“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” — Virginia Woolf
My skin was the first thing to change. I abhor selfies so you’ll have to take my word for it. People keep asking if I’m in love. (Nice idea, though I’m not.) I gave away all my cosmetics except eye makeup.
A long raised surgery scar of many years suddenly went flat. The daily non-stop sneezing spells have ceased. I have the energy to swim for over an hour every day (though I’m possibly the world’s slowest swimmer.) I usually wake up feeling buoyant. I know, I know, I sound annoying. Frankly, I annoy myself sometimes.
It could be because I’m still in my beloved Bombay, but it’s more likely because I’ve changed the way I eat.
A substantial portion of my daily food intake is now raw. Wait! Come back! I’ll explain.
I first attempted eating raw some years ago while living in London. Healthy eating has a sanctimonious, elitist ring about it. All the books I read on the subject did nothing to dispel this. These raw foodists always claimed we need a ton of kitchen gadgets to do it right: fancy food processors, juicers, spiralisers, dehydrators.
As for ingredients, raw should be easy, right? Nope. The (often complicated) recipes required exotic items available only in jars and boxes – coconut aminos, yuzu paste, kombucha – allowed because they’re “technically” raw (walk down any inside aisle of Whole Foods and you’ll know what I mean).
As someone who loves travelling and living simply, this sounded terrifying. Still, I gave it a go. It was crazy expensive and massively time consuming. I was also hungry. All. The. Time. I soon feebly gave up.
Now, thanks to The Health Awareness Centre, as I’d written previously, I’m seeing how simple, affordable and satiating it can be.
THAC’s recommendations centre on raw fruit, raw (or lightly steamed) vegetables, sprouts, nuts and seeds. Cooked grains and legumes are added for taste and fullness.
This way of eating is about treating our bodies kindly. By providing it real food, our bodies can extract nutrients required to repair our cells as well as fight illnesses more effectively.
This also means rejecting foods that make our digestive systems work extra hard. Remember this too: the more stress we put on our bodies, the faster we age. Our poor bodies, you know? The havoc I’d put mine through by eating denatured crap, forcing it to protect itself by buffering said crap with water (hello bloating!), straining to keep my blood clean, shielding my hardworking organs by throwing what it could into fat cells (oh! that’s where that came from). Even when I thought I was being healthy – protein shakes, olive oil, skim milk – I was still having processed substances. No wonder my list of illnesses were a mile long.
The toxic load comes primarily from animal products, sugar, salt, processed foods and oil. Barring animals, I do eat the rest occasionally, but I’m always relieved to go back to fruits or salads after.
So this means…?
My breakfast is fruits. Lunch is vegetable juice, salad and some cooked food. “Tea” is fruits. Dinner is like lunch.
Boring, you may say. Well, when I ate chicken, I’d eat it almost daily. Many people eat cereal with milk every single morning. Fruits and vegetables change seasonally so I’m trying new things all the time.
It’s also cheaper and healthier to eat according to season and region. It’s fresh (and therefore most nutrient), economical, attuned to the climate, and doesn’t involve food miles. I make an exception for imported avocados – yum – but they’re an occasional treat.
Whoa whoa, socialise much?
Before you run away screaming, let me add that I do eat out frequently and I dine with friends at their homes. Not drinking too much and not eating junk can be a bit of a social minefield, but really, do my friends love me because I stuff my face with lard or because I provide scintillating conversation and cheery company?
For parties: if it’s a small dinner, I call ahead and offer to bring a dish. Without the alert, hosts feel dismayed and un-hostly and have to scramble at the last minute to find something suitable – annoying for them and guilt-inducing for me. If it’s a large party, I don’t bother – nobody notices. If the dinner is expected to be late, I eat at home first then go and nibble.
I’ve fed people at my home this way too. Nobody’s spat out their meal in disgust (yet).
I’ve mentioned plenty of times how detestable I find cooking. Here’s what I realised: when I’d cook cook, I’d spend ages chopping, weighing and preparing everything then spend more time standing over a hot stove. It required a lot – tools, ingredients, time and patience.
Those days are behind me. I now spend 10 minutes preparing a meal. Here’s what I use: chopping board, knife (a cheap one that came free with a stove lighter…), peeler, julienne peeler, lemon squeezer, colander, basic steel pan, and a blender. (At a pinch, all I really need is a knife.) Plus bowls/plates and cutlery. Dehydrators, my foot! Why get complicated when simple tastes so good?
