So my sister-in-law writes me with news I won’t believe. I’m like, “you’re having another baby!” (They have two adorable little girls who have so much energy and cheekiness and are just coming out of the crazy baby-toddler years that it’s unlikely they will have another.) She’s like: “No, even more unbelievable.”
Her husband (my brother-in-law) has become vegan! Okay I hear you. Doesn’t sound so crazy. Lot’s of people take a hiatus from their regular scheduled dietary life to cut out animal products, right? Vegan these days is a household world where it once certainly wasn’t. (Imagine my grandparents in the 70’s with my father’s short stint in Costa-Rica being a fruitarian trying to outsmart monkeys for the ripest fruit to pick off the tree. Seriously. You think I’m joking but I am dead serious. More on that another time…) Comparatively being vegan today is practically mainstream.
So just to put it in perspective, my bro-in-law embracing vegan life is kind of comparable to me becoming a McDonalds poster-girl. It’s both unlikely and kinda crazy! No, he isn’t a fast food guy — he has class and has always appreciated (and cooked!) fine cuisine with quality ingredients, but he’s definitely not exactly your expected vegan. The switch is a classic, I read a book and am inspired to try this vegan. (I mean that in a completely positive way!). Ans so far he feels great. The discipline alone I think is enough to make someone feel like a million bucks, but the bodily feeling of a lighter more efficient system is pretty damn inspiring too. Naturally, I embrace anyone who wants to make lifestyle choices that fuel their body and mind in a positive way and being a more conscious eater makes you a more conscious human. Period. So, A+ from me.
The thing is, this new made me think, what do I think on the topic. Because this is family and I take family pretty damn seriously. In short, I don’t really like the all-encompassing term vegan, nor do I think the standard cut out everything animal but continue to eat sugar and drink alcohol everyday and expect to be a clear headed balanced person is the ticket. Maybe I’m just not a fan of dietary labels in general. They are loaded and don’t take into consideration an individuals’ constitution along with their current condition. Yes, each of us are uniquely individual and labels prescribe and assume everyone with flourish with the same set of rules. It didn’t work in grade-school and it doesn’t work diet.
In traditional oriental medicine there is yin and yang, in modern western medicine there is acidity and alkalinity (or PH balance). No matter how you shape it, our bodies are constantly looking for (whether it’s in cravings or habits) an equilibrium and feeling of balance, and by balance I mean an energized body, efficient digestion and elimination, a clear mind. When we are in tune with our bodies we can feel the pendulum swinging one way or another and our organ-systems feeling out of wack (you know, being angry or grumpy after eating too much salty or fried foods, feeling extra lethargic and tired after eating a pile of dairy and sugar. It’s not a coincidence. What we fuel with and how we process the fuel is how we feel). There are signs at every stage but being attuned to them takes a clean and aware system.
It is this that makes terms like: vegan so tough to throw around. I get that it’s a perfect term for what it’s representing and overall I think it’s a great starting point to embrace, being able to fuel your body with plant based things. The problem is, like everything, catch terms become industries and when they do it’s both great and not-great. Great because there are vegan inspired restaurants and grocery-store food products so you can feel like a sort-of-normal person and not have to be a hermit living in the woods. Not-great because the second there is a fad-industry, troubleshooting what is quality and what isn’t for the consumer is a lot of work. In other words, there is a ton of shit out there with just as many processed ingredients and fillers calling itself “vegan” as there are fast-food options. Being a ‘fakin’-bacon vegan” or pasta-tarien isn’t healthy. End of story.
This is why in hearing this news about my darling bro my heart all at once went: “Awesome. And… be careful!” And I felt inspired to write down a few guidelines to transitioning to a plant based life. I am sure this list will grow and expand, but for now here’s the skinny:
- Try and focus on what you’re adding/doing instead of what you’re taking away/not doing. I find this a key to long term success in dietary and lifestyle changes of any kind.
- Eat whole foods. Whether you’re going completely non-animal or not, making a choice to eat whole foods is the way to eat the best possible quality and become your healthiest you. Make it a mission and simply don’t buy packaged food. Chances are it’s not really food anyways. Besides the odd bag of corn-chips (yes, organic!) which is my kryptonite treat, I try not to buy any foods that we eat for meals that are packaged.
- Add sea vegetables to your life. Minerals are a key part of our health and while many people now know there is more bio-available calcium in sesame seeds than in milk, it’s still a hot topic for those who don’t eat dairy. Educate yourself on what plant based foods have good minerals and begin to add sea-greens to your cooking. If you are a coffee drinker, have a high stress job/life or travel lots, your mineral stores can get depleted and this is another reason to add bio-available minerals into your life. It will be the single easiest and best thing you do. Promise.
- Cut sugar and alcohol. Yep. There, I said it. I hate to burst all the bubbles at once here, but when you begin to eliminate dairy and meat (yang) from your diet continuing to eat refined sugar (yin) and drink alcohol (super yin!) daily will begin to deplete your system over time. At first cutting out animal products alone feels great, like you’re lighter and have more energy than ever before. But after a while if you continue to drink and eat very sweet things, your energy will decline and you’ll begin to feel tired, lethargic, unmotivated and even weak and/or you’ll be drawn back to animal foods for a feeling of strength and balance. Start to pay attention to when you eat heavily salted foods and if you want dessert after or if eating lots of sweets or drinking makes you want those chips even more? Your body is smart and is constantly trying to be in a state of equilibrium. Being in tuned with your rhythms and why you think you want or need something is the best place to start.
