Ever since I made the transition to cutting out animal products from my diet, I’ve met more people who have questioned me about my choice than any other choice I’ve made. Suddenly, everyone becomes a nutrition expert. This series of posts is my attempt to explain why I made the decision to switch.
In this series of posts, I will write from the following few perspective:
- My Personal Journey
- The Scientific Evidence
- The Ethical Compulsion
- The Environmental Responsibility
- How to Switch & Final Thoughts
So let’s get on with it.
Note: This is a 2,500 word post. If you don’t like to read, just go on over here and see the pictorial guide on what I eat in my diet.
My Personal Journey
Coming from an fairly traditional Indian background, I was raised as a lacto-vegetarian. That means all plant based foods, but also with dairy (cheese, yogurt, butter, milk, etc). You would think this would automatically put my family into a healthy category, but not so.
My family (and extended family) is filled with people suffering from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and everything in between. When you think of India, you might think of malnutrition, slums, etc. However, for the working and middle class populations in India, the diseases of the Western world apply. Heart disease, strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, etc hold sway in a very big way.
Unfortunately, instead of using this information to improve, I found that most Indians (including Indian immigrants living outside of the country), would find band-aid patches to solve their issues. Herbal tonics, supplements, etc are a huge industry. One of the largest companies that makes such supplements is Dabur, which is valued at US$8 Billion. The Ayurvedic Medical Industry is a multi-crore rupee industry in India.
In this way, India is no different than Western countries such as the United States. The only difference being that since India has a long past with Yoga and Ayurveda, people often use these to justify the effectiveness of these supplements and tonics.
Don’t get me wrong, Yoga and Ayurveda are definitely very effective systems, when used properly. These systems of well-being have been used for thousands of years. However, taking an Ayurvedic supplement or tonic to counteract eating a 1,000+ calorie of fat and sugar in a dessert does not count. Sadly, this is the attitude shared by many Indians.
- 30 million people diagnosed with diabetes in India (source). This means India has the highest rate of diabetics in the entire world for any one country.
- 45 million people suffering from coronary heart disease. Very soon, this means that India will have the highest rate of heart disease in the entire world. By 2030, 36% of all deaths will occur from this (source)
- Heart disease deaths count to 9.4 million/year worldwide. India “contributes” 2.5 million out of that, costing over $2 trillion (source).
- There are 1.3 million fractures from minor incidents in India related to Osteoporosis (source).
- By 2020, 1.4 million cancer cases will emerge from India (source)
The list can go on…
The common and most effective way to treat all these above conditions relates to changing lifestyle, with nutrition being the number one factor. We will discuss this when we get into the health portion of this series.
But what is India doing and what are Indians doing to counteract this? We already looked at the over-reliance on supplements and other herbal tonics to “cancel” out the negative effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.
Here are some other things:
- An incredible focus on accessible medicine for all. There is a tremendous amount of capital and effort spent on improving access to treatments to all of the above conditions. This is a noble and worthy cause and should be pursued.
- “Fit” washing. Much like green-washing, where companies over-emphasize the environmental qualities of a product in the hopes that the customer will buy it vs its competitors in the aisle, “fit” washing is becoming big. Everything from “atta” (or wheat) based Maggi instant noodles (now tainted with traces of lead found), to all sorts of “healthy” oils manufactured using some magical technology that are supposedly good for your heart.
- Whole Milk consumption still dominates the market for its purported high calcium content, ignoring the high fat content. Meat, poultry (chicken and other bird meat), and eggs consumption is skyrocketing as income is rising (source).
- If you google the menu of your favourite Indian restaurant, you will find an over-reliance on butter, oil, meat, cheese (paneer), and milk solids. This is the aspirational cuisine of the masses.
- For all major Consumer Packaged Goods companies (Unilever, Nestle, Kraft, Coca Cola, Pepsico), India (and other developing countries) are the highest growth markets. More of its processed sugar, fat and salt laden foods are finding their way into the Indian market and marketed as cool foreign aspirational products for the rising working and middle class.
