With close to 22 years of exploration behind me on a quest for health and happiness on a plant-based diet I’ve made a lot of mistakes, reversed many symptoms, fine tuned and tweaked my food choices on an ongoing basis, and fallen in love with food over and over again. I continue to be awed by the powerful simplicity of food as it impacts my life in every way. At 50, I feel better than I ever have.
Here are the key elements of a successful and healing plant-based diet as well as the most common mistakes that I’ve encountered, based on my personal experience as well as encounters with clients and students.
Key Elements: these are components of a plant-based diet that I’ve found have given me the greatest benefit and that consistently make a significant positive difference in others.
- Balancing listening to the ‘experts’ with listening to your body. Your body is your best guide on your journey to vibrant health. While most of us can learn from others, and there are many sincere practitioners who can make our path clearer, it’s most important to culture an intimate relationship with the body that we’re living in. It will guide us if we are willing to listen to the many ways it shares what works for it and what doesn’t. Given our different constitutions, backgrounds, health status, stress levels, aspirations, and so forth, it makes sense that the details of the diet that supports us will differ from person to person.
- Whole foods. Whole foods designed by nature have nutrients in synergistic proportions, an intact energy field, and healing properties that go beyond much of our current understanding. Learning to trust and respect foods in their natural state is the biggest leap we make towards health. This means that we eat fresh vegetables and fruit, whole unbroken grains (as opposed to flour products), legumes, nuts, seeds and sprouts.
- Living Foods. Eating as much of our food in its fresh uncooked state is another choice that the majority of people benefit from greatly. When we incorporate green smoothies, hearty salad meals, fresh juices and fresh fruit there is an unmistakable energizing of the whole body. These all generally contain the highest amount of available nutrients and the highest life force.
- Fresh juices. At this stage of our evolution, we are eating food from severely depleted soils, and living lifestyles that burn through a lot of nutrients. Fresh pressed juices are one of the very best ways to replenish these nutrients in high quantities, with very little demand on the digestive system.
- Mineral broths. This is a simple and economic way to add minerals to your diet to benefit your bones, teeth, blood and every system in your body.
- Cold-pressed oils. Although cold-pressed oils are a slightly processed food (the oil is separated from the fiber, starch and protein of the grain, nut or seed) they are far superior to the highly refined, bleached and deodorized oils typically found in the supermarket today. Fatty acids are delicate substances that can be altered by light, heat and oxygen. When ingested processed and heated oils contribute to inflammation, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, liver toxicity among others. If you are heating oils, use moderate heat and select cold-pressed coconut, sesame or olive oil. Use olive, flax, hemp or pumpkin seed oil on salads, or drizzle them on steamed vegetables (rather than frying).
- Decrease fat content. A low fat plant-based diet is followed by many of the world’s longest-lived cultures. I find that it works best for me also. Get your fat mainly from small quantities of fatty foods like coconut, olives and avocados as well as nuts, seeds and whole unbroken grains. 1 to 2 tablespoons of cold-pressed oil a day is plenty.
- Avoid eating 2 to 3 hours before bed. This can have a significant impact on the health of your digestive system, the quality of your sleep and your overall energy levels. Try to focus the bulk of your food consumption earlier in the day (but do try eating as light as possible in the morning to allow for detoxification).
- Add sprouts to your diet. Sprouts, particularly home-grown sprouts are the most cost effective, nutrient dense and local food you can get (besides wild food). I mostly love lentil and mung bean sprouts. They’re a wonderful way to take in living protein and I often sprinkle them on my salad meals and heaven on earth bowls.
Here are the biggest mistakes that I see in vegetarian diets. I’ve made most of them! In the grand scheme there are of course no mistakes only opportunities for growth.
- Rigid rules. Be open, enjoy, be curious, enjoy, soften, taste, listen, enjoy!
- Not enough vegetables and fruit. Try to get as close to 75% of your diet coming from these life giving alkalizing and healing foods. Feel the difference.
- Refined oils. As mentionned above, refined oils contribute to weight gain, inflammation, hormonal imbalance and overall toxicity. People who eat out alot can’t avoid refined oils (they’re everywhere from the salald dressings to the cooking oil to the baked goods) so prepare as many of your meals at home as possible.
- Too much convenience and processed foods. When looking for convenience, think simple vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. When I have to get out the door and haven’t had time to make myself a ‘formal’ meal I simply grab a container and fill it with ready to eat fresh vegetables (romaine lettuce hearts, celery, cucumber or pea pods, etc.); fresh fruit (berries, apples, banana, etc.); nuts; olives; a piece living sprouted bread or crackers. Or I make myself a quick blended soup or smoothie.
- Too much soy. Many of the vegan convenience foods are made from soy: milks, cheeses, crackers; meat analogs like burgers, hotdogs and lunch meats. Plus of course the ever versatile tofu and tempeh. While some soy can be a healthful addition to a vegetarian diet nowadays much of the soy is genetically modified and prepared in ways that are very hard to digest. While soy had been used in eastern cultures for generations it was often fermented to ease digestibility. Experiment with moderate quantities of the best quality soy food available: organic tempeh, sprouted tofu, miso and tamari. I suggest limiting it to 2 days a week. Use more beans to satisfy your protein needs, and make fresh almond milk (or purchase commercial rice milk instead of soymilk). Avoid the highly processed meat and dairy analogs.
- Flour products. When you grind a grain (wheat, kamut, spelt) into a powder (even a whole grain) and then mix it with water, what you get is a gluey substance that can be hard to digest and that can leave residues on the walls of the intestines, especially when combined with an otherwise low-fiber diet. Many people feel good about switching to kamut or spelt or even gluten free flours and while this is a step in the right direction it’s wise to eat mostly whole, unbroken grains like quinoa, brown rice and millet. Soaking and sprouting grains helps in digestion and assimilation too. Notice for yourself how light you feel when you make a switch in the direction of whole unbroken grains.
- Protein powders. Often when people switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet they feel that they need to get extra protein from protein powders. This is not only not necessary it can create a state of imbalance as well as sluggish digestion. Protein powders are often made from fragmented foods so that the body is getting an excess of amino acids (protein) and a relative deficit of the nutrients that are included by nature in protein-rich food (carbohydrates, water, fats, vitamins, minerals). This can only lead to imbalance in the long run. Also powdered protein can be hard on the digestive system, liver and kidneys which need to process the excess amino acids. Try getting most or all of your protein from whole sources: well-prepared legumes, lots of leafy greens, whole grains, sprouts, nuts and seeds. All foods contain protein balanced with other nutrients, and many of the world’s healthiest populations eat a much lower quantity of protein than we do here in North America. In fact there is much research that show that as protein levels increase so do levels of degenerative diseases.
Finally remember that food, while potent, is but one component of health. If you find yourself struggling with food or your health you might want to look at the overall balance in your life. As always inner peace, movement, healthy relationships, nourishing hobbies, connection with nature, and other parts of life, need to come together in order for us to create a beautiful life.