Earlier this year I completed the Plant-Based Nutrition course conducted by T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies through eCornell. I will not be able to ever overestimate the significance of taking this course. The Whole Foods Plant-Based (WFPB) way of eating, while validating some of my healthy habits, is seriously influencing the creation of new ones.
All of us know that vegetables and fruits are good for our health. But we take this truth half-heartedly, mostly because we do not have the scientific perspective on nutritional value of plants. Somehow the important scientific messages do not reach us: either the language is too obscure for us to grasp the details, or the message is too sad and restrictive to our habituated behavior that is based on current status quo in our eating culture here – which is sad and SAD, for Standard American Diet. Instead, what reaches us with ease is the marketing messages from the big players in the food industry that is driven, like all businesses are and should, to generate and maximize financial profit and has no interest in stewardship of our health.
The two concepts contradict one another. What makes money is repeated consumption, i.e. marketing hype and addictive additives, and long shelf life, i.e. preservatives, which results in manufactured foods that resemble less and less of its original state designed by Nature as well as in suboptimal food consumption patterns. Today’s escalated consumption of animal foods would make even our Paleo ancestors sick. When consumed, these types and/or quantities of foods are not recognized well by the bodies of human living organisms, causing multiple mess ups inside these bodies and generously contributing to the $3.2 trillion of health expenditures in the US alone (2015).
One can go forever pointing fingers at what went wrong with human way of feeding ourselves – and there is plenty of resources and information to educate yourself – but I will skip that part and just say that the result of our bad practices is degenerating state of our health and our support system – our planet that has been seriously wounded by animal agriculture, overfishing, deforestation, soil depletion – all in the name of our food supply, which ironically does not nourish us as much as it could have.
This situation can slowly be changed if we start with some small steps like switching to WFPB way of eating:
- This will have an impact on our health as soon as in a few weeks.
- This will help many sick people to stop or even reverse their health problems.
- This will allow us and our children and future generations to prevent health problems.
- This will put us on a new path of making improvements in our food supply and distribution industries.
- This will help us sustain the Earth’s health, whose vitality is directly connected with the vitality of humans.
- And this list can go on.
The loop of healthy existence is a closed loop. We live within Nature and Nature lives within us. What to eat is a private decision of each person, and we do things differently. Nevertheless, every responsible citizen who cares about what we eat, what future generations will eat and how our planet can endure our ways of producing food should get education on all issues that go along and beyond of “what’s for dinner” decision.
The next logical subject to discuss here would be the guidelines on what we should eat to optimize our health and what we should avoid: eat as Nature intended – go heavy on whole foods that are plants with as little modification as possible and steer away from all animal products, all highly processed foods like refined sugars, refined oils, refined grains, and all processed pre-packaged foods with preservatives and additives. Simple. For more detail, please, get professional advice from a qualified “food coach” and make sure to run it by your doctor.
If I were to write a book, after the above guidelines I would have a huge section on how to cook this way along with an endless list of recipes ranging from simple transitional ones to fancy gourmet to family friendly and a super-busy-person friendly. Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful WFPB books and cookbooks written.
Understanding the “whys” of the WFPB approach has broadened my knowledge of recent trends, achievements and discoveries in the science of medicine, nutrition, physics, social behavior, psychology, ecology, and politics, among others – which ever discipline is of interest to you, it is involved and relevant in health and food topic – just dig in.
While educating myself on all aspects of the WFPB approach, I realized that my family and I have done well on some accounts but can substantially improve on some others. But there is one realization that gives me restlessness, bordering anxiety: I cannot simply relax and go on without sharing this knowledge with others – be it my family and my kids who I must teach to make good choices, or my friends, my extended qigong family or simply strangers. People just may not know the truth from the myth and have no clarity in the midst of plentitude of confusing information on the subject.
I occasionally find myself in a situation trying not to speak and act imposingly and to not be overly opinionated. But maybe this is not a subject to stay quiet about and remain politically correct. I will be tactful, kind and supportive but will not resist the urge to share this knowledge. We choose our battles, and I cannot avoid this one, even if feelings get hurt and comfortable habits are challenged.
