In this article, I share various doubts and challenges that I had to overcome before and after switching to plant based diets.
The Scourge of TMI
Too Much Information (TMI) is floating around on the Internet. Much of this information employs hundreds of abstract and technical words like 'carbohydrates', 'iodine', 'soluble fiber' and so on. Do any of these words correspond to something physical, something real? No. Very few articles limit their vocabulary to real food substances like potatoes, rice, beans and legumes.
By early 2012, I had read four or five books on nutrition, including Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (256 pages, 2009). Still, I didn't really know what I should eat. I remember asking a good friend, "How can a grandmother sift through this morass of knowledge and figure out what to eat?" I wondered, "What are the minimal steps required for food items found in nature to make them non-toxic and digestible? Most vegetables can be eaten raw. How about grains? Which of these steps are really necessary to consume grains: soaking, boiling, crushing and milling (to make flour)?"
After hearing talks by plant-based doctors, I realized the reasons for conflicting studies and TMI (Too Much Information). In modern times, food production and medical research are done by large corporations. The #1 goal for any corporation are profits. In general, the more the products and services sold by a corporation, the more their profits. Now consumptions of large quantities of food and medicines are not exactly aligned with personal health of consumers. Therefore, when reading nutrition related articles, it is important to know who funded that research. I also realized that human bodies are complex systems and there are lots of approximations in our modeling of human bodies and limitations in experiment methodologies. Many experiments are not repeatable. This may result in 5 studies showing a positive correlation between two variables and 2 studies showing a negative negative correlation betwen the same two variables. When faced with conflicting studies, we have to make 'educated guesses' to understand the 'big picture' / 'overall trend'. Such interpretations are subject to influence by cultural, ideological and economic biases of researchers and reporters.
Belief and Conviction
It took me a few years to develop the belief and conviction that plant-based diet was the right approach for me.
My first exposure to veganism was in 2009. I met two Indian women who were vegan due to lactose intolerance. Before meeting them, I used to believe that vegans were sickly individuals who could not consume milk due to some medical problem. After meeting these two women, I realized that vegans were generally healthy.
Around 2010, I came across some articles about Olympic champions and 'super-athletes' who were vegan. I was super intrigued. These athletes reported feeling 'lighter and brighter' on a vegan diet. I also browsed through a book by Alicia Silverstone: The Kind Diet (320 pages, 2011, originally published in 2009). Chapter by chapter, that book mentioned why meat was bad, why dairy was bad and why refined sugar was bad. I was curious to experience the 'lighter and brighter' feeling. So I tried becoming 95% vegan for a few months. However, I didn't really notice any changes in myself.
In 2010, I was not convinced that a vegan diet was something valuable enough to be pursued. There were two reasons.
Alicia Silverstone is an actress and a model. Having done a Ph.D. in Computer Science, I was not inclined to believe what an actress had to say about health and nutrition. I would much rather believe a scientist or a doctor with good academic credentials.
I thought that veganism was a relatively modern concept. No culture had followed it for thousands of years. I want to follow a food system that had stood the test of time. Veganism felt like a new-age societal experiment. It was much later (around 2012-2013) that I learnt about pockets of populations that had been vegans for hundreds of years. These populations are collectively called Blue Zones). In 2010, even if I had heard of the Blue Zones, I still would not have been convinced to follow these food habits because these populations are not large sized.
In 2012, my belief and conviction in plant-based diets finally materialized. Why?
I came across books and videos by doctors and researchers like John McDougall, Joel Fuhrman, Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn and Neal Barnard. I learnt about clinical trials and longitudinal studies whose outcomes were published in top notch medical research journals. These research papers clearly demonstrated the efficacy of plant based diets in combating dreadful diseases like heart disease. I learnt that Medicare had started covering Dean Ornish's program.
After I switched to plant based diets, I noticed an increase in my level of mental calmness. The change was noticeable and profound. About two months passed before I realized that the food I had started eating was probably the 'sattvik food' that Indians talk about.
Adopting food habits which are different from the culture in which we grew up is challenging. Now plant-based diets are different from any other traditional diet. For example,
Most Americans (approximately 97%) grow up eating meat. So the idea of not eating meat sounds odd. Many wonder, "Where do vegetarians get their protein from?"
Most Indians grow up consuming milk products. In fact, the cow is a sacred animal in India, treated with utmost reverence. Cow milk is revered. So following a diet without milk and milk products sounds very odd, especially among the Punjabis from North India.
Spiritual minded Indians may find an article by Gabriel Cousens interesting: Perspectives on Dairy where he explains why he advocates avoidance of dairy in the modern world even though it is advocated by ancient sattvik food guidelines. Basically, the milk sold in the market, the 'industrial milk', is not the same as milk from the cow from 50 years ago.
The Japanese have a hard time switching to brown rice because there is a cultural history of eating the more expensive polished rice — brown rice is for the poor. Similar sentiments are found among the Bengalis in India.
Luckily, I had already gone through a series of changes in my food habits. These changes were triggered by events like (a) moving to a hostel for my undergraduate studies in India, (b) staying in a dormitory in Berkeley, California, and (c) Taking up an engineering job in California and eating out in restaurants. So changes in food habits didn't deter me; I was attuned to such changes. In contrast, if somebody had always eaten a specific of cuisine throughout their lives, a change to plant-based diet would be much harder for them.
Food is central to social gatherings. If your food is different from your friends, socialization becomes difficult. Sometimes, you may get ridiculed for deviating from the norm.
Having two different food systems in one family is awkward and time-consuming. Two separate sets of meals have to be assembled. And the individual whose food habits are in the minority may feel awkward for being different. It is best if all members in a family have the same food habits.
At restaurants, I have to ask whether certain preparations contain milk or milk products. Sometimes, these questions are in front of my colleagues at work, or friends. Some of these moments are awkward.
Quite a few times, me and my friends order restaurant meals 'family style'. In other words, we order different dishes individually. However, after these dishes are served at the table, we share them all. As a vegan, I have to make sure that one or two dishes are vegan.
When I visit a friend's place, the hosts wonder what I'll be able to eat. They have to prepare a special meal for me, without meat, dairy, processed food or refined sugar. Imagine a family of four visiting another family of four. If their food habits are radically different, it is difficult for the host to satisfy the needs of the visiting family.
Dropping any of the following from our food leads to withdrawal symptoms: salt, sugar, fatty foods, meat, milk. In the video by Neal Barnard (see box on the right), he explains how cheese is loaded with casomorphins, making it addictive.
An interesting book related to food addictions is the NYTimes Bestseller: Salt Sugar Fat (480 pages, 2014). This book traces the history of the processed food industry over the last several decades.
By far, the most difficult challenges that I have encountered are emotional in nature.
During 2012—2017 timeframe, my food habits plummeted on three occasions. I was still vegan but started eating processed foods, oily foods and sugary things like vegan ice-creams (!) On each of these occasions, I was going through a period of low self-esteem and feeling down. I noticed that I was caught in a negative spiral: it was impossible to come out of this cycle of feeling low → reaching out for poor quality foods → feeling low → and so on.