Friday, February 8, 2019

Our So Called Plant Based Life

Our weekly local veggie co-op haul

It has been four months since our family embraced a plant based lifestyle. The month prior to that we loosely followed Paleo/Whole 30 guidelines. As you know from my the previous post, the reasons were mostly due to my husband's recently diagnosed and urgent health concerns surrounding heart health. We have learned so much during this short period, yet I feel like we have so much more to learn. We're in that spot where we have now seen so many health benefits that unless something radically changes, we will continue forward in this lifestyle. Throw in that a plant based diet gut punches so many other risks for disease such as cancer and diabetes? We're pretty bought in.

I know there are those of you who have questions as we've both had many approach us asking about the details of this lifestyle, whether it's for personal reasons or just out of curiosity. I've tried to break down this post a bit to address these questions. Also, because reading about other's personal journeys in transitioning to a plant based diet was so helpful to me, I want to help others do the same. Although this may not be the eating lifestyle for everyone, if you're interested and are committed to learning and making changes, anyone can do it. I think it's important to realize this because so many blogs, books and social media accounts make it look like you have to already have an out of the box crunchy lifestyle to embrace plant based eating. You do not have to live in Hawaii or Bali. You don't have to be a yogi. You don't have to be an animal or environmental activist. You don't to have certain political views. I do have a fair bit of experience in health and wellness, but I'm learning new things every day. Our family of four lives in the Houston area suburbs. We're from small conservative towns in Texas and Louisiana. We're conservative Christians. We all struggle with the risk of diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer and diabetes. You can add more fruits and veggies to your diet no matter your political, religious or porch view and cut your risk for disease. So if you're interested in this for health reasons, take heart, you don't have to have a certain background or interest to go plant based. If you want to follow our journey just because it seems so stinking weird? Go right ahead! This could be said about so many things that have happened in our life, but if you would have ever told me our family (specifically my husband) would be whole food plant based? No meat? I wouldn't have believed you and would've laughed my head off at the thought. And yet, here we are.  A meatless, eggless, dairyless household and enjoying it. Life's funny isn't it?

Enough with my musings, let's get to the stuff that you want to know.

The Results

Let's start with the noticeable benefits specifically related to my husband's health goals. Since September he is down 60 pounds (this has been a maintained weight), his triglycerides have dropped from six times over the norm to within the normal to lower range. His cholesterol, which was also insanely high, dropped to within the normal range as well as his blood pressure. He is not on any cholesterol lowering drugs or blood pressure medication. This is all without exercise and in fact, the suspension of most physical activity over the last four months. He will have another CT scan with calcium scoring in the near future to see if any of the previous damage has been reversed by this radical lifestyle change. We are hoping and praying for great things! His cardiologist, who promotes a plant based lifestyle and practices in Houston, is more than pleased with his results and will continue to monitor his progress.

I too have dropped a size and feel the healthiest I have felt in some time. We both added back in exercise almost four weeks ago, nervous for our first "plant based workouts". That sounds so silly, but truly our bodies have gone through a radical change and we were curious to see how we would handle a strenuous workout on a plant diet. Joey has a bit of a road before him to regain his strength back completely after such a bodily about face, but with three weeks under his belt he is beginning to get his gym legs back. I went to workout classes at our gym fully expecting to be weak, however I was surprised that I was able to hang throughout the workouts. This was a different result than I would have expected from a long period of physical inactivity, not to mention on a diet of plants.

In fact, both of us have noticed stamina, energy and a feeling of vitality that has truly taken us by surprise. Waking up in the morning isn't as much of a struggle. I honestly feel like I could go for a run each morning (note: I'm not a runner, nor have I taken advantage of this feeling). We both have quiet time before our kids get up and have found that focusing super early in the morning isn't as difficult as it normally is. I'm also not dead at 8:00 PM. That's a benefit, don't you think? Another strange thing is that we can easily miss our coffee and not realize it. We went off coffee for 28 days in October and I guess we broke the habit. We were excited to add it back in around December only to find that we often forget about it and look forward to our lemon water and smoothies instead. So weird. I love to love coffee.

