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How Far is Far Enough? Knowing What Diet is Sufficiently Healthy For You

Posted Mar 23 2010 7:22am

ladder Hey all!

Glad that you liked my curry dish as much as I did. I got a particularly thought-provoking reader question last night, which I wanted to share with you all:

Hi Gena,

I just recently found your blog, but I’ve really been enjoying looking through your recipes and tips. I made your green juice this weekend and it was great!

I had a quick question though–as someone who’s experimenting with the idea of going vegan (going raw sounds too extreme for me right now–baby steps), I’m interested in the possible health benefits. I know that many people mention that going vegan helps with their energy, digestion, even more specific things like bags under their eyes, but do those benefits usually only happen when the person has a unique allergy to milk, dairy products in general, or meat?

I’m not sure if I’m posing this question very clearly, but basically I’m wondering if being a highly raw vegan helps you be healthier because you have specific intolerances/allergies to specific foods, or if you believe that all people have these intolerances, and we just may not realize them until we start eating better and see the benefits.

Thanks so much for your time! I appreciate it.

This is a terrific question! If I understand it correctly, what you’re asking is this: we all hear about the benefits of a vegan diet. But how mandatory is veganism to experiencing good health? In other words, even if we know that being vegan might make us feel wonderful, is it possible to feel wonderful without veganism?

My answer? Yes, it is. It is possible to eat well and feel great without adopting a vegan lifestyle–though I also believe that veganism can help you to take basic well being even further. Let me ’splain:

There are various levels of feeling good, right? With few exceptions, people who eat nothing but processed foods that are heavy in meat and dairy, who do drugs, who never sleep and never exercise, who drink to excess, and who have no emotional stability in their lives are going to feel pretty terrible. Sure, we all hear about Grandpa so-and-so, who ate bacon and smoked Benson and Hedges and drank vats of bourbon and lived to be one hundred. But guess what? Grandpa Jim Beam is the exception, not the rule: for the most part, people who live hard live shorter lives, and experience impaired health while they do.

Each time you improve upon one of the habits listed above — from lack of exercise to smoking to processed food — you’ll see your health improve exponentially. We know this. So the question becomes, where do we stop? How far do we have to take clean habits in order to feel “our best”?

It’s tough to say. “Our best”  is subjectively defined. What’s my definition? A life that’s nourishing and fun, yet healthy and conscious; a life without the constant presence of fatigue and chronic health complaints; a life that’s active and eco-friendly: that’s where I’d begin. So in my world, answering the question of “what will make me feel my best?” means figuring out how a person can meet those criteria.

It’s my belief that eating a diet that’s close to nature — i.e., comprised of foods that haven’t been altered and manipulated beyond recognition — is the first step towards optimal well being. I also think that we need to be mindful of eating a combination of raw and cooked foods. Most people ignore raw foods in their diet, and eat far less than they should. So we should all be mindful of upping our consumption. Finally, I believe that minimizing the use of animal products will help all people to feel their best. This doesn’t have to mean elimination: some people can eat grass fed, organic meat on occasion, while others may choose to eat dairy and eggs on occasion and still feel well. I encourage anyone who’s eating animal products to seek out the ones that have been as humanely produced as possible. Do I feel that animal products contribute to my feeling my best? No, and of course there are ethical dimensions of my lifestyle that are unrelated to health per se. But I understand that, for those who don’t feel compelled toward veganism, a middle ground exists where animal products (consumed in small amounts and with discernment) can co-exist with good health.

So the short answer to your question, is this: no, going 100% vegan is not the only way to feel your very best. It’s one really, really great way. Eating a clean, whole foods diet with some raw foods is the essential goal.

That said, it’s important for me to say this: most people, even those who are healthy, could probably feel a whole lot better than they do. Before I eliminated dairy from my diet, for example, I had accepted chronic IBS and seasonal allergies as a “norm.” Didn’t most people I know get upset stomachs frequently, and don’t most people have allergies every spring? Before I went vegan, I accepted that fatigue every morning was the way of the world. Isn’t everyone sleepy till coffee time? I assumed that it was normal to feel sluggish in the late afternoon, to have morning breath, and to break out now and then.

It didn’t have to me my norm. Becoming vegan–even transitioning toward being vegan–made all of the conditions above disappear. Poof. Sure, I did lots of other great things to facilitate this process aside from veganism. I quit smoking, for example, and reduced my consumption of packaged food, so it wasn’t purely veganism that made the difference. But I do know that it made a huge difference, and not because I had any food allergies or intolerances. And it reminded me that we’re all socially conditioned to accept a lot of conditions–fatigue, acne, insomnia, allergies–as part of normative human experience, when in fact they’re not. There are some people who will be predisposed to allergies or acne no matter what, and it isn’t their fault: some conditions are inherited. But many of us–I’d say most of us–could avoid at least a few of these conditions simply by making better food choices.

So if you’re not sure of “how far” to go, I’d say this: begin with a few upgrades, and see how you feel. You may feel 100%, and decide that you’ve found a place that you’re comfortable with. You may also suspect that you can feel even better, in which case I’d challenge you to continue exploring what does and doesn’t affect your health.

On the flip side, it’s important not to imagine yourself as constantly ascending a ladder toward dietary “perfection” or “cleanliness.” Understand that there’s a point at which you can still have some freedom and inclusion, and yet feel great. Me? I drink coffee more than I’d like to admit,  don’t consciously avoid gluten, eat tempeh and edamame on occasion, and vary my consumption of raw foods. There are some who would remind me that, if I were to never touch coffee, and eat 95-100% raw all the time, and eliminate all common vegan allergens (gluten, wheat, soy, nightshades, corn), I’d achieve even more optimal health. OK, this might be true (though I’m fairly certain I don’t suffer from any allergies). But I feel really, really, really wonderful living as I do, and it’s also the way of living that allows me the kind of social and gastronomic freedoms I want.

In the end, finding “optimal health” means finding a place wherein you don’t willfully choose to ignore symptoms of ill health (like constant fatigue or headaches or insomnia), but you also realize that we don’t have to be Jesus in order to feel healthy. It’s tough to negotiate this middle ground, sure, but I believe it’s possible. And each of us knows what our own middle ground is. I wish you so much luck in finding yours!

In other news, I owe you a recipe! A few weeks ago, in sharing my work lunches , I mentioned a yummy pumpkin seed pate I’d made. Here, at long last, is the recipe.

Coconut-Pumpkin Pate (makes about 1 1/2 - 2 cups)

1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds, soaked
3 tbsp water
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
Dash pepper
1 large stalk celery, grated
1 large carrot, grated

Blend all ingredients but the veggies in a food processor till quite smooth. Add the celery and carrot, and pulse till the mixture is broken down and well incorporated. Scoop into romaine leaves, serve on salad, use as a dip, and enjoy!

pate1 pate2

Because of the coconut oil, this pate will get pretty hard in the fridge. Just defrost it for a few before you eat it.

This is definitely one of my favorite new pates. Let me know if you guys try and like it!

On that note, back to work. Happy Tuesday.


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