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There are so many sophisticated treatments for diseases in this day and age. However, if you dig deep into the most effective medicine there is, you’ll find that in our food. Here to take us deep into why food is medicine is Esther Garfin. She is the Founder and President of Alternative Food Network and the host of the podcast series, Plant-Based Diet. In this episode, Esther joins Corinna Bellizzi to discuss all about having a plant-based diet, clearing up confusions about the term and what it really means. She also explores some new diet trends and gives a peek into their other series, Doctors+. Follow along to this great conversation and discover the value of choosing a healthy diet in our lives.
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As we close out Veganuary, I am thrilled to introduce you to a guest who was committed to spreading great information about a plant-based diet. She even started a podcast called Plant-Based Diet under the umbrella of a production company that she founded, Alternative Food Network. Her name is Esther Garfin. Hers is a story that shifts from a career as a lawyer in the entertainment industry of Toronto to launching a multimedia and content production company focused on healthy living through healthy foods.
Esther Garfin, I'm thrilled to have you here. Welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.
I want to start out by learning a bit about why you shifted from that career in entertainment to this new effort. It must have been thrilling in certain ways in Toronto.
I get asked that a lot. I practiced for 20 years, over 15 years of which in entertainment, television, and digital media. It was a very good career. I have nothing but the best things to say about a legal career. My path took me elsewhere. In my 40s, I felt that there was something more that I could be doing to help people. At that time, I had eczema on my skin, which wasn't going away. It was getting worse. I was getting a lot of colds. I wasn't at my best health-wise. Somehow, the world started to collide. I also was working on some stupid TV shows. I thought, “I would like to work on content that means something and that helps people.” I changed hats and switched over to producing.
I'm sure that you've learned a lot through the process. I started my first show a couple of years ago. It’s amazing how much I've learned in the process by hosting conversations with guests who are hyper-specialized in one particular area or another. Could you talk a bit about what you've learned and perhaps what you've been surprised by?
In running a business, do you mean, or the podcast itself?
From the nutrition perspective.
I love the content. We've done countless episodes both for Plant-Based Diet and another series we have called Doctors+. I don't get tired of it. I love the content. I love learning about what food can do for our bodies. Food is medicine. Not to exclude conventional medicine and pharmaceuticals when needed, but it's an overlooked area of what our food can do and not do for us. I learn every day, both between my research when I'm researching guests for the shows and also during the podcasts themselves. I love it.
You mentioned food as medicine and also that you were battling eczema. What did you find on your journey that helped you with that?
From the eczema perspective, I had gone to every doctor. It was in my hands. It wasn't a horrible situation, but it was in my hands. It made cooking very difficult. I went to every doctor, and all they ever did was prescribe cortisone. I was like, “I want someone to talk to me about what's going on the inside that might be causing this.” I do have food allergies, so there could have been a connection there as well. I wasn't getting the answers that I wanted or needed. I decided to change my diet. I lowered my sugar intake. That was one of the things. That is probably, from the food perspective, the thing that I would say worked for me the best.
I'll tell you. I have a little flare-up, which I have not had for a couple of years. I've been eczema-free for a couple of years. It's because I completed a road trip from Toronto to Florida and back with my family. There was a lot of junk in the car. I was driving part of the time and was partaking in that junk and that sugar. I have a feeling that has set me back a little bit. It helped with my own situation and with all the shows. I don't know from the work that you do if you get emails from the audience, but I get emails from people thanking me for the information and they appreciate it. We keep on going.
That's fantastic. For our audience to help them understand what eczema is, eczema is an inflammatory skin condition. I do have an outbreak of eczema every once in a while. I wouldn't say I traditionally suffer from it because it's something that comes as a surprise when it happens. I went to my doctor. I noticed what looked like little clear blisters on my pinky, right around the time that I was getting married, which is a very stressful time because you have all those things coming together. It was right along the nail line on my pinky and on my ring finger on both hands. You're hyper-focused on your hands as you're preparing for your wedding. You're going to be having all these close-up pictures of your hands, your fingers, the ring, this, that, and the next thing.