Note: Joey and I have both had regular bloodwork done during this period and our numbers are great.

It's not like we've turned into unicorns, but there is definitely a vitality that we haven't felt on any other eating program.

The Food Stuff

Simple meal of quinoa, lentils, sweet potato, green beans & salad

You can read the previous post linked above for the details as to what a whole food plant based diet entails, but think no animal products and keeping food as close to its original form as possible. Also, Joey's heart healthy diet is limited to no oils along with a few other nuances. So no olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, etc. And of course, no butter. He stuck with a cleansing raw vegan diet for 28 days and finished up just after Thanksgiving. Not one bit of cooked or processed food for 28 days. The food was mostly provided by the medical facility as part of the plant based cardiology program he has subscribed to and he rocked it! He did not cheat once. I don't think I could have done it. 

I had really hoped to do more recipe experimenting while he was on this part of the program, but it was tough! He had his food and the kids and I would have our food. Our kids were getting used to things and I didn't know what would be a hit and what wouldn't so half the time I would end up eating alone and left with massive leftovers. We were also dealing with extra health issues during this time that compounded with all of the changes we were undergoing as a family. So I scrapped my grand plans and kept it pretty simple. By simple, I mean foods as they are such as whole sweet potatoes, lentils and steamed veggies. I didn't start too much experimenting until we were able to eat as a family again. This is something that I have discovered along the way: eating plant based can be as simple or as complex as you make it. You can eat the foods as they are in their whole form: steamed, baked, sautéed or raw. Or you can veganize beloved recipes and soak cashews and make your own apple butter. It's up to you.

I have mentioned that cooking plant based has been a learning curve for me. Namely, just the little tricks that I've needed to learn to cook without oil and eggs as well as ways to make our food as nutrient dense as possible. I've learned to make flax eggs, cashew cream, sauerkraut (still learning) and a million other vegan substitutions. Learning about nutrition has also been a camp out for me. I'm learning how much protein, fat and nutrients are in certain plant foods and being mindful of the day's nutrient density for all four of us. Google and I are companions and I'm constantly saying to myself "Huh, who would have thought?" or "Wait, what?" with 7 seven tabs open in my browser.

We do eat out occasionally and have our go-to restaurants where we know we can find options. Except for barbecue restaurants, we can often find something to eat at most restaurants (so don't be afraid to invite us out). It's helpful to know ahead of time so we can menu scan and be prepared. It's truly not the best option health-wise as we can't be as certain about the quality of the food and sodium, sugar, additives and oil can be hidden in the dishes, but it's nice for a bit of normalcy and convenience. Some of our favorites include Fadi's Mediterranean, Zoe's Kitchen, Chipotle and Nikko Nikko's. Imagine the waiter's surprise when my strapping husband orders lentil soup and a salad with no cheese and's priceless.

One thing I'm still working on is our grocery shopping rhythm. I need the equivalent of a milkman. A vegan milkman, who delivers speckled bananas and perfectly ripe avocados on my doorstep each morning. In the beginning, it seemed like I was going to the grocery store daily. A lot of this was just part of the learning curve, but I'm still trying to work out the details. I would have to go to several stores before I figured out which stores had which items and sometimes I would be looking for certain organic produce and the store where I was shopping would be randomly out of it that day. If I were on my own I wouldn't mind another store drop, but when you're toting two kids AND need to read labels and inspect's tough. We joined a CSA co-op a month ago and it's been awesome. We get organically and locally grown veggies on a weekly basis which ensure that it's both seasonal and picked when perfectly ripe. I get so excited when they announce the options for  next week's basket. This is all new, but I think we're slowly getting it.

Does plant based eating break the bank?

It can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it. Before I say much on this topic, it must be said that for our family and our budget we put a priority on the food that we consume. It was important to us before a heart disease diagnosis, but now it is of tantamount importance. The food you eat truly is an investment in your future health. It's worth it.

