Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a journalist based in State College, Pennsylvania, who writes about business, parenting, travel, and food. She has lived in Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom, Holland, and New Jersey.

Substitute, don’t deprive

Chef LaLa seeks food solutions

March 28, 2011

Actors and athletes, models and mortals: How many have gone the vegetarian way in the pursuit of better health?

But vegetarianism is not a panacea for good health, and the first person to say that is Laura Diaz-Brown, known as Chef LaLa. A celebrity chef and spokesperson for, among others, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, Diaz-Brown — who is also a trained nutritionist with numerous educational outreach initiatives — believes that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy eating.

Sure, we know by and large what we shouldn’t indulge in and what we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of. But in figuring out a proper healthy diet, it’s best, Diaz-Brown says, to consult professionals, doctors as well as nutritionists, in order to come up with the optimal diet suited to an individual. And that diet may or may not include meat.

A customized healthy diet suited to a particular person should take into account his or her socioeconomic context, Diaz-Brown says. But most importantly, it should abide by a principle that she believes is paramount: the respect of cultural background.

“Food is the most intimate insight into cultures, and if you say to someone that they can’t have something that is a part of their culture — well, you’re taking away part of them,” Diaz-Brown says. “Even with health as the end goal, you can’t just, for instance, tell a Mexican they can’t have tortillas, or an Asian to not have rice, or a vegetarian to eat five ounces of lean meat, or a non-vegetarian to just give up meat.”

Chef Lala.

Perhaps because she’s part of an ethnic minority in the U.S. (her family is Mexican), Diaz-Brown understands that food represents family, community, and heritage. Asking people to give up foods that are part of who they are is very tough and may not always prove successful, she says.

When my father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the mid-1990s, he made the conscious choice, with approval from his doctor, to eschew medication and instead control his blood-sugar levels through diet and exercise. That meant giving up rice — a fundamental part of the Southern Indian cuisine he had eaten his whole life until that point — which was very, very difficult.

Not only because rice, a refined carbohydrate with proven links to diabetes, was such a dominant part of what my father ate, but more so because of what it represented to him. Giving up rice would mean severing a key connection to his roots and to the people in the place he was from — in a sense, to himself as he always had been.

Fortunately, my father was able to invent a new self, largely because of my mother’s enterprising spirit. She made it her mission to come up with rice-less versions of the dishes that my father had so loved as part of his native cuisine (see Mom’s Savory Chickpea Flour Pancakes, which she liked to serve with coconut chutney).

Diaz-Brown, for her part, tries to help people find substitutes if they really do need to give up a food that’s a part of their culture. “I try to change certain ingredients rather than remove something that is a staple part of a particular cuisine,” she says. “Latinos have always eaten tortillas, for example, but I can teach someone to make healthier choices like wheat or corn instead of flour, so they can still eat tortillas.”

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