The Pass It On series is an interview segment where BioMark sits down with trail blazers who have striven to make health and wellness work for them on their own terms. We hope this inspires you to find the best fit for yourself, too.
One of Singapore’s acclaimed nutritionists, Ms Pooja Vig, graduated from the University of Bristol with BSc (Hons) in Microbiology, studied Advanced Nutrition in The School of Natural Health Sciences, and Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice in The Institute for Functional Medicine.
Originally trained as a biochemist, Ms Pooja worked in the biotech industry for many years, but after a few personal health experiences, she was set in the track to becoming the functional medicine nutritionist that she is today, co-founding ‘The Nutrition Clinic’ in 2006.
She has been the CEO and resident nutritionist in ‘The Nutrition Clinic’ for almost 12 years, and numerous doctors, newspapers and magazines seek out Ms Pooja for her advice and expertise in this field.
We’re here today with the first segment of our interview Ms Pooja Vig, where she shares with us how the trials and tribulations in her life compelled her to become a nutritionist, as well as her insights on the risk factors of heart disease.
BioMark: Hello Ms Pooja! Thank you for agreeing to meet with us today. To start off, can you share with our readers how your passion for nutrition was ignited, and how you got started in this field?
Ms Pooja: My first trigger was that my father fell severely ill about 25 years ago, and at that time, as a family we were just really lost, we didn’t know what to do. We went to John Hopkins for treatment and what I noticed was that John Hopkins had a really robust programme of putting patients with complementary practitioners. So, cancer patients were getting guidelines on diet, and heart patients were getting information on Tai Chi and yoga.
But I noticed that in Singapore this wasn’t happening – we only had medicine and alternative medicine, and both looked at each other with a lot of skepticism, and it felt like a shame because there are many ways of putting the two together in a responsible manner. But there are ways to put them together in a very bad manner.
I think one of the criticisms I’ve always had of complementary medicine is that you can’t say medicine is wrong. You can’t just take this pill or this potion or do some meditation and you’ll be fine. It doesn’t work like that! I think healthcare is a lot more, and that they need to go hand in hand.
That spoke to me, but I didn’t know what to do, I just knew I wanted to find my kind of passion in that space.
We came back to Singapore, and my father was ill for a number of years, and I was very involved in looking after his health. Then I got married and wanted to have a child and was put on the IVF track – again, face to face with medicine – and that’s when I thought, “This is my sign. I need to go back to basics and look at what I can do to help myself and fix what’s going on in my body.”
So, I quit my job, which was rather scary for me, and very scary for my husband as well. There wasn’t a lot of information online at the time, but I picked up a lot of books. This was about 12 years ago. It took a while, but I learnt about getting rid of the junk in our diets, getting rid of gluten, we actually made a lot of changes. What I did wasn’t systematic, it was whatever I learnt, I implemented, and I tried – it was biohacking in its early days. Then the moment my daughter was born I knew I wasn’t going to go back to private equity, I wanted to do something in this space.
So, I was trained in a foundational nutrition programme, because I felt food was really the starting point for me anyway, and then went to the US to be trained in the Institute of Functional Medicine. Functional Medicine is a really interesting topic, it believes that there isn’t a single answer to one problem – we have to look at the body as a web, rather than a line.
We touch on every subject, but we focus on nutrition here.
In ‘The Nutrition Clinic’, we use a number of tests that are not medical, for example, functional testing and food sensitivity testing, to see what you should eat and what you should avoid. I do a lot of work with people with digestive issues, diabetes, so I do get a lot of doctor referrals who want to integrate what they are doing medically with what we are doing nutritionally.
BioMark: Metabolic risk factors are highly prevalent in our society – namely obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. What dietary strategies are proven to improve their risk profiling for heart disease?
Ms Pooja: Well, you’ve got the more traditional, mainstream diets, like the low-fat diet, low-fat and high-carb diet. And if you look at more information from heart and diabetics societies, they probably still promote a low-fat high-grain diet. There are a lot of disagreements in the nutritional circle, but there are a few things that are agreed.
We all agree that vegetables are good, we all agree that we need protein no matter whether it’s from animal or plant, we agree that refined carbohydrates need to go down. But then we come to fat, and that’s where it gets complicated – some believe fat is evil and causes heart disease, some believe that it doesn’t.
I believe that when we are lost, we should look at population studies rather than what’s happening in, say, mice. For example, based on population studies, the Mediterranean diet works. I come from a family where I’ve had three or four cousins die of heart attacks by the age of 40, so I come from a pretty bad gene pool. Do I want to play with bacon to see if it’s a trigger or not? I would eat it, but I wouldn’t overdo it.
I also come from a family that is highly diabetic, so I eat a grain-free diet for most of my meals. That’s where it gets personalised – you have to make these sorts of decisions. The answer is that there isn’t a one-size fits all, I can’t say for sure that it’ll be a certain diet that will help, because genetics matter. And I think genetic profiling against your diet is going to be the future of nutrition.
BioMark: So, as someone who’s not an expert, what should I do to understand what type of diet would help me and my heart?
Ms Pooja: You should definitely do a blood test and track your cholesterol, sugars, inflammation markers and so on. Perhaps also try different diets to see what adjusts. There’s nothing wrong with doing that kind of self-experimentation.
BioMark: For people with such metabolic risk factors, a lot is out there regarding what foods to eat and to avoid, yet the compliance rate remains low. What are some effective strategies that can compel these people to improve their dietary habits?
Ms Pooja: I think what compels them the most is numbers – once you see your numbers change, that encourages them. It’s like when people track their weight and body fat, it encourages them to be healthier.
BioMark: Nowadays, because of work or school, most people are seated for long periods of time, and this may lead to sedentary lifestyles. How do we convince them to be more active in their after-school/work lives?
Ms Pooja: You could have the best intention, but what stops you from turning it into a regular habit? So, our clinic’s life coach comes in and helps clients to work on that. A lot of it sounds very simple, but getting a certain level of accountability can be tough. What we do here (in the clinic) is actually act as the accountability service providers, so if you’re really struggling to eat a certain way, you have to send us an image of everything you eat and we will track that for you.
Our life coach does the same thing with exercise, so whenever you exercise, you just send us a picture or a message. It takes time to turn it into a habit, but it can be difficult, and working with a friend or a buddy to keep you motivated really makes a difference.
This concludes the first segment of our interview with Ms Pooja Vig.
Interested in finding out more? Why not chow down on more fascinating insights in our next interview with Ms Pooja Vig, where we talk more about mental health, and the benefits of incorporating Asian superfoods into our diet.
For more information, you can find out more about Ms Pooja here.
Interested in what we talked about? Check out Part 2 of our interview with Ms Pooja here.
Alternatively, reach out to us with suggestions on who you would like to hear from next.