Shortly after quitting smoking, around 17 years ago, feeling a little bit out of sorts, I did a little reading on food and nutrition. Quitting smoking a pack of cigarettes daily wreaked havoc on me, physically, from withdrawals that at times were unbearable, and by adding a few disruptions to daily habits and routines. I like change, generally, but this business of quitting smoking took a good six months to even begin to feel comfortable with, and free from the obsession, worry and threat that I would smoke again.
But, food became more present to me and not wanting to gain a million pounds, or trade one bad habit for another, I started reading about nutrition and adopted a vegetarian diet for a couple of years. Although I drifted away from being strict about not eating meat, a few food choices that seemed beneficial stayed with me at least in memory. First, was the loss of any desire to eat white bread, and second was to watch out for how much, and what kinds of sugar I ate.
In the course of that diet it never occurred to me to give up dairy. I don’t remember reading much about it either. Well, time passed and I drifted pretty severely from any sense of conscientiousness about what I ate. As my life became fuller and richer after marrying Paul and we got busier with new friends, it was just easier to eat what everyone else is eating!
In October, 2005, I was rear-ended stopped for a traffic light. It was a foggy wet morning and I did not even see the car behind me coming. I heard the squeal of brakes, and bam! I would guess the driver was going around 40-45 mph. That was the estimated speed given by the body shop who fixed my car. I thought I was okay at first. Looking in the rear view mirror and seeing a woman with a baby in the car behind me made me jump out to see if they were okay.
The woman and her baby were shook up, but otherwise not harmed, as well as not insured and not the owner of the car.
My car was smashed up a bit in the back end, but drive-able. After exchanging our contact info, I headed to work. As I pulled into the parking lot at work, I began to feel not quite right. I sat in the car, called my husband on the cell phone to let him know what happened. I went into work but knew that something big was happening to my neck. I felt shaky, weak and my head and neck began to pound with pain.
Well, little did I know at that moment how much that little accident would change the next few years of my life. I began to have chronic debilitating neck pain that no amount of rest or drugs would fix. Physical therapy and some pain medication eventually brought me to the point where I could go back to work and get through the day. Still, I had enough pain that I could not enjoy playing the guitar, or enjoy most physical activity. For the first time in my life I became quite sedentary. I ate too much food and stopped caring about what I ate.
As time passed my husband and I both put on an extra 30 or so pounds. My husband Paul, at one point decided he wasn’t going to continue down the road to weight gain and poor health. He has some diabetes in his family and was worried about his health. He started to walk and then run on a regular basis and began to do some research into nutrition.
Because he does 95% of the cooking for us, we started to change our diet. The changes he suggested to me didn’t make much sense. He wanted to follow a Paleo style diet, eating a lot of protein from meat, very little carbs and sugars. I was somewhat okay with that, although I have never been that fond of beef. It was appealing to me to start to make a change but I would rather eat veggies and fruit! Paul kept saying that fruit is bad because it’s sugar. I would say, not all sugars are equal, and back and forth it would go.
About a year and half into his diet, I decided that any attempt to be healthy and lose some weight was a good thing and jumped on board. Although Paul had dropped from around 210 lbs down to around 185, he could not get under that weight and would yo-yo up and down. I decided that I would eat more protein with him but would prefer to eat chicken and turkey, it’s low fat right? I also decided to eat a lot more fresh fruit and to start taking power walks and exercise some. In about six months I dropped 25 lbs! I was very happy with this, but I didn’t always feel like I was eating enough.
More recently, I was browsing the Amazon website in search of new reading material and searched for books on nutrition. What I really wanted to know was how does food work? I was not looking for a diet so much as just looking to understand the mechanics and chemistry of food. There’s a fair amount of information out there and the books that seem to come up the most in the search are of two very opposing views mixed with a smattering of variations on both of those themes. I didn’t realize just how contentious the debates were until I started poking around the net on the websites of both sides.
On one side are the proponents of high fat, low carbs (Paleo or Primal diet, Atkins, South Beach) and the other camp takes up the opposite side, low fat, high carbs (Vegan, Vegetarian, Plant-Based). There is some agreement between most proponents of these diets with varying emphasis, that processed foods of any kind, particularly white flour, white sugar products are not healthy for anyone.
It is not my intent here to rehash the arguments for both sides. If you’re interested in the debates there’s plenty information out there attacking and defending a variety of diets more readily than I will ever be able to do. If people have healthful outcomes, who am I to argue or refute their diet choices? They must be doing something right and I’ll leave it at that. Although I did not venture into vegan diets for political or environmental reasons, I must concede that the Big Farma and Big Pharma industry seem okay with the status quo. And, if I were ever to eat meat or dairy again, it would not be from a factory farm.
But, the questions I have about nutrition come from asking, why are so many Americans gaining weight, and why are chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer taking us down in an era in which we are experiencing the most wealth, the best access to information and healthcare relative to any other time and place in history? And, how can I or anyone else avoid this fate and not get sucked into the medical industry built and predicated upon profiting from the top three killers? Does food and nutrition really have anything to do with it?
The first book I read that seemed to offer answers to my questions was Dr. Neal Barnard’s “Reversing Diabetes.” I read it, enjoyed it and thought, wow, I wish I had known this much about food and nutrition 20 years ago! He advocates a low fat, plant based diet and his studies have documented that if followed, reversal of not only diabetes but heart disease is possible.
Next, I read his book “Food For Life,” which has a 21-day diet outlined that you can use as a trial run. We tried it. It was a bigger change than I thought it would be. Giving up dairy was hard at first. What in the world would I put in my tea besides milk? Can I really drink soy? What about protein? Well, Paul and I completely revamped our fridge and food cabinet. Through trial and error, and more reading, we figured out how much of all the different plant-based food options we need to eat daily to get enough proteins and keep the legumes, veggies, fruits and grains in balance.
I continued to read other plant-based nutritionists:
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, “Eat to Live.”
Dr. Caldwell Eselstyn, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.”
Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, “Becoming Vegan.”
Around the time that we finished the 21-day diet, a friend sent me a link to an easy to use, free website where you can track your daily food and tally up the nutrients. It’s called FitDay Free Calorie Counter.
I highly recommend the website for anyone eating any diet that not only wants to count calories (who wants to do that?), but especially count macro and micro nutrients in what you’re eating. I was pleased to see that with a few exceptions, my daily diet is over the RDA. The exceptions were vitamin D and E which are made up by taking a daily multiple vitamin. I would especially challenge anyone who thinks vegan diets are not high enough in ____ (fill in the blank), to see how their diet adds up before discounting plant-based diets as an option.
The diet allows me to eat more food in a day than I ever have before. I have more energy, do not feel like I am starving anymore, and have lost cravings for eating a lot of sugary things. I eat the amount of fruit necessary, but don’t crave sweets like I used to. I am discovering new foods that are tasty and easy to prepare.
Anyway, like most adventures in my life, this is a science experiment. After a few months on the diet I’ll check my nutrition stats, compare them to 3 years ago and make adjustments if necessary.
I’ll finish today with this offering from Dean Ornish:
“I don’t understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it is medically conservative to cut people open and put them on cholesterol-lowering drugs for the rest of their lives.”
— Dean Ornish