There are few topics quite as controversial and confusing as food, and it’s no secret that the food system in our country is out of control along with the rate of disease and obesity.
For most of my adult life I have been on a quest to find and sustain a way of eating that is “healthiest” for my body and produces the most svelte outward appearance, at any cost. As a lifetime member of the Standard American Diet (SAD) club, most attempts to change the way I eat have been futile. After my most recent cancer treatments, however, I finally decided to truly change what goes on my plate. My motivation for these changes has gone far beyond the state of my physical body and now includes the health of our environment and the longevity of our planet.
In lieu of continuing to pile my plate full of meat, dairy, and processed “foods,” I have recently traded up for whole foods that start from seeds and don’t come with eyeballs or a long list of ingredients. When it comes to the power of eating plant-based foods, I am a relatively new believer. Do I think that eating this way will prevent my cancer from ever returning? No. There are too many unknown variables to ever assert that claim. Do I believe it will improve my quality of life no matter where I’m at with cancer? Yes, absolutely.
I use the term “plant-based” because it is the easiest way to communicate what’s going on my plate these days. It is also a literal term that accurately describes my way of eating, not merely a dieting trend. I am not fond of diet labels like low-carb, paleo, or even vegan (the common definition of which includes nothing about sugar, oils, or processed foods). Most often these terms are simply used as marketing tactics and don’t fully illustrate a complete or sustainable picture of nutrition. They are also used to promote products from sources like factory farms, monocultures, and industrial food production plants, which are seriously detrimental to our environment. Before I get too heavy let me make it clear that I did not leap from the SAD way of eating to this place of being an impassioned plant-based eater in one fell swoop. Allow me to explain.
Given my position as someone who has endured several health crises, I started down a rabbit hole of research to come up with a plan of eating that would be most beneficial to my weakened body. During recovery from my most recent surgery and course of chemo, I went through a dietary trial and error adventure and assessed which foods were affecting my body positively, and which weren’t. I had been through two extremely painful rounds of cancer treatments and wanted to do anything I could to strengthen my body and reclaim my health. As my research continued I found that the most logical and successful plans seemed to be plant-based.
Full disclosure: I was very resistant to giving up the things I was so accustomed to eating and took a baby steps approach to elimination. I started by giving up just red meat and certain dairy products, keeping fish, cheese, and eggs on the table. With more time and knowledge under my belt I eventually realized that those would have to go too. After the initial heartbreak I was surprised to realize how little I actually missed animal products and processed foods. I have to cite fellow cancer thriver Kris Carr, my dear yogi friend Dori, and many others as huge sources of inspiration.
Throughout my research I also found myself becoming acutely interested in the inner-workings of the American food system. The more I dug the more appalled I became. I have long considered myself part of the “preaching to the choir” group when it comes to this topic, but why hadn’t I put that knowledge into action? Animal agriculture is the leading cause of destruction to the environment and our planet cannot sustain the production of meat and seafood the way it is currently being done. Bee populations are at risk due to monocultures and the use of harmful pesticides. Overfishing is killing the oceans. How could I, a lover of flowers, lakes, trees, and all things nature, continue to contribute to these global problems? I couldn’t. I refused to turn a blind eye to these issues any longer. The mission to improve the health of my body expanded to include the health of our planet.
Simply put: I now eat primarily plant-based foods and aim to avoid anything that comes from an animal, contains sugar, or is processed in any way. As with any big life change, my new way of eating is a work in progress. My ultimate goal is to provide my own food security through the cultivation and production of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, nuts and seeds in the gardens surrounding my homestead. This goal is far from being realized, but I am dedicated to working on it each day. My garden currently produces quite a bit and I supplement with local CSA subscriptions and items from grocery stores, co-ops, and online sources.
There are some pretty substantial motivations behind my goals, including the following:
- I feel amazing, inside and out, when I eat plant-based. I can essentially eat as much as I want and not have to worry about counting calories or gaining weight. It has helped my body image immensely, which used to be a source of great scrutiny and turmoil. I very rarely have digestion issues or any other potential disruptions to my system, which used to be another source of stress. There’s an undeniable glow that comes along with filling my body full of plant-based foods, and the extremely itchy legs that have plagued me my entire life (so intense I’d scratch until I bled) have completely cleared up.
