'There is no magic cure for ageing, but you can slow it down with good food'
Raw food advocate Bernadette Bohan looks much younger than her 60 years thanks to a plant-based diet. She gives Katie Byrne some food for thought
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a nutrient-rich, primarily plant-based diet promotes healing of the body. The most compelling evidence, however, is in the overall vitality of vegans and vegetarians. Their skin tends to be more supple, their eyes brighter and hair glossier. They don't look their age.
Country singer Emmylou Harris (67) is an advertisement for the vegetarian lifestyle, while former supermodel Christie Brinkley (61), who describes herself as a "flexible vegan" (she eats cheese), has the glow of a woman half her age.
And raw food advocate and author Bernadette Bohan, who has released a new cookbook, Raw: Recipes for Radiant Living, which features immune-boosting, nurturing recipes made from minimally cooked and unprocessed ingredients, looks a decade younger than her 60 years.
She is, however, modest when I mention how well she looks for her age. "Well, it's a good job you don't see me first thing in the morning," she laughs.
Does she have good genes or a good beautician? No, she rails. She attributes it all to her diet, which she radically changed 15 years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time.
"Look, there is no magic cure," she continues. "You are going to age.
"But you can slow down the process by eating good food that nourishes the cells and strengthens the immune system."
As Bernadette overhauled her diet, she began to observe significant improvements to her overall wellbeing, including better eyesight and an easing of the symptoms of arthritis. She says she has more energy now than she had in her 30s.
"I've noticed that the figure doesn't change with this type of diet," she adds. "I had middle-age spread at 46. Of course, that's the least of your worries when you're diagnosed with cancer, but the spread disappeared when I changed my diet - and it hasn't come back!"
Bernadette is as fastidious about what she puts on her body as what she puts in her body. She bathes in filtered water and uses Australian skincare range, Sukin Organics. "It's inexpensive, it smells gorgeous and it doesn't include irritants such as sulphates and parabens."
I wonder if the dietary changes helped her manage the menopause. "I absolutely sailed through it," she answers.
"A very good friend of mine was going through a particularly bad menopause when I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation (for breast cancer). She told me that the menopause would be worse than the treatment!"
Bernadette experienced some symptoms - "I had massive hot flushes" - but as she changed her diet she could feel the feel the symptoms easing off.
The Dublin native has completely overhauled her lifestyle, yet she concedes that her lifestyle wasn't particularly unhealthy to begin with: "I didn't eat many sugary things. I ate fruit and veg every day. Yes, I had a glass of red wine in the evening, but that was about the height of it."
These days she has a vegetable juice every morning. She eats sprouted beans and seeds. She also takes supplements: "Chlorella is great if you have sugar cravings."
She has gone from getting her "five a day" to making fruit and vegetables the mainstay of her three meals a day.
If you think this all sounds very virtuous but not particularly enticing, rest assured, the proof is in the pudding, or rather the lemon meringue pie featured in her latest cookbook. It satiates the sweet tooth with raisins, desiccated coconut and the natural sweetener, stevia.
Elsewhere there's a "divine and decadent" tiramisu, which is made sweet using dates and shredded coconut, as well as an ice cream recipe made from cream nut milk.
Mains include carb-free spaghetti with sweet pepper sauce using courgette instead of pasta and a roasted garlic cottage pie, while snacks include onion crisps and smoked chipotle hummus.
The first step towards a raw lifestyle is simply adding more raw vegetables to your diet.
"The cooking process," explains Bernadette, "destroys 50% of the minerals, 75% of the vitamins and 100% of the enzymes, hormones, oxygen and phytonutrients in food.
"All cellular life depends on enzymes, so much so that without them, there would be no life."
There is also evidence to suggest that enzyme-rich food can help in the fight against cancer, and Bernadette has survived cancer twice.
In 1988 she was diagnosed with lymphoma, for which she was treated with steroids, and 15 years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
The turning point came when she began to follow the simple advice of Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, who said "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food" along with the modern research conducted by the likes of Dr Colin Campbell, who discovered that predominately plant-based diets can lower the risk of chronic diseases. Crucially, the cancer hasn't returned.
Bernadette went on to share her story in books such as The Choice, The Survivor's Mindset and Eat Yourself Well, but she is quick to add that this is not about changing your lifestyle to promote healing.
"It's not a miracle or magic cure," she says. "This is about giving the immune system the best chance to fight disease."
She contends that vegetarians can have the "protein levels of the world's top athletes and sportspeople by eating plant-based foods".
The trick is making sure portions are both adequate and consistent.
Bernadette's husband and son still like to eat meat occasionally. Her youngest, Julie (20), was the most responsive to the new eating plan as she was five when her mother became interested in raw food. Meanwhile, her daughter Sarah (30) joined her mum and sister by embarking on a plant-based diet three years ago.
Perhaps the strongest message in Bernadette's new book is that this doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing lifestyle, although she reckons that we'll all be closer to all rather than nothing in the years to come.
"This is just like the tobacco industry," she adds.
"I was telling people how bad sugar was for the body 15 years ago. Yes, I would have loved for people to listen but I'm just glad that people are now getting educated and wising up. Eventually we will reach a critical mass."
As for those doubters and naysayers, surely the vitality of Bernadette, will give them some food for thought.
- Raw: Recipes for Radiant Living is published by Gill & MacMillan priced £19.99
Eat yourself young ...
Bernadette's top 10 foods for anti-ageing ...
CUCUMBERS contain a host of vitamins. Just one cucumber contains Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc
CELERY is rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc; these minerals are the building blocks of cells, bones, hair, skin and teeth
LETTUCES contain silica, which is great for connective tissue and a clearer complexion
STRAWBERRIES and RASPBERRIES promote the production of collagen, which is a part of the connective tissue that helps the elasticity and constant renewal of skin cells
Traditionally, BEETROOT was eaten for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is a strong antioxidant that is high in fibre and iron. Beetroot is also rich in silica, which is good for our skin, connective tissues and bone health
TOMATOES are a fruit, so they should always be eaten on an empty stomach. They are a rich source of vitamin C and lycopene, which helps to mop up damaging free radicals in the body that can harm our cells
BUCKWHEAT lowers blood sugars more slowly than wheat-based cereals. With a low glycaemic index, it may be helpful in the management of diabetes. It also improves appetite and is great for digestion
SEEDS such as sunflower, flax and sesame are rich in 'good fats', which are beneficial at keeping hair shiny, nails strong and skin young-looking
AVOCADOS are also rich in "good fats". One of the best strategies you can employ to nourish skin is to put more nourishing fats into your diet
WHEATGRASS increases energy and builds a healthy immune system and it's loaded with large quantities of nutrients