Healthier Food for Thought

Tara Gardner is a Pastry Culinarian and Owner/Founder of Sweet Tower Novelty Cakes & Desserts. She started Sweet Tower Novelty Cakes in 2007 in Atlanta, Ga, her home of about 20 years until her recent move to South Florida.Born and raised in Brooklyn New York, Tara started cooking and baking alongside her mother and grandmother since before she was 9 years old, learning all about Jamaican culture and expression through food and family. She specializes in custom 3D cake designs and flavor creating new recipes as well as creating scrumptious gluten free and vegan baked goods.

Tara Gardner

I love food! All food! I mean Foodie just barely describes my passion for all things food. I have struggled with weight for most of my life and eventually I found myself adding high blood pressure, acne, stress, and depression to the list. As the reality of my mortality began to set in, I started to reevaluate the food decisions I make. For me, that meant transitioning to a plant-based diet.

This is in no way my plea for the world to go vegan or plant based, but rather to highlight some of the benefits I have experienced in my transition and to hopefully debunk some of the myths that come along with the idea of practicing a plant-based diet. Mind you, a diet is everything you’re eating, not the restrictions you put on yourself. So a plant based diet simply  means consuming mostly fruits and vegetables, including beans(legumes), leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. A plant-based diet may assist in lowering the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and death from such causes.

Diet is a key contributor to many chronic diseases and conditions affecting our communities. Certainly, we are all affected by poor food choices, but the harder it is to gain access to healthy ingredients, the more likely we are to reach for processed, unhealthy foods. Therefore, to address and ultimately eliminate health disparities, it is important to challenge ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of how various factors, including diet and nutrition, contribute to our health. 

Diets rich in meat are linked to a range of health problems, from heart disease and strokes to diabetes and some cancers. Not to mention, the higher the demand for animal-based proteins and foods, the higher the cost, making it harder for many of us to access. Food insecurity is one of the main issues affecting black and brown communities today. Broward County is roughly 30% Black and according to Feeding South Florida nearly a quarter million people here are food insecure. We then find ourselves depending on drive through windows for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and reaching for prepackaged processed foods to satisfy cravings. Partially because of this, it is becoming more popular for families and individuals to grow their own fruits and vegetables at home and community gardens are developing more often. We can build on this trend with a willingness to renew the way we think about our health.

I have been plant based for just over a year thus far and some of the benefits I have already experienced are weight loss, clearer skin, and my blood pressure is more stable. I have also noticed way more energy and a more positive mood throughout the day. 

When one is accustomed to eating a certain way, it can seem like a difficult transition to a plant-based diet. The challenge, for me, was dairy. Oh man, dairy! Cheeses, ice cream, did I mention CHEESE? I thought that alone would take me out. However, with a little digging and my health goal in mind, I was able to find substitutions that would not only curb my cravings but create newer healthy ones.

A few staple ingredients in my home that help to round out my meals include:

Mushrooms- so many varieties, each a different texture and flavor, great for all types of savory meals;

Unsweetened Coconut milk- great for desserts or creamy savory sauces; 

Nutritional Yeast; great for adding a nutty almost cheesy flavor to savory dishes in addition to some well needed nutrients.

 These are just a few and the possibilities are endless. In addition to eliminating meat and dairy, I have added more fresh vegetables and fruits to my diet and learned to create meals around them.
Personally, I find cooking therapeutic, so for me it has been fun to explore new ingredients and recipes to ensure that I am not eating the same boring meal every day or living off bread, pasta, and potatoes. As beautiful of a life that would be, that is a great way to fail in this transition and defeats the purpose, which is not only to avoid ingesting animal products but to also increase the nutrients we need to become healthier. I know this is not the case for everyone. I mean, let’s face it. It takes time and planning to eat well. But what part of life worth living doesn’t to some degree? Practice makes progress. 

Your food is supposed to be your medicine and your medicine is supposed to be your food.

(African Proverb)

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