- My body is stronger and heals more rapidly. When my body is fueled by these foods I am able to be more physically active and feel more confident and prepared to face medical procedures. I recovered from my second surgery much faster than the first, and I credit that to the way I have been eating.
- The benefits of a plant-based diet are backed by credible research. I’ve done my homework and I implore you do to so as well if you’re interested in changing the way you eat. A plant-based diet can lower the chances of acquiring certain diseases and conditions and can also aid in weight loss. By increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables you’re increasing the amount of vitamins and nutrients your body is receiving. Eating this way also creates an alkaline environment within the body and eliminates inflammation. As someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, these two points are paramount.
- Re: the protein myth – I’ll just leave this here to address this topic, which constantly comes up in conversations surrounding plant-based eating.
- Re: getting enough nutrition – After substantial experimentation with combinations/amounts of foods, I am confident that I am getting all of the necessary macro and micronutrients from the wide variety of plants I eat each day.
- A plant-based diet is kinder to our planet. Not only does eating this way improve the health of the body, it improves the health of our planet, which desperately needs our love. Just check out any of the recent documentaries or books on the topic to get a better idea of the factual research behind eating this way. I must acknowledge that many of the issues surrounding animal production are present in commercial fruit, nut, and vegetable production as well, which is why I focus my efforts on local farms and home gardening.
- I love growing my own food. I have long had a passion for gardening and find that it is the best way to truly form a relationship with my food. I am intimately involved in producing what I eat from seed to harvest, which I find to be an utterly empowering pursuit.
We do not live in a culture that makes eating plant-based easy. I cannot turn on the television or leave my house without being bombarded by imagery of the delicious-looking foods that I’ve nixed from my diet. Grocery stores are packed full of meat, dairy, sugar, and processed items. Social media is full of people selling “healthy” products that promise instant results regarding the size of your waistline or the beach/bikini ready-ness of your body. The messages are overwhelming and the task of choosing what to eat has become quite a murky endeavor. I try to focus on knowing that the answers I seek are growing in the ground, not within any carefully crafted product or marketing scheme.
Going out to eat or traveling can become an incredible challenge, and those are the instances where I tend to bend the rules if need be. Bending the rules, however, does not mean throwing caution to the wind and choosing a cheeseburger and milkshake. There’s usually an option that comes close to fitting within my parameters and I do my best to plan ahead in those instances so that an appropriate restaurant is chosen (namely one which makes everyone involved happy). When it comes to traveling, however, I will make certain exceptions if it means fully experiencing the culture and traditions of where I am.
At home I also face the dilemma of buying and eating produce that is grown, harvested, and shipped from very far away. I don’t necessarily know what went in to growing these items, or the conditions under which they were harvested, or any potential preservation processes they may have endured. At this point I am still working on making sure I get enough nutrition from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but in the future I may scale back on certain items that come from climates far different than my own. It is easy to spiral out of control with rules and restrictions and I already feel like I have given up and changed so much.
Have I mentioned how controversial and confusing the topic of food is?
My goals are firm but my route towards achieving them is fluid. I am still just a human being in 2016 who is faced with a wide variety of perplexing food options and nutritional advice, all tainted by the allure of convenience and deliciousness. I have found the most successful approach to eating plant-based has been appointing myself the only person in charge of my plate, as often as possible. This means that I have been doing more planning, prep work, recipe research, and dishwashing than ever before. It is an incredibly labor-intensive pursuit and I would be lying if I said I found it enjoyable 100% of the time. It is a challenge indeed, but I try to keep my focus on the goal of nourishing my body while contributing positively to the health of our planet. Each day is an uphill battle and requires constant recommitment, but to me it is worth it to persist. If eating this way provides even a glimmer of hope regarding the remission of my cancer or the improvement of our planet, then that is reward enough for me.