Everything we hear about food and health is so controversial that it’s hard to know what we really should be eating, but the evidence points towards a plant-based diet. A diet is what one eats habitually to sustain themselves, not something you do for 30 days to lose weight and then go back to eating how you did before. No single food will make or break good health, but the kinds of foods you choose to eat everyday has an impact over time. Many of the foods we eat today either didn’t exist for most of human history or they ate them in much smaller amounts, and a lot of disease and sickness showed up when we started changing our diets to become more modern. Food is fuel for our bodies to function properly, and plants have so many nutrients and benefits for the whole body. Unfortunately the standard American diet (appropriately abbreviated SAD) is full of sugar, fat, and processed foods and is deficient in vitamins and fiber from a lack of fruits and vegetables. This leads to chronic inflammation in the body that becomes the starting point for most diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many others. The reality is that most of these health issues are preventable, treatable, and reversible through diet and other lifestyle choices. There’s even some evidence for diet being a major influence with cancer and allergies. Plants are anti-inflammatory and loaded with phytochemicals that help fight oxidation and lower overall inflammation. You can also reduce inflammation in the body by eliminating or reducing inflammatory foods like sugar, gluten, animal products, and refined and processed foods. Sugar and gluten are two big triggers for pain, so if you’re in chronic pain it’s worth completely cutting them out at least for a few months to see if you notice a difference. Try doing one or multiple elimination diets if you have headaches, migraines, or other health issues without a known cause. And even if you know the cause of a health issue, it could still be beneficial to play around with your diet and see if you can find some additions or some things to limit/minimize to help your body feel better. Doctors should be telling their patients to adopt a plant-based diet and take more responsibility for their health, but instead we take pills (by companies that sponsor our doctors) for problems while not taking care of ourselves and wondering why we’re not actually getting any better. For most of my life I’ve gone from doctor to doctor and have been on so many medications for my childhood headaches and episodic migraines and chronic daily migraines since age 13 and I’m crazy enough to believe that I might be able to do something about it with a plant-based diet and healthy lifestyle. So far it hasn’t done anything for my migraine other than let me know which foods make it worse, but my immune system has healed so much and the rest of my body feels a little better. I’ve been eating this way for almost a year now, and even if it doesn’t cure me it will still be the best thing I can do to help my body. A plant-based diet can’t fix everything, but it can do a lot more for our health than taking medications while continuing to provide our body with poor nutrition. A plant-based diet lowers the risk of obesity and other health issues, increases energy, and strengthens the immune system and overall body functioning. Our genetics definitely play a role in our health, but our family diets and diseases often correlate so regardless of what your genetic makeup is, there is hope for healing! Suffering is a part of life and even the most perfect plant eaters have health issues, but it doesn’t change the fact that many of ours today can be avoided. Nourish yourself with a whole foods, plant-based diet to give your body what it needs to do its thing the best it can.
A whole foods plant-based diet is focused on whole and unrefined/minimally refined fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. It excludes or minimizes animal products as well as refined and processed foods. A whole foods plant-based diet contains all the essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbs, and fats) we need with the exception of vitamin B12, so you should include fortified plant products or take a vitamin B12 supplement if you’re avoiding animal products completely.
A whole foods plant-based diet is basically vegan but with a few differences. Vegans cut out animal products but don’t always focus on eating nutritiously, and veganism is like a religion for some, which is a bandwagon I can’t get behind. I believe God made animals for us to consume, but I think we are way off track from how He designed that to look like. I also don’t call myself a vegan because I occasionally use chicken broth, eat crab every so often when my husband and I go crabbing, and sometimes someone I love will make something that has butter or an egg in it and I’ll eat it if its otherwise gluten and sugar free and still whole foods healthy. Regardless of where you stand on animal products, there are so many benefits for us by consuming less and better sources of it.
