From Chernobyl To Chef: One Woman's Journey To Help Others Heal
Note: If you read my book, Indulge Your Way to Healthy, you know that my brother, journalist and safe lawns activist, Paul Tukey, was an impetus in my own healthy journey. I am thrilled to include this guest post from him, and watch as he embraces his own journey in discovering the power of food in a body.
While each individual journey is a personal one and we need to make our own choices when it comes to health care, research into angiogenesis, epigenetics, and the microbiome continue to prove how essential plants are to our physical and emotional wellness.
Don’t Touch That Stove!
Chef Olga Keller aims to bring fresh, living foods to the masses
By Paul Tukey
When a moderated reactor failed just after midnight on April 26, 1986 near the Ukrainian village of Pripyat, the moment might have defined Olga Keller’s life. The nuclear disaster known the world over as Chernobyl sent the then teenager’s health into an almost perpetual tailspin that only accelerated when she made her way to the United States 15 years ago.
A breast cancer diagnosis, many women’s worst fear, might have pointed her to even more stateside doctors’ visits and hospital stays than she had experienced in the former Soviet Socialist Republic.
Olga, however, had a different idea.
“I decided food would be my medicine,” said the woman poised to change the way most people think and behave in the kitchen.
Her self-guided quest to cast food in the leading role in her personal health has not only left her cancer free, but inspired her to share her discoveries with the masses. Part coach, part caregiver and almost full-time new age chef, Olga cultivates her message with delectably fresh “living foods” meticulously prepared rather than cooked. As beautiful as they are savory, her meals, snacks, candies and beverages promise to reshape the culinary experience in the nation she now calls home.
I recently had the chance to connect with this visionary and dynamic new leader of the fresh food movement. She left me re-thinking my own food choices, including some treasured old favorites . . .
You had some health impacts as a child and additional health impacts once you moved to the states. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, growing up in Ukraine I spent summers with my grandmother on her farm where we grew fresh vegetables. My mother was a fantastic cook and my grandmother a trained chef. So I learned how to cook with farm fresh ingredients at an early age.
Wintertime in Ukraine was quite different; we didn’t have greens and vegetables available. So it was tough health-wise and I developed stomach problems and was in and out of the hospital and treated with drugs prescribed by doctors who only treated the symptoms — not what was actually wrong with me. I spent more time in the hospitals then I wanted to, I can tell you that! Then when I was 15 the Chernobyl disaster happened and all kinds of new health issues started happening to me and my family, neighbors too. When we lost my father at an early age, it was decided that my sister and I should get out of Ukraine and go to the United States. That was 15 years ago. I had no idea that I was already ill until I received the result of a mammogram.
Before I learned that I had a tumor, my sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor and having severe side effects from the medications she was given. She decided to get off her medications and we took a different approach and changed her lifestyle, changing the diet which — while we had always been healthy in some ways and exercising and trying to eat well — it wasn’t enough. So I took it upon myself to find her a healing diet and started researching; with extensive research we switched her first to a vegetarian lifestyle diet, but then later on she became vegan. Now we are vegan because all my research pointed to living plant-based fresh food as the ultimate diet for optimal human health.
And you attribute your health, and your sister’s health, to the way you eat? How do you explain that?
First, you really need to understand how food works in your system. I was researching non-stop, learning about the nutrient components of food, actually understanding the chemistry in food and what food does for us when we digest it.
Now 10 years later, my sister has no sign of her tumor. When she had her MRI, the doctors couldn’t believe that she ever even had a brain tumor.
With my tumor, I was convinced the living foods diet was going to work for me because I dreaded the alternative. I was terrified of getting medical intervention using conventional medicine, because of the way I spent my childhood in hospitals with poor results. So I decided I was going to eat very well and all vegan, no cheating, 100 percent on my program. Diet became my way of healing myself.
Sure enough, a year later I was free of all signs of my tumor.
When did you start sharing this information with others?
