Plant-based eating and eating what you want
Reading time: 8 minutes
We all love to eat. We all need to eat. Somewhere in-between is eating healthy. But what does healthy mean? Less chance of developing certain conditions? Having more energy? Living longer? Over the past year, I’ve transitioned to plant-based eating, eliminating meat and dairy from my diet. In the process, I’ve learned more about the way we eat than I expected to going into it. And plant-based eating checks off all three boxes.
In the past, I’ve often been told about ways to eat healthier, but always felt confused about what seemed to be like a lack of consistency. “Eat ‘more’ vegetables” (How much?); “Eat meat to get your protein” (Which kind? How much of it?); “Everything is fine in moderation” (What’s the amount of moderation?); “Have you tried the lemonade diet to ‘cleanse’ your stomach?” It all always seemed to fall short of any real, definitive answer to me.
Then I read a study in a scientific journal for geriatric medicine that essentially said: “People who stopped eating meat and dairy were able to reduce their health conditions and in some cases, even reverse them.” And there was my definitive answer: eating meat and dairy was the cause of these specific conditions as people got older and the way to not get these conditions in the first place was to not eat meat and dairy.
I should add for those who don’t know me, that I’m actually a 34 year-old, skinny guy. This was not a weight-related decision. Although the health conditions covered in the scientific journal are tied to weight and obesity, as is most nutrition advice you hear, the weight itself is not a correlation of the conditions. And as a skinny guy, I may have fallen into the “I don’t have to worry about what I eat” trap because of that. And a better understanding of that was the impetus which got me on the path to finally eating healthier.
But like all decision-making for big change, the deciding is the easy part, the actual doing is where things get tricky. And in those first days of cravings for my favorite foods and cringing of foods I always avoided, things seemed unattainable. I was going out with a girl that was vegan, and she helped me find things to eat initially. She also knew about the health benefits and our conversations on eating from that point forward is part of what lead me to a whole new way of thinking about food. She introduced me to documentaries like What the Health and websites like NutritionFacts.org.
After the first few weeks of cutting down on meat and dairy, I was surprised at the results: I actually felt better and had more energy. I felt fitter physically and like I functioned better throughout the day. It’s hard to believe, and if I were telling my past self this, he wouldn’t believe it. If learning about the health implications was the reason I started, my newfound energy and sense of clear-headedness was the reason I continued doing it.
Thinking and feeling differently
Along with feeling more energetic, I would continue being surprised by what I’d learn about nutrition and my feelings towards the food I ate. Here’s an assorted list of just ten:
- There are plenty of plants to eat. Along the way, I decided to put together a list of over 100 of them.
- Cravings eventually go away as you continue eating better and you will even start craving healthy foods when you’re hungry.
- There is no protein deficiency issue with eating plant-based. The whole protein thing is overstated in general. Too much animal protein can actually damage the liver and lead to cancer.
- A full transition can take time, sometimes over a year or more for your body to fully adjust.
- As you become deliberate in what you eat, you start listening to your body and learn to eat when you’re actually hungry, not because it’s the time of day to do so. In fact, there are studies showing that eating less throughout the day allows you to have more energy as you body doesn’t have to constantly digest what you just ate.
- Your taste changes which means the things you now think you can’t live without can change. If you want a quick way to see this in action, try a mono-diet where you eat just one thing for two weeks (like a potato), and you’ll find that everything you eat immediately after tastes good.
- For someone like me who is pretty lazy when it comes to preparing food; making a salad for lunch (which should be a primary meal in the day) is easier than actually cooking something.
- There is something to be said about what you put in your body, and not putting animal flesh or cheesy excrements. It only seems okay because it’s so ingrained in our mental image of eating.
- If we look at other species of animals (including those closely related to humans), the ones that are meat-eaters have different teeth than plant-eaters. Their intestinal track is also different, usually shorter to more easily digest the meat. It turns out that both our teeth and intestinal track more closely resemble those of plant-eaters!
- There is a correlation to gut microbiome and eliminating animal products from your diet that once out of your system essentially causes a certain level of disgust of meat and dairy!
And there are many more little things that you’ll discover yourself when going through the process in your awareness of your attachment to food.
Initially, I would welcome special occasions when I had an excuse to eat the foods I had liked. Like burgers and hotdogs on Fourth of July. But by the time Thanksgiving came around, I realized that it actually wasn’t very gratifying eating the food and that part of me was doing it just because it seemed like the occasion called for it. Not to mention that it felt wrong not eating the food my mom spent all day preparing!
Food is very much ingrained in our culture. Eating is what we do for fun. And we’ve gotten really good at making it fun. From its range of tastes to celebrations where the food often overshadows the holiday or occasion it’s for. It doesn’t mean we can’t still have some of those occasions. But it also doesn’t mean we can’t do those same things with healthier eating. After all, we’ve figured out how make animal flesh edible! It was no longer fun knowing how it affected my body and mind. It’s the same reason I stopped drinking altogether. I don’t need things that mess me up to have fun.
Unfortunately, because of our current way of farming, not everyone has the option to eat plant foods. I went to visit family in Romania during my transition and found it difficult to find any food besides processed meats and dairy. Which is surprising considering that I stayed in a small town near farmland, where you’d think they would grow their own food. They do in fact (along with raising animals), but it’s difficult and expensive for them to do in abundance to have enough year-round. And processed food is made to last longer making it cheaper for them to afford. They also don’t have as many stores to offer the many options that are available in larger cities. We’ve gotten very good at gathering our food through animal farming techniques and processing foods so they are longer lasting. Now it’s time to we do the same for plants.
Which is starting to happen. The rate at which people are switching to plant-based eating is increasing. Among athletes, the percentage is tenfold to the rest of us. There are more vegan-only restaurants than ever before. And more regular restaurants have vegetarian and vegan options (like black-bean burgers). Even fast food places like Taco Bell have non-meat, non-dairy alternatives. The Impossible Burger has gotten a surprising amount of attention. And when you take into consideration the overall effort, cost, and environmental impact of farming animals, farming plants is comparatively much easier to do on a large scale.
A side note on vegan meals at restaurants: they tend to include a lot of oils for taste which can still lead to the same kind of weight gain as eating meat and dairy (which have the same oils for taste). A key aspect of eating plant-based is to get as close to eating whole plants as possible, processed foods lose a lot of essential nutrients.
Eating what you want
As you make the change you can set your own own pace and you’ll find that your preferences will change over time as you keep improving and refining. Penn Jillette at the end of his weight loss and transition to eating plant-based said, “Now I eat whatever I want, it’s that the food I want has changed.” The purpose of food is to provide our body with the energy we need. It turns out that as we optimize how we do that, we can also enjoy it the way we always have. And if you want to feel better now, feel better later, and live longer, then plant-based nutrition is the way to go.
If you’re considering eating plant-based, I’ve put together a guide that covers the essentials with additional resources for further reading.