Something that comes up a lot about eating this way is how it does with a budget. We have freedom of choice to make our own food decisions, but it’s important to be aware of how the government and food corporations work together to make some choices (unhealthy ones) a lot easier than others (healthier ones). Healthy eating on a budget is totally possible; it just takes a little more planning than going crazy in the produce section. You can be healthy as cheaply or expensively as you want. If you’re doing it on a budget, stick to the basics – you don’t need fancy foods like coconut water and acai for your smoothies. Save money and control ingredients by cooking at home, get creative cooking from scratch, and play with textures and flavors to avoid boredom. If food security is an issue, don’t be afraid to get help like CalFresh- feeding you and your family well is worth it without shame. Right now we use Costco for some organic fruits and veggies, Winco for other produce, bulk items and other groceries (and a 25 lb bag of carrots for $5 for juicing), sometimes I check out the Grocery Outlet for deals, and occasionally I pick something up from the CoOp or Eureka Natural Foods. I’m also trying my hand at starting my first garden this season, so I hope that becomes a sustainable source of our produce as well. We try to be strategic with using all of our produce to get the most out of it and avoid wasting food and money. Loosely planning a few meals at a time and buying accordingly is what works best for me, but if meal plans work for you or completely cooking spontaneously, then do that. You can prep food ahead of time, double up recipes to freeze for later, and keep veggies chopped in the freezer. Buy bulk healthy (and cheap) staples like lentils, dry beans, raw nuts and seeds (go easy on the pricey pine nuts- or sub other cheaper nuts if making pesto), quinoa, oats, whole grains and whole grain pastas, wild, black and brown rice, millet, and corn tortillas. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also super affordable and have just as many nutrients (sometimes more) than fresh, so I always have these in my freezer. I buy a few kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables each week and try to vary them to keep it diverse. Some staples that I try to keep on hand are greens, sweet potatoes, bananas, oranges, spinach, carrots, cucumber, celery, tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions. Buying produce in season is also better on your budget- watch and buy when prices are good. Some of my other favorites include canned tomatoes/beans/chickpeas, vegetable broth, lemon and lime juice, unsweetened coconut, coconut milk, tofu, liquid smoke, dried unsweetened fruit, almond butter, tahini, coconut and olive oil, balsamic and rice vinegar, fresh ginger (that I freeze), curry paste, miso, liquid aminos, garlic, canned pumpkin, hummus, plant milks, gluten-free flours and nutritional yeast. Every so often I’ll buy coconut yogurt or something else a little fancy, but most of the time I just stick to the basics. Herbs and spices are also usually cheaper in bulk, so make them your friends.
Learn to make healthier choices easier for you. Transitioning to a plant-based diet can be difficult but it’s a goal that is realistically attainable if you want it to be. A good start would be to reduce or remove animal products, wheat, sugar, and processed foods for a while and focus on introducing more whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables and other good whole foods. There are plenty of vegan and nondairy options out there that are becoming more common so it’s easier to choose plant-based options. I made little changes over time to help me stick with it, but everyone is different and some people work best diving all in. Whole foods are often simple and can be eaten as is or lightly prepared. There are so many techniques and ways to make vegetables- grilling, steaming, sauteéing, roasting, stuffing, using them in soups, stews, casseroles and more – that there are endless possibilities in preparing them. Look for ways to sneak more plants into your diet. Eating more plants can be a meatless Monday here, one healthy smoothie a day there, one big green salad a day, or whatever else will help you eat your plants. Being plant-based also doesn’t mean living on boring rice, beans and salad. Stock your pantry with spices and good stuff to keep flavors varied. For sweeteners I use dates, cacao, coconut sugar and maple syrup in small amounts for sweet treats and not-so-guilty pleasures. Homemade dressings, dips, sauces and jams made with fruits and vegetables are another way to add some flavor and get more plants in. Know your ingredients and keep them simple. It’s also helpful if you focus on what you have to gain, not what you’re giving up. For example, focus on getting more fruits and veggies in your day instead of just trying to avoid sweets. If you “mess up” and have some sugar but you’re getting more fiber and nutrients from fruits and veggies, that’s still progress! The more you nourish your body with good foods, the easier it gets over time to keep making good choices, and you’ll also enjoy your occasional treat a lot more. The goal is to establish a healthy eating pattern with more plants, not total perfection. We eat what we crave and we crave what we eat because our bodies adjust to what they eat (and do) day-to-day. You grow to learn to love what works for you, and it will look totally different than anyone else because you’re you and not them. If everyone is going nuts for mason jar salads and yoga and you can’t stand either, find something else that you do enjoy and make it work for you. Find some inspiration and information- there’s Pinterest and plenty of awesome plant-based accounts to follow online, along with the rest of the internet for endless resources. Try a new recipe or try recreating some of your favorites as plant-based. Experiment with one new recipe, food, combination, seasoning, or technique a week. I have a couple pages of things I want to try hanging on my fridge, and I try to choose one a week and go for it; most become keepers and sometimes I have a bowl of mush that didn’t quite turn out. Have an open mind to try things a new way; it’s a challenging conscious effort that gets easier over time until it’s like second nature. Eating out and while travelling is a challenge but still possible to make healthy choices.
What about organic? The labeling and exact meaning of organic varies, but in general it’s a good choice when it comes to food. It is true that the nutrients in the soil affect the nutrients available in foods, and there are chemicals in most conventional produce and items that make organic the better option. Organic usually also means better treatment for the farmers growing the food, which is a pretty big issue in our world today. The dirty dozen and clean fifteen are a good guide to what’s more and less important; you don’t really need organic avocados when conventionally grown ones are much less affected (and a little cheaper) by pesticides than other produce. I buy some organic and some not organic items (about 1/2 and 1/2 because Costco is mostly organic-yay!) because that’s what’s best for me and my family right now. Get the best that you can provide for you and your family, but keep it in perspective of your situation. Organic produce and products are generally worth it, but do the best you can with what you have and don’t stress about it too much (but wash your produce!). Grow what you can yourself if possible – it’s a great way to save money, have free therapy, and get connected with your food. Look into a local community supported agriculture program or farmer’s markets for fresh produce if you can for foods that support local farmers. Choosing sustainably sourced animal products is also worth it because conventional animal products are usually fed poor diets and are heavy with chemicals, antibiotics, and disease.
