Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ch-Ch-Changes (the Health Edition)

It's that time again, when the leaves turn orange and red, the air gets crisper, and I start to wax poetic about the bounty of the harvest.  Last time around this year, I thought the autumn was a good time to talk about transitioning to vegetarianism.  This time, I'm going to ask you all to put down the donuts, and think about transitioning to a more healthful diet.  Here are some hows and whys.

1.  Swap out your bread

This step comes first partly because it's essential to good health and partly because it's so easy. 20 years ago, dumping white bread for wholemeal might be tricky, but today you almost have to make a commitment to eating white bread to avoid wholemeal.  Supermarkets bread aisles are lined with wholemeal products, and even restaurants; heck, even fast food places will often offer you the option of wholewheat bread or pizza bases. So swap out your daily bread, pizza bases, breadcrumbs, pasta, bread wraps and tortillas, couscous, and pita bread for wholemeal breads and bread products.  And while you're at it, you should also oust white rice and replace it with chewy, nutty brown rice. 

2.  Green your life

Dark, leafy greens are the most healthful foods on the planet.  Nothing else holds a candle.  Kale, spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, romaine lettuce, watercress, bok choy (pak choi), and collard greens are full of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients; in fact, the only thing they don't have a lot of is calories.  What's more, they are super easy to chuck into whatever you happen to be cooking.  Alternatively, you can saute them up with a little garlic and olive oil, or steam them and drizzle them with a simple lemon juice dressing and serve them on the side. Try to eat them every day and feel your body glow with greeny goodness.

34.  Olives are a whole food, oil is not

I know I said that we would talk about the dangers of using cooking oils rather than using the nuts, seeds, and fruits that they are sourced from in a later post, and I really meant it.  But for now, I'll just tell you that there are dangers when using cooking oils rather than using the nuts, seeds, and fruits that they are sourced from, so try not to do it.  In a salad dressing, use nut butters or grind up some nuts or seeds to mix in with the rest of your ingredients.  Saute vegetables in water or vegetable stock (or a combination of no more than one teaspoon of oil and water) and add olives, avocado, nuts or seeds later as a component of the dish.

4.  Don't eschew the cashew

This step is super fun and very delicious.  Dairy is dangerous to your health, but is much beloved, partly for it's creamy manifestations.  Cashews in particular are perfect for making healthy creams that don't involve saturated fat laden dairy.  Try cashew sour cream, cashew cream in replace of creme fraiche, or soft cashew "cheese" spreads instead of cream cheese.  The flavour is not the same as the dairy foods you are used to, but it doesn't need to be.  These creams are delicious, satisfying, and healthful in their own right.

5.  Five a day is a minimum

I know that it's very popular in the media right now to encourage people to aim for five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but I just think five a day is so weak.  Yeah, most people aren't even reaching that meager goal, but the mediocrity of the masses should not be the ruler with which you use to measure yourself.  Aim for 10 servings a day, and you will certainly reach five.  Try to get a mixture of different kinds of vegetables: leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, root vegetables, starchy vegetables, and squashes.  Even better, try to eat as many different colours everyday as you can: dark green broccoli, red tomatoes, orange carrots, purple plums, and white parsnips.  Fans of Rainbow Brite will enjoy this endeavour.

6.  Make sugar a treat

And a treat only.  Eliminate this sneaky fiend from your regular diet. Sugar does absolutely nothing beneficial for your health.  Nothing.  Once or twice a week in a sweet treat, or on special occasions is fine, but cutting it out of your regular meals is essential to health.  Watch out for sugar in your peanut butter, canned tomato sauces, juices, and any and all processed foods. 

