I'm Adopting a Plant-Based Diet. Here's Why [Plus Guide]
Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food — Hippocrates
I've been researching diet and nutrition for a full year as part of my desire to enhance the Health element of my Wheel of Life.
I avoided a lot of meat, junk food, and fast food, and leaned towards fruits, vegetables, and grains because they made me feel better. I admittedly overindulged in good food and wine (especially when traveling) but always knew how to course-correct.
This was the extent of my diet, and it took sifting through a lot of confusing and conflicting information to conclude that this sort of lax, semi-healthy approach to eating only marginally reduced my risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
So I switched, cold-turkey, to a new approach after gathering my own data. The following outlines why and how.
This guide is divided into five parts to help you gain a clear view of the plan I'm undertaking and the process that led me to this decision.
- Rationale — the experiences that sparked my interest in diet and nutrition.
- Research — the studies that influenced my decision to adopt a plant-based diet.
- Strategy — a simple outline of how I crafted my personal approach to diet and nutrition.
- Remarks — concluding thoughts that help synthesize my findings and insights about the plant-based diet.
- Resources — books, articles, and websites that were instrumental in my transition.
- Questions — a Q&A addressing some of my challenges and successes thus far.
But before diving into the why and how, I'll briefly explain the what.
what is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is one in which your food source is based on whole and fresh plants, fruits, legumes, seeds, and grains with very little or no animal products.
I like this phrase and definition because they are straightforward with none of the stigma that comes with popular terms like vegan and vegetarian. These terms stress the elimination or reduction of animal products but don't necessarily encourage eating fruits and vegetables in their whole form or the restriction of refined, factory-produced foods.
When it comes to your personal health as well as the health of the overall environment, the plant-based diet is hands-down the best way of eating you can adopt.
Even though I felt good in my mind and body, I knew there were areas of improvement.
However, my motivation to change was mostly driven from witnessing so many loved ones struggle with and succumb to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This year included the passing of my grandmother and my partner's mother (to name a few).
My own mother has been in and out of the hospital for almost a decade with absolutely zero progress on her obesity-related conditions. She's living on borrowed time and it pains me that not one doctor (of the dozens she's been treated by) has even casually mentioned the underlying cause: what she consumes.
So, what bothers me most about my personal observations and the staggering rates at which Americans — and other societies who adopt Western diets — are dying from these diseases?
It's the refusal to believe these are lifestyle diseases that are preventable and perhaps even reversible with the right diet.
Add to that the utterly baffling dietary recommendations from the governments and health organizations who are supposed to look out for our best interest, and it's no wonder millions of people are doomed.
I have no other ulterior motive with my transition to a plant-based diet. I've never been one for following lifestyle fads and, admittedly, my altruism towards livestock animals wasn't, until recently, pronounced enough to give up meat.
My decision is being driven solely by the research. Sometimes logic hits you so forcefully over the head that you can't help but to follow suit.
Scientific studies from reputable institutions provide overwhelming proof that all meat (including fish and chicken), dairy, and processed foods contribute to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other top causes of death.
These studies also show that eating more fresh, whole, plant foods provide significant protection against these same diseases by substantially decreasing your risk.
