The following is an article from a Community Leads grant recipient.
A weathered envelope with international stamps delivered from India would sometimes arrive in my family’s mailbox. First to our townhouse in Australia and then, when we moved to the US, all the way to the suburbs of Minneapolis. As a child, these letters always brought a big smile to my face because they would be addressed to a “Master Varun,” the polite British English title used for a boy too young to be called “Mister.” Growing up, I only ever heard two people address anyone that way—the character Alfred from the Batman comics and my thaatha (grandfather) who hailed from the small village of Tindivanam and kept his English sharp with those letters to me.
Soon after I turned eleven, those beloved letters stopped coming.We had gone earlier that year to India to visit our extended family, but the trip turned from joyous and relaxing to a panicked health crisis when I was awoken in the middle of the night on the remote family farm by the sound of thaatha’s loud groans, coughing, and spitting. Hours later in the hospital, I learned that thaatha had been suffering from congestive heart failure. He survived the night, but lived only a few months longer. He was 67 years old.
The following year, my thaatha on my father’s side passed suddenly from a cardiac event at 68 years of age. Next, an uncle passed away from complications from a stroke he had suffered in his early 40s a decade earlier. A couple years after that, my mom’s only brother, 47 at the time, succumbed to a massive heart attack. My aaya (grandmother) was the longest-living relative I knew, living to a grand 75 years of age, out living a son and husband, and enduring worsening diabetes for nearly fifteen years before we got the late-night overseas call that is infamous among many immigrants with family abroad. By college, I had a genuine fear any time the phone rang past seven or eight in the evening. The creeping thought was always: “Who is it this time?” After a ten-year respite, my father’s oldest sister died suddenly at 62 after her previously untreated diabetes progressed to kidney disease, and my 24-year-old cousin lost his battle with leukemia. Like many southeast Asians, my fate seemed sealed by genetics.
Considering my family history, it should be no big surprise that I was pre-med in college. Joining the world of medicine was the only way I could think to avenge or somehow honor the deaths in the family. I wound up becoming a biomedical engineer and found great satisfaction in product development in the medical device industry. I started as a bright-eyed kid whose every working moment was filled with the promise and potential of improving medicine and helping people. It took almost ten years in the industry, beginning at a startup and working my way into a large corporation, before I identified a glaring contradiction: despite the advancements in medical technology that I was a part of, the prevalence of chronic illness was continuing to grow and our healthcare system was struggling to manage it.
I always cite The China Study as the big inspiration for pivoting my career. My partner at the time (now fiancé) had recommended it for my long commutes, and the timing of when I finished it was really uncanny. I finished it just before landing in New Orleans for the Orthopedic Research Society conference. Normally I would gravitate toward the talks and presentations with the most novel science behind them, but that conference I found myself revisiting this one particular poster from the Midwest detailing how newer joint replacement implants didn’t survive much better than age-old tech because of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses that I had just been reading could be prevented with food. It was a lightbulb moment for me, and also very humbling since I was the lead engineer designing a robotically implanted, 3D-printed knee replacement device.
A few months later, I took on a role as Brand Ambassador for Beyond Meat, who were not yet public. I didn’t know exactly how to do it, but I wanted to be part of the movement of weaning America off the foods deleterious to their health. As a bonus, Beyond Meat still had that exciting startup feel that I was missing from the earliest part of my career. I began by working evenings and weekends to help share my newfound passion for plant-based nutrition.
By then I essentially had one foot out the door of the medical device industry but since I’m rather risk averse, I was still waiting for my own vision of how to influence healthcare. There’s a proverb that with every step one takes, regardless of knowing the particular direction, it’s the right step and will beget the next; standing still gets you nowhere. Over the six months or so, I had facetime with close to a thousand individuals that allowed me to discuss not only plant-based meat alternatives, but also the underlying motivations and challenges of lifestyle change. The common challenge I heard again and again was the need for more resources and support. Connecting the dots between eating well and achieving improved health is not always obvious or easy. By early 2019, I had the direction I needed to start Aaya’s Table and a mission to bring healthy, whole food, plant-based (WFPB) home cooking to diverse American homes.
In name and purpose Aaya’s Table pays homage to family history, both mine and those of too many others that have seen the effects of chronic illness on their loved ones. Whereas we typically associate grandma’s cooking and those special family recipes with comfort and homeliness, I want to also solidify the link between that food and good health. Following a predominantly plant-based diet to improve wellbeing does not have to mean forgoing the good food we grew up eating. In many cases, the old culinary traditions were in fact better for us than we ever realized. The Aaya’s Table team works with our clients to learn about their preferred cuisines and food aversions to ensure that they keep the familiar flavors while leaving behind the added oils, sugars, and animal products we know cause chronic disease.
This personalized approach emphasizes cultural significance. The ability to cater meal plans to people of all backgrounds is a major differentiator for us, and stems in part from my own challenges when becoming plant-based. I grew up eating the most flavorful and spicy Indian dishes, most of which begin with a sauté of onion, garlic, ginger and spices in heaping of oil or butter—a thali or takda. That’s the backbone of a lot of the food I love, so when I decided to change my diet, and to become WFPB at that, I couldn’t relate to many of the recipes out there. Many of our clients face similar challenges when trying to embrace change, and we believe that it does a big disservice to give up the complex flavors and aromas of their generations-old family recipes in exchange for brown rice and steamed veggies. So, we strive for even better than the middle ground and more than just a sprinkle of dried chili flakes.
Ultimately, I want delicious meals to lead to impressive stories of health regained. Aaya’s Table is the culinary arm that physicians embracing lifestyle change can refer their patients to. That relationship and trust with healthcare providers is not altogether different from those from my medical device days. Only now, I’m proud to be able to share with them the success stories of individuals partaking in our Culinary Rehabilitation (CuReTM) Program. We have some strong early results, but there remains a long journey before “food as medicine” takes its rightful place as a cornerstone of our healthcare system. Hopefully Aaya’s Table can make some significant contributions along with the inspiring work of other plant-based leaders.
Eat well, feel better.
The T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies (CNS) is committed to increasing awareness of the extraordinary impact that food has on the health of our bodies, our communities, and our planet. In support of this commitment, CNS has created a Community Leads service initiative to empower sustainable food-based initiatives around the world by providing grants to enable innovative start-ups and to propel the growth of existing initiatives. Please consider making a donation to this great cause. 100% of your donation will go to support initiatives like the one you just read about in this article.
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