The subject becomes even more delicate when communicating with children. They are most vulnerable and sensitive to the influences by the food industry’s marketing. Marketers take advantage of kids’ impressionable minds and bombard them with food messages not only via all standard media channels but also at school.
I am a parent who wants to take a stance on teaching kids healthy food choices, and this is a complicated battle to fight. Not only you need to continuously explain what to eat and why, but you also have to go against other authorities in the kids’ environment and explain why you may have a very different point of view. Yes, I choose this battle. I want kids grow up making sound and healthy choices on their own with ease and confidence, even when surrounded by the adversely-minded majority and/or authority. And yes, I will be tactful, kind and supportive to kids, but will not give up sharing this knowledge.
As a qigong practitioner and coach, addressing our food choices is of utmost importance as we want to truly nourish our body with the energy that comes from food. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the approach to food does not call for biochemical nutrient tracking or calorie counting but focuses on healing properties of food to correct disharmonies in the body, e.g. eat cooling foods if there is too much heat but eat warming foods if there is too much cold. Humans should want to derive clean healthy energy (qi) from food, whereas often on auto-pilot we eat foods that deliver toxins in our bodies and consume high amounts of energy to digest, which is highly taxing to our energy levels and detrimental to health.
Nicely, traditional Eastern wisdom and recent science go hand-in-hand when it comes to food. Eastern approach to eating favors relaxation and mindfulness during meals, certain preparation techniques that alter foods the least, never eating until full, and, of course, balanced meals – seasonal whole foods, mostly vegetables and whole grains, some legumes and fruit, and very low consumption of animal foods. However, if you are on the path of personal cultivation, you will know how food choices impact your energy and vitality, and chances are, you will pass on meat and will savor whole vegetables and fruits along with whole grains and beans — and I am back to listing the components of the WFPB diet, which has been scientifically proven to prevent and often reverse top killing diseases in the affluent world, as presented at eCornell Plant-Based Nutrition program, that I am grateful to have attended. I will be tactful, kind and supportive to the people I speak and work with, but will not give up sharing this knowledge.
After I drafted this article, one of my dearest friends suggested that I share some of my experiences and advice on transitioning to WFPB lifestyle. Pros of the sharing are obvious – tricks, shortcuts, inspirations, simplifications, insights, idea exchange, etc. Cons are that I do not qualify to give any medical or nutritional advice. I am a qigong coach and a former banker. So, here is my disclosure. I am an enthusiast who shares what I know makes our lives happier. Please, consult your doctor for medical advice before experimenting with anything that may impact your health, especially if you have any medical conditions that are monitored by your doctor(s).
What I will be offering for the next few weeks is my insights and suggestions that may help us overcome our status quo as SAD (Standard American Diet) consumers and develop healthier habits with ease. In recent years, scientists have tackled the nature of habit formation and change with great success. The habit loop always has a cue, routine and reward, and is driven by neurological cravings, or reward anticipation (source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg). When we go against the current of the mass culture, as it is with SAD, and want to develop a healthier behavior, we want to make sure that our efforts stick and become a permanent part of our lifestyle, with the goal being better health, weight loss, improvement in athletic performance, increased productivity, clearer mind, more joy and happiness overall.
My Weekly Suggestions will be simple and actionable, as I’ve experimented on myself. I hope you will feel the difference not only physically with your body but also with your mind and soul. I want you to believe that you can make these changes and act with confidence, if you decide you want to change. Many people have gone or are going through this, with successes and fall offs along the path, and we can draw on collective experience and find support there.
In the upcoming several weeks, in interested, please look for my humble contribution about how we can eat healthier habitually, remain in or reclaim our good health and best shape, and cultivate energy, vitality and happiness. You are invited to follow Week 1 suggestions during seven days, and then, during the upcoming few weeks, try and cumulatively add new suggestions, so that by the time summer comes, you have created some new habits that you can carry on automatically and with ease.
WEEK 1: Calories vs. Nutrients. Breathe and Bring in The Greens.
- On SAD, we consume lots of calories and end up being nutritionally starved. Animal foods and fatty foods are calorie-dense but lack nutrients that humans need for optimal health. They contain no fiber at all. When we eat them, we don’t feel full fast enough and continue eating till our stomachs fill up to reach satiety point, resulting in excess.
