In June I set a challenge for myself. I wanted to improve the nutritional value of my kids lunches for the 2019/20 school year and have them love to eat them (and not trade them) everyday. For parents that try and make their kids lunches healthier, this may seem like an oxymoron.
But first, a disclaimer.
My intention of writing is not to tell anyone that their food choices are wrong, even though it may come across that way. I have experimented, and researched the topic of health and nutrition for my family, and through the journey of consuming a huge amount of evidence based material, I’m completely convinced that a plant forward lifestyle is the healthiest choice for humans, of any age. My point here is that if you or your family struggle with attention and focus, energy, happiness, weight or health issues, then there is a chance that your diet plays a role and that adding more fruits, veggies (specifically dark leafy greens), seeds, nuts, pulses and legumes to your diet, for the long term, can make a large difference.
Over the last 3 months I’ve consumed (well, listened to) 4 more substantial books. I already felt that I had a fairly good understanding of the value of plant forward eating but lacked all of the hard facts to help me solidify my position of a truly optimal diet. Spoiler alert, a very healthy way of living does not have to be 100% plant based, but I’ve learned that it’s pretty close to 100%.
Here are my summer reads:
- How not to Die by Dr. Michael Gregor
- Disease Proof your children by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
- Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
- The Whole-Body Microbiome by Dr. Brett Finlay and Dr. Jessica Finlay
I used PubMed as a resource to fact check any other blogs, videos, or writing that I came across.
The books have given me more than enough fact based information to confidently write this blog. On the flip side, I was unable to find any fact based evidence that supports eating meat (any meat but especially read meat) and dairy at most meals, other than occasionally. There is, however, loads and loads of people that write about the confusion and fear of eating mainly plants, and because the research is still so new (kind of: The China Study was first published in 2005), they propose that all westerners should hold the course by eating a typical American styled diet, due to the need of eating enough protein. Moreover, the overarching message from those that promote a traditional western diet is that people that eat a Plant Based diet will be missing some essential part of a balanced diet and it can be damaging to your health.
We’ve been raised in an environment of persuasive marketing and we’re told that the way we’ve eaten somehow is what keeps us alive, because that is what we were told (‘Milk – it does a body good’ was part of my upbringing and I never doubted it for a minute). The reality is that even the most knowledgeable and experienced experts are still trying to make sense of everything that happens in our bodies from why Cholesterol is processed differently in different people to how microbes (bacteria) breakdown our food, and that it may be these bacteria who/what is truly responsible for our optimal health. What they do agree on, however, is that a quality plant based diet is the very best diet for anyone at any age for all aspects of life.
Don’t just listen to me.
In the space of a fact based approach to the quality of what we eat there are 2 advocates that stand out as leaders in their field. They are Dr. Michael Gregor and Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and I referred to their books above. There are thousands of qualified professionals that have the credentials and experience to promote their views in books and online but very few have gone to such great lengths as these two professionals. Both of these Doctors strive to break down the super complex topic of food for healthy living and also try their best to manage the marketing spin from the meat and dairy industry which makes the simple message of how to eat a healthy diet so complex.
They’ve both used their western educated knowledge and experience, backed by mountains of research and fact, to conclude that a plant based, or plant forward, diet is by-far an optimal way of eating for health and wellness for all ages. While Dr. Fuhrman has built a tidy business around selling health, Dr. Gregor’s website and speaking engagements are totally non profit and free.
I’ve consumed their best selling books, and most of their online blogs and videos, over the last few months. I’ve also watched dozens of hours of video and read countless blogs about alternative ‘diets’, including Keto, Paleo, Carnivor, Flexitarian, intermittent fasting, and others. I believe that I have a fairly good understanding of the motivation, and barriers, for why the general population may or may not want to improve their health. Again, I’ve used PubMed to get a balanced understanding of many of the claims that you find online, especially for the long term unhealthy Keto diet. Think Keto is good for you? Watch this.
