My story starts in India. I am from a south Indian state called Karnataka. My father, a civil engineer by profession, was headhunted from Mumbai where my parents were living, and I spent the first 18 years of my life in Kolkata in West Bengal, the youngest and most spoilt of three children. Interestingly, a few months after my birth, my father decided to change my name to Nivedita, after the Irish social activist and disciple of Swami Vivekananda. The name means an offering to God, an interesting choice as I was born to agnostic/atheist parents. My parents were very forward thinking for their times, and this worked particularly well for me to achieve my dreams.
I was diagnosed with polio (I was born before the vaccine was given to babies) at the age of 10 months and my mother singlehandedly did all the physiotherapy and massages for me, ensuring I did not weight bear for 6 months, as advised by the doctors back then. I was left with no real residual symptoms, so it was probably a mild attack. My father was greatly responsible for encouraging me in track events, as I was naturally sporty and a very fast runner. He never failed to wonder every time I won a track event, that I could have been paralysed and not been able to walk like so many afflicted with this terrible condition. No wonder I was so spoilt.
I was born a vegetarian to parents, who happened to be vegetarian by birth. However, my mother was an ethical objector and preferred us not to eat meat. I of course did taste it, liked it and so ate it once or twice a year as a teenager without thinking of the implications, when I visited my friends’ homes for lunch. Mum’s rules are meant to be broken, right?
I grew up eating a plant based diet with some dairy but no cheese or eggs really, as these are not considered vegetarian in India. (dairy was very expensive in those days as was oil) in the form of a small cup of milk and yoghurt daily. It was considered quite normal in those days for the milkman to come to the door and milk the cow in front of the lady of the house to insist there was no dilution. I think they still managed to do that, helping our health inadvertently. I remember moaning at my mother that my friends all ate cereal with milk and eggs and cheese on weekends and I just got home cooked vegetarian meals 3 times a day and homemade treats, as we rarely ate out. My mother though was a fantastic cook and as a kid I devoured everything that was put in front of me. My lunch never made it to lunch time and was eaten by break time, with my friends always begging for titbits. I never learned to cook until I was in medical school, when I would make my famous tomato soup but really got into cooking much later. I did know though what delicious food tasted like. I am not entirely sure how my mother managed all the cooking (my father did the shopping) whilst holding down jobs as an English and History teacher in senior school, taking tuitions after school, translating English articles to local languages, writing for local advertisements but she did a fantastic job. My father was our main source of education especially on weekends, when we would walk for miles to the British museum or science museum or some educational exhibition to nourish our brains. For every mile we walked, we were given the money we saved on taking the bus and we could buy roadside sweets and street food when no one was looking.
Med School Years
I went to medical school in a small sleepy town by the sea called Pondicherry near Chennai, thousands of miles away on a 2 day train journey from Kolkata. It was one of the top medical schools in India and competition was fierce as it was an All India examination, sat by boys and girls and selected from the same pool. It was quite telling that we were only 6 girls in a class of 55 students, as girls were not really allowed to travel far away from home, even though they would go to university. My father of course was ambitious for his children, and nothing was out of bounds just because I was a girl.
Medical school was a default choice for me as my sister and brother were both reading medicine and being a doctor was considered to be a wonderful profession for women and my father was particular that all of us studied to the highest level, as both my parents came from educated backgrounds, with one of my grandfathers an English teacher and the other a local scholar. . My older sister and brother became doctors and so did I, although I was happier running on the track. But I was lucky to have found a profession that has suited me perfectly and one that I love, allowing me to grow all the time.
I met Rajiv, my fellow medical student at the age of 18 and we pretty much fell in love when we spent time together at a college sports festival. Here in Pondicherry, the locals spoke pidgin French and Tamil, so as medical students we had to learn both. Two completely foreign languages as I grew up speaking English, Bengali, Hindi and Kannada, the language my parents spoke at home sometimes, so that we remembered our origins. We married after medical school at the age of 24 and I learnt to speak yet another Indian language, the language spoken by my husband’s family, Konkani.
The food was terrible in the hostel but was vegetarian. However, we would escape to the city once a month and gorge on the untold delights of fried food, chicken curry and Indian sweets. I played basketball and a lot of sport and graduated with honours from this rather wonderful medical school in the South of India close to the sea.