7.  Fix breakfast first

Overwhelmed by all the changes you have to make?   Fix one meal at a time, and start with breakfast.  Taking all the simple carbs, saturated and trans fat, animal protein, and dangerous processed additives out of one meal at time allows you to adjust slowly in bite-sized pieces of change.  Why breakfast first?  Well, for one thing, it's the easiest meal to fix, most people are used to eating a simple breakfast.  Secondly, it's the most import...oh, you don't want to hear that again.  Lets just say, try starting your day with a bowl of raisin and walnut porridge with no added sweeteners, and compare how you feel all morning to  how you feel when you start the day with a bowl of frosted flakes with some sugary flavoured yogurt on the side.

8.  Plan for snack attacks

We can all argue till we're blue in the face about the necessity of including snacks in our daily diet, but the bottom line is, at some point your train home is going to be delayed, or your boss is going to forget that he's not the only in the office who eats, or your roommate is going to eat your dinner when you aren't looking (Aga, I'm looking at you).  Keep some fruit (sturdy fruit not prone to juicing inappropriately), trail mix, or whole grain crackers in your bag or briefcase, and you won't storm and pillage the first pizza place you see when unplanned for hunger strikes.

9.  Become additive aware

Since becoming vegan, it's come to my attention that some people are really horrified by the prospect of reading labels to find out what's actually in a food product.  It's not that bad, people.  Get some reading glasses!  Anyhoo, we all need to be on the lookout for unnecessary unhealthful additives like sugar and it's various other names (glucose, dextrose, HFCS, etc), E numbers (i.e. E102), and hydrogenated oils.  Look out for subversive words like flavourings and colouring.  Food should be made up of ingredients that the average person can pronounce and find in their kitchen cupboards.

10.  Start your own nutrition mini-library

More reading, I know.  This one is partly for your own edification, and partly for motivation.  Reading books for nutrition has the obvious benefit of teaching you more about nutrition, but also when you find that you've lost your way and have gone back to chips and soda, you can read these books to remind you of how bad these foods are for your health, and why you made the change in the first place.  C'mon guys, reading nutrition books is fun!

11.  Tell everyone in your life what you are doing

Okay, your postman probably couldn't care less, but let your spouse, partner, roommate, best friends, coworkers, and family members know that you're trying to adopt a healthier diet; otherwise, they may unintentionally sabotage your diet by continually offering foods you shouldn't be eating, but find very hard to resist.  You will have to very specific; telling people that you are eating healthier and expecting them to understand exactly what you mean isn't going to work very well.  Tell them exactly what foods you are eating more of, and what foods you are avoiding.

Now, it may be the case that some people in your life will continued to try and sabotage your new diet even after this point, either because they aren't taking you seriously, or because they resent your new habits.  Sit these people down and tell them exactly why you are making the change.  Did you have a warning from your doctor?  Have you been feeling sluggish and ill?  Does your parent's failing health make you more attentive to your own?  Be direct and honest, and don't be intimidated by any one's attempt to belittle your choices.

12.  Remember that diet really does make a difference

There exists a common misperception that you can't really do much to control your own health; that genetics are the determining factor.  Bull.  Thousands of studies have confirmed that people who eat healthy diets live longer and have lower incidents of disease, and in fact, research suggests that genetics only determine about 2-3% of your total cancer risk.  So why do people from the same families get the same diseases?  Uh, because they eat the same diet?

13.  Consider the cost of an unhealthy diet

Eating an unhealthy diet doesn't just affect you and your life.  It doesn't even just affect your friends and family who have to deal with the emotional repercussions your bad heath, or even your death.  Everyone in your country has to pay for your illness.  Think of the relief on the healthcare system of your country if diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and autoimmune diseases stopped being a major problem.  Large drug companies get rich off of the high prevalence of these diseases and struggling taxpayers shoulder the burden.

14.  Don't get caught in the trap of thinking you have to "give everything good up"

How many times have you heard (or maybe said) some variation of the following statement:  "Sure, if you give up white flour, sugar, meat, cheese, saturated fat, donuts, cheesecake, and alcohol, you might live longer, but who would want to?"  This thought is a trap.  There is plenty of pleasure, even gleeful joy, in healthy eating.  Most healthy eaters I know love food way more than junk food junkies, and their love of food is broader and more adventurous.

