Why a plant-based diet?
Of all of the numerous diets out there, I sometimes get asked why I chose this one. It's too restrictive people will say. You only live once others will say. I want to go to my grave loving life and eating what I want some say (well that journey to the grave might be shorter than they think!). First of all, I don't think of this as a diet. For us, it has become a way of life and I think that's really the only way for real change to be effective. It must become a lifestyle change. Let's face it, changing habits are hard. It's so much easier for us to default to our old ways.
It seems these days that high fat animal protein-centric diets are taking the stage - paleo, ketogenic etc. I'd like to understand why carbohydrate has become such a dirty word. There is a distinct difference between good carbs and bad carbs. No one is disputing that bad carbs which basically includes all of the refined and packaged stuff like cookies, cakes, white flours etc. should be minimized. But what's wrong with wild rice, quinoa and sweet potatoes? In my opinion, nothing! These types of complex carbohydrates are turned into glucose which is what we humans need for energy. Our bodies process good carbs and bad carbs very differently. Dr. McDougall would go so far as to say that we are starchivores by our very nature. We have subsisted and thrived on starches for centuries. Gladiators, some of the fittest men on the planet, would consume starch-based meals before going into battle. Elite athletes rely on good carbs to fuel them for competition.
I'll tell you why animal protein diets aren't for me. My husband has chronic kidney disease (see my post). The disease is actually reversing into normal range thanks to plants, but animal protein and any type of protein-centric diet is bad for him. It is harder for the kidneys to process animal protein. Plants, on the other hand are more easily digested. The other trouble I have with high fat animal protein diets is the inherent saturated fat and cholesterol that comes with that animal. Studies will show that, in the short-term, a person can lose weight by restricting carbs and increasing protein but what about the long-term picture. I have read and heard enough to feel quite confident that all of that saturated fat and cholesterol is going to cause long-term repercussions. I have a family history of heart disease so I prefer not to choose foods that might increase my own chances of getting the disease down the road. I have heard this expression before and like to remind myself of it...our family genes load the gun but it's our lifestyle choices that pull the trigger. In other words, we all inherit certain genes from our parents but those do not have to define our fate. I believe our choices can make a difference. The food on our plate is certainly something we have control over. Every food choice can be either beneficial to my health or detrimental. Don't get me wrong - I slip up. I eat unhealthy things from time to time but, as long as we're eating healthfully the majority of the time, our bodies can recover. Isn't that encouraging?! That we don't have to accept the fact that, just because our father and grandfather both died of a heart attack at age 50, that we are reconciled to the same fate.
Let's look at plants for a moment. No one can argue, regardless of what type of diet you're on, that more plants is good for us. Unlike the animal package, plants are packaged with all the good stuff. They have zero cholesterol and are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, water and fibre. Animal protein has no fibre. Most people, particularly those consuming a typical western diet, are fibre deficient. Fibre is key. It cleans out our systems and keeps things moving and functioning. One of the biggest arguments against a plant-based diet is the concern for protein deficiency. The conversation should shift from how we can get more protein to how we can get more fibre. No one is protein deficient but almost everyone is fibre deficient.
Plus, there is plenty of science and history to back this up. Our ancestors have relied on plants for centuries. Certain blue-zone populations still do and they have the highest number of centenarians. Yes, there were times when animals were killed to provide meat for a family or tribe. However, they were not consuming meat breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day as we are consuming it now.
I'm not out to bash paleo or high protein diets. I can see the good things about it. They strive to eliminate processed foods which is a win for everyone. A recent Consumer Studies magazine featured a review of all of the current, some would call "trendy" diets out there. Guess what they concluded? That plant-centric diets are best. Plant centric meaning plants should be the centre but some animal protein on the side or as an accessory is ok.
People will ask, how can you give up meat and cheese? Don't you miss it? In all truthfulness, no. Meat was not hard to eliminate. Cheese took more time (read Dr. Neil Barnard's Cheese Trap and you'll understand why. Cheese has addictive properties!). I try not to focus on what I don't eat anymore. I prefer to focus on the things I can eat, the foods that I have come to love and that love me back. Foods like steamed swiss chard, lentil soups and burrito bowls. My adapted taste buds allow me to really taste the sweetness of a peach and the saltiness of swiss chard. I didn't really notice those tastes before. Eliminating meat and dairy has allowed me to be more in tune with my body, what serves it and what doesn't. As a celiac myself, I see how this lifestyle has impacted my own health. My joints don't ache anymore, I have more energy, my post-workout recovery is better and I don't have that brain fog I used to have sometimes. I rarely get sick. I really do attribute it to plant diversity and all of the anti-inflammatory fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
I also can't forget about the health of our planet and animals. At the risk of sounding like a bleeding heart to some, that has actually become important to me. We may have started this journey for health reasons but it has opened my eyes and consciousness to other issues like animal cruelty, factory farming practices, greenhouse gas emissions, and the sustainability of our planet. We can't continue to sustain the world's growing population on our current animal consumption practices. I think about my kids' future and what it will look like for them. My 10 year old daughter loves animals and she seems to have a better understanding now of where her food comes from. She loves pigs and I'm planning to take her to a farm sanctuary in our area with "Esther the Wonder Pig" (who has quite a following on instagram!). It's good for her and us to have a connection to our food, our animals and our planet. We seem to have lost that connection over time.
So, when someone asks me why I eat this way, I basically tell them I do it for my health, the health of my family and, more recently for me, the health of the planet. We're not perfect with it - the kids aren't 100% on-board but we're trying and learning. My husband's lab results speak for themselves and are proof enough for me that we're on the right track. Plus, I just feel so much better that I don't think at this point, I could turn back.
In the end, eating plant-based puts everything into alignment for me -it checks all the boxes.