Interview with Dr. Natalie Santiago

On February 8, 2019, our Veggie Fest team sat down with Chicago-based, vegan pediatrician, Dr. Natalie Santiago, to find out how she promotes a plant-based diet in her medical practice. As our upcoming Veggie Fest Presents! celebrity speaker, Dr. Santiago will talk about “The Vegan Diet for the Whole Family.” Join us for this event at 1PM, March 23, 2019, at the Science of Spirituality International Meditation Center in Lisle, Illinois.

Dr. Santiago, you are a veteran of the Veggie Fest Chicago festival!

Yes. I’ve been attending since 2008, when the festival was a much smaller than it is today.

You shared with us recently that, being from Chicago, you and your family stay at a nearby hotel and Uber back and forth to avoid traffic and enjoy both days of the festival. Now that’s our kind of hard core!

It’s great to have you with us, today, Dr. Santiago. In your practice what are the top 5 benefits you’ve seen in patients who become vegetarian or vegan?

As a pediatrician, the first benefit I notice is relief from constipation. Second would be alleviation from symptoms related to asthma, allergy, and eczema. Third, I’ve noticed weight loss can occur with this dietary change. Although some of my patients don’t go completely vegetarian, by incorporating more green, leafy vegetables into their diet, I’ve seen (number 4) improvement in anemia and elevated lead levels. Benefit #5 is a tie between better cholesterol levels and improved behavior.

That makes 6+ benefits, and behavior is such a huge category. Can you explain?

I have parents who bring their children to me along with their concerns for ADHD & hyperactivity. The first thing I want to do is make sure there’s not an underlying dietary cause. Of course, I look at sleep and stress, and other contributing factors, but the number one thing I take into consideration is diet. I look at how much preservatives and unhealthy snacks are part of the child’s daily food intake. Then, I ask parents to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, and whole, plant-based foods into their meals and snacks. I often see behavioral improvement along with the medical benefits already mentioned. One of my patient’s has managed his ADHD and hyperactivity solely through diet.

Do you give suggestions to your younger patients as to how they can deal with peer pressure to eat meat?

Peer pressure is very, very hard. Luckily, a lot of the children I see who are vegans or vegetarians, have come to the decision on their own. It’s usually because of an ethical reason, so the peer pressure has not been an issue. They are the ones trying to encourage their friends not to eat meat, so for them it has not been a problem.

What do you do suggest to your patients about holidays and birthdays when they’re mixing their vegetarian choices with friends and family who eat meat?

I tell my patients to bring their own dish to share for everyone. That way, they will have something delicious to eat, and they can also introduce something flavorful to their extended family and friends.

What’s your favorite dish to bring?

I have to give all the credit to my mom. When I first became vegetarian and then vegan, my mom completely vegetarianized—and then veganized—how she prepared food for the family during the holidays. To this day she makes the holiday meals. We have traditional dressing or stuffing, mac n cheese, stir-fry, so many dishes. I find that when you cook well, season well, people will love eating your food. It’s when you say, “Oh, this is vegan,” that people start to question the food they are eating. They liked the food before they knew it was vegan. Nothing has changed!

What do you love about Veggie Fest?

From the minute I get there, I love the atmosphere. It’s very welcoming and peaceful. I like to reconnect with friends, I like to see the vendors, and I enjoy the live music. In fact, I love everything about the festival, and I look forward to it every year. It’s a family event and part of my summer experience.

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