I am an all or nothing kinda gal (my husband says that’s why I married him – hahaha). I don’t tend to do well with moderation. I’m either in or I’m out. I’m either sold on an idea or I’m not. I’m passionate, intense and committed. I’ll give you 110%. I wear my heart on my sleeve and my emotions on my face. I’m sensitive and I cry easily. I can get angry quickly but when I do it’s usually like a firework – a big bang and then I’m done. Ok, ok, to be totally truthful, if I’m really mad, it might be more of a firework show.
In my twenties I dabbled in the vegetarian world. It was trendy and fashionable and I was an impressionable young girl trying to find my way. My boyfriend at the time had an older sister who I thought was pretty cool. She baked broccoli into her son’s muffins, drank rice milk and shopped at the local health food store. I’m not sure if she was a vegetarian or not but for quite a few years I played at being a quasi-vegetarian (and by that I mean that while my boyfriend was away at work I would secretly make ham and cheese sandwiches and nibble them slowly). I wasn’t really committed to health, the environment or animal rights and so one drunken night at a BBQ, the smell of juicy grilled beef burgers was just too overwhelming and that was the end of that farce. I had no foundation, no reason to compel me to remain a vegetarian and well, meat just tasted good.
Come to think of it, a lot of my family are all or nothing types as well. One of my sisters used to have an ongoing battle with my father over peanut butter. If peanut butter were in the house that was it, she’d eat the whole jar. So she asked my dad not to buy it. Of course being a man he very sensibly told her to just control herself. As if. My mother was famous for eating two pounds of butter under the porch steps as a child and her mother was famous for eating two litres of ice cream in one go (you might think that is quite shocking but what is actually shocking is how relatively easy it is to eat an entire two litres of ice cream to oneself). And then there was my mother’s grandfather who was famous for buying his grandchildren not one but two ice cream cones at a time. So I come by it naturally, this all or nothing business. Despite my mother’s inglorious beginnings with the butter and the ice cream cones, as an adult and a mother, she was very health conscious. She had a yogurt maker and subscribed to Shaklee. For several years as children we took our daily vitamins – including the ubiquitous cod liver oil capsules – with a spoonful of homemade yogurt mixed with wheat germ and a dab of frozen orange juice concentrate to sweeten it all. We never drank pop, ate sugary cereals or pop tarts and dessert was a weekend treat. In other respects we followed a pretty standard North American diet but I believe my mother planted seeds of healthy living and curiosity about food alternatives.
My youngest sister has always been a natural vegetarian. As a child she never liked the taste of meat so when she was old enough to choose, there was never any secret ham and cheese sandwich eating. Still her decision was based purely on taste preference until a few years ago when she began reading and researching about vegan diets and was persuaded to change to a whole-foods, plant-based diet. After having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, I too was primed to make some dietary changes in my own life. When we all met for a family vacation the summer of 2011, I read my sister’s copy of The Skinny Bitch and it was the kick in the pants I needed to stop drinking diet pop (aptly referred to as liquid satan in the book). Then I read The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone, Whole Foods to Thrive by Brendan Brazier, and The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. Being an all or nothing kinda gal, I quit animal products cold tofurky. I had the zeal and fire of a new convert. Back at my job as a registered nurse I eagerly told my patients how they could change their health with healthy vegan, plant-based foods. Working for a provincially based institution I soon received the proverbial slap on the wrist after someone outed me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, management had me remove a poster I had in my exam room that said: you are precious to God. Apparently that is an offensive statement. Seriously. Anyway, I was reminded that all good health professionals should support and teach from the Canada Food Guide because as we all know, that has helped to build a nutritionally stable and healthy population.
Fortunately, instead of being a hindrance I have found that having to work within the confines of the Canada Food Guide provided my patients with a safety net of familiarity, while forcing me to re-evaluate my thoughts and approach to food and nutrition. Since not all human beings are of the all or nothing variety and since most of us do not enjoy change (especially as we get older) I would hazard a guess that most people prefer and are more successful with gradual change. Using the Canada Food Guide, I can start with highlighting the recommended daily servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains versus meat and dairy. It is pretty much a guarantee that the majority, if not all, people are not following those guidelines. I focus on decreasing the consumption of meat and dairy, encouraging meatless meals (as per the CFG recommendations!) and strongly emphasize an increase in whole and plant-based foods. I love how rather than being restrictive, the phrase, “whole-foods, plant-based diet” can apply to a variety of dietary approaches. As T. Colin Campbell remarks, the term “vegan” does not by definition imply health. You can be a very unhealthy vegan, chowing down on chips and processed meat alternatives. Food is very personal. As a nurse I’ve encountered many men during BBQ season who become slightly wild-eyed if they think I’m trying to take their steak away. In social situations, talking about food can be like talking about politics and religion; if you’re not on the same page, things can go very wrong.
When we survey the current nutritional landscape, there are many different approaches. Vegetarian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, paleo, organic, grass-fed, non-GMO, sugar-free and whole-foods are all ways in which thoughtful, concerned individuals choose to pursue personal, environmental and animal well-being. I liken it to different Christian denominations. There are Baptist, Pentecostal, United, Anglican, Lutheran, Mennonite, Charismatic and more. Not one denomination has the whole corner on the truth. We all see in part and we all know in part but for Christians there is a unity in the pursuit of spiritual truth based on a central belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Likewise those afore-mentioned dietary approaches have a central commitment to replacing processed, chemically-laden, nutrient-deficient products with a whole-foods, plant-based diet, that may or may not include some measure of animal products. As an all or nothing kinda gal, I choose not to eat animal products but I have many friends, including my husband, who are committed to the same pursuit as I am who do include some amount of animal products. We can let our common focus unite us or we can argue over the differences and be divided. Most North Americans are not going to completely cut animal products out of their diets. It is just not a realistic expectation for such a heterogenous group.
So what, if anything, can be done to impact, locally and globally, our ailing physical and environmental health as well as the lives of factory farmed animals. If we allow a bit of versatility when connecting with others, we might be able to influence a larger proportion of society. For example, instead of telling people to eliminate meat or dairy, let’s highlight how delicious and satisfying whole-food, plant-based meals and snacks are. I love how Kiersten from Oh My Veggies puts it: “when your food tastes good, you focus on what’s on your plate, not what’s missing from it.” I find some of my friends are more likely to try making new foods or using new ingredients if they taste them first so I bring a lot of samples to work with me for my friends to try. I even offer to buy back a product I suggest from a friend or patient if they don’t like it. That way they can try it without being out of pocket and stuck wasting something if they don’t like it (sadly no one has taken me up on that yet but I keep offering!). Or, you can give samples of more expensive ingredients for someone to try, like chia seeds for example. Allow for flexibility. This is what Mark Bittern author of Vegan Before Six is famous for. He eats a whole-foods, plant-based diet all day until supper time (which is six o’clock for him) and then eats a moderate supper that includes animal products. Mark credits the success of his approach to the fact that the cheating is built right in. Give others flexible and versatile ways to adopt and integrate a whole-foods, plant-based diet into their lives in a way that is sustainable for them and their family. This encourages success and when we are successful, we feel good about ourselves and we are more likely to continue making steps toward positive, healthy changes. So because I want to influence and encourage people to adopt a whole-foods, plant-based diet, I am beginning to think of myself as a versatile vegan. I hope my thoughts have given you food for thought. Meantime remember: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” (Michael Pollan)