Plant-Based, Whole Foods?

So the pressing questions are: What on earth do you eat and how is that possible?!

The "diet" (a word I don't prefer since it conjures up images of those temporary trials of cruel and unusual portion control and food avoidance) is what you could call a "plant-based, whole foods" diet and it is more of a life-long eating overhaul than a short-term means of weight loss.

It's characterized by a whole different way of looking at food: seeing every caloric opportunity as a proactive chance to nourish one's body and promote long-term health. Eating for health makes all the other difficulties about food (guilt, weight-gain, cravings. etc.) fall off the path. It's amazing how simply deciding that food is God-given  preventative "medicine" that you can treat yourself with three times a day makes things like feeling good, losing weight, satiety, and disease-prevention mere byproducts of your lifestyle.

Plant-based means that the majority of my calories come from fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and grains, as suggested by the plant-based food plate posted above.

A typical day for me might like look like this:

Breakfast: 16 ounce smoothie (greens, banana, flax seeds, additional fruits, plant milk)
Lunch: Giant green salad with a small toasted pita or bowl of fresh fruit on the side
Snack: An apple or carrots and hummus
Dinner: Some kind of veggie-based soup, casserole, or bean dish (i.e. lentil and rice casserole, sweet potato lasagna, bean burger with side salad, veggie stir-fry, etc.)
Dessert: Fresh fruit, raw date bites, or banana soft-serve with tea

I avoid meat and dairy, primarily because the "nutrients" they supposedly provide also come packaged with anti-nutrients like cholesterol, saturated fat, hormones, and carcinogens that I'd rather do without. I've learned that, aside from B12, you can get all the nutrients you need from plant-based foods without the added nonsense.

This diet is different than mere vegetarianism and veganism because those diets can tend to focus on what to avoid. If you simply skirt around meat and/or dairy, you're good to go. But a plant-based diet is proactive about what to eat as the bulk of one's calories: nutritious, disease-fighting fruits and veggies! A vegetarian/vegan who's eating processed health food, refined grains, and cookies all day long isn't going to do much more for her health than a steak-loving cowboy. The emphasis needs to be on what one is adding, and not on a list of don'ts.

People on this diet can include a small percentage of animal protein in their diet and still achieve excellent health, but only by doing so about 10% of the time (meaning only a couple times a week, in small condiment-sized portions). I prefer to go 100% because it enables me to stay on the counter-cultural path and ensures that I'm not nurturing any old food addictions.

However, the main focus here isn't on meat and dairy's own intrinsic evils (although they aren't health foods, by any means) but on the reality that the Westernized diet overdoes it with animal food... with ALL food, in fact! And so any diet that radically eliminates or reduces these products is going to rely on fruits and veggies as a matter of recourse and promote markedly improved health as a result.

And so I also like to avoid animal protein as much as possible for a very practical reason: by excluding these products from my diet, I am forced to resort to much healthier alternatives. For instance, since a 6-ounce piece of chicken with some white rice on the side is no longer a dinner option, I need to redirect my meal tactic. Okay, so I'll use lentils for protein.  How can I make a full meal around lentils? Oh, by adding in a lot of other nutritious plant foods like veggies and grains to go with it! Presto: a dramatically healthier meal comes out of my inability to default to the steak-and-potato routine. It's really a sort of game trying to meet my daily nutrient needs in new and clever ways. I actually get a kick out of the challenge!

Plant-based nutrition also encourages reducing fat/oil, salt, and sugar in one's daily food choices. This was hard for me to swallow in the beginning. "What?! So you mean I have to stop eating everything?" But as I've worked at reducing my typical consumption of these anti-nutrients, I've found that my taste buds have deftly followed suite. Oil now feels greasy and gross. The typical sodium in canned soups tastes like a salt-lick! And now a little sweetness actually goes a long way for me.

The neat thing about weaning yourself off the typical American diet is that your taste preferences actually change so that you can sense the flavors and textures of food more acutely. And the weaning process isn't as scary as it sounds. After a few weeks, I became quite content to realize that instead of using oil for most of my pan-cooking, I can water saute things in broth. Instead of dumping salt into my recipes while it's cooking, I can use healthier flavor enhancers like lemon juice or vinegar. Rather than baking with cups of refined sugar, I can use dates, fruit, or a touch of maple syrup to sweeten my desserts. No deprivation. Just a changed perspective!

The whole foods aspect of the diet is basically what it sounds like: eating foods that are as close to their original state as possible. This means lessening our dependence on processed food, which really, when you think about it, is like a giant leap of blind faith between the producer and consumer. Because of today's modernization, our food is a mystery to us. These uniform, mass-produced items come from some unknown place, after a lot of unknown processes, before they eventually land on our plates. Yes, these food items are ubiquitous, convenient, and engineered to be irresistable, but is this really what God intended when He gave us a garden from which to eat?

Whole food is better for our bodies because it's food that it can recognize. That's where simple vegetarianism or veganism can fall short. There's plenty of boca burgers, soy-cheese pizzas, and vegan mayonnaise to go around, but in order to concoct these processed "health" foods, they are still undergoing tons of scientific processes so they can look and taste certain ways. Along the way, a lot of weird ingredients show up and a lot of sensitive nutrients are lost.

And since whole foods are going to retain more of their purity and vitamins, and include less mysterious, unpronounceable ingredients, the whole-foods eater is going to have to do more of her own cooking to ensure that such is the case! This isn't as laborious as it sounds. Plant foods come together in a flash and the recipe book I favor is full of interesting meals that take no more than 30 minutes to make and can be easily doubled for leftovers. It may require a few more knives, cutting boards, and dishes in the end, but it's an easy exchange for knowing where my food came from and what ingredients went into it.

And so I've found that yes, it is delicious and fulfilling to eat this way, and no I never go hungry or limit my food to sad little portions. In fact, my satiety level from this way of eating is so high that many days I wish I had more of an appetite throughout the day! (As in, I really want that blueberry crisp I made for dessert... but dang, I haven't felt hungry in hours).

That's because I've learned something fascinating about food satiety and why we as Americans don't often maintain it. In order for food to fill us up and make us feel content it needs two essential components: fiber and nutrients. Since most of our food is stripped of fiber, we need more of its bulk to feel full from it. Also, since our food is severely lacking in nutrients, our bodies compel us to keep eating until those nutrient needs are met. Westernized food is characteristically high-calorie/low nutrient, and so we end up taking in a lot more calories than our bodies need before we're finally sated (hence the obesity epidemic).

I saw the truth in this almost immediately after switching over to high-fiber food: a plate of real, solid salad (not the wimpy iceberg kind with a couple cherry tomatoes on top, but one with tons of fruit, veggies, beans, and seeds thrown in) makes my stomach contentedly full for hours. When I think of my Wendy's days, however, I'm amazed to recall how much of that high-calorie food I could shovel in before my hunger was the least bit blunted. I'm sure the addictive salt, oil, and sugar also helped me keep packing it in. Crazy.

So between the discovery of interesting new foods (I'm eating dates? And bok choy? And carrot juice? And I like it?!?!) and the positive results I saw and felt in a matter of weeks, I'm thankful that I gathered the gumption to give this new approach to food and health a try. In short, I'm as happy as a meat-free clam. :)

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