In the beginning, it may seem like it's more expensive because you do need to build your plant based pantry staples. Things like nutritional yeast, vinegars, spices, flours, etc. You may also make mistakes and need to prepare things twice (guilty!) or you may find that while every other plant based foodie loves "ingredient X", you're not a fan and you've wasted money. Once we figured out the basics of what we needed, expenses because much more predictable.

Here's the thing with plant based eating and specifically our lifestyle to reverse heart disease: we're not buying meat, dairy, eggs or oil which can be some of the most expensive line items on a grocery bill. Lentils, brown rice, oats, potatoes and other legumes are cheap and they are some of our meal staples. Also, and this is where there may be a difference between a whole food plant based diet and a vegan diet, we buy less processed and packaged foods. We do buy the best produce and cleanest products which are often more expensive than their standard counterparts. So it may be a wash in our case. I haven't analyzed the numbers in detail, but as I've mentioned this is a budget priority for us so even if it was more expensive we would continue to make concessions in other areas to make this lifestyle possible (except in the event of zombie apocalypse and then we'll eat Spam if we have to).

We try to eat in season as much as possible so that means we're buying produce when it's priced the lowest. Berries we buy frozen when not in season for this reason because I'm not paying $5.97 for a pint of blueberries in January.

We also tend to eat at home more often, which is a no brainer in the money-saving department. When we do eat out it's hit or miss on price. Sometimes it's cheaper because the items are meatless and then other times, they make you pay a premium for healthier or custom items. We also drink water always, so that helps! They kill you on the drinks.

One thing that may be an extra expense... if you have extra weight, you may need to buy new clothes!

Do you miss meat...and cheese...and butter...and BACON

The quick answer is no, neither one of us truly miss or crave it. But let me elaborate. I was never a huge meat person in the first place with the exception of bacon. I do like a lot of meat dishes, but truly I like them because they're fried in yummy batter, covered in a cream sauce or to be combined with cheese in some way. If it's grilled I don't get as excited about it, but I have always thought that I needed to eat meat for the protein. Now cheese on the other hand... I have learned that the casein in the cheese is highly addictive and it makes sense because the longer it's been since I've had cheese, the easier it gets. Cheese was always the tough thing to go without when we did Paleo or Whole 30. I could still easily go for a jalapeño popper with cream cheese, pizza or queso, but truly I don't crave it. I remain relatively unphased by the Domino's commercials which is something to be said of a cheese lover.

As surprising as it might seem, my carnivorous ribs lovin' husband also says that he doesn't miss meat much. This is shocking for a guy whose favorite pastime is grilling and smoking meat. He says that it's truly a gift from God. I am constantly amazed by his ability to morph into a plant based eater. His beloved grill and smokers on the back patio are probably developing a complex. Sometimes I got out and give them a pep talk. "It's not y'all, it's us." And yet, they continue to silently brood.

One thing we don't do much of is "mock meat". So far we have found that things get tough when you try to make something that's supposed to taste like meat or cheese. Comparison truly is the thief of joy. It's better that we don't compare the two or try to make a food into something it isn't. Maybe we just haven't found the secret recipes yet in this department or maybe my vegan cooking skills are subpar, but so far we aren't trying to veganize steak. We may do a Beyond Burger in the future out of curiosity and for a hat tip to past pleasures, but the processed piece of these kinds of products means that it can't be the norm when we're trying to reverse disease.

The thing that I miss is probably just the convenience when we're in a pinch of getting a meal out. We both keep waiting to really miss meat and we just don't. I keep checking in with Joey from time to time. Do you still want to do this? Maybe some of it is due to the fact that we are always pretty satisfied and rarely ravenously hungry. I can't say the same when I've eaten Paleo/Whole 30. A truckload of veggies fill up a tummy more than a piece of chicken. Our meals really fill us up. This has truly been surprising!

What about protein? What about fat?

