PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
Sasha Vlemma has a re-designed approach to food that’s easy to digest
Sasha Vlemma’s two worlds collide on Friday nights. One of the North Shore’s nutrition superstars is also in the family biz of making Pictou County’s favourite weekend comfort food… pizza. She laughs when she explains the polarity in her two businesses however, making everyday food more nutritious is Sasha’s joie de vivre. While she would never mess with the best-loved pies being sliced up at the family-owned restaurant in Trenton, she does admit that a few of her “Nourished” inspired recipes have found a place on the menu and are developing their own faithful following.
Armed with the knowledge that each person is biochemically unique, Sasha has a few basic principles that guide both her personal and family approach to meal planning. With these simple steps you and your family will be eating like a nutrition pro!
For many years, food was complicated for Sasha. From the time she was a teen to her adult years when she became a wife, mother, and professional, she struggled with her relationship with diet and exercise. The disordered approach to eating eventually caught up with the former long-distance runner and the results were a negative impact on her health. Aware that she needed to make a change, she embarked on a restorative wellness journey unaware that when she reached her destination, she would park herself in a new career feeling better than she ever had before.
In 2018, Sasha graduated with distinguished merit from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. In Nova Scotia, graduates of natural nutrition programs are designated as Registered Holistic Nutritional Consultants. Right after graduating, Sasha launched her own consultation business. Her practice, Nourished by Design, has quickly evolved to a full-client list of individuals seeking guidance and better understanding about how food and lifestyle influences all body systems.
Not in the business of diagnosing illness or chronic conditions, Sasha works with clients to help them reach their wellness goals and provides analysis of their overall nutritional symptomatology that will indicate what body systems require support. Abiding by the regulations of her certification, and not sharing information beyond the scope of her practice, she customizes her communication to each client based on their current level of nutritional knowledge. With the exception of clients who are health professionals, she prefers to keep things as simple as possible.
With the myriad of conflicting information and emerging information on the science of food, feeding yourself and your family can be complicated. But Sasha believes that by keeping things simple, even when the client’s nutritional needs seem complicated, significant improvements to health can be achieved.
It wasn’t always this way, but today, Sasha, her husband George, daughters Adara and Ava all eat the same way. Sasha says this doesn’t mean that they all like all of the same foods, but she keeps the larders stocked with health-supportive ingredients and nutrient-dense foods; when it is meal or snack time, the most beneficial foods are handy. Because Sasha enjoys baking and cooking, she often has homemade snacks ready. “There are moments when you just want a bag of chips,” says Sasha. “For times like these, we hit the healthy-food section of the grocery store and look for treats that are low in sugar and made with healthy fats.”
Making the shift towards more health-supportive foods is as much about changing what goes on your plate to retraining your palette. Nutrition advocates claim that as you reduce the amount of processed foods laden with salt, sugars, and unhealthy fats, and start to replace with whole foods, the desire for “junk” foods will diminish. “Some people are just born with tastebuds for certain types of foods,” explains Sasha.
Even children who have been introduced to the same healthy foods from an early age can have the desire for foods that are not as nutrient dense, or they have a limited variety in their diet that makes it difficult to meet a solid dietary intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
“When you are trying to introduce healthier alternatives to fussier eaters don’t pressure, and don’t panic,” says Sasha. She shares her own experience with one of her daughters who had the taste for treats while the other naturally gravitated towards more health-supportive foods. The daughter who was once on the fussy end of the spectrum is now very involved in Sasha’s recipe development and even has created a few recipes on her own that Sasha shares with her clients.
“If something is on the table that they don’t yet like, or are learning to like, you can simply say that you don’t have to eat it,” says Sasha, encouraging that over time they will put their defences down and be more willing to try something if their mealtime experiences are happy ones.
The inclusion of more vegetables and fruit will always have high nutrition return on investment. As she became more mindful about where here foods were coming from, Sasha placed more effort in purchasing foods that are sourced locally and, when available, she buys organic.
“Organic can be more expensive but I have clients who will share that they are spending less money on healthy food when they focus on eating at home more often and not buying processed foods,” says Sasha, who also recommends that her clients focus on the Clean 15/Dirty Dozen lists that is a shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce. It was last updated in 2020 and easily found with a quick search on the internet.
