Good food and a positive outlook

Thanksgiving has always been a holiday that’s very dear to my heart. Not because of the historical story of white people and natives sitting down together for a feast, because I know that’s riddled with controversy and undermined by centuries of brutality and disrespect. No, I still have my problems with the history of Thanksgiving. However, I think at its ideological root, Thanksgiving is the most valuable of all the holidays we collectively celebrate as an American society. In essence, it’s all about optimism. Of course, a huge part of the celebration is food, and appreciating all the wonderful food that we are able to have as part of our lives. Being a bit of an amateur foodie, I can’t help but get excited about that.

As such, I wanted to write a blog post about food and my thoughts on the consumption of it. I realize that volumes upon volumes of books have been written on the same topic, and if I get too carried away this might turn into the same, so I’ll try and keep it short and sweet.

On Thanksgiving day, 2011, I began a personal journey, or perhaps experiment, by plunging into a 100% plant-based (vegan) diet. I had decided that I would commit to it fully and strictly for one year, revisiting the idea on the next Thanksgiving to determine if it was something I would like to stick with for the long term. The results have been phenomenal (hey, I’m still with it two years later), but I attribute that to more than just the avoidance of animal-derived foods. Here are a few thoughts and clarifications about my philosophy on eating, and advice for those of you who might consider the same path.

1. I am not against all meat. If you hunt or fish, you are responsible for your own meal, and I like that. Self-sufficiency is extremely valuable, and, in the world we live in now, hunting your food is much easier than gathering it and much less time-consuming than growing it. There are a couple reasons I don’t partake in that kind of eating. The biggest reason is that I have no desire to kill an animal if I don’t need to. I get everything I need nutritionally elsewhere, and if I can leave the game animals in the woods and the fish in the streams for other predators, I’ll go ahead and do that. Additionally, I don’t feel that I like meat enough to justify taking the life of another animal in order to obtain it.

2. Dairy just doesn’t make sense. For some reason, humans decided at some point in our evolution that, even as adults, drinking milk formulated for calves was a good idea. Here’s the funny thing: we aren’t cows, and if we were, we still wouldn’t be drinking milk after a few months of age. I could go into all the nutritional reasons that this revelation is relevant, but the information is readily out there, and the important thing is that we recognize this is not a food our bodies are really designed to process. Unfortunately, one of the most important things to avoid is also the most difficult. I’ll admit that, after my one year of following a strict vegan diet, I’m not someone who asks every time there’s a baked good around whether or not there is a small amount of dairy in it. Which leads me to my next item:

3. Don’t stress about what you’re eating. If you are the type of vegan who worries constantly about whether your lentil burger was on the same grill as someone else’s beef patty, not only are you missing the point, but you’re creating a serious detriment to your health. Too much stress creates very real physical problems, and as a result, trying to be healthy to the point of stressing about it completely defeats the purpose. So, unless you have a serious dairy allergy, if you’re hungry and someone offers you a pastry and you don’t know if there’s butter in it, go ahead and enjoy.

4. Variety is not only the spice of life, but the key to a healthy diet. When I first struck out on my own after living with my parents for eighteen years, then in college with a meal plan for four years, I started to pick up on this fact pretty quickly. What I didn’t understand then is that variety doesn’t have to mean meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and grains. A variety of whole, unprocessed, unmodified fruits and vegetables is not only sufficient by itself, but is the most important part of anyone’s diet, whether or not you’re adding on meat and dairy. We are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where an astounding variety of food is readily available. Take advantage of that, and don’t be afraid to try new things.

5. Don’t be afraid of fat. If, like me, you choose not to eat meat or dairy, you are automatically getting a fraction of the dietary fat, especially saturated fat, that someone eating a standard American diet is getting. So, as long as you are exercising, be sure to eat your share of avocados, coconut and coconut oil, acai berries, and chocolate. But be careful of the chocolate, because:

6. Too much sugar isn’t good news for anyone. You do get direct energy from carbohydrates, and very quick energy from simple sugars, which is why they are so prevalent in things like energy gels that are designed to give you a quick boost during athletic training or racing, but in excess, they are converted and stored for later use as fatty acids. Too much excess equals high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and potentially a whole host of other problems. It’s not uncommon knowledge that too much sugar is bad for you, but it’s easy to not realize how much sugar you consume if you eat a lot of processed foods. This is something that is definitely worth paying attention to.

Thanksgiving has become kind of akin to a New Year celebration for me, so here’s to another year of eating well and enjoying what we put on our plates!

For those of you who are wondering, here is approximately what my Thanksgiving dinner will look like this year:

Roasted acorn squash with apple-cranberry-walnut stuffing
Sauteed green beans and crimini mushrooms
Home-made apple-cranberry sauce
Garlic knots
Mixed greens salad
Kale, massaged in lime juice with pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and fresh ginger
Bruschetta roasted on sourdough
Coconut cream pumpkin pie with pecan-oat crust

I hope you all enjoy your meals, whatever is on your plate, and remember to be thankful for everything you have and optimistic about everything the future may bring.