Studies supporting a plant-based diet
Research shows that healthy eating may be best achieved via a plant-based diet. This diet has also been shown to be a cost-effective, low-risk method of treating high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. — Southern California Permanente Medical Group
The best foods to eat are the most nutrient-dense foods that contain essential vitamins and minerals as well as naturally-occurring phytonutrients and other substances that protect against cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. In order of rank, the foods to emphasize in the diet are: vegetables, herbs and spices, fruit, mushrooms, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. — Nutrition Facts (summarized from various sources)
A plant-based diet has all the nutrients (protein, iron, calcium, and essential fatty acids) that humans need with the exception of vitamin B12 (which can be obtained via a supplement) and vitamin D (which can be obtained with adequate sunshine or a supplement). "More than a half-century of creative marketing by the meat, dairy, egg, and fish industries has produced fears surrounding nonexistent deficiencies, which in clinical practice need no patient monitoring by physicians and dietitians." — Northwest Permanente (Portland, OR)
Nutrition (particularly essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids) plays a critical role in controlling and, to some extent, preventing, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorder, and other mental health issues. — Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore (India)
Studies supporting the elimination or reduction of animal intake
Red and processed meats classified as carcinogenic to humans and the greater the consumption, the greater the risk — World Health Organization
Red meat consumption increases risk of diabetes, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality — Harvard School of Public Health
Drinking milk increases the risk of bone fractures and doubles mortality rates — Uppsala University (Sweden)
Milk is not a necessary foodstuff as calcium and other nutrients are readily available in plants. Dairy consumption may lead to prostate and ovarian cancers, autoimmune diseases, some childhood ailments, and other chronic diseases — Department of Health and Wellness, University of North Carolina (Asheville)
A variety of toxic pollutants are in fish and seafood found across the world's oceans — Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego
Environmental pollutants found in fish inhibit the human body’s natural abilityto expel harmful toxins and protect cells — Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego
Total meat consumption significantly contributes to weight gain, and chicken causes more weight gain than any other meat — School for Oncology and Developmental Biology, Maastricht University (Netherlands)
Viruses found in chicken could be linked to obesity in humans — Department of Experimental Medicine, Sapienza University of Rome
Like any other person who doesn't want to change or who wants to justify their current beliefs, I tried to find fault in these studies. But I couldn't make sense of the millions in the U.S. and around the world dying from diseases that were rare and obscure just 70 years ago.
The correlation between our increased consumption of certain foods and higher rates of these lifestyle diseases is just too obvious to ignore. And quite frankly, I can't comprehend why studies such as these don't lead to a state of public emergency given the sheer number of people who over-consume these food products.
In addition to clinical studies, I also investigated the ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic (founded in India) systems of medicine for an integrative approach to my diet.
I wanted to gain a more wholistic set of inputs by borrowing from cultures who seemed to be getting it right and in many cases, had a school of health dating back thousands of years (despite being perceived as "pseudoscience" compared to Western medicine).
As far as I'm concerned under Western medicine tens of millions of people are dying from the inability to make simple lifestyle choices, so I'm more than happy to consider the pseudoscience.
Below are core takeaways that I tested on myself and found to be helpful (particularly in alleviating minor ailments like allergies, post-nasal drip, headaches, sleeplessness, body temperature, etc. )
At the root of Ayurveda is understanding your body's constitution and the three main forces that circulate in the body and govern physiological activity. These three forces (called doshas) are considered to be different manifestations of the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth).
To be healthy and balanced in your mind and body, you should know what your dosha is and how it changes in response to environment, stimuli, and personal habit. This allows you to make wiser lifestyle choices.
My dual dosha is vata—kapha and from a diet perspective it is best for me to have warming, freshly cooked, nourishing foods, like soups, stews, and one-pot-meals that are light and easy to digest.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Ayurveda influenced TCM and its philosophy is also based on the earth's elements — called the 5 element theory (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water).
From a health perspective each of the 5 elements correspond to one of our major organs (i.e. liver/wood, heart/fire, spleen/earth, lung/metal, kidney/water).
These elements are controlled by two interdependent forces (yin and yang), however if yin and yang is out of balance (due to environment and lifestyle choices) it can disrupt our energy (also called chi), and cause an excess of one or more of the elements in our bodies.
These excesses keep our organs from operating efficiently. However, food can be used as medicine and making adjustments to diet can help put the elements back in harmony.
From a recent TCM assessment I was diagnosed with an excess of cold and dampness, which manifested through minor conditions (such as frequently feeling cold and having annoying allergies).
Insights from both of these schools encouraged me to make small diet tweaks such as reducing or eliminating the consumption of certain cold and damp foods (e.g. ice cream and ice cold drinks), and the results have been immediate.
Since making these simple diet adjustments yielded obvious improvements in my health, I'll continue to look to these schools for supplemental guidance.
My transition thus far has been surprisingly easy. That's because I refuse to turn diet into doctrine.
I want to be as healthy as I can be and hopefully become an example to loved ones who need it most. But I don't intend on being a perfectionist or propagandist.
My primary goal is to be mindful of what I eat — how I prepare my food and where I source my food from are secondary considerations.
That being said, below are the simple 10-step dietary guidelines I put together for myself ( #1-3 are the most important and most immediate, #4-10 are niceties that I'll work towards over time).
- Consume 80% whole plant foods and 20% seeds, nuts, and grains using this grocery list.
