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Celebrity Health – Dr Rupy Aujla

Image of Dr Rupy Aujla © Andrew Burton

Dr Rupy Aujla speaks to Liz Parry about how his own health challenges led him on a mission to help people live healthier, happier lives using evidence-based food and lifestyle medicine

When Dr Rupy Aujla was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2009 at the age of 24, he was inspired to improve his diet and lifestyle. Since taking a holistic approach to his health and wellbeing, Dr Rupy has not only overcome his heart condition but he is now passionate about changing other people’s lives for the better through nutrition. Now, aged 36, he is the host of the Doctor’s Kitchen podcast, a regular face on prime-time television and a Sunday Times best-selling author, who has recently launched his third book Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1.

Tell us about your personal health journey and how you overcame your heart condition.

Dr Rupy: My personal medical journey started in 2009 when I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (AF) which is a heart condition causing the heart to beat exceptionally fast and irregularly. In my case I didn’t need to have an electro cardioversion the first time I had an episode, but then I had two or three episodes every week and so I became a patient very early on in my own medical career. The reasons as to why I was affected by Atrial Fibriliation still haven’t been discovered. I had every investigation you could imagine – from electrophysiology studies, cardiac MRIs, echocardiograms to blood tests – you name it.

I saw multiple cardiologists from across London, including some of the best in their field globally. I was offered something called an ablation, which is where you put a guide wire through the major vessel in the groin, and then you essentially burn an area around the pulmonary vein that enters the heart. This aims to stop misfiring cells and ring fence them, so they don’t cause the irregular rhythm. I was definitely going to go for that because I am a conventionally trained doctor and, at the time, a 24-year-old who was being advised by a number of different colleagues, senior people in the industry, and in the medical field. My mum was actually the first person to say to me that maybe I should look at my diet and my lifestyle before I entertained such a drastic procedure. At the time I was completely against this idea and, if I’m honest to appease her, I decided to take six months to try and improve my diet and lifestyle, and that was with the blessing of my cardiologists.

What changes did you make?

Dr Rupy: I continued to take medications when I needed to. I was on a medication to slow the heart down and I was taking an anti-arrhythmic medication, but I switched things up. I was eating cereals in the morning, sandwiches for lunch and just whatever I could cook in the evenings as well. I had a stressful lifestyle; I was a new junior doctor working on a busy ward, having to do night shifts and learning a lot of things on the job – it was super stressful. But I just changed one thing at a time. So, I changed out my cereal and in came nuts, seeds and a higher fibre breakfast. For my lunches I never used to leave work without my Tupperware, in fact I was called ‘Tupperware boy’ by my consultant when I was a junior, and I basically increased my plant intake. It was the very simple changes that I compounded over time. I started meditating, I took up yoga and tried to do everything in my power to improve my sleep. Although I was still working as a junior doctor, I never gave up my dream of being fully qualified and working in medicine.

After about a year and a half of fastidiously tracking my AF episodes, I noticed I didn’t have an episode for months. That then became six months, then 12 months and I haven’t had an episode since. I went from two to three episodes per week to zero over about a year and a half. That’s really what prompted me to answer two questions:

a) Why wasn’t I taught this at medical school? And

b) how on earth had this happened?

My personal journey is just that: it’s a personal journey. It’s an anecdote and it doesn’t mean that everyone can achieve this. However, it was my experience. It has made me a lot more passionate about food as medicine, nutritional medicine, and has prompted me to study and do a deep dive into the literature. That is what ultimately led to the creation of the Doctor’s Kitchen because I’m trying to empower people to recognise the power of food, the power of their plates, in helping to lead healthier, happier lives. It’s basically an open, honest conversation that I have with patients – still today – but magnified using social media platforms, books, podcasts, TV appearances etc.

Are you still practising medicine or has your work with the Doctor’s Kitchen taken over?

