My Food Journey
15 Jun 2017
My food habits have followed a long twisty road. I was vegetarian till age 23. Then I gravitated towards the Standard American Diet (age 24-32) characterized by an abundance of animal products. I then reverted to my childhood habits but was still consuming sugars, oil and processed foods. Finally, at age 39, I switched permanently to plant based diets after a 10-day juice fast.
Vegetarian Food (till age 23)

My parents were 100% vegetarian as I was growing up. So I never consumed any meat or eggs or fish in childhood. I am grateful to my parents for having raised me that way. Food was simple with moderate salt and spices. We did consume milk and milk products like butter, cheese, 'paneer', 'ghee' and cream — these are common among Punjabi families.

When I was 18, I started living in a hostel (dormitory) while pursuing my undergraduate degree at IIT Delhi. All three meals were served by the hostel kitchen. My overall food habits remained the same except that I introduced eggs into my diet. Why did I do that? I don't really know. My guess is that even though my parents never prepared eggs at home, they were okay if their kids consumed cookies or cakes with eggs in them. So maybe that made me think that eggs were okay.

When I was 22, I moved to California and stayed in a dormitory in UC Berkeley. The dormitory served all three meals. My daily breakfast consisted of milk, cereal, eggs and orange juice. Lunch and dinner were vegetarian meals.

SAD: Standard American Diet (age 24-32)

After finishing my Masters at UC Berkeley, I took up a full time job as a research scientist in IBM Almaden Labs. I was 24 at that time. Gone were the days of home cooked food or dormitory food. I started eating in restaurants. During those months, I went through a phase where I thought a lot about the pros and cons of meat eating. Soon, my food habits were typical 'Standard American Diet' in which meat and processed food were in abundance. Four years later, at age 28, I started social drinking.

The meat eating phase lasted 9 years in my life. The drinking phase lasted 5 years. At age 33, both came to an end.

Towards Better Eating Habits (age 33-38)

Back to vegetarianism: At age 33, I reverted to my childhood food habits: vegetarian meals, no meat, no eggs and no drinking. Milk, milk products, processed food, refined sugars, oils, salt — these were still part of my diet.

Meditation: When I was 34, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. In those days, I was in the midst of serious turmoil in my personal life. The meditation retreat was super-helpful in reducing my anger and my anxieties. At these meditation retreats, simple vegetarian food is served. Moreover, 'non-killing' (ahimsa in Sanskrit) is one of the precepts that we are encouraged to follow. On the whole, the meditation retreat fortified my resolve to stick to a vegetarian diet.

Hiking: At age 36, I started organizing weekly hikes to explore various parks in the Bay Area, California. These hikes were 8 to 12 miles long. I became fitter and came in touch with many other people who loved physical fitness and spending time in nature.

Salad with yogurt and chutneys: When I was 37 or so, I started eating salads regularly. My salad consisted of lots of veggies, some fruits, grains and beans. I topped my salad with yogurt, tamarind chutney and mint chutney. I felt really good crunching through green leafy vegetables. My teeth felt clean. My breakfast was a cup of orange juice and cereal with milk. The salad eating phase lasted several months.

Lactose intolerant vegans: During these years, I met a couple of Indian women who were vegan due to lactose intolerance. They looked normal to me. Until this time, I had perceived vegans as sickly people who couldn't eat some food items due to medical issues. My vegan friends had not heard of 'plant based diets' or 'Dean Ornish'. They had simply continued their vegetarian food habits (which included oils, salt, refined sugars and processed foods) but without dairy products because they were lactose intolerant. Since I was not lactose intolerant, I wasn't influenced by their dietary choices.

The Sahara Marathon: As I continued to hike, I learnt of other endurance activities like backpacking, marathons, ultra marathons, 100+ mile races and so on. One of the events that caught my attention was the Sahara Marathon which entails covering 156 miles in 6 days in the Sahara Desert. Online accounts of personal experiences convinced me that to finish the Sahara Marathon, one didn't have to be an athlete; preparation and completion was more of an exercise in mental toughness than physical fitness. I even made friends with Huzefa Mehta, a senior from IIT Bombay (he graduated in 1987) who continues to finish such events even after turning 50.