I'd gone to my doctor. He flippantly said, “That's eczema.” I'm like, “Can you give me some rationale why I might be experiencing this now? I've never had an issue like this in the past.” It almost looks like goose flesh in a way. What will happen with time, if you have a severe case, is that the blisters will break and it can get painful. You can have a difficult time. Especially if you get your hands wet, then sometimes, it can develop into even a fungal condition. It can become much worse as you have an early onset of something like that.
What I did at that point was say, “I have to de-stress. I need to put some things in place because I'm having this occur because of stress.” At the time, I was only 29. I didn't worry too much about my diet, but I did refine some things at that point, too. I learned that an overgrowth of candida can very much affect whether or not you get outbreaks of eczema and how severe they get. The connection between the overconsumption of sugar and candida is well-established. Reducing your intake of something, especially processed sugars, but even fruit-based sugars, alcohol, and things along those lines can help to reduce that skin inflammation so that the outbreak wanes and dissipates.
Some people still need treatment, but a lot of times, our bodies are simply reacting to the poor habits that we've carried along with us, like not getting enough sleep, stressing out too much, and having a poor diet. This is not meant to treat, diagnose, or cure. This show is not here to do that. We can do a bit of personal research and see what feels right for us.
We can talk to our doctors, and I'd encourage anybody who encounters issues like this to do so. Also, ask them questions about what habits they might have that could be making this situation worse, and then think about what you could do differently. I love that journey. I love that I have the opportunity to share my story, too. It’s not often that I've even thought about that because it faded into the background.
It went away. That's good for you, though. For a lot of people, it doesn't go away. For anyone who's reading, I wouldn't get your hopes up too high that your doctors will talk to you about your diet when it comes to eczema.
A lot of them won't.
At least, maybe you can do a little bit of research and find something that will work for you.
In some cases, treatments that are topical can at least soothe you, especially temporarily, whether it be that lotion or something to that effect, too. I'm curious if you could talk a little bit about what it means to have a plant-based diet. This is something we were talking about before we started recording. People are using terms like plant-based and vegan so interchangeably, but they don't necessarily mean the same things. I’d love for you to talk about that.
It was getting a bit confusing because the terms are being used interchangeably. Vegan does not equal plant-based. It's not one and the same. It got to the point where I even did an episode in 2022 where I got sound bites from various guests explaining the difference between plant-based and vegan. In fact, probably the easiest way to say what plant-based is is from an episode I did. It hasn't aired yet for Plant-Based Diet. I was with a guest. Her name's Hannah Van Ark. She's a plant-forward nutritionist.
Vegan does not equal plant-based. It's not one and the same.
She says in the episode that she's not vegan, but she's plant-based. That doesn't mean that everything she eats is even whole food plant-based. The way she described it, she quantified it as 90% plant-based. 90% of what she eats is plant-based, meaning there's still 10% in the diet that she'll eat other items. I would say that that's probably a good way to think of it. It's not an all-or-nothing approach.
If you're interested in health and wellness reasons to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet, it could be 100%. You could be vegan. If that's too challenging or you feel that your body does need a little bit of meat, for example, dairy, fish, or whatever it is, then you can still be plant-based and occasionally, have those other food groups.
Getting back to the subject of Veganuary, this is a new trend that has started to erupt from many different corners. You're seeing this all over social media. It’s this push coming out of a company in the UK that's called Veganuary. They are encouraging people to take the month of Dry January and also be vegan. I personally think that could be challenging for somebody who perhaps isn't already most of the way to vegan.
I like the idea of making it more plant-based even if that is 90% because you could have a cupcake that might have frosting on it. Somebody could say, “I made these great cupcakes at your kids' party,” or something like that and they might have eggs in it. There's a point at which being super militant can also be somewhat challenging from a social perspective.
I personally am more plant-based than vegan because I do still have some dairy occasionally. I still consume eggs. I buy eggs locally, farm fresh, from friends who farm them. I know the source. It is cool to be connected to the food source. There is a basic trend to move more towards a plant-based diet to follow the Michael Pollans of the world who say, “Eat whole foods, mostly plants.” You ultimately end up with a healthier diet that can sustain you for the long-term.
