Talk with a plant-based eater who really knows how to cook and it’s easy to think about a lifestyle void of meat and dairy products – at least for awhile.
That’s what happened to me last weekend during a backyard interview with Jessica Meyers Altman at her Clarence Center home.
We sat on her patio during a beautiful summer day within eyeshot of her two gardens, perennial flower beds and landscaped waterfall. Talk about peaceful. Relaxing.
Then we talked about healthy food.
“My kids love stir fry,” said Altman, subject of this weekend’s In the Field feature in WNY Refresh. “Last night, we marinated tofu in a miso ginger sauce and we sauteed greens from the garden with onions, garlic, broccoli, carrots, peppers. It was like every color.
“We always have salad bar in our house. I love canning jars, so I’ll always have everything pre-cut. We eat a lot of soups when it’s colder outside. I don’t saute in oil. I teach people in cooking classes that you can saute without the need for oil.
Altman helps her husband, Frank, with marketing his company, Altman Dental in Williamsville, but it’s clear her passion these days revolves around the desire that her family – and others – eat healthier foods. A health scare, followed by an online nutrition program within the last two years, means there is a new vegan lifestyle at home for the entire family, including daughter Sophie, 12, and Sam, 9.
The bigger picture is why she started GardenFreshFoodie.com.
Her business has caught the eye of a couple of larger food blog sites, as well as several medical offices who have hired her to conduct cooking and healthy nutrition classes.
Anyone can eat better, and inexpensively, if they do some research and more carefully plan meals, Altman told me – and the plant-based foods you can make will taste great.
As proof, she recommended the following recipes from her website (click on the names to go to them):
- Miso Tofu Shish Kebabs
- Molasses Baked Beans
- Tart Cherry Sorbet
- Raw Orange Macaroon Tartlets
- Date & Nut Bites
Where does Altman shop when she can’t pluck enough plant foods from her gardens?
“I don’t usually go to farmers markets until the fall,” she said. “I don’t grow squash, storage crops. I’m a huge fan of Wegmans and I go to Feel Rite or Lexington Food Co-op for my bulk stuff.”
Bulk beans are a family staple. So too are chickpeas, lentils, sprouts, greens, tomatoes and fresh fruits.
“This is what poor people, people of the world, survive on,” she said. “Once a country becomes more affluent, and this is what’s happening in China right now, people eat more meat and they get diabetes, they get heart disease and they get obesity. As they transform more into an American life, it’s become more of a toxic life. They’re having tons of environmental and health issues.”
Altman, 40, who holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Binghamton University and a master’s in science education from the University at Buffalo, has helped bring the same sensibilities to her husband’s dental office.
“When I started there I brought my teaching hat with me,” she said. “I knew that periodontal disease, which is gum disease, is directly tied to diabetes and heart disease. I wanted to educate our patients to the link between the three and how all three have to do with nutrition, so I started the food blog. The more I did it, the more I realized how much I loved doing it.”
The blog first was named Tooth Food but Altman changed it as she became more interested in plant-based nutrition and wanted to grow a larger audience.
What she does now is still tied to gum disease, however, and more.
“All my recipes are anti-inflammatory,” she said, and inflammation is at the heart of most of the chronic diseases that have consumed so many Americans and made for a growing percentage of cases for primary care doctors.
“Food is a vital part of the equation that is not talked about, sadly,” Altman said. “Doctors don’t have the time. They don’t have the education on nutrition. It’s just part of the system. They treat an acute problem. They don’t necessarily treat what caused the problem.”
Many doctors, she said, “don’t have a holistic view about how food can help you and can harm you. They can tell a person, ‘You shouldn’t eat a diet high in saturated fat, but they’re not giving patients the practical application of what that means.
“If you’re a person who’s eaten hamburgers and fries, and drinks soda, and you think you hate vegetables, if a doctor tells you to eat more vegetables, are you really going to eat more vegetables? You’re not likely to eat more vegetables. You’re more likely to do things like you’ve always done.”
Altman and I also dug deeper into her vegan and environmentally friendly lifestyle during our conversation.