I studied massage in Ukraine and became a massage therapist, but when I got to the U.S., I learned I would have to go to school all over again so I got a job working with a gastroenterologist. He always advised people to live a vegetarian lifestyle, which was quite progressive really. Part of my responsibilities were explaining to people what kind of diet they should follow — and I was always getting feedback from them that they still had indigestion and problems with their stomachs. They felt bloated and sick and could not understand why their choice of (vegetarian) food was not working for them. I did not know enough at the time to find answers for them and I wasn’t feeling especially healthy either, so I researched more.
I read everything and everyone I could find. It was a long process with conflicting opinions. I went back to school to get my massage license for the United States and started working in a busy country club with different clients of all ages. The main complaints were that their achy bones, or they suffered pain and felt tired and listless all the time. I concluded their ailments were due to food choices. I said, ‘Would you be willing to approach your diet a little bit differently?’ From a group of about 25 clients, two thirds of them tried what I advised and they got better.
From going from vegetarian to vegan?
I still wasn’t getting the results I was looking for even though my clients and I were feeling better so I eliminated dairy to see if it made a difference and it did. I knew I had to replace cheese with something just as satisfying so I got into sprouting nuts and seeds and making them into cheese substitutes. I started combining food in such a way that wouldn’t create fermentation in the body. My clients started feeling better, but also wanted me to prepare food for them and continue to make new recipes.
How did you figure this out?
I went to culinary school, but what I learned wasn’t enough. Of course, I kept learning more by reading books and educating myself. Every time I followed the teachers’ recipes they weren’t working, so I kept going back to my way, experimenting until I got it right. The food combining was the major breakthrough for people’s digestion and energy.
So, when I hear the term ‘cooking,’ I’m hearing something different than what you’re doing, right? This morning, for example, I cracked my three eggs from the chicken coop and cooked them in my frying pan and I heat them. From what little I know of your cooking, you’re not heating things; you’re eating a lot of raw things. You are a raw chef? So, it’s almost like you are taking cooking in new direction?
You might say that my way of cooking or preparing food is very extreme, I suppose, but when a person is not well or their life force is low this is the only option, in my opinion. For healthy people, I say it is OK to have eggs. I am not opposed to any kind of food. But when people heat the food higher than 118 degrees the enzymes — basically every food comes with the enzymes in it — the enzymes are destroyed. Yes, heated food is delicious. I loved cooked food too. But people that are not well have to take a different approach and see food as medicine. So, for example, a person is not feeling well would add salad or green juice prior to eating their little bit of eggs. That would provide the enzymes needed to break down the eggs.
And this raw food tastes good? That’s what I’m hearing.
I don't make my food tasted completely raw because food is part of our joy. I love to eat. I love food! So I want to make it so delicious that you are not thinking, eew this is raw vegan.
I want everyone to think — Wow, this is delicious!’
I marinate a lot of food in spices and lemon. I do not combine sugar and starches, or sugars with proteins, but you are not thinking that because the food tastes so good. By following my chart of food combinations, I make dishes that break down well in your body and do not interfere with your digestion. Dehydration is another big key- dehydration at no more than 118 degrees. A dehydrator, food processor, juicer and blender are my kitchen tools. I do not use the stove. No heat over 118. Don’t forget, our bodies are 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, so food at 110 tastes hot to us but the enzymes are still alive. That’s why I call this way of cooking a living foods diet not a raw food diet because raw food sounds like cold food, which it's not, unless it’s a salad that is meant to be served cold.
That’s what I was getting to. When I think of cooking the stove is almost always involved.
Not for me, but I do a lot of fermented foods like cheese from nuts because people crave that kind of food. That dense creamy mouth feel you get from dairy cheese can be recreated with nuts and seeds that is very healthy when it's cooked at less than 118 degrees.
So how does the fermenting process work and then how do you ensure that it is done in a safe way? I always think that cooking something and heating the heck out of it is also creating a level of safety because it’s killing any of the bad stuff, the germs and bacteria, that I might not want to eat. So how do you deal with that?
I use peroxide for everything I make because the fresh raw food is very fragile. Everything has to be freshly made. So before I ferment anything, it is washed and soaked in food-grade hydrogen peroxide and water and then when I ferment I use special equipment. So, for example, if I ferment, everything is sterilized, then I ferment the (nut) cheese. I will use a clay pot and special equipment that provides me with low temperature for the fermentation. I make yogurt overnight, but everything is sterilized first. It takes a little bit of work, but it is well worth it —because if you have any kind of bacteria in any kind of food it will ferment badly and it will show in fermentation. You can taste it right away when it’s not clean.