So it was within this context that I had to make a transition to a whole foods plants based diet. No dairy, little/no processed foods, no oil, and of course no soda.
The High School Years
We had moved to Canada when I was in middle school, but in high school, I started to get my family to make slightly better choices with what we ate. Brown bread replaced white bread. Whole milk was occasionally replaced with 2% milk. But for the most part, we ate the way an average Indian does: filled with fats, sugars, salt, soda, etc.
The Undergrad Years
This was when I discovered The China Study. This study was the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted and was considered the Grand Prix of Epidemiology. The researchers were respected (T. Colin Campbell from Cornell University), and the research methodology was comprehensive (tracking a large sample size over a 20 year period). The work was done through the University of Oxford, Cornell University, and the Government of China.
This book presented a very clear picture on how the science unequivocally showed that what we were doing in our household was not working. Since then, I have read a lot more research on the topic, and I will go into it in this series. This observational epidemiological study spurred many other experiments in the lab, in intervention studies, etc and it all pointed to the same picture.
I resolved after reading this book that I will switch to a vegan diet. To me, vegan meant cutting out dairy. And that’s what I did, to my mistake.
The Vegan Diet
I moved to a vegan diet soon after. I cut out the dairy and moved to mock cheese, mock meats, lots of seeds and nut desserts. Life was great a vegan. I thought that if this is what it means to be a vegan, this could be pretty easy. It was easy to switch, I didn’t get the big deal.
However, I would get cravings sometimes, and I would give in. It’s only later that I realized this to be part of “The Pleasure Trap” (something we will discuss in detail in the series “How to Switch”).
I felt very righteous and smug about turning vegan. I would taunt the superiority of my diet to others, giving them advice. I would seek out vegan restaurants and eat their high-fat entrees, full of satisfaction that I was doing what was right for my body.
But it wasn’t. I was getting fatter. My skin was not as clear as it had been. I felt tired and lethargic. Being a vegan wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I would get these cravings and I did not know how to handle it. So I would binge through my cravings at times, feel guilty, and then go back to eating ‘vegan’. This was a mistake.
Technically, drinking soda and eating chips all day also makes you a vegan. And in many ways, that’s what I was doing. I may not eat chips and soda, but I was eating vegan cakes, muffins, cupcakes, soy cheeses, lots of cashews, nuts, seeds, and oils. Margarine and vegan butters were also on the menu. I could still eat Indian food, just without the butter and cheese. And I felt that I was enlightened. This was a mistake.
Dealing with Family
While the above transformation was happening, it was a struggle to get my family to see my view. Not willing to read all the research papers, or the China Study, I was forced to just keep insisting that I was right. This was a faulty approach, which prolonged their adoption for a while.
At first, it wasn’t that hard, because although I was vegan, I wasn’t eating the right kinds of food. I could pretty much continue eating what the family ate, except a few times, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy dessert with them. No worries, there were plenty of rich vegan desserts, and I would occasionally cheat (and feel guilty, but then cheat again).
But I kept insisting I was right. Without any social support (Indian parents love to see validation, if such-and-such’s mother/father/son/daughter/cousin isn’t eating like you, you must be weird), it was an uphill battle.
This all changed when I sat them down and showed them the documentary Forks Over Knives. This is a fantastic documentary that is focused on the science, but illustrated in a very colourful and personal way sharing other human stories as others make a transition to a proper diet. Seeing this documentary, my mother started crying. She thought about her parents, my grandparents, and realized that the way they were eating in India had contributed to many of the health conditions they were going through. My family started to “get it”. The documentary had a great shot of a 75+ year old Dr. T. Colin Campbell biking away fiercely, and that image alone made them realize that for a long and healthy life, they would need to change their diet.
One of the best moments in the film (and I’m paraphrasing here) was when it mentioned that while people might say: “what’s the point of living if I can’t eat x, y, and z?”, none of them have said that once they’ve had their first stroke, or given a short time left to live.