This is probably the most common question I get from folks. Oh and I'll throw in there, the calcium question. First off, our country is obsessed with protein. We're probably eating a lot more than we truly need, not to mention that the protein often comes in the form of something fried or covered in sodium laden sauces or cheese. Secondly, and this was a surprise to me, you can get all the protein you need from plants. Shocker, right? It turns out that protein (and fat and calcium) isn't just found in the traditional American sources of meat and dairy. Many fruits and vegetables have various amounts of protein, not to mention whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. In the beginning I was concerned with monitoring the amount of protein in our food, but then I realized that we always got enough when we were eating for nutrient density and diversity of plants. But you don't have to take my word for it (I feel like I pirated that line from Reading Rainbow) and shouldn't. Here are two resources that sum it up, but you can find a zillion:

Dr. Neal Barnard on protein and a plant based diet
Ultra Athlete Rich Roll in Forks Over Knives on being an athlete and the protein question

We supplement B12 and vitamin D, which most omnivores are low in as well.

Are your kids plant based?

I would say our kids eat about 80% plant based. We do not have any animal products in our home so when we're home, they're eating plant based. When we are out, we allow them to eat for the most part as they normally would. If it's a birthday party or we're at someone else's house or a restaurant, we let them eat the snacks provided. They've been through a lot of changes the past couple of months. I don't want them to resent eating healthy because they feel left out or different. For instance, I made Claire a plant based lunch for school that I was really proud of (I have a tough time with nut-free plant based kid lunches). When she came home from school she told me all about her day and how they had the most delicious hot chocolate. She isn't a chocolate fan (I know, how is this possible?) so I was surprised she liked it. Then I discovered the recipe in her backpack. I laughed so hard!

 I mean, who wouldn't like this hot chocolate? You can't win 'em all! We have soul heart issues we're working on that are far more important than a perfect diet. I also will relax the rules for myself if I will be putting a host under too much stress. Case in point, a super kind and elderly Chinese friend made homemade cookies for my kids and brought chocolates to our house a few weeks ago. I let them eat both because our friendship with her is more important than a little dairy and eggs. With that being said, the early stages of heart disease can begin in kids as young as junior high. Just because you have the gene for something doesn't mean the switch has to get flipped. Our goal is to minimize the opportunities to flip this switch. These lifestyle changes aren't just for my husband's health. They're just as much for our kids who have our genes. It may not seem like it matters when they're so young and healthy, but our perspective is to focus on setting them up for good health when they're in their thirties and beyond.

We've started educating the kids on food. Not in an obsessive way, but in way that looks at food as fuel. We talk about where food comes from and how it's grown. When we're eating oranges we will talk about Vitamin C and how it helps our immune system. Eating guacamole, we may mention how it has healthy fats which are great for our brain. Drinking water we'll talk about how good it is for our body to keep hydrated. I'm hoping this will set them up for making wise decisions in the future about their own health. They may not choose to eat this way as teenagers when they're out of the house, but at least they'll be armed with information regarding how healthy food is fuel for their bodies.

Maybe forty year old Claire and Keaton will thank us? Who knows! Ooh, if they're forty then that will make us...I'm just going stop this train of thought right here.


Along our journey I have read many books and the resource from websites, listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos. The books were helpful to provide the science behind eating plant based. The podcasts and YouTube videos have been invaluable for providing practical ideas, tips and tricks. Here are a few resources that have helped me along the way:

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell
Reversing Heart Disease by Dean Ornish
Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell Esselstyn
How Not to Die by Michael Greger

I still have so many plant based books on my list including Ornish's brand new book Undo It.

