(First published on My Ciin)
1 || When and why did you start considering a plant-based diet?
It was an overnight decision —and it wasn’t at the same time. As with everything in life, the lines are blurred. The truth is I have been preparing for this for a while. I never enjoyed meat as a child, and by child I mean when I became old enough to make my own food choices. (I am told as a chubby baby, I would sit on the floor devouring bread or rice dipped in beef stock, with slices of freshly boiled meat snuck to my mouth —as a post-breakfast, mid-morning snack. When the family gathered for lunch an hour later, I would happily eat another meat-rich meal.)
I dabbled with vegetarianism throughout my teens and 20s. The strict elimination started over 3 years ago when I decided to stop dairy. My yoga studies, subsequently, exposed me to the concept of ahimsa (non-harm) and its manifestations.
Last year, after watching the Netflix documentary “Forks Over Knives” one evening after Iftar in the early days of Ramadan, I vowed never to consume any animal-based food and have never looked back.
2 || Were there any grievances that you had that you felt a plant-based diet would remedy?
I am by nature a curious person. If something interests me, I dive wholeheartedly into it, to the point where I often become militant about it. It wasn’t enough for me to adopt a whole, plant-based diet. I had to study it. And I continue to read the science.
I have been so fortunate, with no significant health concerns or scares. We have heart disease extensive in my father’s side of the family. Sadly, I have lost family members at very young ages from heart issues. Cancer is prevalent in my mother’s side of the family. So I am aware of these “diseases of affluence” as they call them. Probably, my biggest health issue has been —and continues to be— my weight. Today, I feel better than I have ever felt: active, fit, and healthy. Sometimes, I have to remind myself when I get overly competitive that I am old enough to be the mother of the incredible athletes I have the privilege of working out with. Now I understand why 50 is the new 30! I will never be model-thin, and I honestly don’t want to be. I want to be well, in the whole sense of the term.
The fact is whole, plant-based nutrition is the magic pill that will control or reverse most of the leading causes of death today. It breaks my heart when I see loved ones popping pills and continuing to consume the very poison that is most likely inflaming their diseases. Think about this for a moment: Can you imagine what would happen if a pharmaceutical company managed to discover and patent a pill that would at the least manage (but really reverse) heart, cancer, lung, brain, respiratory, or adrenal diseases to name a few? Nature has it. And it is available for all. It comes from the earth. It’s called whole plants.
3 || Define “plant-based diet”
A whole plant-based diet is a diet of whole plants, eaten as close to their natural state as possible. It includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. The choices are endless, and varied. You can just imagine the hundreds of options whole, plant-based followers eat by walking into a produce shop. The colours, the options, the variety. It is all endless and absolutely delicious.
4 || How does it differ from a vegan diet?
This is such an important question. Unfortunately, a vegan diet is not necessarily a whole, plant-based diet, although the reverse is true. Traditionally, vegans have adopted their diet from the perspective of compassion for the animals and the environment. Technically, vegans have no issues eating highly refined foods and food manufactured in a laboratory —as long as it contains no animal products. Walk into a supermarket and pick up any box of food marked suitable for vegans. It will most likely contain chemical compounds you cannot pronounce, be high in refined sugar or salt, and probably have all sorts of artificial ingredients. Within the next decade, studies on vegans will prove no marked health benefits (at best) for those adopting a vegan diet, although their diet is undoubtedly beneficial for the animals and the environment. However, unless it is reliant on whole, plant sources, it will not necessarily translate into better health.
5 || What are the principles that govern this diet?
This is the simplest diet one can follow. There is no calorie counting and no portion control. Nature is your menu. It is overwhelming at the beginning. Most complaints I hear from people revolve around their addiction to cheese. (And it is an addiction.) If you are addicted to something, then this is the first thing you ought to consider quitting.
The good news is that taste is acquired, apart from mother’s milk. This means that our body adapts to what we give it. Notice how when you quit sugar for a while, your taste buds actually change. Your sensitivity to sweets becomes heightened —in other words, your tolerance for sugar also changes.
The principle is to eat from plant sources, and to consume your food as close as possible to its natural state (one or two stages at the most before it gets on your plate.) I like to simplify it with this rule: nothing that has a mother shall pass through my lips. The concept of “whole” is to literally eat the whole so that the hundreds of nutrients the whole naturally contains work together to achieve the magic. Eat the apple instead of drinking the apple juice.
