Five years ago, a 10-day challenge led to my eventual decision to go vegetarian (and to start this blog).
A few years later a 30-day vegan challenge, which I completed successfully, actually taught me that I wasn’t ready to go vegan yet. But when I was ready six months later, that month-long experiment was probably to thank.
Why should we do uncomfortable challenges like these, with food or anything else? For me, the answer is clear: you might just discover something you love, when you learn that actually doing the thing is easier than worrying about how tough it surely must be.
But even if your experiment doesn’t lead you to change your life, a challenge around something so near-and-dear as food will almost certainly teach you something about yourself.
And so …
My Latest Challenge
For several years I’ve long been intrigued by the “don’t eat extracted oils” philosophy. Because if I’m honest, oil isn’t a whole food, and I’m fond of saying that I eat whole foods.
I also knew that I ate a lot of salt, woke up every day with an urge for a small, strong cup of coffee, and enjoyed a single (usually strong) beer almost every night.
I was comfortable with all of these things, citing moderation, lots of exercise, and no tendencies toward serious addiction (when it comes to ingestibles, at least).
And yet, I must not have been 100 percent comfortable with these choices … because I’ve always been fascinated to hear about people who enjoy these things, like me, but deliberately choose never to indulge in them.
So, almost two years removed from any restrictive diet challenge, I decided it was time for a new one.
Enter Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
I first came across Joel Fuhrman when I found his book Disease-Proof Your Child, which somehow led me and my wife to Super Immunity — currently the nutrition book that I recommend to anyone who will listen.
Only in this backdoor manner did I find out about Eat to Live, his #1 New York Times bestseller. When on my book tour several people told me they had followed the the Eat to Live plan and lost 20, 30, or even 60 (a woman last week in Raleigh!) pounds as a result, I was deeply curious, even though I had zero interest in losing weight.
Why? Because the point of Eat to Live isn’t weight loss. It’s health. And I found Dr. Fuhrman’s scientific approach in Super Immunity so appealing, so sensible, and so convincing that I didn’t want to just pick and choose a few elements to incorporate before slowly returning to my set point. I wanted an immersion, to understand what “eating to live” really feels like.
The ‘Eat to Live’ Plan
Fuhrman pulls no punches. With an internet full of incentives for people to tell us what we want to hear — that some hot new study shows that salt, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, saturated fat, etc. are somehow good for us — Fuhrman recommends only what his years of intense research and medical practice have taught him.
And those recommendations, predictably, aren’t quite so much fun to eat (or tweet).
The diet he believes to be the healthiest possible for achieving your ideal weight and maximizing longevity and resistance to disease, and the one I’ve been eating for the last 10 days, includes:
- Less than 5 percent animal products*
- No added salt (not even the unprocessed kind)
- No added oil (not even unheated olive oil)
- No refined sugar of any kind, and no syrups, nectars, or juices
- Minimal alcohol
- Minimal caffeine
- Fewer grains (even whole), more raw vegetables, more beans, and more raw nuts than I’ve ever eaten for any length of time
*Fuhrman isn’t sure whether “no animal products” is healthier than “a tiny amount of animal products,” pointing out that the longest-lived populations have always eaten a small but non-zero amount of them (and it may be that B12 is the reason for this). Being vegan, I’m of course not eating any animal products.
The first and last bullet points are no problem. The last represents a shift, but not an unpleasant one.
The biggies, for me, are the salt and the oil. This is the first time I’ve cooked without oil for sauteing, and most definitely the first time I’ve abstained from all salt.
Fuhrman is slightly less rigid with alcohol and caffeine. He says that while consuming none at all is best, a small amount (one glass of wine a day, one cup of coffee per day) is probably alright. I’ve not yet chosen to limit the coffee beyond my usual 10 ounces in the morning, but for this challenge I decided to limit alcohol to two drinks per week total — a big change from one drink per day that has basically become an after-dinner ritual for me.
Finally, I’ve made a few small modifications to the plan because I’m worried about losing weight. I’m eating more than Dr. Fuhrman suggests for most people — I eat snacks between meals (fruit and raw nuts, mainly) and more fats (in the form of avocados and nuts) than the standard plan allows for.