Consider this passage from T Colin Cambpell's The China Study:  "Not long ago, one of my best friends suffered a difficult surgery for cancer and spent his last years paralyzed in a nursing home.  During the many visits I made to the nursing home, I never failed to come away with a deep appreciation for the health I still possess in my old age....The enjoyment of life, especially the second half of life, is greatly compromised if we can't see, if we can't think, if our kidneys don't work or if our bones are broken or fragile.  I, for one, hope that I am able to fully enjoy not only the time in the present, but also the time in the future, with good health and independence."  (Campbell 222)

15.  Give yourself time off

Don't worry, no one is expecting you to be a nutritional martyr.  Let yourself have a meal off every now and then.  Feel free to bake you and your friends some treats every other week or so.  Enjoy holidays and the treats that always surround them.  A little bit of most things won't kill you, but if you are ill or overweight aim for no more than 10% of your calories to come from unhealthful foods. 

Vital Vittles

Lunchbox Black Bean Burritos

I created these burritos one day when I was making my lunches for the week and trying to use up various things in my kitchen that looked like that were on their last legs (bad choice of phrase for a vegan burrito?)  Feel free to experiment with throwing different veggies into the mix, and add some guacamole if you are so inclined.

1 cup uncooked brown rice
2 cups water
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
juice of one lime
salt and pepper to taste

3 tbsp water
1 tsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1 courgette, grated
1/2 cup corn (frozen, fresh, or canned)
1 can (or 1.5 cups) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 small green chili, chopped, or a pinch of crushed chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup raw cashews
2 tbsp lemon juice (or if you want to keep up the lime theme, lime juice)
1/4 cup water
salt to taste

4-6 wholewheat or corn tortillas

For the rice:

In a small, covered pot, bring the rice and water to a bowl and immediately lower to a simmer.  Cook until the rice is tender, about 45-50 minutes.  Once the rice is ready, mix in the cilantro and lime juice.  Taste and add a dash of salt and pepper if you like.

For the cashew sour cream:

Add the cashews, lemon or lime juice and water into a blender (if you only have an immersion or handheld blender, just use a tall container).  Blend until creamy, adding water if necessary. Salt to taste.

For the rice and vegetable mixture:

Heat the oil and water in a large frying pan, and add the onion, sauteing until soft (about 7 minutes.)  Add the garlic, and saute for another minute or so.  Add the cumin, coriander, and chili or chili flakes, and saute for 30 seconds, then add the carrot, courgette, and corn.  Saute the vegetable mixture another 5ish minutes, or until the veggies are soft.  Add the black beans and stir to heat through.  Taste, adjust seasonings.

Heat each tortilla wrap gently in a clean frying pan, just until warm and pliable.   Divide the rice evenly between each tortilla, then top with the veggies and bean mixture, then top with cashew cream (and guacamole, if you want).  Wrap and serve immediately.


  1. As a vegan, what do you eat for breakfast (besides the raisin and walnut porridge)? Could you post a vegan breakfast recipe or two? I've been having cereal with soy/almond milk generally everyday and that is getting a bit tired. Might you have more options? Thanks!

  2. To be honest, I eat porridge most day on the weekends I tend to make french toast or pancakes or something. But, there are lots of options I think. Fruit things: fruit salad with granola and soy/coconut milk yogurt, fruit smoothies, Toast with peanut butter and bananas. Grain things: rice porridge, quinoa porridge, millet porridge, as well as, oat porridge. Obviously you could eat toast with a variety of different things, and you could also make a date loaf, zucchini bread, or a banana bread for a more sugary breakfast. Maybe I'll do a seperate post on breakfast sometime soon?

  3. Ok! I don't really like sugary breakfasts, but the date loaf sounds yummy. I'll look into some quinoa or rice porridge. Thanks!