We catch up with food writer and cook Susan Jane White to discuss healthy eating habits and what makes her sugar-free recipes and wheat-free diet much more about pleasure than denial.

“I could never get enough sugar hits. I was an addict,” Susan Jane explains. High-flying through degrees in both Dublin and Oxford, Susan Jane relied on kilos of coffee and copious amounts of Curly Wurlys to charge her brain cells and power through academia.

Distanced from the damage a diet relying on comforting carbs, chocolate and caffeine was doing to her body, she discloses “everything I did related to or led to my next sugar fix”. In 2005, exhaustion and dehydration landed her in hospital. An arsenal of ailments also followed, culminating in her white blood cells packing up, leaving doctors stumped at the drastic change in her health. Susan Jane found hospital food was a big wake-up call. In the very place where patients were trying to get better they were being fed the worst food.

susan jane white, susan jane cooknbook, healthy cook susan, susan jane irish food, healthy food susan jane, recipe susan jane white

Once out of hospital, she took matters into her own hands and consulted a nutrition specialist. In one fell swoop her diet cast out wheat, refined sugar, meat and dairy – which may seem more like denial than devilish indulgence, but Susan-Jane defies this logic by being an example of eating for pleasure. Though it was a difficult adjustment at the start, pairing everything back to basics, she says she “felt like someone was sucking the illness out of my body”.

Cut to 2015 and Susan Jane has just launched her debut cookbook, writes columns on healthy eating, broadcasts her recipes on TV and on Youtube and is the poster of health and happiness. Her recipes, and her diet, revolve around crucial cornerstones of fresh fruit, lots of vegetables and a selection of gluten and wheat-free grains and pulses. She calls her blog, susanjanewhite.com “basically a shrine to fruit and vegetables” and offers readers clever ways to get more goodness into their diets.

You’re a self-described ‘nut’ – what does that mean?

A nut-ritional cook. I’m slightly deranged I suppose – I add avocado to chocolate mousse for goodness sake! But in reality, I’m closer to McGuyver in an apron. I experiment with ways of servicing my pesky sweet tooth without sacrificing my health or my taste buds. Instead of butter and cream, I use coconut or avocado to achieve creaminess. Instead of sugar, I use Mother Nature’s stash – puréed fruits, sticky dates, raw honey, coconut palm sugar.

Finding the right ingredients and variety of nutritious products must take a lot of time and cost, though?

A little sat-navving is only required initially. Once you source the trickier ingredients like brown rice flour, tamari soya sauce, flaxseed, you’ll never have to hunt for them again. In truth, your
local health food store stocks everything you need, except fresh fruit and veg which you can do a delivery scheme instead like The Fruit People, straight to your office. Way easier!

peaches, fresh peaches, cut peaches, summer peaches, lunchbox peach dish, peaches lunch, savoury peach

What’s the most difficult aspect of your diet?

The most difficult aspect of any mum’s life is dishing out speedy, nutritious, tasty meals. It’s pretty much impossible for me to do this, unless I plan ahead. Every Sunday evening I pour over my favourite cookbooks and ideas, pen and paper to hand, jotting down ingredients I’ll need for the week ahead.

A question you’re probably asked all the time, but just how do you ensure that you stay full up without including wheat, dairy and sugar in your diet?

Easy. Avocados feature regularly in my diet, beans, curries made from root vegetables (butternut, pumpkin, parsnip), almond butter, tahini sesame paste, bread made from flax, fabulous olive and coconut oils, eggs one-thousand ways, seed bombs….

A decade ago you realised you needed a complete lifestyle overhaul, what were the first tentative steps that you took into a wheat, dairy and sugar-free diet?

Ditch ’em! I’m not against any of these food groups. I simply object to the amount of wheat, dairy and sugar we consume. It’s borderline pathological obsession, isn’t it? Cereal and milk for breakfast, biscuits, cakes, scones for snacks, sambo for lunch, pizza or pasta for supper followed by hot milky drinks and more white-floured, white-sugar snacks – where ‘s the excitement in that? I was so obsessed with wheat, sugar and dairy that my diet became incredibly restrictive. Giving these foods up for a few years in the beginning, offered me new taste buds and a new lease of life. It’s the opposite of restrictive – it’s the most liberating thing I have ever achieved.

Suddenly I was exposed to hundreds of outrageously tasty ingredients that I never knew existed. Buckwheat pancakes, soba noodles, chickpea falafel, courgetti noodles, Mexican chilli bean, teff (a gluten-free ancient grain) and amaranth waffles (a gluten-free seed beloved by the Aztecs).

Susan Jane White's banana bread and nutella

Your cookbook, My Extra Virgin Kitchen, is a perfect accompaniment and beautiful guide to help people experience a healthier lifestyle. Some may think there’s little to discover beyond the comforting staples of potatoes and sugar-laden sponge cakes, was it difficult to write?

It was hilarious! The book is written in a fun, witty style taking the mickey out of many dogmatic health claims. It’s supposed to help people navigate healthy eating, without the boring stats or dietary instructions. Healthy food should never tax your taste buds. I’d rather neck a glass of sneeze than go on a diet. My next book is even more fun – The Virtuous Tart.

You have a fantastic repertoire of fruit recipes, what are some of your favourites?

I make fruit laces for my three and four year-old (recipe in the book). We love making apple syrup (juice 5 apples, and boil it down to a thick, viscous syrup). Apple purée or banana also make excellent subs for eggs in vegan baking. The most popular recipe from the book is probably the fig and prune crumble with date syrup and ginger-laced yoghurt. – Our fruit delivery service has all your fruity needs met in one neat little hamper!

extra virgin kitchen, susan jane white cookbook, susan jane extra virgin, extra virgin cookbook

And what are the one fruit and the one vegetable you couldn’t live without?

Apples – sweet, crisp, clean. My family go through two dozen a week. Vegetable would have to be the avocado – sumptuous, rich and creamy. Oh, and get this: folate in avocados is thought to boost histamine production, which is apparently necessary for optimal orgasms. Catholics were forbidden to eat avocados when the Spanish conquistadors brought them back to Europe in the 16th century. They evoked pleasures of the flesh at a time when contraception was not available. And the Aztec people of South America – the same cunning chaps who invented hot chocolate – called the avocado plant the ‘Ahuacatl’. This translates as ‘testicle tree’.

Well, now we know! What’s the single biggest change you’ve seen within yourself since you overhauled your eating habits?

My diet is mind-blowingly tasty, and I can’t believe it’s so healthy too! I have more energy now than I ever did in my twenties. My skin glows brighter. My concentration lasts longer. My patience runs forever. I feel I have nourished my body so, now, my body is nourishing me.

She leaves with an adage to chew on: “Good food keeps you on your tippy toes. Poor food will have you on your knees.”

All images (c) Susan Jane White/Gill & McMillan