Going Plant-Based in 2013 — Lessons I Learned

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Some post-Christmas glow in our living room.

2013 was not the year I expected to have. At all. I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution to address anything about my health. Maybe I thought about exercising more, but that was it. All I knew was that I couldn’t stay on my arthritis medication forever, and little did I know how fast I’d give it up. My own story might help inspire you if you want to make changes for 2014. You could surprise yourself at having the best year ever. That’s not hyperbole, that is exactly what 2013 turned out to be health-wise for me. I lived 45 years without thinking really too hard about my diet. That changed in February 2013, when I was sick of being sick. Chronic pain and illness were a way of life for me because of rheumatoid arthritis and the prescription medication I took for it. The pills “managed” the pain, but it never really went away, and it was becoming clearer each year I’d have to move on to a biologic to use in combination with Methotrexate, and the biologic was not going to be cheap. I’d weaned myself from Prednisone, which cost practically nothing per pill, but that was about as much progress as I’d made. Now I live a life without any arthritis medication and I am pain free. For real.

Read Everything You Can About Nutrition from Science-Based Experts in the Field and Consider Going to a Nutritionist to Test for Deficiencies

I ate a highly acidic diet of microwave meals, canned soups, 2 percent milk, a slice of cheese or two every day, an occasional pint of ice cream, sugary cereals and lots of sugary treats in between — donuts, cakes, vending machine goodies. Maybe wash it down with a Diet Dr. Pepper. Oh, and I’d have a salad with dinner at night — a tiny salad at that. I never really cooked anything homemade after a point, and if I did it was laden with melted cheese or filled with egg yolks as a binding agent in a casserole. I would get into food ruts and eat nothing but mac and cheese for lunch for days, mixed with a can of tuna, peas and Italian seasoning, and consider that a homemade meal.

Processed food was king in our house. It was cheap, I didn’t have to spend any time in the kitchen and I could load up with cans and boxes of stuff at the store without much thought of putting it together and making meal plans, because really, who had time for any of that? We could pick and choose our own meals, eat whenever it was convenient and not even eat the same things! It was genius. It meant a lot of cheesy pizza for me. Veggie burgers for Jim. As someone with a college degree, I had no clue about nutrition and its authority over all else in our ultimate health and wellness.

Unplug the Coffeemaker, Fire Up the Teapot

Let’s not forget the half-pot of coffee I used to consume each day, all day, to fight off chronic fatigue. I have written about kicking the caffeine habit in this blog and I continue to fight this habit, though have greatly reduced my caffeine consumption to basically the cocoa powder I put in my smoothie each day. My go-to beverage now is ginger tea steeped with with green tea and one jasmine tea bag. Or just plain water.

ginger tea
My ginger tea bags always come with a saying. This one says “Be curious.”

Caffeine dependency, like changing anything in your life, is truly a one-day-at-a time proposition. Instead of saying you’ll never drink coffee again, just tell yourself you won’t drink it today. It’s the same philosophy applied by Alcoholics Anonymous. When you leave your mind open to flexibility in conquering your demons, your ego won’t fight the change as much. Rigid absolutism is the quickest way to doom any project.

Get Real About What is Making You Sick

I grew up with chronic sinusitis and generally felt like I had a low-grade flu most days. Before changing my diet, I was starting to have repeat yeast infections and ear infections that would not resolve for weeks on end. Psoriatic-grade rashes would appear overnight on my face or legs or back. I blamed all of it on the Methrotrexate weakening my immune system, but it really was as much about what I ate as any pharmaceutical I took. I would go to doctors with the various ailments and I’d get a steroid cream or other medication to treat the symptoms.

The only time anyone recommended going to a nutritionist was when I was in a clinical trial for Herceptin in 2004 during my breast cancer treatment. The oncologist said I could see a nutritional counselor if I thought “that would make me feel better about the chemo,” and he advised eating broccoli every day. 

You need more advice than that. Everyone has different dietary needs based on their lifetime of eating habits. I may need more B12 than you, for example. And all these things factor into your overall health. Get yourself checked out and make it a priority to understand beyond the isolated headlines of “miracle food.” No one food, vitamin, multivitamin or food type will cure you; you need a variety of foods rich in micronutrients. Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s “Eat To Live” is a great start for you to understand and organize your next shopping list. It’s available pretty much from any bookseller and available in downloadable versions, too.

