I have always enjoyed cooking, and during this pandemic, I have found myself in the kitchen more than ever before. The second I walk into the house, I hear my two teenage boys screaming at the top of their lungs, “Mooom…food!” Though jarring, I find the humor in it, and I smile. I have always shown my love through food, and I love my boys very much. I treasure their trust in me to provide them with food, and I take that responsibility seriously. Food is life. And as my mother always told me, “Pay attention to the food you are preparing, give it some love and it will love you back.” 

We may mourn the big gatherings for the holidays, and other events that we missed this year, but we can also cherish the extra time it has given us to be with our families. When I look back on 2020, I will appreciate the precious times spent with my family, including the cooking and eating we did together. For me, cooking is not only a way to show my love, but is also a way that I can access my deeper self and gain perspective when things feel challenging. When work is extra exhausting, cooking a lentil soup can bring back my spirits. When my husband is feeling down, I know that my famous rice and chicken will bring a smile to his face.

Food is supposed to be beautiful and colorful. I find myself experimenting in the kitchen these days, making an effort to use a variety of vegetables in different colors. The more colorful and more fresh, the more I see beauty in it. For my teens, they are less concerned about the look, and seem to judge solely by taste! 

I have always been fascinated with the connection between food and health. As a family care doctor, I help my patients understand how important nutrition is to their overall health. I even wrote a book about how to prevent and fight cancer starting with what you eat! This pandemic has given us all more time to think, and I can’t stop thinking about the connection that the human body has with food! But this connection is not always a healthy one.

Food facts to chew on from the CDC 

  • Fewer than 1 in 10 adults and adolescents eat enough fruits and vegetables.
  • In the United States, 19% of youth ages 2-19 and 40% of adults have obesity, putting them at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
  • Overweight and obesity are associated with at least 13 types of cancer.

I remember sometime ago listening to a TED talk by Mark Hyman where he said “Food has the power to cure or to kill.” His statement resonated with me. And maybe it resonates with you?

Why eating healthy matters

I grew up on the Mediterranean diet, since I was born in Iraq. These days I can’t get my hands on enough studies on the Mediterranean diet in relation to overall health. When my dad died of cancer, it inspired me to learn more about ways to fight the disease. The more I research and study, the more I have become an advocate for plant based diets. And this pandemic has given me an excuse to try all kinds of fun and new Mediterranean inspired meals.  

Quarantine does not protect you from cookies, cakes, baked goods, breakfast cereals, bagels, crackers, chips, snack foods, pizzas, soft drinks, candies, ice cream, and other comfort foods. 

In my book, I shared findings from research that shows more than 72% of today’s typical American diet consists of dairy products, processed food, refined sugars, refined vegetable oil, and alcohol. Think about all the processed food we eat. With more people cooking for themselves and their families, I want them to know that not all food is good for you.

Like bacon, for example. If you love bacon, then I have bad news. Though many chefs on my favorite cooking shows claim that bacon makes everything better, scientifically speaking, it is not good for you. 

Processed meats, though tasty, are also damaging to your body. In fact all processed meats were declared a definite cause of cancer by the world health organization WHO in 2015, based on more than 800 studies. That should be pretty alarming if you are using processed meats in your meals.

But don’t fret, just focus on foods that bring you nutritional benefits instead.

Plant based benefits 

A big part of why I have been investing more time during the pandemic in working towards a plant-based diet, is because it is good for me. And it is good for you too! Science shows that plant-based diets deliver excellent protective properties as a result of high concentration of what are called “phytochemicals.” In their simplest form, phytochemicals activate certain enzymes that can detoxify your body. All you need to understand is that they bolster your body’s ability to improve its immune system, enhance your metabolism, and optimize performance. 

The connection between human health and plants is more magical than I ever could’ve imagined, and the evidence is overwhelming. I have spent countless hours in my bedroom, isolated after working, researching what science shows about plant-based diets. To translate this to my teens, I tell them that to stay healthy during the pandemic, they need to eat food that supports their immune system. And to get them used to new types of healthier food, I have been hand delivering fresh veggies and fruit snacks to their bedrooms while they work on homework. I catch them when they are hungry, and they are enjoying what I am making. Like anything, it is a transition to get them to not always want potato chips. 

Lately with the pandemic and isolation, I’ve made more of an effort to focus on my diet, and as a result, my family’s diet. It’s been a relatively easy process for me to switch to a plant-based diet, but it’s been slightly more challenging for my family. When my boys run downstairs upon learning that the food is done, sometimes they are surprised at all the vegetables, but after a few bites, they continue to eat. 

As a family, I am trying to change our mindset to deliberately and constantly think of food as a nutritional source to feed our bodies and our cells. In doing so, I hope that the cookies with no nutritional value may become less appealing over time! 

And I am trying to lead by example. Today, I made a very simple salad that had cucumber, lettuce, beats, parsley, radish and the dressing was made from Greek yogurt, tahini, garlic, lemon, and salt. It not only looked beautiful, but was also very palatable and guilt free to consume. 

I remind myself that every time I eat poorly, I am expediting the oxidative and damaging processes in my body. Meaning I am damaging my own cells by what I choose to eat. 

In conclusion

My teenagers are not thinking about the food they are eating, and maybe you aren’t either. But as you find yourself with more time on your hands, don’t be afraid to spend more time in the kitchen. I challenge you to change things up, try something different, get some colorful vegetables, do some recipe Googling, and cook up some food with nutrients, antioxidants, and healthy fuel for you, and your family!

Do you have any fun and yummy plant-based meals to share with me? Or do you want to share your stance on bacon? If so, share as a comment, or tweet me at @reyzanshali.