Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Why I eat a low fat raw vegan diet

For those unfamiliar with the lingo, a low fat raw vegan diet is a fruit-based diet. Almost all calories are derived from fruit, plus vegetables as a concentrated mineral source. Fruit for breakfast, lunch, dinner - plus salad. 

Most people, when they observe my eating habits, are shocked and skeptical that anyone could tolerate such a "boring" diet, let alone thrive on it.

Five years ago, I was not a vegan. I scoffed at vegan "hippies". I believed that humans were designed to eat meat, that too much fruit would make you fat, and that protein was the secret to health and well being. My diet consisted of oats, tuna fish, cottage cheese, yoghurt, tofu, chicken, shellfish, green vegetables like broccoli and spinach, and the occasional egg. I was working at a gym at the time, and I was thoroughly brainwashed by the high protein propaganda. I avoided potatoes, bananas, and rice, believing that they would make me fat and unhealthy. 

I was eating ridiculous amounts of canned tuna fish, and others' comments about mercury poisoning and heavy metal toxicity sparked my curiosity about the health of my diet. I started gravitating away from seafood, eating more chicken. Red meat was only an occasional menu item, as the rest of my household did not eat it.

I wasn't a huge fan of chicken, and I gradually began eliminating it. Before I knew it, I was eating a mostly vegetarian diet. I had gone off milk several years ago due to lactose sensitivity, but I was still eating large quantities of yogurt, cheese, and eggs (particularly egg whites). I wondered whether a vegetarian diet was actually healthy, and so I started reading in earnest. Then, I came across a documentary called "Earthlings" that ended up changing my life. From that day, I knew that I wouldn't in good conscience ingest another animal product or exploit another being in order to fulfill my needs. 

Switching to veganism prompted more research and a radical shift in diet. Eliminating dairy products was difficult, which I later learned was due to the addictive properties of dairy (particularly cheese). What was more challenging were the hidden animal ingredients in almost every mainstream processed food product. Pasta sauce, crackers, seasoning packets, candy - even veggie burgers. I did make mistakes, where I unknowingly consumed animal products, but I learned from each experience. And quickly learned that a diet based on whole plant based food like beans, grains, and vegetables, was far easier on my sanity (not to mention healthier). I was still a little carb-phobic, so my diet consisted of oats for breakfast, with salads and beans for lunch and dinner, and low sugar fruits like apples and oranges for snacks. 

After about six months on a vegan diet, I started reading about a "raw food" diet - which I immediately dismissed as impossible. Within a few months, however, I decided to give it a try. I started drinking green smoothies for breakfast, which consisted of half a banana, a teaspoon of flax seeds, and a few handfuls of spinach. A woefully inadequate breakfast of barely 100 calories. Lunch was a small salad of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, and an apple and an orange for snacks. Around this time I also eliminated coffee. Dinner was another small salad. After dinner, I would snack on nuts. And by snack, I mean several large handfuls. It's no wonder - I was barely eating 400 calories during the day.

I didn't realize it at the time, but my under eating during the day was the reason for my gorging on nuts in the evening. I was inadvertently eating a very high fat diet - which led to a few extra pounds on my frame and skin breakouts.

In late 2009, I stumbled upon a website called 30 bananas a day, which promoted a calorie-abundant, high carbohydrate, low fat raw vegan diet. It sounded bizarre to me, but seeing as a high fat raw diet was causing some unwanted side effects, I decided to try it. Or so I thought. My carbohydrate phobia was still in full force, and initially I could only stand to eat around 4 pieces of fruit a day. My half banana in the pitiful green smoothie (now minus flax seeds) along with a few apples and oranges. Gradually I added a couple of bananas to my daily intake. Then five. Then ten. Clearly, I didn't quite understand the concept of carbohydrate abundance to promote health, athletic recovery, strength, and weight loss. I was still under the illusion of "calories in versus calories out" as being the key to health, that thin = healthy.

Eventually, I learned that our bodies are designed to live on carbohydrates. That under eating leads to cravings for undesirable foods that are high in salt, high in fat, or processed. That inadequate hydration leads to mixed body signals and cravings. That under consumption of greens leads to cravings for salt. 

Most importantly, I learned that health isn't all about diet. Health must include enough movement, rest, hydration, sunshine, and positive relationships - and more. 

I will never have the "perfect" diet, because I no longer believe there is such a thing. I do my best, though. I buy from markets when I can. I eat organic greens most of the time. I grow some of my own food. I eat a plant based, whole-food diet. I avoid certain things not because of dogma or because I'm trying to attain some level of "purity" - rather, I avoid things because I don't desire them and/or because I don't like the way they make me feel. 

Once upon a time I wanted to identify as a "raw foodist" and I went to great lengths to sustain this diet. Even if it meant eating a fatty raw food dish over, say, a plate of rice and vegetables. I avoided EVERYTHING that wasn't raw, including minute amounts of dried herbs.

These days, I'm less concerned about labels and "fitting" into a particular group. It's about doing and being the best I can be. 

We might be lured into thinking that diet is everything, if the raw food/vegan Internet community is anything to go by. There's a lot of in-fighting between people who actually have more similarities than differences. Even the "Paleo" and "vegan" crowds agree on a number of points. And each is convinced that their diet is the right diet.

I have more to say on the principles of health and a vegan vs non/vegan diet, which I will do another time. For now, I'll conclude with the idea that there is no perfection in life, and that we are all striving to better ourselves in all areas. Don't put all your focus on one aspect of health at the expense of others - your health can only be as good as your weakest link. I've lived the unbalanced life, and I can safely say that if you're mood is dictated by a number on the scale, or if you feel guilt for eating a possibly non-raw item, or if you repeatedly beg off social events to exercise, or you refuse to associate with people based on their diet .... You need to take a look at your priorities. 


