So my husband and I have recently adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and the most common question I get about it is, Why?
Well, the short answer is that I want to improve my health. But that is not specific, persuasive, or particularly interesting. A longer explanation would include the fact that I would like to live with the highest quality of health possible so that my husband and I can travel the world and have adventures together for many, many years to come.
The most accurate answer, however, begins with my 16-year struggle with a chronic health disorder called IBS: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This is essentially what they diagnose you with when they can’t find anything else to explain your symptoms. I was first diagnosed with IBS in 1999, and my internist’s exact words when he diagnosed me (based on my symptom descriptions with no further testing or referral to a specialist) were, You need to reduce chocolate, caffeine, dairy and stress in your life. My exact response was:
But I need the chocolate and the caffeine to deal with the stress in my life!
My doctor was not amused by my response. I was not the most compliant patient. I could go months without any symptoms (while consuming chocolate, caffeine, and dairy) and then seemingly out of nowhere I would suffer a barrage of debilitating symptoms that could last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. I finally accepted that I was probably lactose-intolerant and stopped eating dairy, which helped. I never gave up chocolate, but I did eventually give up coffee and most caffeinated sodas. I now drink only tea and the occasional diet soda (this is my biggest weakness). But about that stress…
When I was originally diagnosed I had just finished my first year of college as a full-time non-traditional student. I took 15 hours (5 classes) both semesters and kept a 4.0 while being a wife and mother of a 6 year old and an 11 year old. Add housekeeping and a part-time direct sales job (to help pay tuition) and it was a recipe for constant stress overload. My symptoms began after finals week at the end of my freshman year and continued to resurface at times of high stress or poor eating habits.
Fast forward to April 2014. For years I had kept the IBS in check with varying degrees of success. I had started exercising regularly in the summer/fall of 2013 and my weight loss had just reached the 30 pound mark. I was trying to “eat better” as well, which basically meant not partaking of the constant barrage of candy, desserts, and other junk foods at work. I thought I was doing really well–right up until I wasn’t. I got sick on a Saturday morning and the first bout lasted 5 days. After several more weeks of misery and a self-imposed period of eating no gluten (which made no difference), I made an appointment with my new GP who disagreed with my original diagnosis of IBS and referred me to a Gastroenterologist for further testing.
The tests were uncomfortable, time-consuming, and ultimately inconclusive. They did reveal that I was not lactose-intolerant, but my GI cautioned me that dairy still aggravated my symptoms, so I should avoid it. I will admit that I did not complete all of the tests, as they were beginning to add to my stress level which–ironically–increased the severity and frequency of my symptoms. Talking to the GI, however, did make me realize just how sensitive a person’s gut can be. I began again reducing carbonated drinks, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and refined flours. I could definitely see a difference when I was vigilant about these things, especially the caffeine. I started shopping at the farmers market more often, trying to increase my fiber intake with fresh fruits and vegetables as my internist had also suggested in 1999.
I was becoming aware on a deeper level that I really needed to consistently improve my eating habits. I went to the library and started checking out books, but as my symptoms waned, so did my interest in changing my eating patterns. It is easy to ignore a chronic illness when you are not actively sick. As the year progressed and I couldn’t seem to lose any more weight, I began to research in earnest different types of eating plans. I wasn’t interested in any fad diets, and I knew I needed to make permanent changes instead of eating well for a while then getting lax as my symptoms abated.
Around this time someone recommended the Forks Over Knives documentary to me. I watched it on Netflix that very evening. Then I went to the library and checked out the books that had followed the documentary. I also started reading The China Study, which was the evidential basis for the Forks Over Knives movement. While I am not trying to persuade anyone that their way of eating is wrong or mine is the only right way, I do recommend the documentary and books mentioned above if you want to know more about the evidence which led me to the decision to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet.
After my husband watched Forks Over Knives he was completely on board, which was a major relief to me since I had tried to move toward a whole-foods lifestyle in the early 90s, but the husband and kids didn’t much care for it then. It was also much harder to find things like whole wheat pastry flour in a regular grocery store back then. (Thank goodness that is no longer the case.) Back in the 90s I had used Nikki and David Goldbeck’s American Wholefoods Cuisine cookbook, but that became problematic as time went on due to the amount of dairy products in many of their recipes.
So we jumped in with both feet and started the Forks Over Knives way of eating. The simplest way to explain what that means is that we only eat foods that are whole and come from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Little or no meat, dairy, processed oils, refined flours or sugars, or artificial ingredients of any kind. While that may sound drastic, after struggling with IBS for 16 years, it was a small price to pay for better health. We did a 3-week transition into the eating plan, changing just one meal a day each week. This allowed us to slowly process the lifestyle change mentally, emotionally, and physically. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, so…did the diet help my IBS?
Unequivocally, YES! In the first 8 weeks we were on the whole-food, plant-based diet I had NO IBS symptoms at all! Add to that the fact that we had a major life stressor occur during this time, and it was downright miraculous that my IBS didn’t kick back in. The only times I have had IBS symptoms since we started the program occurred when I went off the plan and ate processed foods full of sugar, refined flour, and fat.
So…that is the main reason in a very long answer to why I have changed to a whole-food, plant-based diet. There are other reasons and things to discuss about our progress on the diet, but I will save those for another Wednesday. Thanks for reading, and if you liked this post please comment or follow my blog for a different topic each day of the week. Happy Hump Day!