Well, it sounds like you are trying to spread some great information. I have to ask: what’s the acceptance rate if you are pitching this to the average person? Do you see a lot of people abandoning their stove and going all in on this?
I always advise to people to go slow, not to make any drastic changes right away because when we transition slowly we avoid any kind of side effects of detoxification. So whoever listens to my advice benefits because they feel great. They are full of energy so they stick to it. Some people think that it is a joke, of course, or others think they can transition overnight. I have seen some of those people laying down in the bed and not leaving their room for three to four days because the detoxification was so strong. And, sure enough, soon they go back to their normal way of eating because their transition was too fast. So I say transition slowly, maybe 50-50, then 80-20 and let your taste buds change over time. I give people options so that it won’t be too difficult for them — because I don’t believe that anybody should suffer; I don’t believe in pain. I also don’t believe that food should be something you should have to resist or not like.
I’m fascinated with this idea of food pairings. What are some common pairings that are good for us and what are some common pairings that are just universally bad for us. What foods should we not be eating together?
I recommend not to eat protein and sugar together during the same meal, also I always recommend not to eat fruit with vegetables. I’ll give you a perfect example: when people eat peanut butter with an apple thinking the peanut butter will balance the sugar. It’s not a good idea because they digest in your stomach in different ways. The apple will digest in 30 minutes and it takes just about three hours for peanut butter to digest. What happens when you digest the sugar and protein together is that the vital enzymes that come with the food neutralize each other; they kill each other as soon as they hit the stomach. You don’t get the full benefit of the food and, even worse, you might not feel well.
Can you give me a lay person’s explanation of enzymes?
There are three types of enzymes. The first type is enzymes in the food you eat-- food enzymes. Then we have another type called digestive enzymes produced by our pancreas and various organs. The third type are metabolic enzymes, which help run our organs. No process takes place in the body without enzymes. So, what happens when we neutralize digestive enzymes by eating apples and the peanut butter, then we get metabolic enzymes coming in to help break down that peanut butter left in the stomach after it was sitting there for a while. By eating this way, we deprive our bodies of the ability to break down impurities and toxins in the liver or heart. This is why people often feel tired after they eat; they are consuming the wrong combinations of food and not allowing enzymes to function properly.
So, you are killing America’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich!
I love it too! It’s delicious! But my job is to show you how to replace that; how we can make the food reminds us of flavors we loved as children. That is where the art of preparing food comes in.--
So how should I be consuming — just eat the peanut butter by itself?
You can do that, or vegetables would be the most appropriate combination with peanut butter. Or I suggest super foods. They come in so handy; and full of proteins. I’m talking about hemp seeds, Goji berries and others. Goji berries are a sweet berry, but they are a protein so the sugar is minimal. You can combine it with a little bit of peanut butter.
Peanut Butter and vegetables? Really?
Yep! Peanut butter wrapped in lettuce. Or carrots and then celery, or a little bit of cucumber; that would be good.
MMM. I do love cucumbers.
The sky is the limit. Really, the educational part is big here. I have been asked by parents about their children and that’s the biggest issue now that I see. Even relatively healthy parents have children who are suffering and the parents don’t know what to do. They love their children so much; they want to help but they don’t know what to do when their children struggle in school and then take medications. I work with people like that and and I see children flourish; they just feel so good and parents are grateful.
Here is the thing . . . Unless parents change their way of eating, the children will not do anything — because I always say you have to be an example.
You cannot separate family dinner into two parts for you and your children; they want to eat what you eat. So that’s why it’s important for me to educate parents for their children’s health. Everybody has a job and limited time to make food. I teach how to prepare the food fast, different, but really quick and easy. No one feels deprived and the children love it. So, educational is key, I just really want to help people.
OK then. I’m sold. I’m ordering Goji berries today!
To learn more about Olga, her work and where you can find her, check out her website @OlgaKeller.com