In recent years, nutrition science and medicine has leaned into more understanding about gut health and how processed foods, sugars, preservatives, even stress play havoc on the good bacteria in our intestinal tract. Poor gut health is being linked to a multitude of chronic conditions and diseases but understanding the microbiota, the trillions of bacteria that live in our intestinal tract, can be an overwhelming. In her practice and at home, Sasha breaks down the confusion again by trying to demystify the complexities of gut flora and stresses the importance of reducing sugars, refined grains, oils, and dairy that feed the bad gut bacteria, and eating certain foods that help promote the growth of good bacteria.
“Refined sugar is one of the biggest culprits to good nutrition and overall well being as it feeds the bad bacteria in the gut, promotes fatigue, blood sugar imbalances, and creates inflammation,” she says.
Inflammation, an immune response that happens when your body perceives a threat is a relatively new term that often crops up in nutrition dialogue. It can be compared to an ankle sprain, the swelling response is a reaction to the injury. Sasha explains that when we ingest foods that our body perceives as a threat – highly refined foods, sugars, oils, dairy, and red meat, inflammation happens in our bodies. She says that because of modification to seed production and modern farming more people are feeling the effects of gluten-containing foods, triggering the inflammatory process. For people that are sensitive, these foods can disrupt or damage digestion. “When your gut is damaged it switches on an inflammatory cascade that puts your body on the defence making it susceptible for disease,” she adds.
There is more science around both the causes and implications of inflammation, and there are now more connections between the inflammatory response and headaches, poor digestion and low energy, and more serious illness like cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and obesity.
Sasha suggests that with the elimination of the inflammatory foods there are benefits. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods like pineapple, blueberries, olive and coconut oil, broccoli, beets, bok choy, green leafy veggies, as well as turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon is a
great place to start.
Improving digestion is key to good health. Even when you are ingesting healthy foods a damaged digestive track will result in poor assimilation of the nutrients.
Sasha says that digestive support is one of the top priorities to address when working towards a healthier you and healthier family. There are simple ways to address common digestive discomforts. “In many cases it is as simple as relax and chew,” says Sasha. “Eating under distress slows down digestion and the way your body uses nutrients. Slow down, chew, and focus on enjoying every bite.”
Knowing that it is not for everyone intermittent fasting can greatly benefit
the digestive process. “Aiming for a 10-to-12 hour window between your last meal or snack of the day and your breakfast gives your body a much-needed break and allows your cells to regenerate,” she says, noting that people with diabetes and other metabolic disorders should not attempt any type of fasting without first discussing with their physician as it can be dangerous when attempting to control blood sugar levels.
Part of Sasha’s job is to analyse when a client needs additional digestive support. “Sometimes supplementation is necessary,” explains Sasha. “Your body produces natural digestive enzymes to break down the food that you eat, but sometimes your gut needs help. It’s important to work with a Naturopathic Doctor or RHN when deciding on supplementation to decide what enzymes are best because they are not all the same.”
Water is essential to good digestion and keeping the body functioning at optimal levels. It’s known in the world of nutrition and science that a mere five percent drop in water levels causes 25-30 percent loss of energy. Just a two percent drop in water level can give you that fuzzy-brain feeling. Our bodies are 75 percent water so when levels drop there are impacts.
Sasha recommends that you base your water consumption on your body weight in pounds divided by two and that is how many ounces of water you need every day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you would require 75 ounces a day. One cup equals 8 ounces so that would be nine cups of water a day. Coffee increases your need for water.
It’s taken years for Sasha to restore her own healthy relationship with food so she knows that it can sometimes take time for the adjustments. One of her most important lessons she learned on her journey was knowing the importance of ditching the guilt. “Aiming for perfection or feeling guilty over food choices does nothing but create stress which is more damaging that fully enjoying the treat meal.”
“Food is a form of love,” says Sasha, who is surrounded by a family with meaningful traditions and a food story of their own. “Be thankful for the food on your plate even if that is a slice of pizza or fried fish and chips,” Sasha says. “Be grateful.”
Foods that are great for your gut
Probiotics – these foods contain friendly bacteria that, when consumed in good quality, benefit digestive health
Apple cider vinegar
Traditional Brine-cured Olives
Prebiotics – are a special form of dietary fibre present in plants and
they feed the good bacteria in your gut
Bananas (not fully ripe)
Sasha’s Top Ten Tips for Eating Well
- Eat whole foods
- When possible, buy organic, and ideally, locally produced food
- Aim for variety and balance
- Eat more plant-based meals
- Remove refined sugars, oils,
- Include anti-inflammatory nutrients
- Reduce consumption of red meat, and dairy
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
- Support your digestive system
- Ditch the guilt!
