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Celebrity Health - James Wong

The science behind healthy eating

Plant scientist and gardening expert James Wong is a familiar face on our TV screens, thanks to shows such as Grow Your Own Drugs and Great British Garden Revival. He is also a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. The 35-year-old has authored several books, the latest of which is called How to Eat Better, and focuses on ways to boost the nutritional value of everyday foods using simple science.

© Image of James Wong courtesy of Jason Ingram

Q: What prompted you to write your latest book?

James: Well, as a plant scientist I read academic papers all the time for fun. I genuinely do! I read a lot for my previous book which was about gardening and how to grow crops that are full of flavour. I came across so many weird, random and fascinating facts about food and nutrition that I thought it could make a great book. It’s basically a guide to making everyday foods much healthier and tastier by changing the way you select, store and cook them, all based on the latest scientific evidence.

Q: What is your favourite scientific tip or trick that you have picked up from reading all those academic papers

James: Oh gosh, there are so many! One of my favourites is that if you add some avocado to a serving of tomato you can make the lycopene 400 per cent more bioavailable. Also, if you store apples or strawberries on a counter rather than in a fridge, they will have significantly more phytonutrients after a few days – and they taste better. These are all things that anyone can do without too much effort.

Q: Do you think a lot of people nowadays are confused about healthy eating?

James: Yes, there’s so much conflicting information out there and people have quite polarised views on what we should and shouldn’t be eating. I think there’s a bit of a myth that in order to be healthy you must buy food that’s expensive, exotic or hard to track down. I think people also feel that they have to follow very restrictive diets and that they can’t eat normal, everyday foods. All the information in the book is based on the best scientific evidence and the things that doctors and dieticians have been telling us for years: to eat lots of fruit, veg and whole grains and go easy on the red meat, fat and sugar.

Q: What are your favourite foods and why?

James: I have lots of different foods that I like but there are some varieties of everyday foods that contain more phytonutrients than others. So if you were to pick a pink grapefruit over a white grapefruit, it would contain 34 times more vitamin A. You also get twice the flavones, which are a group of chemicals that have been linked to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. Another simple swap would be to choose kale instead of iceberg lettuce. Kale has 30 times the vitamin K, 40 times the vitamin C and around 50 times the vitamin A of iceberg lettuce. Another good one is red onion as it has 100 times the polyphenols of white onions.

Q: Do you have a favourite healthy dish that you like to cook?

James: I love all food really. I describe myself as equal opportunities when it comes to food because I’ll eat anything! But I’m a big fan of curries as I grew up in South East Asia. They help to add a bit of sunshine to your life during the long winters in the UK. They can be perceived as quite indulgent but they’re not necessarily the fat and sugar bombs that people think they are.

Q: You’re well known as a plant scientist. Where does your love of all things botanical come from?

James: I get asked this question all the time! (Laughs) I think there’s an unspoken assumption that plants are a green, fuzzy backdrop to everyday life, so to be interested in them and to dedicate your life to studying them is a surprising thing. But to me it’s the exact opposite. I’m surprised that not everyone finds plants as interesting as I do! They’re the food we eat; the air we breathe is produced out of them; they’re in the medicines we take and our clothes are produced from them. Why would you not be fascinated by them?

Q: Were you outside gardening and tending to plants as a child?

James: Well, I was looking through some old photo albums with my mum recently and she found a photo of me aged 16 months sowing seeds. I was almost the same size as the pots! So you could say that I was gardening around the same time as I was learning to walk.

Q: What is your own garden like? Is it full of medicinal plants and vegetables?

James: Sadly not as I live in a flat in central London. So for the past 10 years I’ve been using my mum’s garden in Croydon as my allotment. So I travel down there every weekend or whenever I can and we get to enjoy free vegetables.

Q: What’s your top tip for growing your own fruit or vegetables?

James: Always grow fruit rather than vegetables if you can. There’s a lot of research to suggest that when people start out growing they prefer vegetables over fruit. I think this might be because people think that fruit is difficult to grow. But the reason why I’m suggesting it is the exact opposite. If you plant an apple tree and you keep on top of watering it for the first year you will have 50 years of apples without touching that tree. It will look after itself. But if you’re sowing carrots you will have to dig the ground, sow the seeds, thin them out and you’ll have to do that every year to barely get a harvest.

Q: All this gardening must keep you quite active, but do you do other types of exercise?

James: I used to go to the gym all the time but over the last year and a half I’ve been so busy writing a book and working on three different programmes. I’ve been travelling lots and I’ve been permanently jetlagged. I do spend a lot of time gardening though as you say. There’s some very interesting research that suggests that gardening burns up to twice the amount of calories as a gym session. Also you feel less tired because you’re distracted and not focusing on the timer on the treadmill. So not only are you getting fit but you’re getting some free tomatoes and fresh air to boot!

How to Eat Better by James Wong is published by Mitchell Beazley, £20

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