'If I don't understand the label, then I don't eat it'
Bernadette Bohan has overcome cancer twice . The second time she introduced a raw vegan diet. She tells Edel Coffey that while it may be severe it's preserving her most valuable asset - her health
In 1987, Bernadette Bohan was a young mother of two small children aged seven and four. When she got cancer, she was terrified. She wanted to live for her children.
When she recovered from cancer the first time, she was told not to have another child as she probably wouldn't survive. She decided to have a much longed-for third child regardless. And then, as the doctors had feared, her cancer returned. Her third child, Julie, was just five years old. "This time I wanted to live for me and I thought I'm going to find a way."
She started to research diet and lifestyle and their effects on our health and she turned to a plant-based, raw vegan diet. Now 60, Bohan looks somewhere in her 40s. She has just published her fourth book, 'Eat Yourself Well', which is the result of her research into diet and its effect on our health.
She wants to be clear though. She is not saying her diet is a cure for cancer. "I'm just saying give yourself the best chance you can by building a strong immune system. Give the body the correct fuels – proteins, water, oxygen, essential fats. If we put that back in, the body builds a strong immune system."
When Bernadette's cancer returned for the second time, she says she got serious about eating healthily. "I began to read a lot, and discovered nutrition played a big part in combating the effects of this cruel and frightening disease as I called it.
"I began to make changes. I went along to a lecture and every word the doctor said made sense. It was common sense."
The lecture was by Dr Brian Clement of the Hippocrates Institute in Florida. "It was eating food as Mother Nature intended us to, not sapping things by boiling them. I bought his book and taught myself how to grow wheat grass and sprouts. I had been juicing the wrong things."
She is aware that she is considered a bit of a 'health freak' but she says this is just how our ancestors ate. "Look at the requirements the body has, it needs a certain amount of nutrients every day. We're putting the wrong fuel into the machine and expecting it to go. You wouldn't do that with a car."
The diet is daunting. It looks extreme, even though she gives solid practical advice about transitioning from a 'normal' diet to this one. It's raw vegan, sugar-free, dairy-free, meat-free. How is the average person with a busy life supposed to even begin to implement such a regimen?
"It's a very different way of thinking about food. You're thinking about it as fuel first, taste next. I'm all about getting taste into food."
Okay, but what about children – are they really going to eat wheatgrass? Her children were teenagers when she started implementing this diet. "The teenagers weren't so good," she admits, "but Julie was five and she's still the best of them all to this day. The two teenagers did say, mam we haven't got what you have so we're not doing it. So I got sneaky. I started sneaking fats into their food. It's funny though because when she moved away from home my daughter rang and asked me to get her a juicer because she was falling asleep at her desk. My kids say if we have children they'll want to go to visit their other granny's house because they won't get treats at yours. I can only go on my own experience with Julie. She's 19 next month and she has never had one single antibiotic in her life, never one.
"She hasn't eaten meat fish or chicken in nine years, went off dairy when she was five. I keep a balance though. If she's out with her friends and has a pizza, I don't get into a knot over it. I just want to teach people what I learned. I do think this should be taught in schools. We teach kids everything except what to eat and 20pc of our kids are obese."
So how do you get children to make healthy choices? "Get to them as early as you can. Keep the sugars out of their diet. It's tricky because we're entrenched in this information. I'm an ordinary mum, I can only tell you what I learned. Rationally, were we meant to drink the milk from another species? A cow has four stomachs. We don't. It's simple physiology."
She doesn't recommend soy as a replacement for dairy but suggests unsweetened rice, oat or almond milk. "We use soy very differently here than in the west. They ferment soy and use tempeh and miso. We don't, we heat it, and it's difficult to digest and has oestrogenic activities."
Sugar is in everything now – how do you avoid that? Her rule is, 'if you don't understand what's on the label, don't eat it.'
Bernadette now runs a cancer helpline and courses in Dublin and Cork on how to change your diet. The course in Cork is a weekend residential course, so people can try living her lifestyle and diet for a few days. If that sounds too extreme, she encourages people to try one day a week on her Facebook page. "I have them commit to doing one night a week, then maybe one detox juice a day. Then don't eat meat one night a week. Let that become the norm and then you can move up to two, or four nights a week. Even if you got to eat meat only at the weekend, that's better.
"People say this diet is tough but it's not as tough as Chemo." Bernadette received chemotherapy for her cancer, as well as radically overhauling her diet. "One lady walked up to me and asked was it not your chemotherapy that cured you. Maybe it was. I never interfere with people's treatment. I show people what I do." She doesn't credit her diet with curing her cancer, but she says it's not the chemotherapy that has kept away her arthritis, kept the weight off and kept her from having to wear reading glasses for the last fourteen years.
Bernadette's key is getting plant-based nutrients. "We have a lot of chemically-based nutrients now. I have muffins from 2006 that have no mould growing on them. White bread rolls going back to 2010. Rats don't even eat them. The rat only wants to survive and it knows there's no nutritional value in it."
What about cosmetics? I know women who would go vegan for vanity but I don't know many who would give up their highlights and concealer for their health. Bernadette says there is no need to go make-up free. "I colour my hair but I just use a vegetable colour and I use Dr Haushka make-up."
Again, Bernadette is keen to emphasise that she is not suggesting this diet is a miracle cure but she firmly believes it will help improve your odds.
"Not many people want to go vegan. I started bit by bit. If you don't have a health challenge most people just dabble. It's not until you look over the abyss that you wake up.
"And when you look over the abyss twice, you'd be an eejit if you didn't wake up. Yes, I attribute my good health to this diet. Absolutely. I know the health I enjoy. There's nothing more precious. Your health is everything."
'Eat Yourself Well' is in shops now, priced at €16.99. Published by Gill and MacMillan. For more information see www.changesimply.com