Food Is Food: 5 Lessons I Learned Going Plant-Based
Food is food. What I mean by that is fake food is not food. Something that has ingredients that you don't know how to pronounce, or what exactly they are, or why they are in your meal, is usually a packaged item, often mimicking a real food that at the end of the day you may be better off eating than the substitute that is pretending to be it. This goes for fake burgers, fake chicken, or fake fish. Manufacturers call it plant-based but to me, it should be called Plant-Manufactured, as in made in a food plant, far from nature, and created out of a need to look and taste like the real thing. The first thing I learned was to check the labels.
If a whole food like chickpeas or almonds or peas is the first ingredient, that's a pretty good indication that it's healthier than something that has an amalgam of fake foods high up on the label. Palm oil and coconut oil (both tropical, thick, and often used instead of butter) are full of saturated fat so if heart disease runs in your family, proceed with caution. Look out for additives like carrageenan, added to food as an emulsifier, but it's been linked to cancer. (Sorry all you Beyond Meat lovers, but they use it in their burgers. I know, heartbreaking.)
But those are the details. The fact is I have loved this journey and the lessons it has taught me, including how to try to do a little better every day, and not recriminate if some animal-based product ends up getting into my food. If everyone tried to go more plant-based it would be better for the planet and animals and our health than if a small fraction of us hued closely to the vegan lifestyle. Trying is the point, succeeding is all based on your definition of the goal.
So go plant-based your way, on your own terms, and let me know how it's going. As a summer of climate crisis and a pandemic of health emergencies have each shown us, separately but in tandem, our food choices matter, and we are all in this together.
The 5 Lessons I learned Gong Mostly Plant-Based
1. Plant-Based Carbs are Still Carbs
That means the pasta with pesto and no cheese is still loaded with energy and if I don't burn off that energy it's not going to go away, but stick to my body in the form of excess fat that I can burn off later. (Sorry but zoodles don't do it for me!) Because of this lesson, I have actually put on a bit of weight going plant-based, though I also lowered my cholesterol by 30 percent! But don't worry, if you want to go plant-based and lose weight, you can easily do it. Just load up on the legumes at lunch, and stay away from the non-dairy ice cream after dinner, something I myself have trouble doing since it's just that delicious. (I'm looking at you, Ben & Jerry's. You have ruined my snacking life.)
But on the flip side, going plant-based gives me a desire to eat healthier. I have given up Diet Coke since I learned aspartame turns into formaldehyde in the body. And I was completely addicted to Diet Coke. it just seemed so hypocritical: Some chemicals and not others? So now I drink water infused with mint and lemon, and I drink tea in the afternoon and I've cut down on coffee, from five or six cups to one or two a day, since I know that more than two cups a day is linked to an increased risk of dementia (which I have seen up close in my mom and it's not something I want to particularly emulate). To me, being healthier means working out every morning and being generally more conscious of the decisions I make as a consumer. Plant-based has become a metaphor for my life: I want to try to do better in every category.
2. Plant-Based Protein is Clean Protein
Here's the best news of all about going plant-based: It's EASY to get your protein! Yes, easy. I have to repeat this and capitalize it since there are people (actually most of the people I know) who think protein has to come from a cow or a chicken, a pig, or another walking or swimming being. the fact is they eat plants. Those plants are full of protein. There's no better protein source than a salad of chickpeas, greens, and a variety of vegetables that deliver, along with the protein, a host of nutrients your body needs to operate at its optimal best. The clean protein of plants is also devoid of saturated fat that comes in your red meat and dairy. When you eat protein, and fat, your body is energized and not tired. Eating fat clogs up the bloodstream and leads to plaque, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, and more lifestyle-related diseases.
You don't have to love tofu. I don't, and I tell myself that's okay since soy is still controversial even though studies say you can have a portion a day and it is likely protective against breast cancer. Still, I prefer to get my protein from legumes like chickpeas, lentils and beans, and nuts and seeds including chia seeds and sunflower seeds. In fact, I love snacking on nuts. Hungry? No problem, so am I as an athlete who trains and when I get out of the pool I will eat a big meal, every single time. You can eat almost all the vegetables and fruit you want and fill up on healthy foods that are nutrient-dense and calorie-scarce. Even eating an avocado a day won't make you fat; in fact, studies indicate it helps you burn fat.