Vegan super-athletes: I never registered for the Sahara Marathon. However, thinking about it had a fortuitous side effect! :) My mind was struggling with these questions: 'What's the point of training for the Sahara Marathon? What will I achieve? How will others benefit?' Clearly, I would benefit personally by imposing discipline upon myself, by building mental strength, and I would accure the joy of accomplishing something super-challenging. However, these benefits were not enough to motivate me. I wanted this effort to be helpful to others too. I thought that maybe I could demonstrate that vegetarians could successfully finish such events as well. So I googled for 'vegetarian athletes'. Lo and behold! I was shocked to discover a web page that listed several 'super-athletes' (Olympic champions and World champions in their respective areas) who did not eat meat. A large number of these athletes were vegan!! I used to believe that vegans were sickly people who couldn't consume milk for medical reasons. It was a huge surprise for me to discover these vegan Olympic champions. I dug deeper and read some biographies. Many athletes had stopped eating meat out of compassion for animals. But there were some who had converged to a vegan diet over time for optimal athletic performance. Many athletes reported feeling 'lighter and brighter' throughout the day. On the whole, it was mind-boggling for me to learn that a vegan diet could be so awesome!

A short-term experiment with veganism: The idea of feeling 'lighter and brighter' caught my fancy. I wanted to experience it. By chance, I read a book by model & actress Alicia Silverstone: The Kind Diet (320 pages, 2011). She also gave a wonderful Talk at Google. In her book, Alicia described why meat was bad. Next, she described why milk was bad. And then she described why refined sugars were bad. I thought that maybe most vegans drop refined sugar as well. So I decided to experiment with "no milk products and no refined sugar" diet. I was already vegetarian, so meat wasn't part of my food anyways. I did this experiment for about 2-3 months, with 90% adherence to veganism. In those months, i was also going through a fair amount of stress in my personal life. On the whole, I didn't really feel 'lighter and brighter'. Thus my experiment with veganism came to an end. In fact, with ongoing stress, I actually gravitated towards chocolates for the next several months.

Veganism: Not Yet Convinced

By the time I was 38, I had dabbled in veganism, I had read about vegan super-athletes, I had browsed through Alicia Silverstone's book and I had read a few books on nutrition like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (256 pages, 2009) and Russel Blaylock's Natural Strategies For Cancer Patients (304 pages, 2003). Still, I didn't really know what I should eat.

On the whole, my lack of belief in veganism was due to the following reasons:

  1. 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.
  2. I wasn't influenced by personal experiences of super athletes who had won Olympic medals on a vegan diet. I wasn't aiming to be a super athlete.
  3. I thought that veganism was a relatively modern concept. No culture had followed it for thousands of years. I wanted 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).

    Back in those days, 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.

The turning point: What helped me build conviction in plant based diets?

  1. Exposure to medical research papers in top journals showing their efficacy in combating diseases like heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and
  2. I experienced a definite change in peacefulness when I switched to plain and simple food.

… and it all happened because of a juice fast!

Medical Research on Plant-Based Diets

A turning point in my life occurred when I was about 39. I later wrote a detailed article about it: Juice Fasting for Calmness and Clarity.

Juice Fast: A friend posted about the documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead (97 mins, 2010) on FaceBook. It is freely available on Hulu. In this documentary, an Australian businessman named Joe Cross narrates his personal experiences with a 60-day juice fast to cure hiself of a rare autoimmune disorder. He was guided by Dr Joel Fuhrman, the author of Eat To Live (400 pages, 2011), a New York Times bestseller.