The First 10 Days
Eat to Live is supposed to be a six-week long strict plan, followed by a slightly more lax version that allows up to 10 percent of your calories to be exceptions to the above (even animal products, if you’re so inclined). But because of holiday plans, as well as my concern over losing weight when I’m already thin and — let’s be honest — my fear of how tough this diet would be, I’ve decided to do just three strict weeks. Like with any other challenge, when that time is up, I’ll reevaluate and decide where to go from there.
Here’s what I’ve observed so far on the Eat to Live plan:
1. Not consuming oil is really quite easy. For salads (which we eat all the time on this plan, often as meals and usually with beans), we make nut-based dressings which are pretty good. And who knew that water-sauteing actually worked? I’ve always had a hangup about cooking with anything but oil, but now that I try it, water works just fine. Keep in mind: this isn’t gourmet food; just practical, healthy food that gets the job done.
2. Not adding any salt is really tough. In fact, not being able to add salt just about ruins the experience of eating for me. Nothing tastes like anything, and Mrs. Dash is a poor substitute. I find myself getting depressed around 3:00 pm when I think about dinner and remember that it will taste like air (until my taste buds adjust, I hope). But that’s what’s great about challenges like this — I’m reminded of an emotional attachment to food that I always want to deny, and made aware of just how accustomed I’ve gotten to salting my food, when for most of human history we have not added any salt to food. (Fuhrman points out that a day’s worth of food naturally contains 600-800 mg of sodium, by comparison to which the U.S. daily recommended intake of 3500 mg seems absurdly high.)
3. Skipping the nightly beer is tough, and I think about and crave the flavor and aroma of hops each night (I usually drink hop-bomb IPA’s). But this hasn’t been nearly as difficult as the salt.
4. Fortunately, I haven’t lost any weight and I don’t feel any less energy from not having oil in my diet. I’ve been running but not intensely, so it’s hard to tell if there’s been any impact there — I’d be excited to see how such a high-nutrient but lower-calorie diet works for sports.
5. Ultra-healthy cooking is extremely simple. While there are some more involved recipes, my favorite Fuhrman-approved dishes are the ones where we water-saute or steam a bunch of vegetables, throw in some beans (homemade with no added salt), and top with a quick nut-based, raw sauce or dressing. Easy and quick, with minimal cleanup.
6. Frozen fruit makes a great dessert! Blend it with some dates, unsweetened almond milk, and sometimes cacao powder, and it’s a really nice treat to look forward to that helps me get through saltless dinners. I’d be fine if I never ate vegan ice cream with added sugar again.
7. My normal diet is not nearly as healthy as I thought. Even without being 100 percent convinced that a moderate amount of oil and salt are unhealthy, eating so strictly has made me realize just how often I make unhealthy exceptions in my usual diet. The times I get a Naked smoothie or juice from the coffee shop, the times I drink two cups of coffee or two or three beers, the times I add salt to my food before I even taste it, the times I go all day with only one or two pieces of fruit, the days I skip the salad … when you put them all together, they add up to a lot of slips, even within a single week.
I’ve learned a lot in 10 days. Right now, I’m still in hell-no-I-could-never-eat-this-way-forever mode … which, of course, is why it’s called a challenge. But I’ve got another two weeks or so until it’s time to decide what to take and what to leave from this experience, and who knows how I’ll change in that time. And that — how I’ll change — is exactly the point. I’ll let you know.
Two Fun PS’s
2. My sister Christine (who used to write Sweet-Tooth Friday dessert posts for No Meat Athlete) started a blog — about a novel approach to writing a novel. (Thank goodness she didn’t make that her tagline.) Totally unrelated to plant-based fitness, but hey, she’s my sister. If you have any interest in writing a novel, it would mean a lot to me if you’d check out her blog. Maybe a good 2014 goal for somebody?
Hope you have a great one. Any Eat to Live veterans out there? I’d love to hear how it went for you, and what elements you’ve hung on to.