, and all spices on medium/high heat for about 5-7 minutes.

Add in carrot, blackbeans, and cranberries and let simmer on medium heat for 5 minutes.

Add in quinoa and water and cover pot with a tight lid.

Turn heat to low and let simmer until all water has evaporated (about 15-20 minutes). Do not mix or turn ingredients during this time.

Taste and add additional spices if required. Toss and serve!


They don't look very healthy do they


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