It works beautifully for my minimalist sensibilities and on-the-road lifestyle. I don’t often have access to an oven. Hell, I don’t always even get a stove. If I carry or buy fruits and nuts and seeds, I’m good to go.
What’s in a label?
Yes, technically, this is a vegan diet, and I use that term myself as it’s the most widely recognised and understood, but vegan is really a politicised term. It’s about animal welfare and means eschewing all animal products. I subscribe to many of its noble policies, especially in terms of opposing animal husbandry and its appalling cruelty. But I wear silk and use leather accessories (though I may not buy them now), and I eat honey. I’m not vegan, if we’re being precise about it. Vegans can justify eating all sorts of denatured rubbish as long as it falls under their umbrella, so it doesn’t automatically connote healthy.
Because everything has a label these days, the best way to describe this is whole-food plant-based. As in: if you bury a pizza in the ground, do you get a pizza tree? I wish! Real food is alive. And it also rots as it’s meant to.
When living in London, I once had to dash to the airport during a snowstorm, and didn’t have time to empty out my kitchen bin. I was to be away for two weeks. I messaged my neighbour, telling her to break my flat’s door down if she caught funny smells or suspected rats. I returned three months later – and nothing in my bin was rotting or even had a whiff. It’s shocking – what on (but clearly not from) earth was I eating?
This is why my mother and I get uncommonly excited when we see flies around fresh fruits in the market; we’re secure they’re not overloaded with toxins (insects aren’t as stupid as we are).
In most places I live these days, fresh produce has a horrendous amount of alarming chemicals sprayed and injected into them. But if organic is not available (and it’s often not), wash them well, soak for half an hour if you like, peel if necessary, and don’t fret. Sprayed produce still has way less nasty toxins than the chemicals injected into animal products (which oddly has less hysteria around it), so your body can expel them when the overall burden is lessened.
The main difficulty with eating this way is society. We have been socially conditioned to believe eating processed food is normal. Who would eat the three feet of sugar cane it takes to get one lump of sugar? Or the 45 olives it takes to get one tablespoon of olive oil? (If we did, we would at least get the nutrients and fibre from the whole food, allowing our bodies to process them without strain or stress.)
The junk food industry is cunning, powerful and relentless. The carefully calibrated salt-sugar-fat combination that goes into packaged food-like substances is designed to be deeply addictive.
Persuasive marketing equates coloured acid water and aspartame with good-looking young people; sugared cocoa, cow pus and emulsifiers with romance; a bucket of slaughtered animals and MSG cooked in rancid oil with family time. And we devour it all.
In growing economies, big advertising money associates packaged food with rising social status and an increase in disposable income; now you too can afford to buy deep fried E-numbers. In developed countries, fried chicken and burger outlets may signify downmarket neighbourhoods but carbonated drinks and packaged meals are targeted at all levels of society as affordable luxuries. Why make dinner from scratch when a factory has washed it in chlorine, mashed up animal intestines and feces, and added preservatives so you can have it at your convenience?
For several decades now, we have allowed food manufacturers – a term that never fails to make me shudder – override so much of what we fundamentally understand about food.
To opt out of these mainstream beliefs and practices feels like opting out of life.
I’m not going to pretend that eating a fruit platter will be as satiating as a burger and fries, if that’s what you’re used to. But my palate has changed over a short period of time. I used to be addicted (or something very close to it) to chocolate. I haven’t had any in months and don’t miss it at all. I do still crave cheese, and did cave in occasionally – but always suffered the next day with a phlegmy throat, blocked digestion and a crappy mood.
Another change that may not seem obvious: the volume of food increases. So much for rabbit food, I eat a large overflowing bowl at every meal. I sometimes can’t even finish it. I now look pitifully at plates of brown meat, white flesh and fried dough for their lack of colour and abundance.
But is it worth it?
That’s what I get asked the most. I hear a lot of “why would you do that to yourself?” People also look at me like they feel really sorry for me.
I’ve had a long list of health problems from anaphylaxis to tumours (and, as I’ve written previously, severe clinical depression). I used to feel dismayed and helpless as to why my body seemed to break down or go off-piste so frequently. I thought it was just the way I was.
