That’s the No. 1 question I hear from friends and family. A few people even like to remind me that I could "lose weight" eating meat and dairy. But here's the thing -- my switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet had nothing to do with losing weight (I was already quite thin) and everything to do with preventing disease and trying to correct years of unhealthful eating and other bad habits.
For me, becoming a "healthful" vegan (I use the word "healthful" for a reason -- many vegans abstain from meat and dairy but aren’t healthy, choosing to fill their plates with processed foods and sugar in place of animal protein) happened in phases beginning in 2010.
In an earlier post, I wrote We All Start at the Mailbox, which touched on what my life was like prior to May 2010 -- a closet smoker with very poor eating habits, who more often than not skipped breakfast and lunch, overindulged on a typical American dinner and then stuffed my face with night-time snacks. My favorite? Nachos with melted cheese, olives and salsa.
I also drank about six cans of Dr. Pepper a day -- that alone translates into 900 calories and 240 grams of sugar. What on earth was I thinking!
I weighed about 35 pounds more than I do today. Fortunately, because of my height, I was able to avoid looking as unhealthy as I really was. When you’re 5’9, the weight has plenty of places to hang out.
Soon after turning 40 in November 2009, I began questioning my own mortality. I started to think about the diseases in my family (and Matt's, particularly since his dad died of pancreatic cancer at the young age of 56), and how more and more middle-aged people that I knew (some related to me) were beginning to take or were already taking prescription medications to regulate their cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, etc. I didn’t want to live that like.
What pushed me over the edge was my daughter Sienna. One day on our way to pre-school, she burst into tears and said she didn’t want me to die. I reassured her that I wasn’t going anywhere but the moment stayed with me -- it haunted me. My father’s lifestyle took him from us earlier than what should have been, cheating us and his grandchildren out of time with him. I didn’t want my kids to experience that with me if I could help it. On May 24 I changed the game.
I joined Jenny Craig and started working out six days a week. The weight poured off and I was feeling good. My obsessive personality eventually took over and I started to read book after book about nutrition.
Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food profoundly changed the way I viewed food. Unlike any diet I had learned about previously, his simple message supported by years of research made sense, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Pollan wrote about the many problems in the food industry -- like how what we eat is no longer the product of nature but of food science. He also reminded me that the primary reason we eat is to maintain health. As a country it seems we continue moving further and further away from the basic premise.
Pollan advocates flexitarianism -- reducing *meat and fish consumption to just 2-3 servings per week, eliminating or significantly reducing processed food and increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Here's what a flexitarian lifestyle looks like:
3 (meals per day) X 7 (number of days in a week) = 21 (meals).
Pollan recommends that meat be included in just two or three of those 21 dishes. Why? I'll let the man himself answer.
"The more meat there is in your diet -- red meat in particular -- the greater your risk for heart disease and cancer. Why? It could possibly be its saturated fat, or its specific type of protein, or the simple fact that all meat is pushing plants off the plate. We should treat meat as a side dish or flavoring to be used sparingly."
Pollan's flexitarian approach allows people to adopt a near-vegetarian diet without having to give up turkey on Thanksgiving Day or grandma’s favorite pot roast on Sundays. Plus, his research shows that vegetarians and vegans don’t enjoy any greater health benefits than true flexitarians (again, that's eating *meat/fish just 2-3 servings per week).
He’s also a proponent of shopping locally (at farms versus supermarkets) for produce and meat. Now when I suggest the latter to people, they remind me that meat from farms is costly. But that's the idea -- buy higher quality meat, free of antibiotics and hormones, and eat less of it. Another Pollan’ism, "Pay your grocer today or your doctor tomorrow."
In my mind this was the "AHA" moment of my lifetime. If the food we eat fuels good health, why would it not be directly, if not primarily responsible for disease and death? For years, I heard that genetics are responsible for most everything that ails us in life. But what if it’s our lifestyle that’s triggering those genetic traits and what if through a healthier dietary lifestyle we can prevent those genetics traits from ever occurring?
For me, sacrificing meat in favor of a more whole-food, plant-based diet was a no-brainer. I thought that even if Pollan was wrong, what would be the negative There isn’t a doctor on the planet who would argue away the short- and long-term gains of eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods.
Pollan’s message was reinforced by the film Food Inc., a documentary that painted an unflattering picture of America's corporate controlled food industry. It left me reeling.
I could no longer ignore what I was learning in favor of grilled chicken or a filet mignon.
On July 31, I stopped eating land animals altogether and adopted a flexitarian approach to eating, which for me would include fish just once or twice per week. Dairy and eggs would still be a part of my diet, however, the former in smaller amounts.
My desire to learn continued to increase, however.
They say we meet people for a reason. I believe that to be true. My next book pick was a suggestion from a 20-something Starbucks barista -- Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman andKim Barnouin. Coincidentally, she recommended the book to me while waiting on another customer -- a woman who I recognized from my gym. She overheard our conversation and, as it turned out, shared with us that she was vegan. My fellow gym-goer and I began talking and exchanged numbers to get together for coffee in the near future.
Tune in tomorrow for Part II of my journey to a plant-empowered life!
Learn more about running and discovering the benefits of whole-food, plant-based lifestyle. Visit my blog.
*Contrary to popular belief the word "meat" includes all meat -- yes chicken, turkey andfish too. I can’t tell you the number of people who believe “meat” refers only to red meat. Wrong, wrong, wrong!