From this time well spent, it’s clear that a 100% plant based diet is optimal for human health of all levels, and is what we choose for our family. This is not only a plant based diet but a vegetable intensive diet. This means to heavily reduce sugar, oil, saturated fat, flours, and other processed food. It is not uncommon for my kids, who are 11 and 8, to eat salad type food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Now, before I start to get many people upset, and telling me that I am somehow wrong, or misinformed, I would like to be clear about what I have learned. Eating a diet, which is mostly plants, and a load of that is dark green leafy veggies (up to 2 pounds a day for me as I exercise a fair bit) is optimal for health. This has been explained to me in fine detail, with all the supporting fact based evidence I need to be 100% certain (all found in the above books and on their websites, and many other reputable places that review metadata research on health, like PubMed) that I can feed my family a plant based diet and will not be missing any essential nutrients (micro and macro) that they need, with only a small about of supplementation, like B12.
However, and this is a criticality important part of what I am writing about; feeding kids, and many adults, an optimal diet, day in and day out, can be very, very challenging. I’m obsessed with it and I still find it time consuming and find it takes a lot of focus everyday. I believe that any reasonable person, once seeing the facts of an optimal plant based diet would agree that it’s the best choice for anyone for long term health and wellness, but, and this is a big BUT: will people that like Sugar, Fat and animal based Protein adopt eating a lifestyle that is nearly 100% dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, nuts, seeds, pulses, legumes, berries and fruit for the benefit of their health? It seems like a funny question, but the answer is not clear. What would you say to me if I point blank asked you this?
Keeping up with healthy plant based eating takes focus and attention, especially when out of the home. It’s more expensive and time consuming to find, and eat – there is no doubt about it. I typically spend at least 2 to 3 times more money for lunch for my kids at Whole Foods, or somewhere similar, than if we went to KFC, McDonalds, Cactus Club or almost any leading restaurants. Finding meals made from mostly the items above is not as common as I would like and it gets tougher and tougher the further you go from urban centers. I’m happy to see that many restaurants are improving and adding to their healthier plant based offerings but a lot of the time the choices are meat and dairy free, but not overly healthy. Just because it’s Vegan does not mean it’s healthy.
This leaves me to pack many meals when we travel, which again, takes time and effort. We do this when we fly, take a road trip, or even go on the BC Ferries, which we do often. Many places in these situations cater to parents with ‘kid food’ which is mostly void of nutrients and is loaded with saturated fat and sugar.
To eat the healthiest way, to be an optimal weight, to sleep well, perform your best, be as happy as you can be, and have your kids thrive at school, get sick much less often and for a much shorter duration, then eating salad type meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day, all year long is the path to these goals. This would include drastically reducing most oil, eating very little bread and pasta, and almost no meat products, donuts, cookies, or any processed food. This would include any sweetened drinks, dairy products, and pretty much anything that isn’t water.
This is actually not a restrictive way to eat, and definitely not a traditional ‘diet’. With a lot of learning and effort, it becomes easier. What this is, however, is a massive shift from how most of us feed our kids and eat for ourselves every day.
The need and desire for us to become healthier is why diets, like Keto and Paleo, are so popular. They are ‘fairly’ easy to shift to. You (can) basically eat a load of unhealthy food while you reduce other unhealthy food and get the short term results that you desire. This can be lowering weight, reducing skin irritation, limiting migraines, and the such. A lot of the time people feel great on Keto because they have given up all sugar and simple carbs that come in the form of baked sweets. This is the silver lining to Keto.
So reducing calories by eliminating sugar and simple carbs is a great idea however it can’t be argued that a diet like Keto, or fat intensive diets, are good for long term health. Cardiovascular disease kills more North American’s than anything else and this is mostly because of what saturated fat does in our bodies. The indisputable research has now been published many times, and any doctor, association and foundation that is not paid by or influenced by anyone who will lose out, will agree that your chances of developing cardiovascular disease are greatly increased by consuming any level of saturated fat. Also, eating most types of meat and dairy products causes inflammation, which massively disturbs your microbiome,the good bugs in your stomach, and guts, which makes us all more vulnerable to infection and viruses.