- A wise person once said: “If you eat nothing but vegetables, you will be just fine.” It turns out that plants are loaded with nutrients that we need, along with the fiber that keeps our gut cleansed. Eat a variety of whole plants and plant-based dishes. Make your meals colorful.
- Do not focus on what you will not eat or eat restrictively, like meat, dairy, eggs. The philosophy behind this process is as follows: in order to have optimal health, we need to maximize the intake of various nutrients, and therefore, focus on adding plants that deliver them to our daily food intake. Once you succeed at adding them, you will notice that other suboptimal foods drop off your plate gradually, and you will not miss or crave them because your body will change on cellular level for the better.
MANTRA for Week 1
“I eat lots of whole plants. Every day I eat vegetables and greens. I maximize my nutrient intake, health and vitality.”
HABITS for Week 1
We will adopt two habits during Week 1: (1) abdominal breathing using diaphragm, and (2) adding more vegetables, especially green leafy ones, to our meals. If you already rely on these two good behaviors, you may focus on making them more effortless, enjoyable and frequent, like second nature.
- Cue: Unless you already know your specific reasons and inspirations and have execution in place, I would like to suggest to take a flash card and draw a very happy smiley face on it but also add a nose to it. Near the nose write “abdominal breathing into the Earth.” Near the mouth write “vegetables and greens” and draw a green leaf there. Then go ahead and make several cards like this one, and place or tape each one strategically – near your bed, on your bathroom counter or on your bathroom mirror, near or on your computer, on the kitchen counter, on the fridge, and definitely tape one on your mobile phone. These cards will cue you to execute your routine.
- Routine: Your routine has two components this week: (1) to practice your breathing pattern as much as you can during the day and (2) to buy, cook and eat vegetables at each meal, including several cups of green leafy vegetables. You should also repeat the Mantra for the week every time you think about your new goals.
- Reward: As or after you repeat your Mantra, visualize your improved self-having more energy, looking good, feeling joyful and happy, having a sense of accomplishment, being content, having a slimmer toned body, being productive and creative, having clearer mind and positive thoughts, and sleeping better. In addition, I would like you to tie in your personal goals and objectives into this visualization, short- and long-term ones, and see yourself having accomplished them. In your imagination, dwell on as many specific details of that accomplishment and happiness as possible. See it all done, and done ideally.
“Protocol Number One is Breathe”
Remind yourself that frequently. Practice slow abdominal breathing and train your diaphragm to pump the air in and out of your body. Many of us do not use diaphragm and have a shallow inhale, that reaches only the upper portion of our lungs, and incomplete exhale, that does not allow for full detox in the breath. Our autonomic nervous system is binary, and breath is the switch between “fight or flight” stressful state, or sympathetic nervous system, and a “rest and digest” state, or parasympathetic system. Unless we are chased by a tiger, we want to be in the parasympathetic state. But given our fast-paced, demanding, over-stimulating, and stressful daily environment, we end up in sympathetic state for the most time, thus depleting our ability to heal, rest and stay well. Our goal is to develop a habit to use abdominal breath to bring us into parasympathetic state. Here is the practice routine:
- Quiet your activities and mind. Breathe through your nose. Slowly inhale on the count of three. During the inhale, focus on your lower belly, expand it and direct your breath there. Exhale on the count of three as you press your belly in – belly button to the spine. During the exhale, focus on pushing the air down out of your lower belly, into pelvic area, hips, then further into thighs, knees, calf, ankles, feet and deep into the Earth. Visualize breath moving from your belly into the Earth, regardless the fact that it actually leaves your body through the nose.
- As you breathe, visualize that you inhale clean pure air on the inhale. That air travels through your body, cleansing and purifying it, and that on the exhale, you release and let go all toxins and pathogens out of your body into the Earth for recycling. Set your intension on taking IN clean and pure and releasing OUT all that is toxic – air, physical elements, energies, and thoughts. Inhale into the belly and exhale into the Earth.
- Do this exercise when you wake up and before you go to bed and any time you have a few minutes. You can set your alarm to do it hourly or several times per day, as your schedule permits. If you meditate, you can spend a substantial amount of time on this activity or simply add it to your current routine. The goal is to habituate this type of breathing when we subconsciously and automatically use our diaphragm.
