Her childhood in India – and parenthood – changed this nutrition expert's eating habits
By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News
These days, Saroja Voruganti, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, prefers a balanced diet that emphasizes "whole" foods and steers clear of processed ones.
That wasn't always the case.
"My dietary patterns were very different when I was younger," said Voruganti, who is also associate director for clinical research services at UNC's Nutrition Research Institute. "I did not pay much attention to the foods I was eating."
What changed? Voruganti explained for "The Experts Say," an American Heart Association News series where specialists discuss how they apply what they've learned to their own lives.
Is there a guiding principle behind what you eat?
The most important principle I follow is that every nutrient has a purpose and should not be vilified. However, each nutrient has to be taken in moderation and proportional to its role.
I don't believe in cutting off carbohydrates or fats or proteins completely. I try to maintain a balance between all the nutrients, including macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Also, I don't believe in skipping meals. I eat small portions rather than skip a meal.
Did you always have such a mindset?
I have been following this pattern for many years, but I can't say I always ate this way.
Although my undergraduate degree was in nutrition, I never really applied it to my own life. I didn't care about the quantity of sugars, sweets or fats in my diet. I would skip meals, especially breakfast, to get to my college classes on time.
However, I became more conscious of my food habits when I had kids. I wanted them to eat healthy.
I started thinking of ways to cook healthy at home with simple modifications, such as replacing my regular oil with olive oil, adding soy flour to whole-wheat flour for making roti (a type of flatbread), or adding soy chunks in curries to increase the protein content.
Even during my doctoral studies, which I pursued when my children were 9 and 13, I would ensure that my family ate home-cooked food, with a balance between carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and at regular times without skipping meals.
A typical meal would include three courses: a dal or a lentil dish, a vegetable curry and homemade whole milk yogurt, all eaten together with rice or roti. Even the friends of my children who stopped by got to eat the same three-course meal. That didn't mean an occasional pizza or pasta was not allowed, though.
Walk us through what you might eat in a typical day.
I am a vegetarian. My days usually start with a smoothie and a legume- or lentil-based breakfast. Lunch and dinner consist of balanced portions of vegetable curry, lentils, salads and roti. Occasionally, I substitute rice for roti.
Although I like dishes from every cuisine, my favorite dinner would be roti with coconut curry, tadka dal – which is made with lentils – and homemade yogurt. I also like pancakes made with whole lentils with coconut chutney.
Lunch is typically the most substantial meal of the day. I carry home-cooked lunch, all four courses. I prefer an early dinner and eat a few walnuts or almonds if I feel hungry before bedtime.
We typically eat relatively small portions in each meal, and eat nuts and fruits as snacks between meals. I love coffee. On most days, it is just one cup taken with non-dairy creamer and no added sugar. Weekends see a little bit of indulgence with an additional cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate or an Indian sweet for dessert.
Where did you grow up, and how does that affect how you eat?
I grew up in India. When I was in school, my mother would cook at home daily. The meals were the typical Indian meals.
I loved our summer holidays. We would spend one month each with maternal and paternal grandparents. My maternal grandparents had their own kitchen garden, and it was the kids' duty to pluck the vegetables. It would be a fun activity with cousins.
Since we were city folks visiting the small village of our grandparents, we were treated royally. We got to eat lot of date palms, mangoes and Indian sweets.
We also watched as my mother and aunts made huge quantities of pickles, mainly with mango. They would be made to last for one year.
Most of the dishes cooked by my mother and grandparents would use a minimum of spices. Most vegetable and lentil dishes were tempered with a simple combination of mustard and cumin seeds, whole red chiles and turmeric powder. Even the curries used minimal spices with freshly ground powders of roasted mustard, cumin, coriander, fenugreek seeds, dry red chiles and lentils. We enjoy food prepared using minimal spices and have continued that practice even after moving to the U.S.
When we first moved to the U.S. in the late '90s, we had to travel long distances to find Indian groceries. The vegetables that we were used to weren't available either, and we had to start eating the locally available vegetables. Eating out was also difficult because it was not always easy to find vegetarian options. Nowadays, vegetarian options are available in all types of cuisines and in most cities and towns. One nice thing is that people are willing to listen and make a vegetarian dish for you, if requested.
If someone is looking to change their eating habits, how do they get to where you are?
I consult with a registered dietitian, and my recommendation is that everyone should talk to a trained dietitian or nutritionist. If they cannot afford to do that, then they should consult websites from reputable universities or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The other thing is one should never try to make drastic changes. It will not last. Changes should be made gradually, one nutrient or one type of food at a time.
What's your most essential nutrition advice?
Each of us is different, whether in terms of responding to dietary changes or in terms of absorbing nutrients. Each person has to follow their own path to optimize nutrition, which is why I recommend consulting a professional or educating oneself through information from trustworthy sources.
Also, the foods that we eat during our childhood and adolescent years establish a pattern for our lifetime. I recommend that all parents attempt to inculcate healthy eating habits in their children.