Podcasts have been a wonderful resource. I listen while I'm doing laundry or the dishes (which means there is plenty of opportunity) In the beginning I was trying get up to speed fast because we needed to know how to do this plant based thing well and quickly. My hands may have been tied up with loads of chores, but my brain was free to absorb information. If the kids were occupied and I was in the middle of household stuff, I listened. In the beginning, I would find podcasts such as those below and look for episodes that had physicians discussing plant based eating, specifically those specializing in cardiovascular disease. The more stable my footing became in plant based education, the more I branched out. In the process I learned way more about the benefits of plant based eating on numerous disease fronts, but also about the positive impact it has on our planet and sustainability. You may not agree with everyone's politics or may not be a fan of their personality, but if you're interested in plant based eating, these are filled with little nuggets:

Veggie MD
Rich Roll Podcast
Plant Proof
Lean Green Dad
Party in My Plants
The Plantiful Podcast

You can search for each one of these in Podcasts. Many doctors do not have podcasts themselves, but you can search for the doctor and find all the podcasts where he has been a guest. Cardiologist, Dr. Rob Ostfeld is an example. I follow many plant based doctors on Instagram, especially those with a cardiology focus. Just as with the podcasts, I also followed a bunch of whole food plant based influencers to learn about the day to day basics which has been invaluable in stepping our plant based game. So many of these influencers are incredibly knowledgeable and have done their research,  but it they don't have a medical or nutrition background, I give the medical info the side eye until I see it backed up by a medical professional with research. They provide wonderful tips for plant based cooking and can help to generate nutritional trails that you can research further. This is precisely the reason for this detailed post as well as setting up a separate Instagram, @plantedfamily. Hearing others' experience in making the change to a plant based lifestyle is encouraging when you're walking through it yourself!

The things that are tough

Is it all roses? The actual eating part of plant based eating is great. We truly enjoy it and the benefits that have come with it. Areas that are tough can be preparation, convenience and eating socially. The preparation difficulty can actually come from the latter two points.

Making a "flax egg"
If you have an active family with a routine that often changes, you have to be prepared ahead of time to eat on the run. Fast food and ordering pizza aren't on the table if you're really going after a change in health. You can still go to Taco Bell and order a bean burrito while being on the vegan train, but again we're looking for meals that are nutrient dense with veggies and with clean ingredients. You need to look at your calendar and find the areas that might put you in a bind for the week, then prepare accordingly. Winging it can get you into trouble. You've got to set yourself up for success and have your fridge stocked with all the good stuff, chopped and ready to go. If you're going out to dinner, you'll probably want to find the digital menu first and map out your choices. If there isn't anything on the menu, come with a tummy full of veggies and enjoy the conversation with friends. We're getting better at the preparation part and like anything it takes practice and practice turns into habit.

I'm in the kitchen a lot which I actually love, however the amount of dishes can be overwhelming. We cook or prepare most of our three meals a day at home plus snacks and smoothies. I've mentioned the grocery store runs. I wash dish towels every other day! This kind of stuff definitely can pile up but...

Is this extreme?

Any inconvenience has been worth it. Our experience so far has been pretty awesome. We don't feel deprived. We look forward to our smoothies and snacks and whole food plant based meals. We're not calorie counting and pretty much eat out of abundance. I want to be very clear about this point, this journey has not been about weight loss. It's about reversing disease. So many diets out there are just focusing on your waist line measurements as the determining factor as to whether an eating plan is successful. Yup, you're going to feel better when you're at a healthy weight, but our goal is this and some. How about your insides? How are your arteries looking? How's your gut health? Are you lowering your risk for disease? I feel good about what we're eating and where it comes from. I love that it's awesome for sustaining our planet and the people on it. We certainly still have a long way to go and a lot to learn, but like many pursuits it's about progress not perfection. This isn't a diet, it's a lifestyle. It's as complex or as simple as you want to make it.

In the beginning I thought, yup, this is extreme. Now I don't really feel that way. It doesn't feel like we're doing anything crazy. We're just eating plants. I like what cardiologist Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn says about plant based eating being labeled as extreme: "Some people think the 'plant-based, whole food diet' is extreme. Half a million people a year will have their chests opened up and a vein taken from their leg and sewn onto their coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme.

You can be so fearful of losing your life, that you don't live it. You can also know you need to change your lifestyle because your well-being and vitality are at risk, but decide that you're not going make changes because you don't want to live "in fear". These are extremes. It's not about what you give up. It's about what you gain. So far, we're living in the gain!