Saturday, May 21, 2016

On eating whole foods: I've come a long way!

When I first met Yulia I would often react to how she ate with a raised eyebrow. The first time her odd eating habits hit me was when she described coming home late at night. She said she ate some sunflower sprouts and then passed out she was so tired.

“She ate sunflower spouts—whatever they are (like sunflower seeds??)—when she was tired late at night??” I was confused. I later learned that sunflower sprouts were microgreens. That didn’t help. So she ate some leaves when she was tired? Can you even do that?

She would also sometimes just eat fruit. Like, just fruit and nothing else. “Can you do that?” I thought. Whenever I was hungry, I’d go to a local café and get a Wisconsin Grilled Cheese—several different cheeses melted together with a mayonnaise based hot sauce on two thick slices of sourdough bread. And this was during a period in my life when I was consciously trying to become healthier.

Looking back on it, I feel like I was actually the weird one. I was eating what I thought were normal foods because, like most people, I looked around me to determine what normal was. If it was packaged and sold in a store, it must be fine. Otherwise, why would big companies make and sell that food? Why would the government let them? It's sad and naive that I thought that, but it’s true. If I was eating what I perceived to be a normal diet, how could it be bad for me?

What prompted me to write this was something I just read in the book, How Not to Die, by Dr. Michael Greger. In the chapter about high blood pressure he writes, “A single slice of pepperoni pizza can contain half your recommended sodium intake limit for the entire day” (128). I had to stop there and reflect for a second. I used to consider pizza a normal food. Healthy—maybe not. Unhealthy--no. But normal—absolutely. So I ate it regularly. Plus, it had, like, foods from different food groups on it. The dough was grains or carbohydrates or something. The cheese was dairy—I knew that had to be healthy. The sauce was made from tomatoes—a vegetable. And the pepperoni was meat. That’s like four of the food groups from the food pyramid! But only people who were on a boring diet would eat just one slice. I would pride myself on eating several slices at a time. By the time I was in my mid-twenties and just getting to know Yulia, I would eat an entire pizza as a meal without thinking twice about it.

Quite honestly, I wish I would have been exposed to some honest and clear information about diet and health a lot earlier. When I think back on it now, why didn’t anybody just tell me that a whole foods, plant based diet was the healthiest diet? I now feel like I was being patronized my whole life. “Sure, ice cream is OK to eat because it has milk in it,” is what I basically heard. After getting diet advice like that it was only natural to look at pizza and find the goodness it inherently had.

Instead, I needed to be told, “If you want to eat pepperoni pizza, limit it to once or twice a year, but you probably shouldn't eat it at all. Whole plant foods are all that you need to survive and thrive and be healthy. Yes, ice cream and pizza have some good things in them, and they're healthier than only eating candy bars and soda. But the good things don't cover for the bad things. That's not how nutrition works. If you eat a whole foods, plant based diet you will get all the same goodness that ice cream and pizza have without any of the badness."

Dr. Greger divides foods into three groups. Green light foods—unprocessed plant foods. Yellow light foods—processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods. And red light foods—ultra-processed plant foods and processed animal foods. As he says, “Simply put, eat more green-light foods. Eat fewer yellow-light foods. And, especially, eat even fewer red-light foods. Just like running red lights in the real world, you may be able to get away with it once in a while, but I wouldn't recommend making a habit out of it” (259). 

I appreciate how he deals with people who may be frightened off by the purity of his recommendations: “I remember a man once telling me that he could never ‘go plant based’ because he could never give up his grandma’s chicken soup. Huh? Then don’t! After I asked him to say hello to his bubby for me, I told him that enjoying her soup shouldn’t keep him from making healthier choices the rest of the time. The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it keeps people from even taking the first steps” (265).

Similarly, Yulia and I desperately want the people we care about to be in good health. We want them to be around for as long as possible. “OK,” we figure, “They don’t agree with us when it comes to our belief in not being violent to animals.” Well, since we still care about them, we want them to at least know the newest and best information about diet there is based on the evidence that is out there. Yulia and I don’t let our beliefs cloud our vision. Sure, not all vegan foods are good for you. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is, in fact, pretty terrible for you. But the best information points to a whole foods plant based diet, which you can eat as a vegan or as a meat eater. 

*     *     *

So I’ve gone from a guy who had no idea what his girlfriend was eating ("sunflower germ or something?") to a guy who eats garden fresh greens picked by his darling wife every day. A few months after I started dating Yulia, we met each other at an outdoor café one fine afternoon. From down the block I could already see her carrying her carton of fresh cherries. I smiled to myself because, just a few minutes before her I had also popped into the same store and got my very own carton of cherries. I knew I had chosen the right woman!


  1. First off: IMHO, it is hard to go wrong with a whole food diet.

    But, second: Do not believe all one reads in a single book (after all the author is pushing their one idea and trying to get more people to agree with their idea to drive up book sales).

    Take pizza for example. No: one slice it is not necessarily providing up to half of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sodium. The fact is more complex because it varies:

    And where does most of that sodium come from? From the crust (i.e. from bread):

    So if one wants to eat a sodium free pizza, but still wants to enjoy a pizza, there are other options. Home made pizza crust from zucchini instead of bread as one example (but yes -- requires eggs so not vegan). A recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook:

    Also, "daily recommended" sodium intake is not necessarily what any one of us actually needs. The more one sweats, the more sodium one looses. My hat and shirts in the summer often have white stains from all the salts I am loosing from sweating in the heat. And I sometimes crave electrolytes like sodium after a hard day working. Again, individual needs are more complex than RDA or "averages".

    In the end, we each should listen to our body.

    All the best!

    1. As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      Are you familiar with Dr. Greger or the book that I referenced? If not, this book is basically a compilation of many different studies and an analysis of the information that is out there. The references section is over a hundred pages long. There's no "one idea" (a la Atkins, primal diet, etc) that it's trying to push. It's main conclusion is to eat a whole foods, plant based diet because that's where the evidence points (though it goes into some depth about particular foods as well). It also builds on the conclusions of people like Dean Ornish, T Colin Campbell, Calwell Esselstyn, and Neal Barnard. If you're familiar with nutrition and whole foods diets, you're probably familiar with at least some of these names and know that they're not just some yahoos off the street.

      As a frequent reader of this blog, you should know that Yulia and I are really well read in many areas and that we're not new to vegetarianism by any stretch of the imagination. We don't base what we think on fads or sensationalism. 

      This post was simply a personal reflection on how unhealthy eating choices are normalized (and how to move away from that--your recipe for pizza is great, by the way. Thanks for sharing!). What moved Greger to write this book was watching his grandmom bounce back from a death sentence due to heart disease. In a similar way, I can't stand and watch as the people I care about continue to get sick from persistent problems like gout. I'm hoping that by putting some of my thoughts and experiences out there (along with a few pieces of information) that it might help just a few people. Even if I reach one person I think it's worth it.

  2. And your personal experiences are worth reading.

    My comments are just similar: just personal experiences and opinions. So, anyone who reads my comments here should take them with a grain of salt (pun intended). :-)

    1. Ya, definitely! It's great that you left a recipe for pizza. In the past, I would have assumed my only options were Pizza Hut or boring, tasteless salads.