What about nutrient deficiencies and supplements? Nutrients from a variety of foods work together in the body to do their job, and most supplements are just expensive urine. Vegans should have a reliable source of vitamin B12 because this is only in animal products and some fortified plant products. Vitamin D is another supplement worth considering because most of us have a deficiency and it’s a natural treatment for depression, especially seasonal depression in the dreary dark days of winter (sunshine is also a great natural seratonin-booster). Some people are concerned about calcium but calcium deficiency isn’t an issue in the US. Osteoporosis happens from bones not being strong enough from not strengthening them with exercise, and it isn’t an issue in other countries that don’t consume dairy. You can find calcium in plants like kale, spinach, other leafy greens, broccoli, legumes and soy products, nuts and seeds, and sea foods like dulse. You also don’t need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Americans consume way more protein than we need yet are concerned about deficiencies, which are almost unheard of in our country. Plant proteins can provide and put together the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of plant protein are varied and enough calories are consumed to meet individual energy needs. Plant sources of protein include soy products and meat substitutes, beans, legumes, lentils, hummus, a variety of nuts and seeds, peas, quinoa, and whole grains. We also need essential fatty acids which can be found in walnuts, avocados, olives, flaxseeds, dark green leafy greens, broccoli, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and soy products. Iron is found in all types of legumes and soy products, kale, spinach, mushrooms, baked potatoes, dried fruit, and a variety of nuts and seeds. Zinc is found in legumes and soy products, millet, quinoa, and other grains. Folic acid is found in lentils, chickpeas, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, lima beans, beets, and romaine lettuce. Magnesium can be found in oats, almonds and cashews, cacao, seeds, leafy greens, bananas, sweet potatoes, winter squash, whole grains, beans and legumes, and wild and brown rice. I take a calcium magnesium supplement as part of my migraine management toolkit, but it isn’t necessary on a vegan diet.
Some other things worth mentioning, like motivation. If you’re doing it to be thin, please ditch the diet mentality. Making healthier changes is good for anyone, but it doesn’t add to your value because you are enough the way you are, and you’re so much more than your weight. A healthy diet change needs to go deeper and start on the inside or it won’t last long because desire is a much stronger motivator than obligation or guilt. Do it because you want to nourish your body so it can function at its best. I know what it feels like to look in the mirror and want to cry because I thought I was fat and ugly- I used to want a smaller nose, bigger boobs, and an entirely different and thinner bone structure that would slim those thunder thighs. It’s still a struggle today but I’m finally at a place where I can say I love my body because God created it wonderfully, and other than having a migraine every day I’m pretty healthy. I still have my thunder thighs but I finally started getting comfortable with my body the way it is instead of always focusing on my flaws. Food has always been a deeper issue for me because of the cycle and grip it had that made me feel trapped and powerless. Food is powerful and can become a drug that self-sabotages us if we let it control us, or it can be a life-sustaining substance that fuels our bodies. I used (sometimes still use) food for comfort. My eating habits were even getting in the way of my love life- too full to have sex with my husband because of comfort snacking? Yep – that happened a lot. Changing my food habits has been so hard and I’ve had to rely on my faith a lot – I have to pray and ask God to be my portion so that I’m not looking to other things to fill me, and I have to ask for help during times of temptation. I can tell you from personal experience that you can be eating all the right things but if you’re eating spoonfulls of almond butter at night to sooth the pain, that’s not healthy. I don’t know what your issue is but I want to give you hope that it is possible to conquer: we all have stumbling blocks that we can use to change our approach and overcome. If you have the desire and motivation, all you need is some intention and action to get things started.
Here’s a gentle reminder to exercise and move your body because a healthy diet combined with regular exercise and stress management are the biggest positive changes you can make for your health. You got this.
With Love, Katie
Movies Worth Watching: Forks Over Knives, What the Health, In Defense of Food, Vegan 2017
For More Information
http://www.vegkitchen.com – a great resource for recipes
https://plantbasedonabudget.com – free meal plans for 1 or 2 people, or a 4 person/family plan
https://minimalistbaker.com – plant-based recipes with 10 ingredients or less, 1 bowl, or made in under 30 minutes.
https://wildlyredeemed.com/2017/11/22/a-note-on-moving-to-a-plant-based-diet/ – more on my journey and some food ideas