Below are some of the questions I asked that I didn’t have room for in print:
Q. Talk about ‘Green Dentistry’ at Altman Dental.
With my environmental background, I feel it’s real important to tread as lightly on the planet as possible. We try to do that in our office. All of our equipment is 100-percent made in the United States. We went to the factory and saw how everything was made, down to the screws. It was amazing. (Adec, the plant in Portland, Ore., is set in a hazelnut orchard in the Willamette Valley.) We recycle pretty much everything. We don’t use X-ray films. We do everything digitally, which helps both the earth and our patients because there’s 90 percent less radiation exposure. We use a waterless vacuum system. Normal offices waste a gallon of water every minute that they’re open and we don’t waste any. We’re also focused on the tie between food and disease. All those things help.
Q. How did you grow your business, which also is the name of your blog, gardenfreshfoodie.com?
I’ve become a guest blogger at a website called the Food Revolution Network (foodrevolution.org). It was started by John Robbins, a man I used to study in college, who wrote “Diet for a New America,” He is a huge activist who talks about eating local, eating whole foods. Now he and his son, Ocean, have teamed up and have an organization where they do guest lectures, programing in which they talk about environmental awareness in reference to food. I wrote to them and said, “Hey, would you be interested in some recipes to go along with your message?” ... They were featuring me every week and now they feature me biweekly because they’re featuring another food blogger, as well. I also write for a plant-based prepared food company in California called Veestro.com. I back-link into my site.
In addition to those things, I’m trying to teach in as many places as I can, spread the message to help eat more and more plants. I understand most people don’t want to live the life that we live but if I can get people to incorporate more and more plants into their lives, they will eat less and less of the other stuff. When you eat plants, you’re eating nutritionally dense foods that are low in calories, so you can eat a lot and feel full and satisfied. ... Eat a steak and you get fat and protein and iron and that’s it. But you’re not getting micronutrients. You’re not getting fiber. You’re not getting things that you need.
Q. Have you converted the whole family and, if so, what’s the reaction been like?
Last summer, when I started my nutrition class, I said food is my homework and everybody’s going to eat what I’m going to cook. We always ate locally. If we ate meat, it was locally sourced and I knew where it was coming from. It was organic. I always felt good about that. But the more I learned about what the food was doing – environmentally and health-wise – I wanted us to stop eating it.
My son has converted to self-proclaimed vegetarian but still will eat dairy when we’re out. He won’t eat meat anymore. In our house, I don’t prepare anything that’s not plant-based. My husband and daughter, when we go out, it’s up to them to choose the healthy path. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Most of the time, they are eating wonderfully.
My husband, with his cholesterol, was borderline for needing meds, and I said to him, “You are not going to be on medication, there’s no reason.” He’s not overweight. Genetics plays a part, but it doesn’t control your life. You turn on those triggers or you can shut them down. He changed how he ate and dropped 30 points.
Q. You have a Plant-Based Professional Culinary Certification through Rouxbe Cooking School. How did you get that?
It was started by Chad Sarno who used to be the head of education for Whole Foods. He’s since branched out of there. It was a lot of work, an intense program. It is a six-month program. There were many, many assignments and you have to show the whole process of your cooking because it’s online. You have to photograph every part of your cooking process, which is very time-consuming, plus cooking all the different dishes that you have to make. There’s tons of education that’s involved. We heard from amazing speakers in the nutrition field. Besides getting married, having kids and being involved in the food program at the Science Museum, it’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. It changed our lives in the house, and (fellow students) have been an amazing community.
Now I’m finishing a plant-based nutrition certification through Cornell run by Colin Campbell, the guru who wrote “The China Study.” It shows how disease rates in China have climbed as that nation has adopted more of a Western diet.
Q. Do you take supplements?
The only one I take is vitamin B12. You have to as a plant-based person. It’s produced by bacteria but transported through animal protein. People used to get plenty of it when they ate straight from the ground, but we eat in such a hyper-clean society that we’re not consuming enough on our own.
Q. Why do you eat gluten-free?
It has gotten rid of my inflammation from my Raynaud’s. Gluten is a trigger. I tried it to see if it would help me and it did. I used to have terrible migraine headaches all the time, and by changing my diet, I have not had any flare-ups at all. Food is so powerful.