This documentary was transformational in garnering the support of my family for me to pursue this lifestyle. However, as I mentioned, I was still getting fat, energy levels were low, my skin wasn’t clear, etc. Where do I go from here?
This is when I stumbled across The 80/10/10 Diet. I was contemplating that perhaps I needed to go raw vegan. Really increase the amount of nuts/seeds I ate. But the high-fat route was not working. This was also the time that I stumbled upon FullyRawKristina on YouTube. I loved the energy she exuded, and I loved the simplicity of the 80/10/10 diet.
It was a mostly fruit diet. Meals would be simple fruits. Feeling hungry? Eat a bunch of bananas, or dates, or other high-calorie fruits. Have a large salad in the evening to get your fill of minerals. It was very easy. Fruit is absolutely delicious. We started buying large quantities of fruit.
(Note: 80/10/10 means 80% carbohydrates, 10% fat, and 10% protein). The author of the book made a very compelling argument on why most vegans fail to reach their goals. He mentioned all the things I had done on a “vegan” diet: eating nuts/seeds, lots of vegan desserts, and fake cheese, etc. It didn’t work. He advocated a much more “natural” diet focused on completely uncooked, unprocessed foods.
And I loved it. I lost a ton of weight, I was high-energy all day, and my thinking became incredibly clear. My skin was the clearest it had ever been, I was a different person.
There were a few downsides: eating would take a lot of time. Even when I made smoothies out of all the fruits I ate, it took forever to go through it. Buying so much fruit also became expensive. And I found myself spending a lot of time eating. We would have to time everything just right so that we always had fresh ripe fruit in the house. And I would get a few cravings for eating salt and starches. It was also incredibly difficult to be social with this diet. I would bring along a bunch of fruit when I went outside with friends. I would get eyeballs, and it just became messy to go through it all. I also missed eating warm foods (especially in the Canadian winter).
I had to make a few changes. Looking back, I realize that this still felt like an optimal way to eat. It felt great, and it was a lot fun. It was also incredibly simple. Mono-meals (or a meal just focused around one fruit) were so easy to plan). However, given these limitations, I had to search again.
This is where my journey ends. I went back to watching Forks Over Knives, and followed through a bunch of references: Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (renowned for being President Bill Clinton’s doctor after his heart attack and helping him go “vegan”) and Dr. John McDougall came to the forefront for me. They were at the forefront of the research, credible experts with decades of practice not only in the lab but also in treating conditions (and reversing it all together!).
Reading Dr. John Mcdougall’s books, I quickly realized that eating a starch-based diet: whole grains, beans, rice, corn, etc is all I needed. Their prescribed diet made perfect sense. I could be social in social settings, I wouldn’t be eating all the time like I did when I mostly ate fruit, and I could enjoy my fruits and vegetables as needed.
No oils though, and no fake/mock meats, or any of those highly processed desserts. The focus was on simple starchy foods, with low fat. It was all about eating whole foods that fill you up. Starchy foods: whole grains, beans, rice, corn, potatoes, vegetables. This became the bedrock for how I eat today.
And you know what? It worked (and it’s working).
That’s why I hate describing myself as just a vegan. I’m not a vegan. I eat a whole foods plant based starchy diet.
Oatmeal for breakfast, typically some brown rice along with salsa for lunch, and a simple Indian meal for dinner (typically beans/lentil type of soap along with rice or rotis (whole wheat bread).
I feel great, the meals are easy to plan, the food is inexpensive, I can be social when I’m outside with friends. Thankfully, eating out has almost died down completely because my palette has gotten accustomed to this diet and eating outside food just feels too overly processed and overloaded with sugar, salt, and fat.
Next up in the series, we will discuss The Scientific Evidence behind this diet. In the meanwhile, if you have any questions/comments/concerns, leave it in the comments below, and I will try to address them as best I can.
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