This said, many people use diets like the Mediterranean diet, and even an evolved Keto diet, to live an extraordinary healthy life, and exercise all the time. The difference is that they’ve incorporated in a huge amount of dark leafy greens and other nutrient dense veggies and fruit, and get active on a daily basis. Healthy people that claim to be Keto actually eat much more Carbohydrates from food than anyone would think and their diets are not that restrictive, but to most experts a keto diet is long term unhealthy due to saturated fat consumption.
But what about the Protein, where do I get my Protein?
I have been asked this a million times, and I have 2 points to make?
- My family experiment: we do not focus on protein any more than I focus on fiber, betacarinoids, EFA, B12, Vitamin D, and all other essential micronutrients. It’s absolute that humans need protein to build muscles, but when I make food that I know is dense in all the essential micronutrients I’m confident that I’m feeding my kids all the plant based protein they require from whole food.
- There is conclusive, fact based research, which is widely available, that North Americans eat way too much protein and are eating 25% more calories now than in the early 70’s, due to the increase in Macronutrients – Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat. The latest numbers on the amount of North Americans, that are fat and obese is almost unbelievable, and our unreasonable obsession with protein has played a role in this. Latest numbers show that 3 out of 4 Americans (we are a reflection of them when it comes to nutrition) are either overweight or obese. This is a stunning number.
So, kids lunches
I’m confident that the best food to feed growing kids is 100% plants, with a very small amount of added sugar, refined grains and oil. I’m also suggesting that our focus must shift from Macronutrients, such as fat, carbohydrates and protein, to micronutrients, which is the goodness and brain power that is contained in vegetables, and greatly benefit your Microbiome. Macronutrients are easy to focus on (and can be very tasty) and we’ve been convinced over the last few generations that we must have lots of them (or none of them as in the case of fat!) to survive. While this is of course true to a certain degree, they should not be void of nutrients, and cause inflammation like meat and dairy products do. I’m not stating that families should not have ‘once in a while food’, like burgers off the grill, or birthday cake. If 95% of a child’s diet comes from a healthy plant based diet than other food has space in there too.
To reiterate: Protein is the #1 topic that comes up when I talk about reducing animal products from your diet. North Americans are protein crazed. We somehow think that there are very few ways to get protein and that animal meat is the best source. This is untrue. Many plants contain protein and we thrive on protein from dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, nuts and seeds. Have you ever given pause to think about how a 1600 pound steer gets that large eating only grass? Protein is nowhere near as big of a deal to ingest in volume as we’ve been told (sold) that it is. It’s important to know how much protein we actually require and eat, towards that goal by eating more of the right plants.
Micronutrients; are you getting enough? How do we even know what getting enough is? We are told by the media and marketing machines that a vegetarian diet doesn’t give us enough of; Choline, Vitamin B12, Iron, and EFA, or more specifically Omega 3’s.
This is misleading. A proper plant based lifestyle can and does give you most of every nutrient you need to thrive. It can be argued that everyone in a modern setting is deficient in Vitamin D because we spend a lot of time inside, Vitamin D only comes from the sun. It can also be argued that someone eating a responsible, dense, plant based diet gets closer to the optimal daily nutrient load than someone who’s eating a typical North American diet. The reality is that most people should supplement each day with a quality multivitamin to ensure that they are getting closer to a recommended nutritional dose of vitamins – plant based or not. We also supplement with vegan B-12 and Omega Oil at home.
It’s also become clear that fiber plays a huge role in our overall health and that a typical North American is fiber deficient, which can be one of the most simple things to focus on to improve health.
Macronutrients are calorically dense. Too much calorically dense food makes us fat, and meat, sugar, and dairy cause inflammation, which leads to being unhealthy. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are more abundant in veggies, nuts, seeds, pulses, legumes and whole grains which help control our weight, improve our mood and reinforce our microbiome, which keeps us healthy. It is true that Macronutrients fills us up quickly, but we should be eating more food, just more nutritious food that is not that calorically dense – like dark leafy greens.
What has worked for us so far.
