Nik Iza Nik Din’s quest towards a healthier lifestyle started in 1999 after her eldest daughter Iysha Aman was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Doctors recommended cutting down Iysha’s sugar intake.

“Like most young children, Iysha loved cakes, drinks and biscuits. To lessen her sugar intake, I opted to bake cakes, muffins, breads and blend fruit juices. This way, I have control over what ingredients go into the food she eats,” explains Nik Iza who wanted to eliminate preservatives from her family’s diet.

Her mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2013 also made her scrutinise what she serves to her family. Nik Iza started to re-evaluate life after her parents were diagnosed cancer. Her father passed away due to lung cancer in 2009, followed by her mother in 2013.

“My parents never had any health issues. They ate well and enjoyed life to the fullest. But all things changed after they were diagnosed with cancer. That was the turning point that made me realise the importance of taking care of one’s health by eating right, exercising regularly and enjoying life.”

The mother-of-three is among the growing number of Malaysians who are choosing to lead healthier lives. Last year, Malaysia was ranked the ‘fattest’ country in Southeast Asia. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Tackling Obesity in Asean report indicates 2.6 million Malaysian adults are obese.

Alarmingly, over 477,000 children below the age of 18 years are overweight. Nik Iza believes exercise and nutrition play a vital role in staying fit and healthy.

“With the growing rate of chronic diseases like high cholesterol, diabetes, it is important to consume a balanced diet and exercise regularly. It is a better option to consume home cooked meals and juices as it enables people to control their sugar, salt and oil intake,” says Nik Iza, a yoga practitioner and avid hiker.

Brewing healthy drinks

Homemade drinks are much more healthier than commercial drinks as it contains lesser sugar and preservatives.

One of Nik Iza’s favourite ingredients is roselles, which she first found at a morning market in KL. Intrigued by its deep red colour and petals, she read up on its properties. She learnt its fresh and dried calyces are used to make tea, jams and health juices.

“Some reports claim roselle tea and juice help to relieve hypertension, inflammatory issues and may reduce the risk of cancer. Given its cancer reducing benefits, I decided to serve roselle tea to my mother, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer,” says the manager in an asset management company who learnt to make roselle syrup and tea from friends, blogs and YouTube videos.

“Sugary drinks can contribute to health issues, tooth decay and weight gain. My homemade roselle drinks do not contain stabilisers, artificial colouring or preservatives,” says Nik Iza who does not buy carbonated drinks or cordials.

She says they contain sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup which are high in calories and could lead to weight gain. Whenever her three children crave for a sweet drink, she whips up her home-brewed roselle juice or kombucha, a fermented tea drink with beneficial probiotics.

“It’s homemade so I know the ingredients that go into these drinks. Plus, it’s without colouring or added flavouring,” she explains.

Over the years, there has seen a rise in healthier drinks in the market such as coconut water and ‘straight from the tree’ waters like birch sap, protein shakes and cold-pressed vegetable or fruit juices. But they don’t come cheap.

Nik Iza keeps a close eye as her younger daughter Iyda prepares roselle syrup.

Nik Iza also swears by the health benefits of kombucha tea, believed to contain anti-oxidant benefits and aids digestion. This ancient drink, first brewed in China over 2,000 years ago, is made from tea, sugar and scoby, a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria.

Nik Iza believes in the gut-brain connection, where food rich with beneficial probiotics (live good bacteria) and rich in fibre, minerals, vitamins and protein are beneficial for health and can promote a strong immune system and lift our mood.

“We are what we eat. Consuming good food and healthy probiotics helps promote the health of our immune system. When your gut is healthy, you are healthier. A diet based on sugary, fried and processed food could be too heavy for the digestive system to process. This could lead to problems like heartburn and indigestion,” said Nik Iza, who learnt to make kombucha from a Japanese friend in 2013.

The Internet, she says, is a wonderful platform for recipes and articles on food. Nik Iza scours various sites, YouTube videos and social media channels like Facebook and Instagram for healthy recipes.

“I tweak the recipes to cater to my tastebuds and make it healthier for my family’s consumption,” says Nik Iza, who gets help from her children to prepare the healthy beverages.

Kombucha tea is one of the must-have drinks at Nik Iza’s home.

Nik Iza gives extra doses of her syrups to her children when they are down with the flu and cough.

“My mother loved the taste of roselle tea and syrup. It served as a comfort drink, especially during the final stage of her illness. My kids like it too. Their health and resistance seemed to have improved since they started consuming the drink,” says Nik Iza, a believer of the effectiveness of natural remedies and traditional medicine.

Instead of processed food, she feeds her family wholegrains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein. Most of her raw ingredients are bought at farmers markets and suppliers who specialise in organic produce.

“Free range chicken have higher protein content. And they are antibiotic-free. I prefer to buy organic vegetables from small-scale farmers. This helps support budding business owners and help them improve their livelihoods,” says Nik Iza, who picks up fresh greens from the farmers market in Taman Melawati in Kuala Lumpur.

“I have three children and I have to be conscious about the food we consume. Making home-cooked meals and homemade drinks for them allows me to control their sugar, oil and salt intake,” says Nik Iza.

Her passion for eating right has also resonated with her family and friends, and they order roselle syrup and kombucha tea from Nik Iza for their families too.