I know there are also trends like the carnivore diet, which we've talked about a little bit here and there with people like Dr. Paul Saladino offering their perspectives on how you can heal metabolic issues with this somewhat extreme diet. That's the polar opposite of this whole vegan approach. It’s one I don't necessarily resonate with, but I'm still immensely curious about it. What other trends are you following? Are there any surprises that came out of the woodwork for you?
Veganuary is still a big month for us. We released an episode with the owner of an egg substitute company.
I listened to that. It is so cool.
What's interesting is that in the news, there's a lot about the increase in the price of eggs. Aside from veganism or plant-based health and wellness, there are also recessionary times when people want to be super cost-conscious. Eggs are going up in price. People might be looking to egg substitutes even from a cost perspective. We released this episode for Veganuary. His name is Harold Bollaci. He is the Owner of the Vegg. We did that in honor of Veganuary.
Also, you were mentioning about Dry January. There's a Dry January. I was reading about a Dry February. I don't know if you heard that. In our show, more on the Doctors+ series, there is talk about alcohol and what people should be drinking and not drinking. I am a proponent of the Dry January, or at least being mindful of what you're drinking, the alcohol that you're consuming, and perhaps trying to lessen it.
In fact, Canada came out with a new report completely decreasing the number of glasses of alcohol or wine that would be suitable for a person, either man or woman. I don't know the numbers, but it's a big reduction in the weekly numbers. We’re probably going to be seeing a lot more about alcohol and the health issues related to alcohol, warnings, and things like that.
Not only does it negatively impact the waistline if you're overconsuming alcohol, but as we've covered on this show when we featured Dr. Joseph Maroon who is a neurosurgeon and neurologist, he said, “There is no good news when it comes to the brain and alcohol. If you see things like a longer lifespan and an increase in the incidence of things like Alzheimer's or other degenerative diseases of the brain, then alcohol starts to become a very important discussion.”
We recorded not too long ago an episode for Doctors+ with Dr. Annie Fenn. She used to be an OB-GYN. She has this Brain Health Kitchen and a cookbook. She talks all about Alzheimer's prevention. Also, in that episode, she was talking about alcohol.
There’s no good news. The only good news that I've heard is from Dr. William Li who says one glass of beer or one glass of wine on a daily basis can be health-promoting. The neurosurgeon and neurologist friends of mine don't even agree with that. They say it's best to omit. With that being said, Dr. Joseph Maroon himself also admits to enjoying a nice glass of pinot noir because pinot noir tends to have higher levels of resveratrol. He closely also follows Dr. David Sinclair's work around brain health and longevity as it relates to resveratrol.
There's no perfect way to package this all up. Some of the research does conflict, but generally speaking, very little. There is this old adage that we might have had in the long ago past where people would get prescribed two fingers of scotch is a thing of the complete past. Doctors will tell you, “No amount of hard alcohol is good for you. There's no such thing. A glass of red wine or a beer might have some benefit.” However, the omission may be the best course for most. What do they say? Mind your liver because the brain and liver connection is quite critical, too.
That's what I'm hearing on our episodes as well. It’s not to be a killjoy. We don't want to take away people's socializing and having fun. If that includes holding a glass of wine, so be it. On a daily basis, people should probably be reducing their consumption.
On a daily basis, people should probably be reducing their alcohol and wine consumption.
This also lends to another trend, which is mocktails in place of cocktails. There is even alcohol-free spirit snow. I was curious to try some of these at Natural Products Expo East in September 2022. They had an alcohol-free gin and alcohol-free vodka. I'm like, “How can you even call these that if they have no alcohol in them?” They did have a mild juniper flavor on the gin side. The tequila tasted almost smoky.
I've not tried the mocktails. I don't like the taste of hard alcohol anyways, so it's not like I need a substitute for that.
A nice glass of wine is something that I often find hard to turn down. As my husband will call the book club I'm a part of, it's like a gourmet food and wine club more than a book club sometimes.