Many years ago, my wife and I chose a lifestyle. We chose to be lifelong learners, and to constantly look for ways to maximize our family’s health. We gradually progressed to a plant based lifestyle and now live what some would call ‘quasi vegan’. We do not have animal products in our house BUT do not stop our kids from having cheese or eggs out once in a while. We call this ‘once in a while food’, and our kids recognize it as such.
We’ve witnessed extremely positive results from this approach. Our children deal with very few colds and rarely need to go to the doctor. They haven’t had prescription or over the counter medicines. They love to learn and both sit at or near the top of their class is every subject. They love to exercise and constantly meet and exceed their fitness goals. They both have intense focus and long attention spans. This is all accomplished while eating nearly 100% plants, which they have for their entire lives.
For anyone that questions, or is worried about raising their kids on a plant based lifestyle, I’m confident that a plant based approach is the healthiest and most rewarding way to eat.
But my kids won’t eat veggies.
I can guarantee you that kids will eat veggies. Dr. Fuhrman’s writing about kids helped me understand the issue that we are dealing with. He was very clear that the issue is you, or me, or us. If you do not believe that eating mostly plants is right or healthy, and you eat less than healthy food, than how can you expect your kids to be healthy? Crappy unhealthy food is tasty, and I want to be very clear about this – I used to LOVE it and was a champion Big Mac eater, topping out at 8 in 1 meal in my early 20’s!
Why are you so wrapped up in this?
I am a fat guy in a skinny body. I was raised as a healthy kid up until I was about 11. Then my life changed dramatically. My mother had been a stay at home mom, who obsessed about our vegetarian diets, but when our lives imploded with my parent’s divorce it all went out the window. My mom did her best going forward but I was becoming a strong willed independent teenager and she went to work full time. My father, who was absent even when we all lived together, had moved from Victoria to Vancouver, and I barely saw him.
For years, my diet, and body, suffered. I smoked, ate all the wrong food, stayed up and out way too much, and drank way too much, all the time. At times I was 50lbs overweight and completely inactive. I was unmotivated and unhappy, but not sure why.
Fortunately for me, in my mid 20’s, I fell in love. But I fell in love with a woman that was going to have nothing to do with me, as I was. I knew she liked me but I was a mess. There was no way that she was going to date an overweight, go nowhere, party animal. I took a good long look in the mirror and could see the guy that I wanted to be, under that layer of unhealthy fat.
It was time for a change. I started on a long journey to improve me. I gave up smoking, started to limit my drinking, and started riding a mountain bike. Within a year I was in a much better place, and haven’t slowed down. That amazing woman, is the mother of my children, and now my wife of 15 years.
Fast forward through a journey of self discovery. Through physical pain as my body transformed from a sloth to what it is today. I’m 46 and my markers are that of a healthy 20 year old. I run a few marathons a year, with one of my best times just this last May at BMO in Vancouver, and try to do one or two ultra marathons per year. Constantly exercising at this level has become easy and my biggest challenge is time, but I make my health a priority. If I am healthy and fit, I’m a better dad, husband, and leader at work. We also make being outdoors – hiking, running and having fun, a priority.
The point of this Blog is to lay it out there – for our children to be healthy, now and for their entire lives. So it’s our responsibility as parents to drive and cultivate the results. They will only do what we set as an example and if we decide that crappy food is what we buy, and eat for ourselves, than how can we expect them to do any better.
If you’re eating a typical western diet, with lots of dairy, meat, simple carbohydrates and sugar, than the research suggests that you, and your children, are at serious risk, and there is no way that they can perform at their best and there is a good chance that they will be or become overweight. That said, I’ve chosen a close to vegan lifestyle for my kids but I do not believe that this has to be the way for anyone to live a much healthier life. If your diet is made up of mostly healthy plants then there is room for less than healthy food, once in a while. This is a choice of priorities.
There are some simple things to do to achieve maximum health, for us all.
