Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Healthy Vegan Lifestyle

This article was published in the October 2012 issue of Natural Food Magazine

The Healthy Vegan Lifestyle

The problem with the label ‘healthy’ is that people often hear ‘bland, dry vegetables’. Similarly, ‘vegan’ tends to translate as ‘highly restricted, weird food’. My focus is helping people find healthy, vegan food they LOVE to eat! Life is short and there is absolutely no reason you should not enjoy your food and be healthy at the same time.

The main reaction to my diet is “so what DO you eat?” While my plant-based diet contains a multitude of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and limited soy,  the endless combinations of these ingredients create a delicious array of meals that never fail to make me smile. The first question is usually quickly followed by: “Oh, I could NEVER live without X (insert cheese, bacon, sugar, bread etc.)” It is concern for the addictive foods that is always raised; sugar, fats and carbohydrates always seem to pop up and have a special place in people’s minds.

Admittedly, incorporating some natural sugars, healthy fats and whole grains in your diet is a must, however I am in no way suggesting eating copious amounts of refined sugars and processed fats (if you cut out everything you’ll just end up hungry and depressed). The best solution is to enjoy small amounts of healthy sources of fats, sugars and carbohydrates daily.

So what naturally healthy substitutes are there to these three potential dietary sins?
Sugar- Fruit is sweet. Somehow many of us have lost that knowledge. If you stop eating sugar and artificial sweetener, you will realise just how sweet fruit is! Fresh fruit is delicious and dried fruit is a concentrated source of sugar that can be used in many recipes.
Fat- Nuts, seeds, avocado and coconut are a great source of fats and nutrients. They’re delicious and can transform a meal from something nice to something really special. Plus, they’re great for your brain, hair and skin!
Carbohydrates- There are plenty of gluten free/low gluten grains that you can enjoy. Try brown rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth - just to name a few. Then there are beans, lentils and starchy vegetables like potato, sweet potato, turnip, swede and celeriac to make a filling and satisfying meal.

The next thing that comes up is usually the longevity of this lifestyle: “So you’ll be off this diet by Christmas, right?” No. I’m not on a diet, I’m eating healthy! This is a life goal, not a sprint to the next little black dress occasion. Numerous indicators can measure health but to me quality of life is my yardstick. Do I feel good eating this way? Yes. Has my heath improved? Yes. Have my allergies disappeared? Yes! There is no way processed ‘food-like’ products can make you feel this good. The tremendous feeling of lightness, power and happiness that good health brings is a right we all have and the fact that so many people have lost touch with the knowledge of just how good they can feel is shocking.

The change to a healthy lifestyle can be a huge leap for some, but why not take baby steps in the right direction? No one is going to be disappointed if you just try your best, and you know your body will love you for it! The questions and reasons people give to justify their standard diets amused me somewhat, so I thought I’d share a few.

“But you could never eat out again!?” Of course I can! There are so many vegan-friendly places that serve delicious healthy meals; you just need to do a little google-searching to find them.

“Don’t you crave meat/sugar/junk?” Of course I do, I’m human. The smell of some foods is still appealing, but ‘food-like’ products don’t even look edible anymore. The junk foods that saturate our world tend to just look dry, oily or likely to induce a migraine and stomachache. The longer you can avoid processed food the easier it gets, I promise. Make sure you’re well nourished, hydrated and full of good healthy, yummy food and the cravings will disappear. Having said that, if I really feel like something, I’ll ‘vegan-ise’ and ‘health-ify’ it. Try finding healthy alternative ingredients or  recipes - there are so many options these days!

“But fish isn’t chicken! Fish isn’t meat?” No, no it is not, but neither is it a plant.

“You need meat to live!”  Well, apparently not if I’m standing before you answering this question…

“But you have to eat cows to stop them farting methane”

“If you don’t milk cows their udders will EXPLODE!” Also, no. But if you shoot them up with steroids and hormones they will get extremely swollen.

“So would you eat human meat?” Possibly, if I was dying of starvation… I realise that this question sounds ludicrous, but that doesn’t stop it from being asked.

The ridiculousness of such comments serves to show just how big a leap the change to a healthy lifestyle can be. Whether you decide to jump in with both feet or dip one toe in the water, making a change in the right direction will always help! The major change needed for a healthy lifestyle is being informed about your food choice; soak up all the knowledge you can. I know at times the conflicting sources can all get too much, but if you stick to eating whole natural foods with as little processing as possible you can’t go far wrong. If in doubt think about it this way. Fresh, natural food goes off. It's not something that will sit on the supermarket shelf for years unchanged. The food that will nourish you is alive and consequently rots. This is a good thing! Try to buy fresh food frequently to keep your meals as nutritious as you can.

The motivation to start cooking can be found in many places, do cook books inspire you? (yes, even regular ones) Why not use a recipe as a starting point and switch out some ingredients to make it good for you? You can use pretty much any recipe as inspiration for a meal- you may not end up with an exact replica, but the flavor profile and textures will remain intact. If you like shopping then why not let the ingredients that look best inspire your cooking? Just got for a wander through the grocers and pick the things that sing out. Don’t be scared to try new things, once you know which flavours go well together you can make pretty much anything delicious. My general rule if you don’t know what will taste good together is to smell it -  if it smells good together, then chances are it will taste great too.

If I could give anyone some healthy eating tips, they would be:
       Eat natural, whole foods - organic and local if possible.
       Cook your own food as much as possible. If you are buying products, read every label- if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it.
       Eat foods you enjoy! For example,  don’t eat carrots if you don’t like them, find something else you do enjoy eating and replace them.
       Perfection is impossible, aim for consistently healthy choices and your body will love you for it.
       Cook enough for leftovers for the next meal to save time. In the same vein: pre-cook things! Have cooked grains/legumes in the fridge ready to use.
       Pre-chop vegetables (not too far in advance, they will deteriorate but if this is the difference between eating whole foods and getting take away, then do it!)
       Try to eat an assortment of natural foods in all the colours of the rainbow (especially the greens!). Don’t eat the same thing everyday; variety is the spice of life, try new ingredients/meals whenever you can. Keep trying foods - don’t give up after one bad meal, cook it a different way, your taste buds change, you may like things you didn’t as a child.
       Be prepared, have contingency plans - life is unpredictable, so have a back up. If you’re starving and the only things around are unhealthy, you’re fighting an uphill battle, so give yourself a good chance by preparing healthy portable snacks. Have some nuts or seed on you, grab some fruit (fresh or dried) before you head out the door, bring some veggie sticks and dip if you know you’re going to be out for a while or a full packed lunch if you’re out all day. Make the best possible choice you can in any given situation - and if you can, stack the odds in your favour!

A positive attitude is one of the key ingredients to a healthy natural lifestyle. Focus on all of the great new things you get to try and not dwell on the things you can’t. Smile! Enjoy your life and be proud of every healthy choice you make. Lead by example; you cannot force anyone to choose your lifestyle, nor should you, so make the right decision for you and be friendly and helpful to those who ask. Treat others the way you wish to be treated and respect their choices.  

I hope you enjoyed reading that little flashback!

Love and Smiles,

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