Educate Yourself About Sugar

One time I came in for routine chemo-related blood work in 2004, I kid you not, after eating a bowl of Apple Jacks with milk and drinking orange juice. Needless to say, my glucose was off the charts.

The oncologist came flying into the room. First question, “Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?” Quickly followed by, “WHAT DID YOU EAT THIS MORNING?” I told him. His response: “How old are you? Who still eats Apple Jacks at your age?” I was told not to do that again before blood work, or preferably, ever.

It was a humbling moment. Now, Apple Jacks may seem to you like an egregious what-was-she-thinking example, but many of the seemingly healthful cereals and yogurt blends marketed to all of us as health food can have as much sugar or more sugar than Apple Jacks; they just come with more sophisticated marketing. They also come with very small serving sizes in their nutrition panel to make you think they are low in sugar or sodium, which they are if you eat your meals in 1/3 or 1/4 cup portions. Check it yourself if you don’t believe me. If I were Apple Jacks, I would emblazon the box with “Lower sugar per cup than some brands of granola!” That would be a true statement.

Big lesson this year for me: Refined white sugar and any food causing a glucose spike makes me feel more pain, can lead to illness and fuels not only cancer tumors but can enflame autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Even Though You Look Like a Reasonable Person on the Outside … It’s What’s In Your Kitchen that Matters

In the end, I needed to take responsibility for my health. Before February 2013, I was eating like an unattended 7-year-old left alone in the cereal or candy aisle of the grocery store, and I think doctors assume most people eat “OK,” not great, but not the level of deficiency that I was at, and probably most of their patients are at to varying degrees. I always felt like once I’d told a doctor I didn’t smoke, I got a medical pass I didn’t really deserve. All of a sudden in the doctor’s mind I became someone who also ate 3 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables and did yoga and meditation as well as 30 minute aerobic sessions each day and drank 8, 8 0z. glasses of water through the day and got 8 uninterrupted hours of rest each night. 

Become the person the doctor thinks you are. Clean out your cabinets and get whole grains and beans in your pantry, fresh fruits and vegetables in your fridge. I watched “Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue” (available on DVD or Amazon Instant Video) to see how it’s done, and I recommend it as an eye opener to your own kitchen.

Exercise No Matter What

This section is more for me than for you, but it’s what we all need to do.

If it is cold, go to the store and walk around. You don’t have to join a health club, start small and work up to a more vigorous routine. Even if you just do two, 10-minute walking sessions a day, you are making a positive change.

A life of denial creates a convenient cycle. Feel bad from food that makes you sick, take pills for that, feel worse and blame the medication or doctors for not knowing how to help you with the right combination of drugs. Meanwhile, the ailments become ever-more exotic and harder to treat and the prescriptions more toxic. I went from having chronic head colds, bronchitis and eczema in my childhood, teens and 20s, to breast cancer in my 30s to broncholithiasis caused by a latent, undiagnosed case of histoplasmosis from who-knows-when to finally, rheumatoid arthritis in my 40s.

You don’t need to have cascading health problems to get healthy. You’re better off trying to change things before those issues start occurring, and they will, believe me, if you ignore what you ingest on a daily basis. All you have to do is look around you at any public space: the grocery store, the subway, the airport, the mall, and see how many people are obese, how many people sit around sucking sodas or coffee all day. You will see this with a new clarity, I promise.

Christmas breakfast of leftover vegan Yaki Udon and tofu scramble.
Christmas breakfast of leftover vegan Yaki Udon and tofu scramble.

Stay Motivated

Finally, for a New Year movie party, I suggest “Forks Over Knives” and “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” Both will motivate you to change and give you the resources to start your own journey. Book yourself for regular blood work to see the changes take place in real time, with a complete blood count (CBC) and cholesterol screen, starting now. Those results and how you feel will keep you motivated over anything else. For me that was the science-based evidence I needed to keep going and stick with this.

I wish you a healthy 2014! Let me know how it goes, and feel free to subscribe to this blog. I’m always updating with my successes and failures. As I look inside my own fridge and pantry today, I don’t even recognize them from a year ago. You won’t believe the cascading effect small changes add up to by the end of the year.

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