What is your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is simple: you can love your food and love your health at the same time! This means everyone can find some foods that they adore that are also healthy. Food is intimate, it tells us about who we are, our childhood, our family, our community and our culture. By looking at the food traditions you most relate to, you can identify healthy items to eat for your enjoyment and health. Most of those healthy items are going to be whole, plant-based foods.
How were you first introduced to the power of plants?
I grew up eating both Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, and they use plant-based foods as a staple for cooking. I always knew plants contained important micronutrients and fiber, but it wasn’t until I began researching the ability of foods to activate our body’s hardwired health defense systems about ten years ago that I realized plant-based foods possess natural bioactive chemicals that activate our defenses, which help us repel disease. I also discovered about five years ago the importance of dietary fiber as a pre-biotic, meaning it feeds our healthy gut bacteria. A healthy gut means a healthy brain and metabolism, and good gut health also lowers inflammation in our body.
Your book, Eat to Beat Disease, dives into our natural defense systems, how to activate them and why they are so important. Can you share a bit about this?
Our health is not just the absence of disease. Health is the result of our body’s hardwired health defense systems that are formed when we were in our mother’s womb. These defenses are firing on all cylinders to protect our health from the day we are born to our very last breath. There are five health defense systems: 1) angiogenesis (our circulation); 2) our stem cells (regenerative system); 3) our microbiome; 4) our DNA protective system; and 5) our immune system. When these health defenses weaken, we become more vulnerable to illness. When we eat foods that support and strengthen these health defenses, our bodies are able to better resist disease.
How do you describe health?
To me, good health is not just a strong body, but also a strong brain and good emotional health. Health and wellbeing are both physical and a state of mind.
As you know, our love for green tea is mutual. What are some of the benefits of drinking green tea?
Green tea is the second most popular beverage in the world, after drinking water. Its benefits come from polyphenols present in the leaves that dissolve into hot water when we brew green tea. By drinking these polyphenols, we can gain a variety of health benefits that have been studied by researchers. For example, studies have shown that people who drink more green tea have a lower risk of certain cancer, such as lung, colon and even breast cancer. Other studies have shown an association between drinking green tea and a lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia. In addition, consuming green tea has been shown to improve our metabolism and lower blood pressure and anxiety.
Are the studies specific to a certain type of green tea? Where does matcha come in?
Most green teas studied are commercially available Chinese and Japanese green teas. I have done studies with Japanese sencha and Chinese jasmine tea and found they can have different effects when it comes to cancer starving activity. Combining the two led to even more beneficial activity.
Matcha is a special type of green tea in which the leaves of tea grown in shade are completely ground into a fine powder which is then dissolved in hot water. This increases the potency of the tea, both in terms of taste as well as the amount of polyphenols. Studies of matcha have also shown it can destroy breast cancer stem cells.
Does how you prepare your tea make a difference in attaining the benefits?
Brewing tea is an art, but when it comes to extracting the polyphenols steeping the tea leaves is the key. The longer you steep the tea, the more polyphenols are released into the water. If you use a tea bag, a simple trick for getting more of the healthful polyphenols out is to dunk the tea bag a few times. You can also refrigerate the hot tea to make ice tea which will still retain the benefits.
What is the best time to drink green tea?
I drink tea around the clock. To me, drinking tea in the morning helps me have mental clarity. In the evening, sipping tea is relaxing. So, there is no real best time for tea — any time is good, as far as I am concerned.
Are there other teas that have proven to be as beneficial?
I did a study comparing Chinese and Japanese green teas with Earl Grey, a black tea containing Bergamot. In my research, all were potent, but combining the two green teas made the most potent blend.
What are your thoughts on coffee?
I love coffee — I drink it every day, usually first thing in the morning. Coffee contains a natural bioactive called chlorogenic acid that activates all five of the body’s health defense systems. While all contain chlorogenic acid, organic coffees contain more than conventionally grown coffee.
You have done extensive cancer research. Can you share a bit about green tea's relationship to cancer?
Green tea contains a polyphenol called EGCG. This substance has been extensively studied for its effects against cancer. EGCG can starve cancer by cutting off its blood supply, an activity called ‘anti-angiogenesis.’ This is thought to be the way green tea reduces cancer risk: it prevents cancers from being able to get their own private blood supply. Green tea also has potent antioxidant activity which protects DNA from mutations, one hallmark of cancer. Tea also reduces inflammation which can spur on cancer growth. Remarkably, almost every study of green tea and cancer has shown there to be an anti-cancer association, whether it is in the laboratory or in human studies.
What advice do you have for activating our health defenses? Where is a good place to start?
The best way to activate your health defenses is to look for foods that you like that can do this. I wrote Eat to Beat Disease and included more than 200 foods to help people identify the foods that are their favorites that all boost health defenses. If you want a good tip on finding health defense boosting foods without a list, just go to a farmer’s market or grocery store and start in the produce section. Most green vegetables, and colorful fruits are chock full of health defense activating natural chemicals. My single best health defense activating beverage is green tea.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
I want people to feel empowered after reading Eat to Beat Disease. I want them to walk away knowing that when it comes to food and health, it is not just about the food — it is also about how your body responds to what you put in it. When we add foods that activate our health defenses, we are shielding ourselves from disease.