Cut down on refined plant foods, especially oils. They found out that the reason why the Mediterranean diet proved to be healthy was not because of the olive oil as originally thought. It was because the Mediterranean diet was high in plant foods. (I cringe when I hear some advocating for the consumption of olive oil in tablespoon portions! It should be used sparingly. Some refer to the mention of it in the Holy Quran. I like to remind them that the Holy Quran mentions “olives” not olive oil.)
6 || Can plants nourish us completely?
Plants can not only nourish us completely, plants in fact provide us with the most complete, cleanest fuel for our bodies. Calorie for calorie, plants offer us everything we need in exactly the form we need it to support our bodies to function in a state of balance. Plants have none of the harmful saturated fats, casein, and cholesterol that have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to be the leading causes of the diseases of affluence that have grown in alarming rates in recent years (due to the widespread of the Western American diet.)
Dr. Michael Greger’s overview of the latest research on plant food found that calorie for calorie, whole, plant-based foods provided higher intakes of every nutrient: fibre (which most people don’t consume enough of), vitamin A, C, E, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Calorie for calorie, plant food provides the same amount of protein as animal sources. Incidentally, while there are alarmingly high rates of fibre deficiencies in the world, there are no protein deficiencies where there is no famine. In other words, we are obsessed with protein —and in fact consume so much more than we need. There is zero fibre in animal sources. In other words, we need more fibre in our diet -not protein.
7 || Can plants heal us?
Our bodies are self-healing wonders. Think about it for a second: when you cut your finger, doesn’t it heal naturally? When you hit your shin on the table, doesn’t your body eventually heal itself? Our bodies are built to function in a state of balance, what they call homeostasis. The problem is we have messed with nature, “nature nature” and our bodies’ nature. You would think with the advancement of science and the growth of knowledge (they say the average man today knows so much more than the most powerful man in the world 25 years ago), we should have figured out most common diseases. Instead, they are on the rise. Take diabetes for instance. It is estimated that half the world’s population will have type 2 diabetes in the next few decades. We have never been more obese. Our children are showing early stages of heart disease. I imagine most families are currently caring for a loved one suffering from degenerative brain disease. Hypertension kills 9 million people every year. Global warming is reaching alarming levels, whether we choose to admit it or not. This is only the surface.
There is so much out there unfortunately that is beyond the control of the average person. There is much behind the manufacturing industry that we know very little about —and what we know, we cannot really help. The most empowering tool we have is the power to make informed, compassionate choices for ourselves and the world around us. This puts us back in the driver’s seat, so that we can re-focus on what we can control. It is very simple.
Science has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a diet highly reliant on animal sources is detrimental for our health, the planet, and all its living inhabitants. This is not a fad. (Side note: Dr. Atkins, who is known for his animal-heavy diet and carb-restriction, died overweight from heart disease. He left behind a supplement conglomerate that eventually went bankrupt. The diet he advocated was not sustainable, healthy, or complete.)
The choice is clear, to support our bodies to function as the magnificent creation they are: self healing, compassionate, and in balance.
I know many will ask about pesticides and other pollutants. Of course, if we can help it, we should avoid it all. The reality though is that it is almost entirely impossible to avoid it. Organic products are not widely available, and when they are, they are extremely expensive and beyond the reach of most people. But knowing what we know about the human body, as long as we do not continue to slam our shins on the table three or six times a day (or however many times we eat), the body is capable of self-regulating and disposing of the harmful chemicals in the environment. There are so many studies that support this that I would be very happy to share, if the readers are interested.
8 || Can you give us three books or websites to kick start our search into a plant-based diet?
There are so many valuable resources on the fascinating science and studies. You will find hundreds of cookbooks and guides to support those just starting on this journey. The three books I would highly recommend to get you started would be The China Study and Whole by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger.
There are many prominent doctors and scientists who are actively advocating for whole, plant-based lifestyle. Dr. Greger has nutritionfacts.org, a free resource on the latest research in this field. He goes through every medical journal and study on nutrition published and summarizes the results on his website in easy to follow, short videos. I have studied at the Centre for Nutrition Studies at Cornell with doctors Campbell (Junior and Senior). Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (who also happens to be an Olympic rowing champion), and Dr. Neal D. Barnard are also among so many prominent figures in this field.
I also highly recommend watching “Forks Over Knives” and “What the Health”. There are new documentaries coming out this year as well on whole, plant-based nutrition including “The Game Changers,” where Oscar-winning filmmakers talk to renowned athletes about their switch to whole, plant-based diets and their experience. I follow Rich Roll’s podcast. He is a 50-year-old, whole, plant-based ultra-endurance athlete, graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School. He has an inspiring memoir called Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. His podcast is among the top 10 podcasts on iTunes.