- Focus on eating Micronutrients, not Macronutrients. What does this mean? Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and EFA. Macronutrients are fat, protein, carbohydrates and water. If you learn about what your body actually needs to thrive, and focus on eating mainly these foods, and exercise, you will likely be very, very healthy.
- Greatly reduce processed wheat, like bread, cakes and muffins. We rely on bread way, way, too much. It seems like such a convenient food but the reality is that processed flour quickly turns to sugar when digested, and is super hard on your liver and pancreas. Furthermore, white bread should be eliminated as it has zero nutritional value. Removing the bran from the wheat, to make white bread, removes any value the wheat had. We call this ‘once in a while food’, and try to only eat a locally made sourdough.
- Greatly reduce oil. We all have been taught that olive oil is very healthy, which when compared to other oils, I would agree with, however that is kind of like saying that one sugar is better than another. Oil is extremely calorically dense and when if you compare the nutrition vs calories you will find that calories win. If you like what Olive Oil has to offer, then eat Olives, and use oil sparingly. For those that believe that Coconut Oil is healthy, it is all saturated fat, and too much dietary saturated fat (fat we eat) kills people.
- Greatly reduce sugar. Sugar is a trainwreck for our body and mind, there is no doubt, but we are hardwired to search it out and consume as much as we can to survive. If we do not put on the breaks and act responsibly with sugar then we will overeat and damage our bodies and minds, while gaining weight. Spikes of insulin to our blood system is incredibly destructive and damaging to our gut, muscles and mind. If you, or your kids, struggle to keep attention or get tired in the day then the chances are that you eat too much sugar.
- Greatly reduce all meat. This is the big one. We have been sold for years and years that we can not survive without meat, especially red meat. The reality is that anyone that has sold this information to you over the last few generations did not have the information they required to be responsible when telling you this. Over the last few generations, many responsible people did the best research they could to understand our dietary requirements, and made findings or suggestions that were then sold to us by companies. These findings were that humans need Fat, Carbohydrates, and Protein to live. Due to the complexity and cost, these findings were limited on the best source of these Macronutrients and the industry started to produce what we were told we need in mass volume. Only now is the evidence showing how damaging this has been over the last 50 years and even though we are all living longer, a Standard North American (SAD) diet is doing great harm to our bodies and minds. The rate of obesity, and all the related diseases are growing rapidly. It is now very common to see obese kids every day and an obese kid will very probably become an obese adult, and live with a host of unnecessary issues, only because they ate too much of the wrong food.
- Greatly reduce dairy products. Most dairy contains a lot of saturated fat, and surprisingly so does fat free dairy. Apart from the issue of saturated fat is what is in the dairy. Most dairy animals are are given antibiotics at some point and all cows contain growth hormones. These are poison for our children, and you. Also, naturally, milk from large animals is made for animals to grow large. Early puberty and early growth in kids is now being understood as a precursor to an early death. Dairy is one of those foods that is the death of a thousand cuts. If you are not allergic to dairy, and show apparent signs of an allergic reaction like bloating, skin irritation, or a sore gut when digesting food, it will be the long term exposure to dairy, and what is added to dairy, that is detrimental.
- Don’t drink alcohol. This is obviously meant for adults but the effects of alcohol (any more than 1 x drink per day) on your body is stunning. There is nothing, whatsoever, healthy or positive about alcohol. Some can argue that 1 x glass of red wine has some benefit from the red grape skin and seeds but you can also get the same nutrients from pure grape juice. For those that need alcohol to wind down or relax – that is an excuse for an addiction and I would suggest that you evaluate why your stress level is so high that you would compromise your health with alcohol. Giving up alcohol was one of the best things I ever did for my health and I couldn’t perform the way I do if I still drank. I now funnel the energy I used to drink and party into exercise, with much better results!
But I drink Kombucha?
