Grilled: Rupy Aujla

NHS doctor, podcast host, cookery book author (twice over) and the founder of the country’s first culinary medicine course for health pros: this sure is a guy on a mission…

This face is no stranger to our local patch. In fact, Rupy’s enviously healthy looking and ever-smiley mug can often be spotted in Bristol, his culinary medicine course running at the university.

Rupy is a practising NHS doctor with an obsession with food. Over the last few years he’s begun to formally turn his attention to the subject of diet, and it is, in fact, his studies for his masters in nutritional medicine that I interrupt (the things I do for you, dear reader) to interview him ahead of his most recent trip West, to appear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

As he wrote in his first book, The Doctor’s Kitchen, his interest in the medicinal qualities of food began as a result of him starting to suffer from atrial fibrillation back in 2011 – a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly. Faced with the decision of taking life-long medication or undergoing a risky operation, Rupy decided to focus on his eating habits and lifestyle while he weighed up those less-than-attractive options. He absorbed as much information as he could and read heaps of relevant research papers while relearning how to cook and overhauling his diet (which, as you can imagine with his job as a chaotically busy junior doctor, working long and irregular shifts, was less than perfect). Eventually, his heart condition excused itself and his symptoms dissolved. No wonder, then, that he developed something of an interest in food’s medicinal value, right? 

Thing is, by solely being ‘healthy’, most foods will never harness much popularity. We eat, fundamentally, to keep ourselves alive, sure, but that basic need is buried beneath more conscious layers of enjoyment, satisfaction and excitement. Most of us eat, a lot of the time at least, because we like to.

“If you label something as ‘healthy’, you probably influence the mind to believe it’s not going to be tasty,” Rupy says. “That’s why I just like to talk about food, rather than ‘healthy food’ or ‘unhealthy food’.” 

Variety, plants and flavour are all motifs of this GP’s cookery, which aims to keep the joy of eating very much intact. After all, he appreciates a bloody good dinner as much as the rest of us.

“My mum was an amazing cook,” he says. “She would make everything from Italian to Indian to Chinese… She taught me how to cook before I went to medical school – and it shows in how I like to combine healthy eating with culturally diverse meals.” 

Both his books feature colourful dishes from all over the globe (there’s everything from Ethiopian curry to Malaysian salad and Spanish chickpea stew in his latest release, Eat to Beat Illness, which came out in March). He makes use of culturally traditional herbs spices and aromatics to make sure his recipes marry up nutritional value with flavour.

“I think the most delicious food is fresh, seasonal, local, vibrant – it’s certainly the most tasty, where I get the most of that raw pleasure of eating – and I think that’s something we need to appreciate more.

But, at the same time, there’s sometimes nothing more delicious than a warm doughnut – and I think we should be able to enjoy that. Healthy eating very much encompasses indulgence [knew it!] appropriately.”

If you think he’s bluffing – a bit all-talk, no treats – he reaffirms the point when we talk about the Mediterranean diet that he champions so much on his podcast. 

“The diet’s key characteristics are legumes, beans, pulses – basically protein and fibre from those sorts of sources. It’s plant-focused so it’s limiting things like red meat, while oily fish certainly is something to be encouraged, at least two portions a week. Wine every now and then, red wine [see, told you], nuts and seeds for quality fats, and more from extra virgin olive oil, and plenty of colourful vegetables. Pretty much the principles of healthy eating which I talk about in Eat to Beat Illness.”

Plant-led cooking is a major theme in both of Rupy’s books – although there is a small smattering of meaty meals among the pages – and is a concept we’re hardly unacquainted with, following recent years’ revelations about the detrimental effects of our excessive meat industry. Rupy is coming less from the environmental angle in his arguments, though, and very much more from a health perspective.

“The evidence base behind plant-focused eating is pretty much undeniable. That’s why I can put it in black and white, on paper, and why I talk about it as much as possible. When you look at Mediterranean diets, when you look at long cohort studies, you can see why it’s so important. Plant-focussed eating really is the way forward from a health and wellbeing perspective.” 

I ask him about those research papers, as there must be infinite amounts of information on food and diet to wade through. 

“You’re right,” he says, “there are endless clinical and nutritional research papers. So, it’s a combination of looking at reviews, mechanisms, pathogenesis behind why particular diets work etcetera: those are things that I focus on.” 

His work in medicine – along with his own personal experiences – has totally changed the way Rupy thinks about food. And it works both ways, he says. 

“Food has completely changed the way I think about medicine and health. Not only have I had the anecdotal experience myself, but having open and honest conversations with my patients has influenced my practice. Seeing the benefits of dietary change on people, as well as lifestyle change, is something that is very hard to ignore. This gives me even more reason to think about food in a medicinal context. There is no separating the two.”

If food can have such a dramatic and holistic effect on our health (and I’m including mental health there, too, which is something Rupy delves into a bit more in his new book), it’s a wonder that we’ve forgotten that connection and find ourselves in a place where medicine and food are totally siloed from each other. 

“I think it’s probably because of the rise of relying on pharmaceuticals as cure-alls for everything, and that’s just simply not the case – you can’t rely on simple molecules having dramatic impacts on the complex physiology of our bodies and our minds. I think now we’re realising just how much of an impact lifestyle medicine has, and why it’s so important.” 

The ever-increasing demand for convenience has played its part too. The 21st century has seen our lives become busier than ever, so preparing meals with a variety of fresh ingredients, from scratch, seems like too much of an undertaking, simply becoming the thing that sits between us and whatever it is we want to do in the evening after work (Netflix, making my dog pull amusing faces and falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes, in case you were interested). But this is something it’s imperative that we work around, thinks Rupy. And, fair play, if he’s pulled it off as an NHS doctor, then our own excuses seem pretty feeble.

“My mum was a lawyer and worked as a graphic designer and did a whole bunch of other things – she was still able to put delicious food on the table. Rather than food preparation being a chore, it’s a very important facet of life – that’s the philosophy I grew up with.”

Try making your very own Ethiopian berbere curry (vegan) with this ace recipe from The Doctor’s Kitchen