- Build your biome. Nix the nutritional yeast. A lot of vegan-talk revolves around this ingredient: nutritional yeast. This is a tricky one because it’s a staple in the vegan-flavour-world and there are some interesting health benefits. It is praised in the vegan world because it is high in B vitamins, has protein and is fortified with niacin, zinc, folate etc. But for long term health, don’t go too far down this road. In macrobiotic balance terms, it’s weakening over time. And while it’s flavour can add to vegan cooking, there are way better ingredients to add to your recipes. In addition, it is a yeast and therefore naturally somewhat inflammatory. If you had candida or a yeast infection they would say to cut this out. That is one of my go-to flags for “don’t eat this in your regular daily diet”. There are enough inflammatory things in our modern diet and lifestyles to combat, there is no need to add more. Take a B-complex vitamin and build your intestinal biome with a great quality probiotic recommended by a nutritionist or naturopath plus eat miso and fermented food regularly. You will do your body a service and avoid long-term depletion that often goes along with a conventional vegan diet.
- Avoid processed soy protein/TVP as your main source of plant protein and for-Gods-sake stop trying to re-create meat. Seriously people. Nothing about pressed bean-curd and fake smoke flavour is going to taste like bacon! End of story. It was a brilliant industry that created all the pretend meat-like-products and while every now and then at a work bbq picnic eating a veggie-dog isn’t going to kill you remember, it’s the farthest thing from a whole food. Read the ingredients list on vegan pretend-meat and prepare to be amazed. While I hate to make this too philosophical, the truth of the matter is that the sentiment of a flavour or texture is usually what we’re after. Naturally if our grandpa made the best ribs and it’s a family recipe that you’ve enjoyed every summer at the cottage, then of course you are going to longingly want them. Choosing to alter your diet is more than just food, it’s emotional, it’s social and it’s sentimental. It triggers all sorts of things in us and we need to be clear as to why we’re making these choices. Because it. is. a. choice. Whether for the animals, the environment, personal health, sickness, an athletic goal — it doesn’t matter your reason, but it has to be good enough to stick to and you have to become aware enough to know when your history and habits are being triggered. Textured vegetable protein is hilarious and clever but it’s never going to be that hamburger! Embrace the new flavours you get to enjoy instead of eating more processed stuff. Plus you can read up on how soy is high in estrogen and is traditionally meant to be eaten in very small quantities, not in mass quantities as a protein source. (Especially for men.)
- Be prepared. You need snacks. You get hungry when you’re breaking down and digesting plant foods all day. They don’t sit in your stomach or intestines for the length of time that meat does and therefore you need to continue to fuel yourself. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that I am constantly eating. And it’s true! I am a huge advocate for the reality that calories are not made equal and calorie counting is nothing short of degrading and frankly, silly. I get that it works for some people to lose weight and I applaud whatever is good for you. But I think that counting calories does more for food and lifestyle awareness in realizing how much we’re consuming in certain foods and what serving sizes really are. That said, if I counted the calories I ate in a day I would probably be three times over what any normal person my size “should” eat. Avocado, nuts, rice they are hugely calorically dense and yet they are calories that are high in fibre so the nutrients are absorbed, you feel full and satisfied and the digestive system/intestines are cleansed as they move through you; plus they promote fat burning rather than fat cell collection. Eat nuts, seeds and good quality fats to sustain you (because it is true that you feel hungry more often) and get the cell building nutrients you need.
- Whole proteins with grain and legumes. This is a big one because we humans need whole or complete proteins. Meat and eggs are naturally a complete protein. What whole protein means is that it has all the amino acids to be a complete protein source. There are 20 amino acids that are essential and 9 we can’t make ourself. So these additional 9 are what we need from a food source known as protein. They need to be in roughly equal parts to be a whole protein. You don’t necessarily need complete proteins in every meal because as we digest throughout the day we are making whole proteins, but many people (vegans and vegetarians) are rightfully conscious of making complete proteins with each meal. I think being mindful of what you eat and educating yourself about complete proteins so you begin to cook in a balanced way is excellent. Combining a legume like beans or lentils and a grain such as brown rice or millet make a complete protein. (Yes there is even some protein in rice, who knew?!) Or think of peanut butter sandwiches, the wheat (grain) and nuts make a complete protein where nut butter on it’s own isn’t. Don’t get me started on your bread quality though. However, I’m fairly certain this science does not work when considering a sandwich on Wonderbread. Sorry, not sorry.
- Quality + Variety. This probably goes without saying, but the quality of your food matters. Especially when you’re getting your nutrients from plants. Nuts, seeds, grain and beans all go rancid so make sure you’re sourcing fresh quality staples. Organic and local is best. Variety in tastes and textures is essential and fresh is key! Eating with the seasons becomes something to celebrate when what you’re eating is what is growing. The first asparagus to pop up is an exciting spring milestone and you’ll get excited for blueberry season, because when plans are your main food you really notice what grows when and what tastes spectacular.
- It’s about your personal evolution. Lifestyle choices and changes are a bigger deal than just the food we put on our plate. I think this gets missed because we are in such a diet-centric culture. What we declare (whether quietly or with fervour) becomes who we are and what we believe. I’m not saying we should make what we order at restaurants our religion, but I do think on a personal note, no matter what your reason, if you’re making a choice or a stance to eat a certain way it is healthy to reflect on your own evolution as a human. We are fuelled by what we consume and our physical body and mental state will alter depending on what we’re fuelling with. So be conscious and accepting of your own process and where it takes you — the likelihood is it will be further than you ever imagined.