Before we wrap up this part of the conversation, I'll tell you a funny story. We were away in 2022 skiing. We were with friends, and someone brought a bottle of Jägermeister, which perhaps you haven't had since you were 19 years old, or in the States, 21 years old. A friend of mine was saying that her at the time 88-year-old father would drink this Jägermeister. We were like, “Why, of all the drinks?” If you look at the label of what's on Jägermeister, there are a lot of health-promoting ingredients on there. Someone in my family had a cold. We made a little hot toddy with a tiny shot of Jägermeister because it didn't seem like it was such a bad choice. I don't know what the doctor would say about that.
It’s an infusion of a lot of different herbs. It’s supposed to be a digestif. People would consume after a meal a small amount to help them digest their food.
I never drank it as such, but it might make a go for a good hot toddy.
I can't imagine what that would taste like. I don't have the fondest remembrance.
With lemon, honey, and all that kind of stuff in a tiny bit, it was good.
Maybe we'll give that a try. As we talk about shifting to a more plant-based diet or one that is fundamentally rooted in, let's say, those 90% whole food plant-based diets, what is a favorite recipe that you might have to introduce people to a more plant-based diet?
Curry is great. I like to make coconut curry. Instead of using dairy, milk, or something, it is coconut milk with sweet potatoes, beans, and lentils. I love lentils. Lentils give me a lot of energy, I have found. Especially in winter, curries are great. I also love soup, so vegetable soup or some vegetable-based soup. They're great, filling, and healthy. Those are some of my favorites.
I started to eat, on a more regular basis, organic tofu. I'm always looking for recipes that can make that tofu taste better because on its own, as anyone knows who might have tried it, tofu doesn't taste like very much. Some people even have a hard time with texture. I do try and make a lot of different recipes with tofu.
With a few herbs and spices, tofu can take on almost any flavor, which is one of the things that makes it marvelous. When I make tacos, I often make tacos with tofu. You use taco seasoning on the tofu and it's fantastic. There's even a local restaurant here in Santa Cruz County that has a Mike's Mess. It is their egg dish. It has potato, egg, and all these other things, but they have a tofu version of that. I prefer it to the egg.
Sometimes, you can find that it has an incredible way to replace something that you might otherwise have gone to a more animal-based product for. They’re commonly seasoned with things like soy sauce, too, but you can add it to a curry, for instance, and it's divine. Are there any supplements that you like to take to ensure that you're not running into any deficiencies given a mostly plant-based diet?
I take a B12. I take something that has ashwagandha and a few different things to support the system. I was at my stage in life getting monthly headaches, so I do take that. It could be related to the fact that I'm plant-based also. Maybe it helps with iron and whatnot. I try to get mostly what I need from food.
What do they say? Supplements are supposed to be there to supplement a healthy diet. Common deficiencies, if you go fully vegan, are in the omega-3 space, like not getting enough EPA and DHA. There’s also vitamin B12. Something novel, which I'll be happy to send you, because I want your opinion on this, too, is we have learned at Örlö Nutrition that spirulina, the way we're growing it, produces naturally occurring vitamin B12 methylcobalamin.
It's not even an additive. This is one of the particular ingredients that's hard to get enough of if you're mostly plant-based, especially if you don't eat red meat in particular. As it stands, the Immunity Boost, which is centered around spirulina, gives you a dollop of vitamin B12 with some other B vitamins and vitamin D3. You get the immune-boosting benefits of spirulina as well. It’s a simple oral spray. I'd love to hear your thoughts after you try it. We’ll send you some of that.
I'd love to try it. You reminded me. We do have fish once a week or so. One of my kids will not touch the stuff. I'm always looking for a good omega supplement. He's a teenager.
Swallowing a pill wouldn't probably be that difficult. I have an almost eight-year-old and I trained him to swallow pills when he was six. I have a tip for anybody out there. I like to mention this when it comes up. If you have a child and you want them to take something that you swallow as opposed to yet another gummy vitamin, you can teach them to swallow, especially smaller pills. 500 milligrams tends to be fairly easy for them.