Amazing news for all you protein-seekers: You don't need as much as you think. Here's exactly how much protein you need in a day, depending on your training, age, and weight.
The anti-inflammation diet is also a plant-based diet and doctors recommend anyone who wants to lower inflammation and avoid heart disease go plant-based, or at least the Green Mediterranean Diet, which cuts out most of the animal products like cheese, dairy, and meat.
Athletes like tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams, the NBA's Chris Paul, soccer super-mom Alex Morgan and dozens of others are plant-based or fully vegan and every day it seems like another athlete has ditched meat and dairy for the sake of lowering inflammation in their bodies and recovering from workouts faster. More women competing past 40 in triathlon tell me (unsolicitedly) that they are plant-based and I think: This is the secret weapon to longevity in your sport. It's such an advantage that sometimes I wished I had kept it to myself when I'm getting passed by women faster than me (yes, I am that competitive when I get out there).
3. Eating Clean Means Skipping the Junk
People ask me "How do you feel?" and the answer is that I feel great when I eat great, meaning clean whole foods from nature, like vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, and skip the junk. But sometimes, I can't help myself and I dive into the potato chips (which are technically plant-based) or eat sugary treats (such as non-dairy ice cream or dark chocolate) or cheat. Yes every now and then some real cheese in the form of parmesan gets into my pasta (not my choice, obviously, but I don't try to throw it away either since that's a waste). Or I have fish.
When I do that I feel disgusted with myself. The slightest dairy makes my bad knee swell up, and the sugar and salt in processed foods leave me bloated and generally feeling back about myself since it points out that my best intentions are not always my actions, and closing this gap is a goal for me. When I occasionally eat fish it makes me feel bad for the fish (I saw Seaspiracy and am appalled at how we are over-fishing the oceans and have little regard for these creatures) and I wish I could tell you I never ever ate fish, but that is just not true. I know that as an athlete I don't always get all the plant-based protein my body needs (as much as chickpeas are my go-to) and as you age you need even more protein since you lose muscle every year on this planet, which is why weight training is so key. I can say that I stay 95 percent plant-based but I know that when I "mess up" I need to forgive myself and move on.
4. I Love the Planet and Animals and Feel Better Eating Plant-Based
When I eat purely plant-based and don't allow myself any other choice, such as a chickpea pasta for dinner, a healthy bountiful salad for lunch, and a light breakfast, I feel good about myself and the choices I have made. I know that the planet is better served because I have not eaten red meat or a full serving of dairy or chicken or pork or any other animal product in 28 months. I feel better because I know that studies tell us that a diet high in plant-based whole food (not chips, ice cream, or packaged foods) is beneficial when it comes to our health.
To lower your risk of some cancer, along with heart disease, Alzheimer's, and dementia, eating leafy greens, vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, and seeds is best for us. And I love all those foods. I want to eat healthier for the planet, animals, and my own personal health. With a bunch of ugly outcomes in my family, I am doing the best I can to stay healthy as long as I can. One day I hope to bike, ski, and swim with my grandkids, and have the strength and mental acuity to keep up. I also want to be cheerful and productive, and there are new studies that show plant-based diets are helpful when it comes to boosting mood, focus, and staving off dementia.
5. I Have Learned to Forgive Myself for Mistakes and Move On
Everyone has to choose their own path in life, and I never want to sound as if my path is right for everyone else–diet is so individual, like any other intimate decision you make. But now that I have started down this plant-based path, it would be hard for me to ever go back. People ask me: Do you think you will ever eat meat again? I don't ever want to. Occasionally if a bit of cheese makes it into my diet, or a restaurant uses butter when they insisted to me it would not be in the dish, I know that this happens.
We all make mistakes, but I just chalk it up to being human and I move on. It's a lesson that I wish I had learned earlier in life since I self-recriminate and play over and over in my head the stupid food choices or the regrets that I have, some behavioral, others unintentional. Regret is part of life and so is the desire to wake up every day and do better. Instead of getting down on yourself, I have learned, it's more productive to give yourself credit for trying. You will never achieve what you don't try to endeavor. I see plant-based living as a lifestyle, not a restriction. I love eating this way and I never feel deprived. I feel fortunate that I made the decision to try.
Top 10 Sources of Plant-Based Protein According to a Nutritionist