Dr Rupy: I trained in general practice and still work in emergency medicine; working in clinical medicine is very much a part of my identity. In fact, during the pandemic I was working more, pretty much full time. But usually the way I balance it is to work part time with the clinical work and then balance that with all my other duties and responsibilities. This includes things such as maintaining the podcast, research, completing my Nutritional Medicine master’s at the University of Surrey and working in my non-profit ‘Culinary Medicine’ which educates medical students and doctors in the foundations of nutrition as well as how to cook, for both self-care and patient care.

How would you describe your approach to healthy eating and cooking?

Dr Rupy: The healthy eating principles I always bang on about are: eating whole – so as minimally refined as possible – eating quality fats like nuts or seeds, and eating fibre. This is something that is universally lacking in all of our diets from beans, pulses and other high fibre items. Also, eating plant-focused is important, meaning the majority of your plate is plants. This doesn’t mean 100 per cent vegan or vegetarian, but you really need to be getting towards 85 to 95 per cent plant-based. I also say eat colourfully so you’re getting a good variety of all those different plants with the thousands of plant chemicals they carry. As well as the essential micro-nutrients that we know are so beneficial and important for us!

What do you tend to eat during a typical day?

Dr Rupy: I’ll probably start off with leftovers, so a lot of the time I have a savoury breakfast rather than something sweet. I will then have something pretty quick in the afternoon, whether it be a quick mix of beans, dark green-leaf vegetables, a good olive oil scattering and a herb blend like za’atar. Then, in the evening, well I’ll tell you what I had last night: I just simply cooked linguine in a green sauce which I made from loads of parsley, capers, pine nuts, chilli, grated garlic and some baby tomatoes – blended. I threw that over the cooked pasta and served it with some wilted spring greens on the side and topped with some more nuts and a little bit more chilli.

What type of exercise do you do?

Dr Rupy: I get up at 5am so I can fit loads more things into the day. I will meditate for 10 minutes, journal and then exercise, usually for at least 20 minutes if not longer, say around 45 minutes in the morning. Exercise will be a mix of strength training, flow, yoga – whatever I feel like – and it really depends on how well I’ve slept the night before. That’ll determine how strenuous my exercise is.

Can you share some simple tips for how people can improve their diets?

Dr Rupy: I would start really, really small. If you think about my journey it was a collection of activities I didn’t start overnight. I literally did one thing at a time, which compounded over months and years. The one thing I started off with was the meal that I felt I could change very easily – and that was my breakfast. Straight away out went the cereal and in came anything like a granola, with a high fat yoghurt, with nuts, seeds and anything high fibre. I knew that I could commit to that every single day, so find something that you can commit to. The other mantra I have is ‘just one more’. Can you add just one more portion of fruit, vegetables, nuts or seeds at every mealtime? If not just one mealtime, even if it’s once a week, can you just add one more and then see how you can build upon that habit over time?

What would your advice be to anyone who feels that eating healthily is too time consuming or expensive?

Dr Rupy: My book, Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1, literally shows you how to cook healthy meals in no time at all using one pan, minimising the washing up and the time post-cooking which a lot of people don’t talk about as a barrier. Also, my iPlayer series on the BBC, Thrifty Cooking in the Doctor’s Kitchen, shows you how easy it can be to cook well on a budget for less than a pound a portion. There are so many ideas out there, but it just takes that motivation, that one step; even if it’s one recipe a week, just commit to something.

Do you have any new projects coming up?

Dr Rupy: I’m currently working with my non-profit, Culinary Medicine, to create the UK’s first online culinary medicine course which is where we teach doctors and health professionals how to cook. I’m also creating an app where we will post a load of step-by-step recipes and we will allow users to filter the recipes according to whatever their health goals are. So, whether you are trying to improve your gut, improve your skin, optimise brain health or you’re just generally looking to eat better, the app will allow you to do that. It’s all very exciting.

For more information on The Doctor’s Kitchen and to subscribe to receive exclusive recipes visit Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1: 3 fruit and veg, 2 servings, 1 pan by Dr Rupy Aujla is published by Harper Thorsons, priced £16.99.

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