Today I am taking down my Recipes page in its current form, as I feel in need of a fresh start, and with it some fresh thinking about what children should be eating. It won’t be a great loss, as I haven’t posted many recipes really, and I think that has to do with the fact that my own diet, and that of my children, remains in evolution. I am continuing to learn new things and refine my ideas about what constitutes the ideal diet, while all the time trying out new recipes and techniques in the kitchen.
I have felt that as a health professional I should perhaps be giving some clearer messages about what people should be feeding their children, but the truth of it is that the more I have learnt about this subject, the less clear I am about the exact answer to this question. I am, like everyone else, wading through a mire of misinformation, contradictory opinions, vested interests and conflicting evidence.
When I first became vegan I thought I had found the Holy Grail of what constitutes a healthy diet. I lost weight, my skin cleared up and I was physically active with no major health problems of note. I always ate plenty of fruit and vegetables, enjoyed cooking and enjoyed the food I was eating. But then I discovered that I could also gain weight on a vegan diet. Perhaps I became too good a cook, and I became an expert in sourcing a wide range of vegan substitute foods such as sausages, burgers, vege-mince, milk, yoghurt, margarine, vegetable shortening, egg replacer and cheeze. The first vegan cookbook I bought was a baking book, because my main concern back then was with not having to give up eating cake.
I learnt that vegan diets can be healthy or very unhealthy. They do not need to contain any fruit and vegetables at all, and these days in most major towns and cities it is possible to source so many substitute and fortified foods that it is possible to mimic the standard western diet almost completely, with a similar macronutrient ratio and similar intakes of unhealthy fats, salt, sugar, refined carbohydrates and artificial additives.
Then I discovered the plant-based movement in the United States, and the work of people such as T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Dean Ornish, Joel Fuhrman, John McDougall and others. Low fat, whole food, plant-based diets are being promoted as the solution to America’s crisis of obesity and chronic disease, with individuals testifying to amazing results, and some studies emerging to confirm that this definitely represents a significant improvement on the SAD (Standard American Diet). All well and good, except that for myself I have found cooking without oil or fat a real challenge, and while it is possible, the results in my kitchen have not been that great. In addition, many recipes claiming to be whole food plant-based (WFPB) still contain added sugar and salt. Let’s face it – cooked vegetables, whole grains and legumes without any added fat, sugar or salt just aren’t very nice. You need these things to make the food you have wilted, softened and blackened taste good again.
Enter Raw. Discovering raw food was yet another revelation. It took my health to a new level, and I finally felt I had discovered the solution to the constant cycles of tiredness and lack of energy that I have suffered with for most of my adult life (it may also have something to do with years of working shifts, and the last four years of permanently broken sleep, but that’s another story). I also noticed something else fairly momentous (this is one for the ladies…), and that was that I no longer needed to take painkillers every month in order to be able to get through the day. I used to take back-to-back paracetamol and ibuprofen for three days just to remain basically functional. Now I rarely take any.
But I was also immediately conscious that many of the raw recipes I was trying were still very high in fat, salt and sugar (albeit in the forms of olive-oil, miso, tamari, Himalayan pink salt, agave nectar, maple syrup or whatever). I was also eating a lot of nuts, which seem to be quite controversial in the plant-based and raw food communities. It has been interesting to learn about and follow some of these controversies (agave nectar, coconut oil, raw cacao…), as it really highlights for me that you cannot discuss the relative merits of vegan diets, or plant-based or raw diets, without first clearly defining what you mean. There are so many variations.
When I came across Doug Graham’s book The 80/10/10 Diet, it made so much sense to me that I read it cover to cover straight away (which is quite unlike me). 80:10:10 was suggested by T.Colin Campbell as being the ideal ratio of macronutrients (carbohydrate:protein:fat – as a percentage of total calories) for optimal health, while The 80/10/10 Diet is a raw version, also known as Low Fat Raw Vegan (LFRV). This combines the macronutrient ratio aspired to by cooked WFPB followers with the added benefits of raw (seems logical to me). It involves eating large amounts of fruit, along with plenty of green vegetables and small amounts of nuts and seeds, and drinking water.
Which is hard. It is hard because our society is not set up to support this kind of eating style. Food is social; comfort and pleasure; loaded with memories. It is hard because fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive sources of calories, especially if they are organic. It is hard in winter in temperate regions. It is hard because of our habits and because we have no previous experience of this: no road map, no blueprint, no template. It is hard because most of us have never met someone who has eaten this way for any length of time. It is hard because most of us are addicted to sugar, salt, fat, caffeine, grain… whatever gives us that “aaah” feeling when we eat it.
I have not followed The 80/10/10 Diet in its entirety, but I have done something approaching it. I have included roots such as carrots and beetroot, and sprouted seeds and legumes. I have included small amounts of non-raw items such as tofu, plain soya yoghurt, soya milk and houmous, and I have also continued to include small amounts of agave nectar, maple syrup, tamari, miso and olive and sesame oils. These things have helped me to stay away from the bread, pasta, and rice, and made the diet practical in the context of a busy life. I feel great doing what I am doing and I’m keen to gradually move in the direction of fully LFRV, while remaining conscious that I may never reach that Holy Grail. Somehow life keeps on getting in the way. I do the best I can and that is no more and no less than I would ever ask of anyone else either.
Which brings me back to the start of this ramble, and the issue of dietary evolution. I have encountered more than one nutritionist or raw food/plant-based educator who maintains that you can’t be qualified to teach others about any particular diet until you have been doing it successfully for a number of years and your own intake is stable. I’m not sure my diet or life will ever be that stable – everything is in a constant state of change to which we must always adapt. But this view has probably made me feel somewhat reticent about sharing what I do know, which includes the fact that we must each of us decide on our own goals and what is achievable for us at any particular time. We might accept a certain ideal, and then we must decide how far we are willing to go towards it. Usually we can go a lot further than we think (or think we want), once we stop getting in our own way with a whole host of excuses, and once we determine to take 100% responsibility for what we put in our mouths.