- Do not eat any animal products (including meat, chicken/eggs, fish, dairy) or processed and refined foods (such as white sugar and breads).
- Eat 1-1.5 meals between 12-7pm with 4 hours in between each and 4 hours before bed.
- Drink room temperature water or herbal warm tea throughout day and 30-60 minutes before and/or after meal to aid digestion (but don't drink during the meal).
- Have a portion of raw fruit or salad at each meal, consumed before lightly cooked foods to maximize nutritional value derived from the meal.
- Take a B12 supplement (to replace necessary vitamin only found in meat) and Vitamin D supplement (particularly in winter if spent in a cold climate with little sun).
- Limit caffeine to 1-2 servings weekly, but enjoy 1-2 glasses of wine daily if desired.
- For optimal digestion, eat foods in order from lightest to heaviest and don't eat proteins and fats in the same meal.
- Buy local, organic, non-genetically modified (GMO) products whenever possible.
- Given your physical makeup (derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic assessments) be moderate with "cold" and "damp" foods or drinks (i.e. both cold in temperature and raw).
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Of all the different ways in which you can develop yourself, health and wellness should be the priority. If you don't feel good in your body or mind you simply cannot thrive (or survive, to be frank).
Modern, Western research backed by ancient, Eastern theories of health both support the notion that we are what we eat. So take a cue from Hippocrates and "let food be thy medicine."
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Questions & Answers
Biggest lesson thus far?
Don't get too caught up in substitutes like vegan burgers, vegan pizzas, etc. because you'll be disappointed. It's really hard to trick your mind into believing that a portobello mushroom is a hamburger.
Instead, appreciate the diversity of the fruits and veggies you consume and explore or create dishes best suited to their unique flavor and texture.
Greatest challenge thus far?
I really like cheese and it's been my only craving. To the point above, I've struggled to find a cheese replacement and have been slowly accepting the reality that it might be a lost cause (because the faux cheese found in health food stores is just not satisfying).
My solution is to just let cheese go then try and discover different ways of creating savory richness and creaminess using totally vegan foodstuffs.
Most shocking discovery?
That fish isn't healthy (primarily because of the high saturated fat content and the amount of toxins they absorb). I was originally hoping to augment my diet with 1-2 servings of fish for the taste but also to avoid having to take the Vitamin B12 supplement, but ultimately decided to drop it from my diet plan.
I also learned that the livestock industry contributes more to global warming and environmental unfriendliness than the transportation industry. Now I don't own a car and don't consume meat, so playing my part!
Most fun part of the transition?
First, just going to an organic grocery store and selecting all the beautiful fruits, veggies, and grains available. My basket looks like a rainbow.
Second, I've been cooking about 5-6 times out of the week so far. It's been a lot of fun exploring recipes and meal preparation is like a form of meditation.
ANY Observable changes to Health?
To be honest I led a fairly healthy lifestyle before this diet and was happy with the state my mind and body were in. I was also already consuming a diet low in meat and dairy (aside from the occasional indulgences when traveling) so I haven't seen any dramatic changes thus far, but here's what I've noticed:
- I would always feel the heavy burden that eating meat and cheese would put on my digestive system, but now (start to finish) the process feels lighter and more efficient.
- This has been an added benefit to my focus on sleep — I'm thrilled with the improvements I've seen in this area.
- The changes inspired by the Ayurvedic and TCM insights have helped me battle minor ailments like allergies and cold extremities.
- A LOT more energy (on top of the high levels I already had).
I'm hoping for:
- more clarity in thinking and creativity, particularly less "mental fog" when it comes to solving business problems.
- better recovery post workouts as my muscles feel exhausted after my Bikram yoga sessions and body strength trainings.
- a clean bill of health when I get my blood work done at my annual doctor's appointment.
Advice for aspiring plant-based eaters?
Keep it simple and transition at your own pace. I went "cold-turkey" because I'm not good at creating new habits, so going all in is typically the way I have to do things if I'm serious about them. But as I mentioned out of my 10-step plant I'm only really focusing on the first three items so I don't get overwhelmed.
That said, this isn't a competition but a personal decision, so transition in a way that works for you. Also, don't beat yourself (or others) up if mistakes are made.
Just the other day I had to pick feta out of a salad at a cafe because they messed up my order. These things will happen but don't have to be a big deal, unless you make it one.