Eat Vegetables and Greens
Eat several cups of green leafy vegetables per day. They can be raw and cooked. Chewing raw greens not only delivers great amounts of nutrients, but also improves the gut flora. Cooked greens are easy – to digest and absorb, to make and store, and to quickly and conveniently add to your meals.
- Vegetable soups are your great friends – easy to make for the week and simply reheat for meals.
Carrot and daikon soup: Use roughly equal amount of daikon and carrots. Peel and chop daikon radish. Wash with a brush (or peel) and chop carrots. Put chopped vegetables in the soup pot and pour water to cover the vegetables plus an inch or so. May add a one-inch piece of kombu seaweed. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to low and cover with a lid, and cook for 10-15 minutes till vegetables are tender but not overcooked. The soup will turn out sweet and can be eaten for breakfast as it. Can also add a couple of drops of tamari sauce or lemon juice and herbs and green onions for a savory version. Keep the pot in the fridge and re-heat small portions for future meals.
Green Soup (source: The Burn by Haylie Pomroy; modifications to the original recipe are noted):
- Ingredients: 6 cups of water (or slightly more), 9 celery stalks – chopped, 6 cups of green beans – chopped (when in a hurry, I use frozen), 6 garlic cloves – smashed, 9 zucchinis – diced, 3 cups of button mushrooms – chopped, 3 cups of parsley – chopped, and sea salt to taste. I started to add spinach and/or kale (chopped) to this soup.
- Preparation: place the water and the vegetables in a very large pot, bring to a boil and cook till all vegetable are tender but not overcooked, about 15-20 minutes. Let cool and puree in a blender, or use an immersion blender. I often add mild Jamaican curry or turmeric (about 2 table spoons), a pinch or two of lemon pepper and other herbs to the soup to slightly vary the flavor. The soup often turns out very concentrated and may be diluted with some water.
- Salads are quick and easy to make especially if you buy your greens chopped and pre-washed. Use as many greens as you like – the darker the better, add kale and/or collard greens (chop them smaller than lettuce), add other vegetables that you enjoy (try to vary them during the week) and remember to add beans (dark ones in the winter and light ones in the summer or any that you like). Use high quality olive oil to mix your dressing. Add herbs. Add wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. For a lighter dressing, skip oil. May also add roasted or baked root vegetables. A few nuts or seeds is a good addition, if you are not allergic to them, but they are harder to digest and add calories. Avocado would be a rich addition, too, but it helps the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients from other vegetables. Depending on your state of health and goals, you may want to skip oil, nuts and avocado, and be careful with salt.
- Blanched greens is my favorite easy way to add greens to my meals. I make a big pot and it lasts for a week or so. Wash and chop different kinds of kale (remove stem if needed), beet greens, carrot greens, spinach, dandelion – any mix will do. Prepare the broth (below) and then put the greens into the broth, bring to a boil and cook for 10-15 minutes. Here are two types of broth that I like:
- Japanese style: Fill the big pot with water about 1/3-way, add a one-inch piece of kombu seaweed, add (optional) a pinch of other seaweeds (e.g., nori, wakame), add (optional) whole or sliced dried shiitake mushrooms (sliced ones are easier to eat) and bring the pot to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 20 minutes until mushrooms are tender and the broth is fragrant. Then add the fresh greens and blanch them as described above. To serve the greens, scoop them on the plate with a slotted spoon and sprinkle with tamari sauce, sesame seeds, chili flakes or black pepper or green onions. Keep in the refrigerator and re-heat in small quantities for future meals. Can also eat these greens with the broth as a soup.
- Mediterranean style: The preparation is the same as above except instead of seaweeds and shiitakes use a couple of bay leaves and chopped herbs like parsley, dill, cilantro, lovage – any combination that you favor will do. Depending on how busy you are, you may also opt to prepare the broth with bay leaves only, and sprinkle fresh chopped herbs on top of blanched greens for each meal. Squeeze lemon juice on it and serve. Chili flakes, green onions and any other herbs are also good as toppings.
Fruit is dessert. Enjoy fresh berries as dessert, for breakfast with oats (cooked in water), and even with salads.
Have a wonderful week and come back for Week 2 suggestions!