Part One: Meat
I grew up eating what I thought was a pretty healthy diet. I had a variety of meat like pot roast, steak and hamburgers, turkey and on special occasions, chicken kiev. Meat was always accompanied by boiled potatoes, peas, broccoli or other vegetables. Then there was a salad with iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a store bought dressing in a bottle. The four food groups were addressed: meat, vegetables and salad, a glass of milk and perhaps canned peaches. Okay, in the summer we did have fresh fruit.
I was always doing some kind of sport like biking or playing tennis. When I got to junior high, I joined the mostly boy soccer team, then in high school I made the tennis team, cross-country ski team and took part in track and field. It was at that point when I really started running seriously. I’d even get up before school to run a few miles. But I had the same diet. I was truly a meat-eater.
I decided to wait it out a year after high school before going to college. I think this was a good idea. Although, one day my Mom insisted that I dust the living room furniture. At that point I had had enough and I wanted to live in my own place. I put my hands on my hips and said to her, “I feel like I’m living in a hell hole!” Late teenage angst. I called my friend Renee that day and we planned to start looking for an apartment to share in Minneapolis.
My new found independence brought on ideas about food and the environment in general. I got my second job as a nursing assistant at a local nursing home and started college at the U of MN. My roommate and I parted ways after six months and I found myself in a new apartment. That summer I got a job as a door-to-door canvasser for Greenpeace-Great Lakes. I met a lot of people concerned about the environment and specifically our great lakes.
I got to know Lincoln at Greenpeace. We did fun stuff like biking around Lake of the Isles at midnight and stopping at the dock to put our feet in the water. Lincoln had me over one day after canvassing and made me a sandwich. I took a bite out of this towering sandwich, which was delicious. I realized that it was different in some way. I said to Lincoln, “Where’s the meat? What, no cheese?” He told me that he was a vegetarian, so the sandwich didn’t have any meat or cheese; just vegetables.
Part Two: Lacto ovo-ness
At this time in my life, I didn’t have a whole lot of money since I was a student so I didn’t buy meat or fish. I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian which means I didn’t eat any meat, fish, turkey, chicken or pork. I ate eggs on occasion and always had milk in my cereal. Several six month leases later, I thought I’d introduce seafood back into my diet. I had some shrimp at an Italian restaurant which gave me urticaria. Urticaria produces itchy, mosquito-like welts all over your body. I let it take its course, since I didn’t have health insurance or a way to “Google” my symptoms, and it eventually went away after about two weeks. I chocked it up to a possible seafood allergy. It was actually reassuring because then I could say that I don’t eat fish because I’m allergic to it. Back to my lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
Part Three: The Pescatarian
There comes a time when you just want to be like everyone else; eat like everyone else. Who wants to be that picky person who eats a certain way or tries to influence other people to change their ways? I dared to eat fish again. I didn’t have that same allergic reaction which was probably only because the shrimp I had eaten was bad. It’s all about “sustainability”. If only I could find out what fish to eat. What fish were sustainable in the ocean? Which fish should I avoid in order to keep them from being caught in nets or keep them from having their fins cut off and left to die in the ocean? I could protect them through my buying power. The Mediterranean diet is the best diet, right? Those omega 3’s with wild caught salmon or line-caught sardines would keep me healthy, and my cats happy.
Part Four: My plant-based diet
I never really thought I was ever overweight until I started comparing photos of myself over the years. There is such a thing as a “junk food vegetarian”. If you have a “vegan” diet, what does that mean? There are a lot of processed foods that are labeled “vegan” or “natural” or “organic”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are healthy.
About four years ago I was diagnosed with intermittent asthma and just two years ago with pre-diabetes. What was it about my diet, which was mostly vegetarian, supplemented with olive oil and fish once a week, that wasn’t right? My husband had started looking into what is called a “plant-based” diet. I was skeptical for a while, not wanting to give up my artisan cheeses, sardines, salmon and marinated mock duck. I’d always say, “What are we going to eat? Nuts and berries? How are we going to get enough protein?” Food is very personal and important to all of us. I love to cook. I had my favorite recipes that called for ingredients that wouldn’t coincide with a trial plant-based diet.
So what exactly is a plant-based diet and where did all of this start?
A plant-based diet consists of whole grains, legumes, a broad spectrum of fruits and vegetables and small amounts of nuts and avocados. Oils such as olive oil or canola oil are not recommended. All vegetables and grains have protein; yes, protein. Processed foods should be avoided at all costs.
There’s a really good book called the China Study, written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a well known cardiology doctor from the Cleveland Clinic, his son Thomas M. Campbell II, a physician and Jacob Gould Schurman, a professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University. Dr. Campbell was also part of a food documentary called Forks over Knives.
They conducted a 30-year study to find out how animal proteins affect the human body’s vulnerability to chronic diseases. They did several studies on mice as well to coincide with their human studies. Time and time again, they found that diet was the main cause of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, neuromuscular diseases and diabetes. They also discovered that these diseases could, in fact, be reversed by changing one’s diet.
I still don’t think that I am predisposed to diabetes or heart disease. I am not doomed to inherit these diseases from my parents. I think that diet has a lot to do with how healthy we are. Exercise is of the utmost importance. And most of all, stress can have a detrimental affect on our health.
I’ve been on a plant-based diet now for about two years. I no longer have asthma symptoms, I have yet to have my blood tested to see if I am still “pre-diabetic” and I’ve lost 25 pounds. I’m lean and mean and love my food. If you ask me, I’ll tell you all about it. I want to live a bit longer than my grandmothers who lived to be 95 and 96.