Greek Salad Platter
14 ingredients · 30 minutes · 6 servings
2 green bell peppers (or 1 green and 1 yellow),
1 red onion, small, diced
1 English cucumber, diced
8 cups mixed greens (or Romaine),
2 Heirloom tomatoes, cut into wedges
½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted
1 ½ cups feta cheese, crumbled or sliced
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp oregano (plus 1/8 tsp to garnish)
½ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
4 garlic cloves, large organic, finely minced
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
- Begin by making your dressing. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, garlic, sea salt, black pepper, and oregano until well blended. Set aside.
- Assemble the salad – to make this platter look absolutely beautiful, arrange mixed greens or Romaine as the bottom layer. Next, line up each of the remaining ingredients in a single row varying the colours like a rainbow. Alternatively, you can also line up your greens. Let your creativity guide you. Garnish the Feta with reserved oregano. When ready to serve, whisk the dressing again and pour over the salad with just enough dressing to coat. Enjoy!
The dressing makes a large batch so you will have leftovers for later in the week.
The nutrition details are calculated considering all the dressing is used.
Nutrition amount per serving
Vitamin A 968IU
Vitamin C 54mg
The Nourished Pizza
16 ingredients · 50 minutes · 6 servings
Before we begin, let’s talk about the crust! For those that know me, you know that my husband and I also own another business, Sam’s Pizza, Trenton ( I know, I know… the polar opposite of my business, LOL.) Over the course of the last few years, I have been adding a few of my “Nourished” inspired recipes to the menu. On the top of my priority list was a homemade gluten-free pizza crust. Well, I can’t share that recipe with you but I can give you a great alternative. “Bob’s Red Mill” makes a fantastic organic, gluten-free pizza crust mix. All you need in addition to the mix is eggs, water, and olive oil (the yeast pack is included). So, before you dive into the recipe, prepare your crust and allow approximately 20 minutes for it to rise. Alternatively, if wheat is not an issue for you and your family, you can prepare a Whole Wheat pizza dough or simply use six Whole Wheat Pitas as your crust.
2 cups baby spinach (with one cup reserved for the pesto)
1/3 cup red onion, coarsely sliced
1 ½ cups mushrooms,fresh sliced
1 green bell pepper, large, thinly chopped slices
¼ tsp oregano, for garnish
½ cup feta cheese (or goat cheese),
crumbled, and more if omitting mozza
4 ½ ozs mozzarella cheese, part-skim, grated
2 garlic cloves, large organic, minced
2 cups basil leaves, fresh, packed tight
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted (if you wish)
¼ tsp sea salt
3 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano (optional)
¼ tsp black pepper
6 whole wheat pita (if using instead of gluten-free pizza dough)
- Prepare the basil pesto – in a high-speed blender, or food processor, add basil, 1 cup of baby spinach, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, parmesan (if using), sea salt, and black pepper. Process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the blender, if necessary.
- Preheat your oven to 475 °F. Place your prepared dough in the centre of your working surface and, using a rolling pin, roll to press the dough flat to fit a 12-inch pizza pan. Use your fingers to create a crust edge. Place in oven WITHOUT toppings to partially bake your gluten-free crust for approximately seven minutes. While your crust is in the oven partially baking, prepare your toppings (the remaining 1 cup baby spinach, mushrooms, red onion, and bell peppers. If you are not making a gluten-free crust, simply prepare a lined cookie sheet with 6 Whole Wheat Pitas and prepare your veggie toppings.
- Remove your partially cooked crust from the oven, and begin to assemble your pizza by spreading your pesto evenly over your crust. Top with green peppers, mushroom, and red onion, followed by baby spinach. Finish with mozzarella (if using) and crumbled feta. Garnish with oregano.
- Return pizza to the oven and bake for an additional 16 to 18 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and slice into six equal slices with a pizza cutter. Bon Appetit!
Cooking time may vary as I prepared my pie on a pizza stone.
For purposes of nutrition information, details have been calculated using Whole Wheat
Nutrition amount per serving
Vitamin A 2009IU
Vitamin C 26mg