I then went on to pursue further qualifications in Delhi in the Oxford of India, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Getting a seat here was like gold dust and Rajiv and I could believe our luck when he got residency in orthopaedics and me in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I passed my MD and received the President of India Gold Medal for my achievements. I also became a mother to a delightful daughter, Rohini in 1989 but working 100 hour weeks and being a new mother was terribly tough, as there was no concept of maternity leave at that time.
A new Life Chapter and moving to the UK
By 29, I was supposed to be ready to be a consultant. In no way did we feel ready to settle down. We had a lovely little daughter but were hungry to see the world. Life seemed to offer more, so we packed our bags, pregnant with our second daughter we made our way to Scotland, secure in the knowledge we would return in 4 years to a comfortable life in India as we had heard that the United Kingdom sent you home in a few years while if you went to the United States, one never returned. 29 years later we are still in the UK and have adopted it as our second home. Of course, the fact we ended up staying on is another story, one that I try not to dissect too much. I have no regrets and love my job and life, although very different from what we had both imagined for ourselves back in India, all those years ago.
It was quite a culture shock arriving at Dumfries, a small town close to England. I spoke perfect English, had read and thought in English, but was struggling to understand the local dialect. I soon picked it all up, including the Glaswegian dialect. The winter months took their toll as life was quite lonely as an immigrant and despite having a gorgeous baby girl in January, with all the snow and ice, without family support it was tough for us as a family.
I was pregnant when we moved to Scotland. Having never really, cooked meat in my life before I washed some mince as one would wash vegetables. To my great horror, I saw blood running out from the sieve which for the first time focused where this was coming from. I became a vegetarian overnight but did not enforce this on my daughters or husband, as I felt they needed to make their own choice once they were older. I regret it now. My daughter said if we were standing on the road and a car came towards us, would you not have moved us out of the way. Why then when you knew eating meat was wrong at every level, did you to stop us? I had no answer.
By this time, my brother had turned vegan having watched the horrors of animal (monkey labs) experimentation in the US. My younger daughter turned vegetarian and then vegan and by 2003, my daughters and I had turned vegan. My daughter turned vegetarian and then vegan – I thought I would humour her but realised there was no convincing her otherwise. She loved sausages and I wondered how she would do without. My husband stopped eating red meat by 1996 but continued eating fish and eggs and dairy, as he thought it was healthy. It was a tough and lonely life as we knew no one who was vegan and there was a lot of eye rolling when we requested alternate meals. I became a good cook, especially good at baking and exploring other cuisines, as I was determined that my daughters would be well nourished. They grew tall and looked healthy and were full of beans, excelling at school and at Oxford University.
Over the years, we moved 13 times as junior doctors, passed all our exams and settled into life in the UK (Dumfries, Aylsham, Norwich, Reading, Welwyn Garden City, Worksop and London were some of the places we lived). The girls both got used to us working long hours, knew never to be sick, became voracious readers as we could not afford fancy gifts or gadgets and grew up seeing both of us sharing all parental duties equally, although Rajiv was always the parent they went to for advice and support. Both sets of grandparents visited over summer holidays to help out and were instrumental in shaping the minds of our daughters.
Rajiv and I both landed plum roles as consultants in London and we thrived in our professions. I was passionate about education, medical and public education. So, I started questioning the impact I was having, wanting to reach out to more than my patients. I was operating and treating women but was beginning to realise the extent women were suffering from poor health and many of the illnesses seemed to be pointing to lifestyle.
Women for Women’s Health
I felt so passionate about the state of women’s health and the health of the general public, that I felt I was not fulfilling my primary role as a doctor if I didn’t share what I had learned and observed over the years. I took pride in my role as examiner, training programmed director, robotic surgeon but felt something was missing.
About 6 months before in early 2003, I became prematurely menopausal. I was suffering quite significantly from hot flushes, sleepless nights, having initially thought my symptoms were due to stress (there was no family history and if you have a met a doctor, most doctors think they are invincible and are often the worst patients). My older sister and mother were fine but on eliciting further family history, it turned out there was indeed a family history of premature ovarian failure.