Now at this point, I’ve probably ruffled some feathers, and I guess I’m ok with that. It’s really important for us all to understand that our relationship with, and understanding of, food is very limited. The knowledge and practical use of ‘food’ is still not well understood. In no other area is this better illustrated than in the research and use of Microbes (germs). Our Microbiome is a fascinating place(s), and yes, I’ve done my research here too. Modern marketing tells us all the forms of food to buy and ingest to improve our gut health. Once again, we’re being sold. Many forms of ‘probiotic’ food and supplements that you buy in the grocery store do not have conclusive evidence to support their health claims. The leaders in the research regarding our Microbiome (see above) explain that your gut is only one part of your microbiome and that eating any processed prebiotic or probiotic food, without overall improvements in your diet and good hygiene, is almost useless.
The leaders in this field are now fairly convinced that most humans can best improve their overall health by eating plant based, organic food, with a focus on eating enough fiber (see above) at all meals. They see clear evidence that sugary, processed, and meat based foods are disruptive to our gut and mind. This said, fermented unpasteurized dairy products have protective and immune building benefits but only if 100% organic and unpasteurised. Most researchers will admit that research is proving that unpasteurised fermented veggies (organic homemade sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, sourdough bread) are a better choice for gut health than dairy as there is so much opportunity for chemical and hormone exposure.
Does it really need to be Organic?
Yes, and no. There’s a very helpful graph that’s been around for awhile now called the dirty dozen. This is helpful and the reality is that fruits and veggies with thick skins are usually better than those without. I would urge you to learn what un-organic fruits and veggies contains – like the incredibly harsh toxins used to prevent ‘Strawberry Wilt’, and the like.
Ok Jed, I get what you’re saying. What do I feed my kid?
If you’ve read this far, you are either frustrated by what I’ve written or you’re intrigued. I’m going to assume you’re intrigued. Over the next few weeks I’ll post some of the recipes that I use to make lunches and some that we’ve developed in the Cook Culture kitchens. My goal is to give you 10 days of lunches that utilise a few core ingredients so that you can plan and batch cook. I hope that by reading this blog you will not be surprised, or scoff at the idea, of feeding your child a large kale salad for school lunch. It’s actually my kids #1 most requested lunch meal – because I make it super tasty. More on that to come.
What must happen to be successful is to decide on what and how much you want to change or improve. I did not figure all of this out overnight, and you should not set yourself up for failure. I suggest to decide on a few of the most important things for you and set only manageable, realistic goals.
I’m very wary of articles about health and nutrition posted online by many leading news’ sources, including my beloved CBC. There is so much money and power at play in our food system that I’ve found myself being caught up by misinformation more than once! Many people that can make a buck will position their writing for their benefit. I hope that I am putting forward a neutral (but healthy) position while referring to and using the data of fact based research. I am of course biased, as I am deeply passionate about my kids’ nutrition, and witness the direct benefit of a plant based diet.
North America, and specifically Canada, have federal elections coming up and I find it bizarre that all platforms are void of a food based approach to improvements to our health care systems. We spend billions (Trillions in NA) on a reactionary health system and are not even having the conversation at a federal level about how to improve the system and save lives and money.
This is an article from the NY Times (which is supported by facts) but could be just as easily written for Canadians.
Our kids will shape our future and we must wake up to the maco-issues that have such a massive impact on our health and our planet. Our frustratingly archaic view of plant based eating is killing us. and the planet. This is not my opinion but fact. I am perplexed as to why we look at diets like plant based or Vegan as so strict, harsh, and unreasonable. These diets are about living the most vibrant life possible as an individual while caring for our planet. I’m not blind to how far there is to go in the general food system, as even our best selling cooking classes are the least healthy and if I would allow it, we’d sell even more classes if I would authorize more meat and deep frying in classes. Most people love meat, dairy, simple carbs and fat – and are eating them morning, noon and night. This will continue to keep us unhealthy, stressed and broken, in more ways than just our bodies. Our medical system is unsustainable and a political approach is to throw more and more money at it, while cutting services to other essential areas like education. How about if teachers were paid as much as doctors…but that is for another day.
Thanks for reading. We hope to be of help.
I’ll finish with one more NY Times article – a thought on how to look at and treat those that are doing what they can to make a difference. Hopefully together we can all take some baby steps to healthier kids and a healthier planet.
Much more to come.