Wednesday, February 18, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Ricki Heller


In order to introduce author Ricki Heller, I have to take a kind of long and circuitous path, sort of like a large intestine. This simile will make more sense in a minute, trust me.

First, I’ll start by saying that someone can be a health-focused vegan and still not thrive optimally. Any number of equal opportunity afflictions from chronic headaches to Crohn’s disease can strike even the most health conscious of us, though we may have reduced the likelihood and intensity of these maladies by choosing antioxidant-rich, nutritionally-dense plant foods. Ailments still happen, though, as we are not perfect machines. These problems can make some of us – even those of us who rarely get sick – feel like failures when all the alleged health benefits of veganism don’t exactly kick in as promised.

Take yeast overgrowth, for example. Candida albicans is a normal part of the healthy gut flora but for those who have CRC, or candida-related complex (including myself), this yeast has become very aggressive and voracious, resulting in the damaging of the intestinal wall, causing sexy yeast byproducts and undigested food to penetrate the bloodstream. The end result of this yeast overgrowth can manifest in a profusion maladies: bloating, fatigue, escalating food sensitivities, weight gain, abdominal pain, skin irritations (including breakouts, rashes, eczema and hives), pervasive aches and pains, mental fog, anxiety and depression are just some of the consequences that often worsen over time due to candida overgrowth. Fun, glamorous stuff. Despite the persistence and discomfort of most of the symptoms of CRC, they fall under the vague terms of “malaise” and are not typically recognized by mainstream medical professionals, which creates even more of a silencing effect around this poorly understood condition, as if anything connected to the words yeast overgrowth didn’t already do that enough. To make matters worse, those of us in the vegan community who look to alternative healing modalities (many after being brushed off by conventional medical doctors) often find ourselves in a bizarre wasteland of Weston A. Price Foundation/Paleo recommendations, which are decidedly not animal-friendly and reek of quackery.

Thankfully, we have Ricki Heller to the rescue. Ricki, a registered holistic nutritionist, describes in her new book, Living Candida-Free: Conquer the Hidden Epidemic that’s Making You Sick, a longtime struggle with symptoms of yeast overgrowth and a worsening rash that eventually covered her torso as she had ineffective cream after ineffective cream prescribed to her by multiple doctors. Her personal experience with identifying and healing from CRC has made her something of a candida guru over the years. Her very informative new book offers her wisdom and experience, as well as more than 100 accessible recipes that go with her three-stage program to combat yeast overgrowth. Living Candida-Free is further bolstered by the explanatory chapter written by functional nutritionist Andrea Nakayama, who expertly takes this complicated and confusing subject and makes it comprehensible. Those of us with CRC finally have an excellent resource and plan of action for restoring vitality and wellness. For helping people who suffer from CRC find a real path to wellness without harming animals, Ricki Heller is a true vegan foodie and a rockstar.

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

Baking was certainly something that ran in my family. My aunt was a caterer, and my mom was a consummate from-scratch baker. As a result, I grew up in a home that had lots of homemade baked goods around all the time, and my sisters and I learned to bake from a young age. Fairly early on, that love extended to food in general, and once I went away to university and lived on my own, I really began to experiment with cooking new and different dishes. I think living in Toronto, the most multi-cultural city in the world, helps too, as there is a plethora of restaurants available for anyone who wants to explore different cuisines.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

What’s funny is that my mother wasn’t the best cook even though she did make everything from scratch. So I grew up on a fairly bland, typically North American diet of mostly meat and vegetables. Because my dad was a butcher, we had meat pretty much every day. I think that the typical rebellious nature of kids took hold and my sisters and I actually loved processed, packaged and prepared foods much more than the real foods we were getting at home. So, as soon as I was able, I started buying junk food outside the home, going to McDonald’s with friends, and so on. That led to some pretty abysmal eating habits in my 20s and 30s!

We rarely ate dinner together as a family because my dad’s hours were so crazy (he often didn’t get home until 8:30 or 9:00 PM), so we kids learned to grab what we could by ourselves on weeknights. So we established a Sunday brunch tradition in the house, because that was the one time we could count on everyone to be there at the same time. I guess that sort of did translate to my current preferences, since breakfast and brunch remain my favorite meals of the day.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

There’s an upscale restaurant near where I live called Terra, which used to offer a 7-course tasting menu with wine accompaniments. One year, my husband and I went for our anniversary, and he had the omnivore version while I ordered the vegan version. It was spectacular! I remember a roasted chickpea appetizer, a fabulous glazed sweet potato side dish, Portobello steak, and incredible chocolate truffles for dessert, among other things. We wanted to have it the following year, too, but by then they had stopped serving it.

A close second would be my first visit to Pure Food and Wine in New York City. That was another phenomenal meal, made even better by the group of fellow bloggers with whom my husband and I shared our evening.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

The dessert would likely be a seven-layer chocolate affair with all kinds of buttercream and shaved chocolate. I imagine a dinner party with Dorothy Parker wouldn’t be boring (but then I’d want to invite the rest of the Algonquin Round Table, too)!

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

That’s a tough one for me because I love vegan food so much, I kind of just like it all! I don’t know how common this is, but since I’m a baker by nature, I tend to notice flaws in baked goods the most. One thing I used to find when I would buy baked goods was how they were flat or heavy on occasion. I think that’s because vegan baked goods require extra lift—leaveners like baking powder and baking soda—since they’re lacking the leavening power that’s usually supplied by eggs. But I think the quality of prepared vegan baked goods, and vegan food in general, has come a long way since I first started eating this way back in the ‘80s! 

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

My latest ingredient love is psyllium husks. Not very sexy, but this plant husk is a great alternative to xanthan gum or guar gum for gluten-free baking. It also happens to be helpful as an anti-candida food, so I try to use it as often as I can. 

7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?

I think I’d love Ethiopian food. It’s naturally gluten-free and plant-heavy, and there seems to be an infinite variety of Ethiopian dishes available to try. Plus, I’ve loved every Ethiopian meal I’ve ever eaten.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

Once I realized that the diet I preferred was something called “vegan,” I sought out vegan cookbooks. The first one I found that also fit my dietary restrictions at the time was SimpleTreats by Ellen Abraham and that had a profound influence on my baking. In fact, Abraham’s book was, in part, the inspiration for my own organic bakery, Bake It Healthy. I also loved Dreena Burton’s books from day one and still find that her recipes always appeal to me, and are perfectly reliable every time.

Starting my blog also opened up an entire world of vegan connections that I would never otherwise have had. I’m so grateful for all the friends I’ve made through my blog, some of whom have become friends offline as well.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

Well, given where I’ve been putting my attention lately, it would have to be candida. This syndrome (caused by too much yeast in the body) is one that is thankfully gaining more attention in the media, but still has a ways to go before it’s recognized by conventional medicine as a bona fide illness. Because it’s so often an “invisible illness” with no overt signs, people can be labeled as hypochondriacs or overly anxious and doctors believe there’s nothing wrong with them. And getting treatment is double difficult for anyone on a plant-based diet, since almost all of the common anti-candida diets out there are closer to Paleo than vegan. I wanted to prove that you can beat candida on a vegan diet. It’s eminently doable!

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

Veganism is finally gaining recognition and coming into its own in the world.


  1. Marla,
    Thank you so much for allowing me to share this space today with your readers,and thanks for that comprehensive introduction! It was a pleasure chatting with you. I hope Vegan Street's readers find the information helpful!

    All the best,

  2. Hi Ricki! Thank you. It was my pleasure to feature you!


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