Working in the field of population health, I see the impact of chronic disease on overall health and health care costs on a daily basis.
Did you know that 6 in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic disease? 4 in 10 have two or more! Heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).
Majority of chronic diseases are a result of poor lifestyle choices, including what we choose to eat. In the work I do, we are often recommending solutions with a lifestyle medicine approach to control chronic disease or even reverse it. You can read more about lifestyle medicine here: What is Lifestyle Medicine?
The area of lifestyle medicine this is most relevant to this post is “healthful eating of whole, plant-based food.”
As I have learned more about lifestyle medicine and whole food, plant-based eating, my curiosity has grown about this dietary lifestyle. It sounds hard, but is it really as hard as it seems? It is sustainable? I have thought about these questions a lot. I decided it was time to stop thinking about it and just do it. At the end of June, I decided I wanted to challenge myself And my husband to eat a plant based diet for one week. Before I tell you about my experience and what I learned during my challenge, let’s define what a whole food, plant-based diet is.
The primary principles of a whole food, plant-based diet include:
- eating primarily whole, unrefined, minimally processed plant foods
- eliminating or minimizing meat, dairy, eggs, refined sugar, and oil
Read more here: Plant-Based Primer: The Beginner’s Guide to a Plant-Based Diet
Benefits of a whole food, plant-based include prevention or even reversal of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, reducing risk of some cancers, more energy, weight management, reduced inflammation, and overall better health outcomes.
One Week of Plant-Based Eating
During our week of eating plant-based, we chose to eliminate all animal products, including dairy, and minimize our consumption of processed foods.
The thought of the challenge energized me. I was looking forward to a nutritional reset, trying new things, adding some variety to our meals, and answering the questions I had about the diet.
I really only had one concern about the challenge, my husband’s response. I didn’t tell him what I was considering until the week before. When I told him about the challenge, I could tell that he was apprehensive, but he obliged. His primary concern was eating a high volume of vegetables. His words, “Too much salad will hurt my stomach.” lol
I spent our drive back from vacation planning our meals for the week and making my grocery list. The one thing I noticed during the planning process is the number of ingredients I needed to purchase increased, specifically in the produce department which makes sense, given the dietary guidelines. Whole food. All plant-based.
The Sunday of the challenge was spent meal prepping for the week. Here’s what was on the menu:
- Breakfast – overnight oats
- Lunch – salad with black bean and corn salsa and other veggies (carrots, cucumber, tomato)
- Dinner – black bean and kale burrito bowls, black bean veggies burgers and pasta salad, veggie spaghetti
By day 2 of the challenge, I was hungry! Tommy too. I quickly realized that without meat I would need to eat a lot more food. I found myself wanting to snack a lot between meals. My options were fruit, Skinny Pop, and Kashi Bars. While the last two options did not include any dairy or animal products, they didn’t necessarily meet the criteria of reducing consumption of processed foods.
By day 3, I felt really bloated. I read that this was likely the result of my body adjusting to the increase in fiber intake. To counteract the bloating, I increased my water intake, which seemed to help. On this day, I also learned that Tommy was over black beans. lol In hindsight, I realize that there could’ve have been more variety in the meals I chose for the week. Three meals with black beans. Rookie mistake.
By the middle of our challenge, I noticed that I had more energy, even with waking up multiple times at night to nurse my daughter. Normally, I would be exhausted from work and ready for bed as soon as the kids were down for the night. But most nights, I found myself with enough energy to stay awake for at least another hour and half. I also noticed that I was more focused and alert during the work day.
In all, I would say my attempt at eating a whole food, plant-based diet was a positive experience and I would definitely do it again. My husband says that he didn’t really notice any of the physical benefits like I did, but that’s not to say that he wouldn’t if he continued the diet.
As I mentioned before, I always wondered if making the switch to a whole food, plant-based diet was hard. For me, eliminating all animal products for the week wasn’t that difficult, but I could see it being hard over a longer period of time, especially given the standard American diet.
Eating plant-based did require more time, effort, and discipline. Meal planning was essential. If I didn’t make the time or effort to plan ahead, it would have been too easy to eat how we normally eat. I think the biggest challenge, as I mentioned before, was having enough variety in our meals. If I were to continue this dietary lifestyle, I know that I would have to be open to trying foods that I have never eaten before and more creative in food preparation.
Secondly, I wondered, is this sustainable? The answer…it depends. I think this really varies by person. Do I see our family making the switch to strictly eating a plant-based diet? Not at this time. However, I am committed to increasing our intake of fruits and vegetables, making at least one meatless meal each week, reducing my own consumption of meat and dairy, and adding more variety to our meal plan.
If you are curious about or even considered trying a plant-based diet, I would encourage you to give it a try. You’ll never know if you can do it unless you just do it. Even if you don’t go all in and completely eliminate animal products from your diet, consider making gradual diet changes. Maybe you add one more vegetable to each meal or reduce the amount of meat you consume in one day or try one meatless meal a week. No matter what, I think we can all make one positive change in our diet to improve our overall health.