You simply take the pill, put it in your mouth towards the back of your throat, take a sip of water, and then move your chin down. Don't look up. The instinct is to look up and throw it back, but that closes your throat. If you tip your chin down and swallow, you can swallow almost any size pill much more easily. I learned this technique because I had a supplementarian friend who would swallow 10 or 15 pills at once.
I could not understand it. He's like, “Here’s how.” I got to the point when I was taking a lot of different things. I could swallow 5 or 10 capsules at a time. I'm no longer on that stretch. I do also get most of my nutrition from food and then supplement with a core level of omega-3s. I do take vitamin D because I tend to run low.
I take that also. I forgot about that one.
You get your levels checked in your annual, a lot of times. Sometimes, you have to ask for it. You might have to ask for your B vitamin. I get mine tested annually. I'm getting mine from. I don't need more than about 1,000 or 2,000 IU a day. When I take that much on a consistent basis, then my level is consistently at 30 or above. If I don't, then I'm at 20. That's where you don't want to be because it's fat-soluble. You can take too much.
Dr. Fuhrman who came on this show a little bit ago gave his general advice to people. 1,000 to 2,000 a day should be enough, but get your levels checked and consult with your doctor. That's always the message at the end of the day. He also shared something I was surprised by. He shared that he didn't get concerned with his patients unless they got levels below 25. I had been told by my doctor if I went below 30, they wanted me to adjust and take more vitamin D3. This may vary by your practitioner, but it's not that complicated to get your levels. You can even get a vitamin D test over the counter if you so choose. It’s not too expensive.
Did you say you have vitamin D in your spray as well?
It’s in the Immunity Boost. We put 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 and an aqueous solution. It's water solubilized for improved absorption. That is with a smattering of B vitamins and spirulina. It tastes good. It's mildly sweet. There's a little sorbitol in there to help with that. It also acts as a preservative, so it's got a shelf stable life of at least a year. You can throw it in your purse after a couple of sprays in the mouth. It's easy to take with you on the go. It's travel-friendly, too, because it's less than one ounce or it is one ounce when it's full. It’s simple.
In what form does that come?
It's in the polar lipid form. This is a very interesting development in the omega-3 spaces. Algae naturally have omega-3s in that polar lipid form. When you concentrate it, you usually break the bonds and end up with something like an ethyl ester. Ours is so clean in the beginning. We don't have to hyper concentrate it because of our growing conditions.
We retain the polar structure, and that means it's up to three times more absorbable than what you would find from fish or traditional algae oils. It's an interesting development. We've gotten there through the use of technology by controlling growing conditions. We did it in a clean way, so you don't have to worry about molecularly distilling it to remove harmful pollutants that exist in our oceans, as one example.
That sounds great. It’s right up my alley.
It’s right up my alley, too. As my husband calls me, I am the omega-3 evangelist. It is what it is. They impact so many areas of your health, also from your eczema to any inflammatory condition you might run into, too.
It can impact joints.
It also impacts skin and hair. Sometimes, women, if they're not getting enough protein, they'll start to have thinning hair. This had been a problem in some individuals who perhaps weren't managing a vegan diet very well. Perhaps they didn't eat enough beans, rice, or other things to round out the level of proteins that they were receiving.
By also running into deficiencies of omega-3, then you can start experiencing thinning hair, which nobody wants to talk about. By getting enough protein, you can do that from plant-based sources, too. Also, getting enough O omega-3 S can be critical. These are fun things to discuss. We have to play to our vanity a little bit here and there.
We did an episode on our Doctor's+ Premium. It is one of the premium episodes, which is a subscription for us. It was with a dermatologist. It was all about the relationship between food, skin, skin health, anti-aging, and all that. From a physician's standpoint as well, there is a connection.
People are already doing things like going out and getting collagen to drink with their coffee, protein shakes, and things like that. If you don't have other nutrients in your system, then you're not going to get all the benefits of that either.
Maybe you know a bit more about this. We talked about the episode. This is where Dr. Falquier hosts it. They were talking about taking collagen, topically and internally using it, and what the dermatologist's thoughts were on it. There's not much science yet for taking it internally in some way, shape, or form. He didn't have a clear opinion on that yet.