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Why weight loss doesn't work

The fat trap.

This article appeared on the New York Times website a while ago. It describes the plight of the overweight and obese in losing weight. Those who successfully lose significant amounts of weight will eventually regain it. This is compounded by "fat genes" that supposedly predispose individuals to obesity and even to selecting high fat, high calorie foods. Those who lose weight are described as forever having to meticulously monitor calorie intake and expenditure.

Pretty depressing stuff if you're overweight.

Losing weight is fantastic, but who wants to always be measuring food and maniacally exercising? Always thinking about food and worrying about the pounds coming back on? It's enough to make a person abandon the running shoes for a pair of extra wide sweat pants.

This article is everything that's wrong with weight loss and "dieting". It's based on starvation level diets, which are unrealistic and impossible to maintain in the long term. Unfortunately, what the author doesn't realise is that by eating in accordance with our physiology, it IS possible to lose weight and keep it off, without being doomed to a life of food scales and calorie charts.

The problem with "diets" is that they're a quick fix solution to a systemic problem. Mainstream medicine will tell you that it's all about "calories in vs calories out", without taking into account the complexity of the human machine. Starve, over exercise, and get hyped up on stimulants, and the body will eventually rebel. Rapid weight loss will see a significant loss of muscle tissue, the body's effort to reduce calorie requirements by removing  energetically demanding tissue. With a loss of muscle tissue comes a drop in basal metabolic rate. In addition, stress hormones kick in, which promote fat storage and feelings of hunger. Then, when the dieter succumbs to any sort of refeeding, their body a) becomes more likely to gain fat, and b) requires fewer calories to maintain the same initial body weight.

This is why fast weight loss never works in the long run. People want to lose 5 or 10 pounds in a matter of weeks, but this is often mostly water, salt, or glycogen... with some muscle loss and eventually some fat loss. It makes about as much sense as chopping off a leg to lose some quick pounds. The number on the scale may be lower, but at what cost? What's the point of being "thin" if your adrenal glands are burned out from chronic stress? Or if you've increased the risk of cancer from all the chemicals ingested in food? Or if you're unable to enjoy life because of obsessive calorie counting?

Most people want to lose weight to reduce their risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease. But too many weight loss programs leave the individual in worse shape than when they started! Malnourishment is the precursor of disease - and it is difficult to obtain all necessary nutrients on most calorie-restricting diets.

In the raw food world, there is increasing focus on building health as a means of achieving a healthy weight. When an individual is truly healthy, mentally and physically, a healthy weight can be effortlessly maintained.

How is this achieved?

True health includes athletic fitness, hydration, stress management, strong social relationships, a sense of community and belonging, exposure to sunshine and nature, and adequate rest, in addition to ingestion of healthy foods and minimising exposure to toxins. Addressing all these issues permanently means a lifestyle and habit change - developing a consistent routine that addresses all of these needs, and which is realistic and can be easily maintained.

So, what should the overweight person do to lose some pounds? Before doing anything, get a full physical work up. Cholesterol, liver function, blood pressure, heart rate, everything. It's called a baseline measure - and it will be the comparison point for all subsequent measurements on the journey to health.

Once that's done, it's time for diet change. Don't be afraid - a healthy diet will not mean rabbit food and leave you constantly hungry. In fact, you get to eat more than you ever would have thought. Cut out animal products: dairy, meat, eggs, honey, as well as soda, fast food, and processed snack food. Replace these things with whole plant foods, like fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and beans, and small amounts of nuts and seeds. Stick to a low fat, whole food vegan diet and watch your health skyrocket. Incorporate as much raw food as you can. Entire meals can be made 100% raw, like a breakfast smoothie with bananas, mangoes, and water. And for those who think it's too radical a dietary change: don't worry, there's vegan alternatives to almost every meal in existence. Tempeh and seitan instead of meat. Veggie burgers instead of beef burgers. Scrambled tofu instead of scrambled eggs. Almond milk instead of cow milk. Yes, you can have vegan pizza, burgers, and pies. All of these are great transitional tools for getting off the dead animals and onto the plants.

Make sure you eat enough - the calorie density of plant foods is generally  lower than animal products. One fast food hamburger meal is easily the equivalent of 10-15 bananas. Make sure enough calories are consumed to meet nutritional targets, maintain energy levels, and sustain a positive mental attitude. 30bananasaday.com is a great resource, or check out the Banana Girl Diet, Banana Boy Diet, and Raw Til 4 pages on facebook.

Next is movement. You can't be healthy if you're not fit. Do whatever floats your boat, whether it's running, walking, swimming, rock climbing, salsa dancing, or yoga. As long as you're moving. If you do what you enjoy, it won't even seem like a work out - it will just be fun. Incorporate activity into daily life. Play with your dog or your kids. Ride your bike or walk instead of using the car. Take the stairs.

Ensure adequate rest. Get off the stimulants. Most of us are running around on too-little sleep, but artificially boosted with coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate. The body can't rest when we're hyped up on drugs, and rest is crucial for recovery. It's common to require 8-10 hours of sleep per night - or even more if athletic. Drink plenty of water. Spend time with uplifting people who encourage you to make positive changes. Get outdoors.

Over time, you will see radical shifts in your physique as well as mental outlook and attitude. You will become less interested in weight and more focused on how you FEEL. Happiness, vitality, and vibrancy will attract more of those things into your life. And THAT's the goal - not simply a number on the scale.