I would have gone on to HRT but around this time, I changed my diet to support my daughter, Naina. I soon realised I was feeling rather healthy and my symptoms seemed to have disappeared. Little did I know that my vegan diet would work as medicine for me. In fact, I never needed hormone replacement treatment I still did not think it had anything to do with the food I was eating. Doctors are not really taught about nutrition or that food has anything to do with illness. Quite the opposite to the Eastern cultures.
I realised if I was to keep my daughters healthy, I would need to adopt a completely different approach to food and cooking to nourish my daughters ( one could be vegan eating crisps, white bread and drinking Pepsi, none of which was healthy – what I was about to discover was a eye opener – as I changed my diet to become completely plant based and vegan. I had been eating a rather poor vegetarian diet – with a lot of focus on milk, yoghurt and cream and cheese), I noted my skin started glowing, my hot flushes and night sweats reduced dramatically, and I was feeling very energetic. I started now keenly observing my patients and becoming very interested in nutrition and its effects on our body.
I was asked to give a lecture to a group of general practitioners several years ago. That evening, a breast surgeon from abroad was asked to talk about breast cancer prevention and I was following on.
I was horrified as I listened intently to this talk that there was no mention of the simple dietary and lifestyle changes one should consider advising all women with regards to prevention of cancer. Either the surgeon felt the doctors already knew about it(?) or did not feel it was an important or relevant issue to address. This was the final straw that made me finally shake off my apprehension as whether I should make some changes in the way I practice. It was not a question of choice anymore. I felt I was just as complicit as this doctor in not educating doctors and women and the public if I did not voice my opinion on the effects of what we are doing to our bodies and as a result to our reproductive organs.
I decided to go part time and was able to explore my creative side. In 2014, I was inspired to set up a not for profit women’s health service (Women for Women’s Health), after a growing realisation that by empowering a woman through information and open discussion, not only her health improved but also that of her entire family. I recognised, that even in this modern age, it is us women who determine largely what is eaten at the dinner table or in front of the television. I was passionate about educating women and started to provide reliable medical and lifestyle information for the general public, doctors, workplaces and schools. I was committed to improving women’s health through public education and education of health professionals.
I see about 4000 patients a year and have been closely watching people’s eating habits for years. Hence my passion for this. Nothing seems to work until they turn their diet and lifestyle around. I am also seeing the devastation created by these diseases both physically and on the families and for us as surgeons and doctors as we can’t make these people better with what we have currently.
I felt this knowledge should be available to people of all ages and from all walks of life and started to run workshops with the aim to educate and empower women to make better health choices.
My family and I have personally benefited from following a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps this is because I am a doctor, a practising gynaecologist and surgeon for over 35 years who fell into nutrition by chance.
My Hopes and Future Outlook
I hope what I am writing will make not just interesting reading but also will make you consider again what you are eating and what you are feeding your children and partners.
It will also give us a chance to discover simple delicious and nutritious home cooked meals and become even more imaginative.
For me, had I not become prematurely menopausal I am not sure I would have believed in the strength of self healing and the power of food as medicine. Also, in 2012, I succumbed to pressure from friends and family and started having small amounts of dairy and eggs, mostly when I was eating out. I started putting on weight and my cholesterol levels went up but most importantly, I felt ashamed that this lifestyle and ethical choice I so believed in, was not one I was able to follow.
My husband who continued to eat eggs, some dairy and fish as he thought it was healthy, became diabetic and overweight in spite of several diet attempts and three years ago became a whole food plant based vegan after watching the movie, Forks over Knives. Definitely, a case of husband not listening to wife’s advice for all those years but taking advice from a stranger. His only regret now is not becoming vegan earlier. Needless to say, he has lost a significant amount of weight (50 pounds) on a plant based diet and kept it off and reversed his diabetes. He has a strong family history of diabetes.
Last August, the American Board of Lifestyle Medicine rolled out the Lifestyle Medicine diploma to the UK and Australia and Rajiv and I now amongst the first doctors to be board certified Lifestyle Medicine Physicians in the UK, a really proud moment for us as this is life changing for people and especially as we are both surgeons to sit a medical exam was great.
I have been advising patients in women’s health and the impact of a whole food plant based diet on a variety of conditions including PCOS, endometriosis, breast cancer, menopause, fertility and womb cancer since several years. Now, I have the necessary tools to assess and follow them up, recording pitfalls and success stories.