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A whole-food, plant-based switch

Switching to a whole-food, plant-based, diet is the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve never looked back.
plant-base, whole food cover

Switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet, more than eight years ago, is the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve never looked back.

Pre-plant-based diagnosis

At 33, I was diagnosed with hypertension. As far as I knew, there wasn’t a history of hypertension in my family. My father, who died of lung cancer at 58, was not the sort to visit doctors, so I wasn’t privy to his medical history. Therfore, I don’t know if he had hypertension.

Outside of randomly sparse social situations, I didn’t smoke. Also, I didn’t think my stress levels were high at all. Poor diet and exercise were the culprits that cased my health issues. This was shocking because I had thought I was, maybe not the picture of health, but somewhat healthy. But my experience happens to many on the standard American diet.

In high school, I was athletic. Joining at least three sports teams, including badminton—which, by the way, is considerably fun and competitive—kept me active. My entire high school career I was active. I was also studious. When I started college, however, I set all my physical activities aside and focused solely on my studies. This was where I went wrong.

Out of the pan, into the fire

It’s difficult to pickup an exercise routine again after a long period of inactivity. I wasn’t by any means obese after college, but I was certainly out of shape. The body of a person in their twenties is vastly different from a thirty-year-old’s body. My diet lacked meaningful substance.

“What you do in your twenties will affect you in your thirties.” I heard this refrain throughout my twenties. The truth is, I wish I’d paid more attention to the warnings. I didn’t listen to those voices because I was stubborn. What can I say, young people usually ignore their elders’ advice. Thinking that what holds true for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it will for someone else, I paid no mind. After all, some people live past ninety while smoking, eating horribly, and drinking alcohol their entire lives. But this is certainly not the norm.

My doctor prescribed the high blood pressure pill Losartan when I couldn’t control my hypertension on my own. For me, one of the worst side effects of this pill was lethargy. The Losartan made me feel sluggish all day. Light physical activity—like putting up storm shutters—fatigued me. Frequently stopping to take breaks was normal on this pill. This was insufferable. I wasn’t the spry young athlete I once was, and my future on this medication looked bleak.

A Whole-food, plant-based living

In 2013, after hearing about the documentary Forks Over Knives, I watched it with a bit of hesitation. Coming from a Cuban family, where fruit is fried plantains and vegetables are boiled cassava drenched in mojo, the idea of eating only whole, plant-based foods didn’t seem fun. Admittedly, I was not convinced at first. But faced with increased listlessness, fatigue, high blood pressure, and weight gain, I knew had to do something. In the documentary is loosely based on the China Study, which was a study done in China that links an animal protein diet with diseases such as cancer. I read the book and then watched the documentary.

I was apprehensive to make the switch because no one else in my family eats this way, so I had to start from scratch. My journey started with two weeks of drinking only homemade vegetable and fruit smoothies. Cleansing my palate to get used to the fruits and vegetables was key. After the cleansing, and once I embarked on this new way of eating, I found that it wasn’t as hard as I had thought it would be.

This diet also reduces your carbon footprint on the planet. I care about the environment and animal welfare, so it was a good enough reason for me to switch. Because animal agriculture is damaging to the environment in many ways, eating a whole-food, plant-based diet is a sustainable way to live—not to mention that it’s way better for animals as well.

Before and after making the switch to a healthy lifestyle.

Plant-based eating leads to exercise

After only a few months of eating like this, I made better choices for myself, incorporating exercise back into my life. As a result, I had much more energy. Gradually adding more running to my exercise routine, I trained for official races like the 5k, 10k, and half-marathons.

I had incorporated running into my life in 2007 because I hate going to the gym, but because I felt so much better, physically, after my whole-food, plant-based diet that I started signing up for official races. I found myself training harder for them, finding more races to train for, and then figuring out which foods were the best sources of energy to support my running. All of them, of course, whole-food, plant-based.

While in training, I went so far as giving up alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol is a personal decision and I won’t get into its health advantages or disadvantages. The truth is it impacts people differently. We don’t need alcohol to live a healthy lifestyle, and we certainly don’t need it to be unhealthy. Enjoying a glass of wine is up to you. But moderation is key. And while I haven’t given up drinking alcohol completely, it doesn’t help at all with early morning marathon training.

How to start your whole-food, plant-based diet journey

If you want to switch to this kind of healthy lifestyle, the first thing you will need to do is learn to cook. If you don’t, you’re going to need to learn how to fold cooking into your busy lifestyle. Because most vegetables cook quickly, I suggest pre-cooking your grains for the week ahead of time, on a Sunday perhaps, and then cooking the vegetables when you’re going to eat them. Pumpkin and other large squashes take more time to cook, so prepare those ahead of time, or buy a pressure cooker.

The first thing I did when I made the switch was buy myself a Vitamix. A high-powered blender is essential for making healthy nut milks, salad dressings, and smoothies, all without the additives store-bought options contain. An electric pressure cooker is also crucial for cooking grains, beans, and one-pot meals in a timely manner. Although it’s not necessary, I also bought an air fryer because it uses less energy than the full-size convectional oven. These are great for roasting dense starchy and cruciferous vegetables quickly.

Meat substitutes

The term whole-food, plant-based is used today because, more than ever, there are countless vegan processed food options available in the grocery store. And they’re just waiting for people who want a quick meal to scoop up. These products, while not full of the typical carcinogens that animal-based products contain, aren’t a good source of nutrition either. In other words, they’re not going to make you feel invigorated, energetic, or healthy. In fact, some of these foods can be addictive and could lead to weight gain, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. So if you’re thinking of switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet, be wary of these products and use them sparingly. It might be fine to have them at first or sporadically, but don’t make a habit of filling your shopping cart with every Beyond Meat, Daiya, or Just Egg product available.

Daiya Cheese
vegan cheese
Beyond Sausage
vegan sausage
vegan egg

There is, however, a place for these products. As the only vegan in my family—and that includes in my own household—I’m also the cook. I usually prepare separate meals for my wife and for me. I cook animal-based meals when the family gets together. But from time to time, when they’re all over for dinner, I make a vegan rendition of arroz con pollo, carne con papa, and picadillo using the popular meat replacements I mentioned above. But, again, I don’t eat those products on a regular basis. 

Traveling while one a whole-food, plant-based diet

I’ve been completely meatless since 2013. When I travel abroad, because it’s sometimes more difficult to find a restaurant that will cater to my wife’s and my dietary wants, I opt for vegetarian plates or, worst case, I’ll order side dishes. Because animal welfare and environmental protection advocacy is on the rise around the world, sustainable foods and vegan restaurants are easier to find in places like Europe, Mexico, and South America. Switching to a plant-base diet is actually trending in Europe. There are a few vegan-friendly places in Amsterdam, Paris, and even Madrid that are well worth your time.

If you decide to make the change, you should start your journey with a whole-food, plant-based cookbook that contains a variety of recipes so you don’t run out of ideas. Read what others are eating and cooking. Believe it or not, Instagram is quite a good resource. Your food journey should be a healthy and fun one, so get a few cookbooks that will spark your creativity and get cooking!

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