You may have seen, from a post I did a little while back that I am moving to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Actually, a bit broader than that, I am becoming a vegan.
It is worth taking a moment to make the distinction between the two. The first (whole-food plant based diet) is an eating plan – one which (not surprisingly) involves eating mostly or all plant-based foods and where possible, foods with minimal processing. You can be on a whole-foods plant-based diet, but not necessarily a vegan – as you might still have small amounts of dairy or meat or other animal products (e.g. honey) in the diet. There is good evidence that whole-food, plant-based diets are healthy and they are increasingly discussed in the context of being good for the environment as well.
The second (veganism) is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Veganism stretches beyond just what we eat, to include any setting in which animals are exploited or used for human benefit. For example, vegans eschew clothes made from animal products or visiting zoos where animals are displayed for entertainment. Vegans eat a wholly plant-based diet, but not all vegans are eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet. In fact you could be a vegan and live on potato chips and lemonade (#lifegoals).
Thus one is a choice for health. The other is a choice for ethics and the environment. I am hoping, over the next couple of years to achieve both a healthy, whole-food, plant-based diet and a vegan lifestyle.
I’ve decided to blog the process because there are many valuable health, wellbeing, ethical and environmental lessons to be learned in this space. I know, because I am learning them everyday. I hope that by sharing my experiences, that others might be encouraged to think about their own nutrition and the relationship between personal ethics and wellbeing.
The part of the transition process I am focusing on at the moment is the dietary part (whole-foods, plant based), as it is the most challenging part for me, because I come to this space with a number of health problems:
- Orthorexia – is “an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating”. I’ve spent years obsessing about food and nutrition and not in a way that has made me healthier. Because a whole-foods, plant-based diet is a way of eating that involves the restriction of food groups, I need to counter that restriction (which can lead to dysfunctional attitudes around food) with the exploration of new foods that I have not explored before.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome – is a somewhat embarrassing condition affecting the functioning of the bowel. I have struggled with it since my mid 20’s. There are times I have got on top of it through dietary modifications (e.g. FODMAP diet) and medication (amitriptyline), but it has been a constant companion for a large chunk of my life.
- Cramp fasciculation disorder (CFD) – is a fairly rare neuromuscular condition characterised by muscle cramping and twitching. It is accompanied by muscle discomfort, pain and tiredness. I’ve suspected that CFD is influenced by nutrition and I can identify a few triggers (e.g. caffeine), but I’ve never truly worked out if it is manageable through nutrition.
All three of these make the transition to a whole-foods, plants-based diet a little more challenging.
- Orthorexia means I have a tendency to get obsessed with food and dietary changes, which leads to stress, which leads to gastrointestinal symptoms, which leads to more obsession about food (and the cycle continues).
- IBS means I tend to be a little phobic of different foods and also that moving to a very high fibre diet is likely to lead to increased symptoms.
- CFD means that I am constantly monitoring my body for signs and symptoms and then correlating that with my food choices.
So I got a dietitian involved. Rebecca Greco, from Nourish Adelaide.
She’s going to work with me to get the balance right. I had my first appointment with her two weeks ago.
We covered a lot, but the main aim was to get an interim eating plan in place that would:
- Meet the criteria of being vegan – i.e. no animal products.
- Provide the necessary combinations of carbs, protein, fats and nutrients necessary for good health. This is done by entering the diet into a software program and checking whether there are any nutrient deficiencies in the diet.
- Be, as much as possible, centred around whole-foods, which are essentially foods that have undergone no, or very minimal processing.
- Be low in FODMAPs, including the overall FODMAP load (aka portion sizes) to minimise IBS symptoms.
The FODMAP requirements part is worth a bit of dedicated attention.
One of the evidence-based treatments for IBS is a low-FODMAP diet. If you want to learn more, I suggest visiting – https://www.monashfodmap.com/
The brief version is this, FODMAPs are types of sugar that aren’t properly digested or absorbed in the gut and can cause the symptoms of IBS.
The problem is FODMAPs are found in exactly the types of foods you start emphasising more in your diet when you switch to plant-based eating: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds.
So it is a challenging balancing act, making sure you are eating enough of these foods to ensure appropriate nutrition, but not so much as the aggravate the IBS.
Between the two of us however we came up with a plan that meets all four criteria. I’ve reproduced it below, but I don’t suggest you try to copy it. Instead just notice the different facets. For example, whole foods are marked in green and can be seen to be a fairly sizeable chunk of the diet. Foods marked in blue are those where nutrients like B12 and calcium can be obtained, especially for those on diets without animal products.
‘Healthy’ cereal – low FODMAP certified
Rice milk (fortified)
Almond milk (fortified)
Strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, flaxseeds
Dash of maple syrup
Low fodmap pasta
Spinach, broccoli, herbs
Vegetable soup (carrots, pumpkin, potato, tomato, eggplant, capsicum, oregano, basil, chickpeas)
Vegetable fry-up (tofu, beans, carrots, capscicum, sweet potato, pumpkin, broccoli, zucchini, brown rice, quinoa)
Oven fries (I love oven fries)
Fruit (oranges, kiwifruit)
Crackers with tahini
What are the next steps?
The goal is that I stabilise on this diet for about 4 weeks.
Then we start exploring the process of introducing foods back in and see whether they exacerbate the IBS or CFS symptoms.
Foods that are particularly useful that I would like to get back into the diet (or dramatically increase their quantity) include alliums (e.g. garlic, onion) and beans/legumes. Beans/legumes, in particular, are key sources of protein and iron and other nutrients for those who don’t eat meat.
However, this will be a gradual process, consisting of a series of ‘experiments’ in which introduce foods back in and monitor my reaction to them.
I’ll blog those experiments as we do them, so you can get an idea of what it is like to do such diet experimentation, under the supervision of a health professional.
What should you take from this blog post?
A shift to a whole-foods, plant-based diet is one that is beneficial in terms of health and the environment.
However, the transition to such a diet should be done with some significant planning. This is especially the case if you have existing health conditions.
A dietitian can assist in this process, as they can ensure your food choices are helping you meet necessary nutritional benchmarks, so the change in diet doesn’t make you sicker.
Two useful apps that are helping me in the process include:
- The Monash FODMAP app – alerting you the FODMAP content of common foods.
- The Daily Dozen app – outlining the core plant-based foods that everyone should be trying to get into their diet on a daily basis.
I don’t recommend you follow specifically my nutrition plan, but I do hope, over the course of the next few months, you get an insight into what might need to be done to use nutrition to heal.
Coming up next
In the next blog post, I am going to address the issue of the confusing nutritional landscape in which we exist, in which we are bombarded with many different, and often contradictory messages about what we should be eating.
In the meantime……..
Follow Rebecca on Facebook for regular nutrition updates and tips – https://www.facebook.com/nourishadl
Also, we (Rebecca and I) are gearing up to run a workshop on plant-based nutrition for students (don’t worry, we aren’t asking anyone to go vegan). But the workshop will cover healthy nutrition, eating plans that are good for the environment and eating plans that are good for the wallet. There will be a small cost, but you’ll get some food included. If this sounds interesting to you, register your interest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘nutrition workshop for students’.