Upon seeing my friend's FaceBook post, I immediately jumped on the idea of doing a 10-day juice fast. What motivated me? Five years earlier, during a meditation retret, I had heard of fasting for 'cleansing'. At that time, the word 'cleansing' made no sense to me. However, after having eaten so many chocolates in the preceding months, I somehow intuited that a juice fast would 'cleanse' me of these chocolates :)

Premonition: When I started my juice fast, I had a premonition, a strong belief that my food habits will get fixed when I finish my juice fast. I had no idea what these habits would be. However, I knew I'll somehow figure them out :)

John McDougall: On Day 5 or 6 of the juice fast, I was having only herbal tea with honey; I didn't feel like having any juice. I was chatting with a good friend on Google Chat. I was annoyed that the subjects of nutrition, disease and how the human body works was so complicated! I asked my friend, "How can a grandmother sift through this morass of knowledge and figure out what exactly to eat?" I wondered, "Let us consider vegetables. Most of them 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)? What are the minimal steps required for food items found in nature to make them non-toxic and digestible?"

Hearing my questions, my friend pointed me to John McDougall's website where I found the Free McDougall Program which presented a food system that appealed to me. That's how I discovered plant-based diets!

Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, Neal Barnard, Gabriel Cousens: After visiting John McDougall's website, I found his books on Amazon. I then browsed through 'related books' recommended by Amazon and quickly discovered the fascinating works of all of these doctors (Dean Ornish and so on)! Within a day or two, I had scoured as much information as I could via YouTube and online articles. For the first time, I saw scientific evidence that plant based diets reversed (cured) heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Also, even though there are no studies or randomized controlled trials for gastrointestinal or autoimmune diseases, general physicians (John McDougall and Joel Furhman) who have advocated these diets to patients for several decades have noticed that these two broad classes of diseases get cured as well! I was sold! I had found my answers! :)

List of Resources: Today, when somebody asks me about medical research in plant-based diets, I point them to the following:

  1. Since 2010, The Ornish Reversal Program by Dr Dean Ornish has been covered by Medicare and several other health insurance companies. This program is the culmination of 20+ years of research by Dean Ornish and others. For details, see Is 0% Heart Disease Possible? Yes! and Can Diabetes Be Reversed? Yeah!.
  2. Kaiser Permanente endorses Plant Based Diets. Here is a booklet from 2017. For technical reading, here are two articles:

    1. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets, Permanente Journal, 2013. With the publication of this article, Kaiser physicians could start advocating plant-based diets to patients. This was a landmark event: for the first time in history, a major healthcare provider had endorsed plant-based diets to everybody!
    2. Plant Based Diets: A Physician's Guide, Permanente Journal, 2016
  3. South Asian Heart Center in Mountain View, California is a non-profit that is spreading awareness of plant based diets among the South Asian community. The incidence of heart disease among the South Asians is four times the rate in the overall US population.

Plant-Based Diets

Support Group: When I finished my juice fast and started following a plant-based diet, I also started talking about it to people at work and people I met in hiking trips. Within a few weeks, I met four other engineers at work who had been following the same food habits. They had been influenced by exactly the same set of doctors (Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, and so on). I had company! :) We formed a group and started meeting once every two weeks for lunch. Those meetings were super helpful to me. I learnt a lot. One of them had been reading books on nutrition for 15+ years. He had even helped a couple transition to plant-based diets by meeting them regularly; one of them had heart disease. Another friend was a body-builder who gave a TED Talk: A vegan bodybuilding experiment: Joshua Knox (5 mins, YouTube). Another friend wrote these articles: Out of the Closet and Beyond the Closet.

People in the 'plant-based diet' group at Google had encyclopedic knowledge about the relationship between nutrition and disease. They had scoured through books, even research papers! I was in awe of them. I still am! A few months later, I realized that two of my friends in that group had a keen interest in spiritual matters as well.

How well have I fared? At the time of writing this article, I am 44. I have adhered to plant based diets for 5 years now. About three times, my eating habits slipped. During stressful periods in my personal life, I started eating chocolates and somewhat oily food. These phases of aberration have lasted 3-6 weeks. Each time, a juice fast or a water fast was helpful in bringing me back to healthy eating habits by resetting my taste buds.

Thank you! On the whole, following plant based diets has required commitment and hard work. But I really enjoy it! There is something magical about eating plain and simple food.

Thank you for reading this long article!

© Copyright 2008—2018, Gurmeet Manku.