To find a simple and easy solution really is like finding a key to a lock I thought was broken. It had to do with the way I was eating. Now I understand I’d been giving my body the wrong fuel. By feeding it unprocessed foods as much as possible and getting adequate rest, I feel better and stronger. Knowing this helps me deal with pushy people and eye-rollers (and oh, there are plenty of those). What I put in my stomach doesn’t affect anyone else, but it really affects me. At the end of the day, I’m the one responsible for myself.
Eating this way balances the body, which can then correct itself naturally. There’s no need for one pill to fix one thing, and a tablet to fix another. There’s no need to take pills and tablets at all. If you ever saw the heavy pouch of medicine I used to always carry, you’ll understand when I say that it’s almost magical how liberated I feel.
Speaking of feeling liberated
I’ve written about how changing my diet has helped with my emotional eating. (I do still eat crap, but not as often and not as compulsively as I used to.) The thing about emotional eating is that it took up so much space. I may be a champion minimalist with my physical surroundings, but the mental room occupied by food was staggering. I oscillated between winning and losing, conquering and being defeated. I was constantly battling with myself.
Lousy eating habits meant my body wasn’t receiving adequate nutrients needed to clean and repair cells. So it would keep asking for them. I translated the signals as a need to keep eating. This made me overfed yet undernourished. By giving my body what it actually wants – nutrient-rich real food – the cravings quietened down. Food is no longer something I fret about. That is a huge release.
Earlier, I would often worry about not doing enough. I see now that I was doing too much. I was concerned about food groups, vitamins and nutrients, supplements and pills, medical scares and conflicting doctors’ advice. I’ve now learnt that the body knows everything. I don’t need to outsmart it, put it on a diet or be its teacher. All I need to do is feed it real food and live aligned with my principles.
Simple covers everything
The real beauty of eating this way is that it works for everyone and benefits everything:
It’s good for the planet. Raising meat for human consumption now uses 30% of the world’s land mass (including for their feed). More sobering statistics: 80% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed to provide cattle pasture for a growing meat-eating population. Livestock is now the largest contributor of greenhouse gases thanks to the methane in cow farts. Even a federal panel in the US government (not the most progressive of bodies) issued a 571-page report this year acknowledging a vegan diet is not only healthier for us but also benefits the environment. The United Nations says the same thing.
It’s good for animals. My nieces in Boston go fruit picking at local farms as a fun day out. Nobody would think to take children to an abattoir to witness the killing of animals for our dinner plates. Even the way 99% of farm animals are raised – separated from their mothers at birth, housed in cramped cages filled with their own excrement, fed antibiotics and hormones so they suffer terrible abnormalities and pain – is hidden. I’ve never kept pets and have actually always been a little scared of animals, but I respect them enormously. I can no longer bear the thought of animals being killed (even if organic and free range) to fill my stomach when there are so many other accessible healthier and kinder options.
It’s good for our wellbeing. You don’t have to be on one diet if you have diabetes and another if you have heart disease – or cancer, or an autoimmune disease, or obesity, or any other illness. Eating this way has shown to help and, in many studies, even reverse these and many other lesser conditions all at the same time. Numerous professional elite athletes – Venus and Serena Williams, Carl Lewis, Martina Navratilova as well as many football players, ultra-marathoners and bodybuilders – have switched to a vegan plant-based diet because it helps their performances and speeds up recovery.
There are no drawbacks to eating this way. Simple eating, really and truly, is where it’s at.
Something new this week: daily posts of simple recipes!
“My doctor told me I had to stop throwing intimate dinners for four unless there are three other people.” — Orson Welles
Watch Forks Over Knives, a 2011 documentary directed by Lee Fulkerson, which has helped convince many people to change the way they eat by looking at the health issues that arise from a standard modern diet.
Journalist Michael Pollan in his now-celebrated book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto takes an unhysterical and unbiased look at how the way we eat has changed. “That anyone should need to write a book advising people to ‘eat food’ could be taken as a measure of our alienation and confusion.”
I love Dr Neal Barnard. Watch his wonderful TEDx talk, Tackling Diabetes With a Bold New Dietary Approach. It’s highly enlightening and engaging, even for those who don’t have the disease: