How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Toral attended medical school but soon realised that a career in medicine was not the right choice for her. She graduated with a BSc in Cell Biology and also completed a course at Le Cordon Bleu while she was at university. While working towards all these qualifications, Toral was also looking after her mother who was fighting breast cancer.
After university, she took a job in the City. She was was working long hours, so she had to eat most of her meals at the office. Workweek dinners were all takeaway and she hated that there were no healthy options available to her. (I’ve only recently left the finance world and I can attest to the fact that the problem still exists! Long hours and a poor diet are what led me to a complete lifestyle and career change). That’s when Toral realised that there was scope for a healthy meal service. After she left her City job, Toral worked at both EAT and Pret a Manger, sandwich makers to gain a better understanding of the food business. She also studied for a Masters in Nutrition. However, at the end of her course, when she was 29, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent aggressive treatment and despite having a large tumour, she recovered. The doctors attributed this to her healthy diet, which was full of immune-boosting superfoods.
Once she was back to her fighting self, Toral launched Urban Kitchen in 2012. The idea was simple – delicious, nutritious food with seasonal and ethically sourced ingredients.
What did you study?
Toral Shah is a scientist and chef – she has a BSc in Cell Biology from UCL and an MSc in Nutritional Medicine from University of Surrey. Her MSc thesis focussed on the importance of diet and nutrition in the prevention of breast cancer recurrence. Toral is now working on her first book explaining the science behind cancer preventing foods and sharing some of her delicious recipes.
Whilst at university, she completed several courses at Le Cordon Bleu school in London along with classes from feted chefs such as Mehernosh Mody (La Porte des Indes), Ursula Ferrigno & Rachel Green (Flying Cook).
Toral is a Cancer Nutrition specialist.
The health foodie-preneur originally gained her BSc in cell biology and won a prestigious six-month studentship researching oncogenes at the Royal Society at UCL.
Where did her interest in cancer nutrition stem from?
“I’ve been passionate about people’s health and well-being since I was a child and have always wanted people to lead happy and healthy lives. I went to medical school as I wanted to be an oncologist but it just wasn’t for me – I’m too much of a softie!
I began experimenting in the kitchen at university when I left medical school and found that I suddenly had more free time with fewer lectures in my BSc Cell Biology course. I specialised in studying cancer during the day and cooking for my friends and family in my spare time. Food became a huge passion so I studied at Le Cordon Bleu during the evenings and holiday. I probably was one of the best fed students at UCL! Still rather obsessed with cancer, I won a prestigious six-month studentship researching oncogenes at the Royal Society at UCL.
Toral says, “My interest in cancer-prevention through diet began when my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was while I was doing my degree and it was a tough time, but I helped nurse her through her treatment with nutrition. Having been studying in the evenings at Le Cordon Bleu, I was able to cook her up immune-system boosting meals and, being the amazing woman that she is, she powered through it”. These hard times kickstarted Toral’s own desire to train in Nutritional Medicine, rather than work in general medicine. She enrolled at one of the best nutritional medicine courses in the world. Of those enrolled, 75% were doctors and the course was taught by lecturers from Harvard and other prestigious universities.
It was while she was working in the City, that she became aware of her entrepreneurial potential. The food she often saw others eat in her office environment, was the usual ‘sugar-filled crap and ready meals.’ Toral had the exciting vision to change the concept of office eating. That’s why, in 2012, after finishing her studies, she launched a bespoke, fresh food delivery company in London. At the time, the uptake was awesome, so many people needed her service (exactly why you guys love Everdine!) and the business was successful. But like any food business, it was physically and operationally hard work.
What was the turning point?
Unfortunately, it was around this same time that, aged just 29, she was diagnosed with breast cancer herself. Toral says; ‘In younger women, cancer usually takes a more aggressive form.’ But, having had the chance to adapt to a cancer-prevention diet during her Mum’s treatment, she had given herself a real advantage. Her consultants agreed that she had definitely ‘done something right.’ That gave her the fuel to help others prevent, or at least reduce, the aggression of their cancer.
Now aged 40, this naturally savvy, and instantly-likeable businesswoman, is changing the way people approach healthy eating. She currently helps clients implement a diet that ‘optimises both their performance and their health, yet means they’re eating delicious foods. Most people need to vary their diet more and rather than cutting things out, actually add foods in to improve gut health and their immune system,’
Her work also includes; speaking at events, consulting and providing expert nutritional advice, for health and food brands. She helps them ensure that their product information is scientifically correct and helps them with recipe and product development.
Toral is a huge supporter of cancer research charities, having carried out multiple research projects herself. Impressively, she was also recently made Global Ambassador for the World Cancer Research Organization.
So, what exactly is a cancer-prevention diet?
Based on her research, expertise, and own experience, Toral says; ‘Instead of restricting food groups, people need to eat as varied diet as possible.’ She believes people are under-nourished and don’t consume enough micronutrients. This could be blamed on diet culture and misinformed restriction of whole food groups such as; carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Her preferred cancer-prevention wholefood diet takes into account both the Mediterranean and Japanese styles of eating, with lots of healthy fats, sea plants and unrefined grains. Limiting the amount of sugar and soy in the diet also helps to reduce inflammation, which can be detrimental for the body in general. She also recommends increasing fibre and limiting meat intake to only a couple of times a week. Adopting a mainly plant-based diet that includes lots of legumes and fresh vegetables will help to boost the immune system, and including oily fish, like salmon, mackerel and sardines regularly is vital for replenishing the body.
Toral is fascinating – and we (Emily & Toral) both share the same obsession with shopping at Lidl too! The best thing about Lidl, she says, is the focus on seasonal foods. If it’s not in season, you won’t find it there. A lot of their food is organic too. “Just the other day I found a Japanese live salad box, I kid you not! It’s great!’ Hopefully, the idea that eating a nourishing, anti-inflammatory and potentially cancer-preventing diet doesn’t need to be expensive will encourage others to follow this more nutritionally-dense way of eating.
By 2020, one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer, but Toral is on a mission to change that. Her desire to help others is why she is currently writing her first evidence-based cancer nutrition book, which will inform others on how to prevent and beat cancer (alongside treatment.) The book will include cancer-prevention recipes and helpful tips on how to eat an all-round diet for living a longer life.