Most of the aestheticians and doctors I've spoken to in the skin health space have said vitamin C will likely do more for you internally than collagen will. It has become a popular protein source. I see stacks of vital proteins at every Costco that you might walk into. If that's your source of protein, that’s okay, but you probably need other health-promoting nutrients. Hyaluronic acid offers a lot of skin support. There are all sorts of other researched ingredients that can be used.
Usually, if they can be used topically and internally, the combination of the two can offer additional support, at least from what I've read, but that includes things like vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. I'm not sure if it extends to everything else. We do know, for instance, that retinol, a form of vitamin A, on the skin can help with breakouts and inflammatory conditions on the skin. It can also over-dry. There's a reason that it tends to remain more prescriptive. You work with a doctor to get those sorts of things.
We're talking about retinol as well.
Talk to me a bit more about Doctors+. I’d like for our audience to get a taste of what they can expect from Dr. Falquier’s public episodes and then the private ones that I believe are membership-based.
I started Doctors+ a couple of years ago. It was a way for me to ensure that I was getting credible and trustworthy evidence-based information about food is medicine out there. That's not always the case on social media and generally what's out there. It's not necessarily evidence-based. It was very important for me, perhaps coming from my training as a lawyer, that we were producing content that was evidence-based.
I decided that I would interview only medical doctors who happened also to be trained in complementary or alternative therapy. They would discuss food as medicine. This 2023, we decided to produce Doctors+ Premium episodes. They are hosted by Dr. Sabrina Falquier who is a physician and a culinary medicine expert. She has taken on the hosting duties for the premium episodes. They are via subscription on Apple Podcasts. They are our first not-free content offering. They're a few bucks a month. There's also an annual membership. It's not a lot of money, but it's premium information that can be trusted.
Dr. Falquier interviews other physicians about various topics such as diabetes, cancer, skin health, and weight loss. They're all physicians and they dig down into food as medicine. In each episode, she does an audio recipe. She walks the listener through a recipe. We, as well, made those recipes as standalone episodes as part of the subscription. Doctors+, the free version, is still around. It has all my old episodes. We'll see what we do with it next. I am incorporating some useful clips from the premium series. I put it on the free series so people have a taste of what's going on there.
That's beautiful. This has been my pleasure to have you on the show. I want to thank you, too, for having me on as a guest on your show to talk about everything we were doing differently with Örlö Nutrition. I would love to invite you back when you're doing a new campaign or something along those lines. I also can't wait to engage with Dr. Falquier so we can get a taste of what that show will be like directly on this show.
That's wonderful. Thank you so much for having me on. I also thank you for coming to our Plant-Based Diet series. I'd love to come back on. I hope you have a great interview with Dr. Falquier. Culinary medicine is a relatively new field, so you'll have a very interesting talk about what that is and what she does to help everyone out there.
She's in my home state of California, so it'll be easy to find a connection time. Thank you so much.
I encourage you to check out OrloNutrition.com as you'll find our features that you won't find anywhere else. I'm also going to throw a couple of recipes in there that are my favorites and plant-based to encourage you to add a few more plants to your diet. If you have questions about what we covered or topics that you'd like to see us dive more deeply into, hit us up on social channels @OrloNutrition. You can send me an email note directly to Hello@OrloNutrition.com.
As a reminder to all of our readers, if you visit our website, OrloNutrition, and you have any products that you'd like to try from the Omega-3s to the Immunity Boost, you can use the coupon code NWC10 to get an extra 10% off of your cart at checkout. This could mean savings of up to 37% with promotions that are presently running on the site. As we close this show, I hope that you'll raise a cup of your favorite beverage with me as I raise a cup of mine and say my closing words. Here is to your health.
Esther Garfin is the Founder and President of Alternative Food Network, a content production company and specialty multi-media resource at the intersection of food and personal best health. Esther is also the host of the podcast series "Plant Based Diet". Prior to starting Alternative Food Network, Esther worked as a lawyer in the entertainment industry in Toronto for 15+ years.