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Have Your Cake and Great Health Too with "Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free" by Ricki Heller

Posted Oct 26 2013 2:33pm
Ricki Heller, who writes a very  entertaining and popular blog  has recently released a gorgeous new book, Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free. Her recipes are not only delicious and creative, but also good for you. They are made from whole foods, with no gluten or sugar added. You really can have your cake and great health too!

As a tester for the book, I can attest to the variety and quality of the recipes in this big, beautiful volume. I don't usually do a lot of baking or preparation of desserts but I (and my family) really enjoyed experimenting with all the nutritious ingredients and flavours that Ricki uses in her recipes. You really can have yummy treats that taste amazingly good without the sugar and other less than desirable ingredients in standard desserts! Also, a lot of the "gluten-free" baked goods on the market are made with starches that are less than nutritious, so it is really great to have a resource that uses whole foods instead.

I was happy to ask Ricki some questions about her latest book. I was also interested in Ricki's strategy to maintain a healthy vegan diet.

Ricki Heller

Q: When you studied to become a nutritionist, was your intention to become a cookbook author?

Not in the least! Although I had already published a book by then (I wrote a college textbook while teaching English), I never, ever thought I’d write a cookbook. If anything, I had always dreamt of becoming a fiction writer (like every other English major, I have boxes of short stories and novels in draft form in my basement). My first cookbook came about really as a result of requests from customers of my bakery, Bake it Healthy. When I closed the bakery, people kept asking me if they could buy the baked goods directly from me. I decided it made more sense for me to publish a cookbook so that they could continue to enjoy the treats at home; that became Sweet Freedom.  Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free  was the next logical step, taking some of those recipes and revising them to be in line with my current diet by making them gluten-free and low glycemic. I also added some new recipes to Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free, plus some of the more popular recipes from my blog.

Q: Why have you chosen to focus on sweet treats?

Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a total dessert fiend! When I say that I’m a chocoholic or sugar addict, I actually mean it.  Part of the reason I became sick and was eventually diagnosed with candida overgrowth was because of my penchant for sweet things. I’ve loved dessert since I was a little girl, baking my first batch of chocolate chip cookies at age six (with Mom’s supervision, of course). I grew up in a house where there was always something home baked sitting on the kitchen counter.
So, there was just no doubt in my mind that when I had to change my diet to remove all high glycemic sweeteners (and, in fact, all sweeteners of every kind for the first while), that I’d somehow have to find a way to still enjoy my beloved desserts.

Another reason I focused on dessert (and breakfast-based baked goods) is that those are the foods that most people find hardest to replace when they go gluten-free, or sugar-free, or egg-free, or dairy-free. When you switch from wheat flour to gluten-free flour, it’s the baked goods that are tough to replicate (other foods, like fruits and vegetables, are already gluten-free, so no need for fancy kitchen magic there). I wanted to show people that it’s really not as difficult as they may imagine to make the leap to baking with healthier, allergy-friendly ingredients.

Q: You have followed a vegetarian and then vegan diet (for the most part) for many years but ran into health problems after about 15 years. Why do you think that happened? 
I think you’re referring to the period when I was told to go back to eating meat? When I first became ill with candida in my late 30s, the doctor I saw conducted a battery of blood tests and proclaimed that my albumen levels were perilously low, and that I had to start eating animal proteins again. This was after about 15 years of a primarily vegan diet. I remember the day well; that night, my husband and I went out to eat at The Keg (a steakhouse); I ate a steak; and I felt as if a rock were rolling around in my stomach for the following two days.

When I think of how I used to eat in those days before I attended nutrition school, I cringe. I have no doubt that I became ill because I was a classic “junk-food vegan.” My favorite foods were chocolate, cake, cookies, pasta and muffins, with a side of potato chips.  In those days, I could easily go for an entire day without so much as one vegetable serving! No wonder I was lacking nutrients and developed a case of candida—I was not only feeding the yeast exactly what it wanted to thrive, but I was also going through a very stressful time of my life back then, with both the death of my mom and my divorce less than a year apart. It wasn’t until I started seeing a naturopath and studied holistic nutrition that I began to understand what a healthy vegan diet was all about, and I was able to turn my health around.

Q: After learning more about nutrition, how did you change your diet in order to make it more healthful? 

Well, for one thing, I began to eat A LOT more vegetables! It was during my days at nutrition school that I first sampled kale, chard, collards, nutritional yeast, chia seeds, seaweeds and probably dozens more foods that I eat on a regular basis now.  And I began to drink green smoothies and fresh juices, both of which I adore! I learned about how to ensure my body absorbs the protein from plant-based sources, how to combine foods for optimum calcium absorption, as well as which plant-based foods are the best sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber. I broadened my ingredient repertoire and began to eat a much more varied menu.

Another thing I did was start eating nuts and seeds. Oddly, I hardly ever ate nuts before I learned about how healthy they are. I also learned that most commercially available nuts are NOT very good for you, since they are likely rancid and have been roasted in very unhealthy oils. Currently, I buy my own raw nuts and then toast them myself.

Finally, I began to drink more water.  During my year at school, I drank a glass of water with lemon almost every morning, a great habit that has fallen off since then (and one I’m trying to re-incorporate in my daily routine now). I do drink more water in general, though, than I ever did before.

Q: What do you think are the most important things to put into practice to maintain a healthy vegan lifestyle and avoid potential pitfalls?

Well, some I’ve mentioned above, such as varying the foods you eat and ensuring that you combine foods for proper protein assimilation. With a vegan diet, you can certainly acquire all the protein you need, but you must ensure that you do eat from a variety of food groups within the day—for instance, beans/legumes, nuts and seeds, or whole grains. Any combination of those will work to provide a complete protein source.

Dark green leafy vegetables are also a powerhouse of nutrition, and I try to eat at least one to two servings a day. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with osteopenia, and by increasing my intake of greens, beans, and daily walks, I reversed the diagnosis in one year.
I’d also recommend taking a daily vitamin B12 supplement and perhaps vitamin D for most people.  There are lots of other things to keep in mind with a healthy diet, but those are some of the main points that have worked well for me.

Q: Do you have a favourite recipe or recipes from the book? 

This is such a tough question!! As I’ve mentioned before, I really do love them all. However, some that come to mind are the Allergy-Free Chocolate Buttercream Frosting, a great recipe for anyone with food allergies. It contains no gluten, grains, nuts, soy, corn, eggs, dairy or high glycemic sweeteners, yet it’s light and fluffy and can be piped for decorating cakes or cupcakes. It also holds its shape at room temperature. That’s the frosting you see swirled on vanilla cupcakes on the cover of the book.

I also love the Fluffy Fruited Pancakes, which are very light and cakey, and provide a good amount of protein to start your day so you won’t have a crash mid-morning. And the chocaholic in me has to recommend at least one of the brownies in the book (there are five brownie recipes in total!), such as the Sweet Potato Brownies. Those are my “go-to” recipe when I want to impress people who may be skeptical about “free-from” baking. They find out pretty quickly that my treats are just as delicious as any others they could eat.

Q: I am curious about what is next for Ricki Heller - are you planning on writing another book and, if so, can you tell us anything about it?

This is just between you and me (shh, don’t tell anyone!), but yes, another book is planned. The next one is going to focus more on all kinds of dishes, including savory ones and other courses like appetizer and soup/salad. Though of course it will also contain desserts. . . I couldn’t write a book without those!  

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