A Plant-Based Diet & Your Immune System
Could you tell us a bit about yourself (certifications, where you are from, etc). and your journey to a plant-based lifestyle?
I majored as a Mind Body Wellness Coach with a specialty in Holistic Nutrition at the award-winning Southwest Institute of Healing Arts. I grew up in Missouri, which is the epitome of steak and potato country. My first job was at McDonalds. I did not grow up with a healthy relationship with food. Though I went vegetarian way back in 2005 after seeing a video of animals on factory farms, I was a junk food vegetarian. My staples were French fries, macaroni and pizza. I remember being in a cooking class in school, staring at the vegetables for a dish we were learning about and thinking, I have no idea what half of these even are! I’d always been thin, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay much attention to what I ate. While schooling improved it a bit, I still wasn’t honest with myself about what was junk food and what wasn’t. It wasn’t until my depression spiraled to the point of a suicide attempt that I really took a step back and realized, well duh your brain is turning on you, you deprive it of practically everything it needs, that I started really focusing on a truly healthy diet, switching to full veganism in 2019.
What are the benefits of living a plant-based diet? Why is it worth trying a plant-based diet?
The mental aspects are indescribable. The energy, mental clarity and few signs of anxiety and depression alone make it worth-while. Because the purported “benefits” of meat are so entrenched in our society, I know that most people already have the mindset that eating meat is the healthier option and I run the risk of being written off as a “new-age hippie” if I try to share the science or benefits from my experience and schooling. So, I always point people to the official statement from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest association of nutritionists and dietitians from around the globe:
"Appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity."
A lot of people might assume that plant-based foods are automatically healthy. What is your guidance for people trying to navigate vegan junk food from healthy eating? Can processed foods be healthy?
The term processed has become the disease of the healthy eating world, but "processed food" is any food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition through fortifying, preserving or preparing. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we're processing it. There is nothing unhealthy with keeping precut veggies in the fridge. It’s A-ok to have a can of pears or peas (assuming there’s no added syrup, salt or dyes) or using frozen broccoli. I do it too. I also bake my granola bars. I encourage people to think of processed food on a spectrum. The more you alter the food from its natural form by adding preservatives, sweeteners or salt or putting it under excessive processes such as curing, the more of a risk it poses to your health.
In addition to addressing health issues, what ‘mis-truths’ about nutrition would you like to help dispel, if possible?
It has become the mindset to cut this or cut that. We are always encouraged to take away things from our nutrition regime. In many cases, this is obviously important, but it is equally important to make sure we are adding things and balancing our nutrient intake as well. Also, I wrote this article as a public service to every vegan who is tired of reassuring everyone that they do, in fact, get enough protein. (https://fitfusionfl.org/f/the-nutrition-myth-that-just-wont-go-away)
So many popular plant-based foods aren’t necessarily grown locally. How do you ensure that the foods you eat are both nutritious and also sustainable?
I try to eat in season as much as possible because that encourages me to eat what is being currently grown in my area. I am lucky to live in an area that is plentiful with farmers markets, which is great because the practices of these smaller farms tend to be more transparent, so I know whether or not I want to support them. Even most small rural areas often have family farms and co-ops available.
Based on your experience in nutrition and current trends, what do you think is the future of the plant-based food system and veganism in the next 10 years?
Interest in 'veganism' increased seven fold between 2014 and 2019, according to Google trends. Milk sales dropped over $1 billion in 2018 and the world’s largest producer has filed bankruptcy. However, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have increased 11% from 2018 to 2019. Though it is taking time, the public is realizing the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based lifestyle and are weaning off their old habits.
What are some simple hacks you suggest to add more plant-based foods into your diet?
It is often easier for individuals to utilize “barrier foods” (vegan macaroni, vegan pizza, vegan microwave meals) to transition into a plant-based lifestyle. While some can be implemented in limited portions into a plant-free nutrition regime, the goal isn’t just not to eat meat and dairy, it is to eat more nutrient dense foods. I start many of my clients off by encouraging them to start finding sneaky ways to make changes. Switch your regular rice for cauliflower rice, prepare any pasta dishes with half whole grain pasta noodles and half vegetable noodles (like zoodles) and build a go-to smoothie consisting of greens, fresh fruits, vegan milk, protein (often nut butter) and power add-ons. If you simply added that smoothie to your breakfast or lunch, you would already be on the right track to boosting your nutrient intake!
How can our readers navigate the detox to a plant-based or vegan diet? Any recommendations?
No matter what lifestyle you have or which one you are switching to, major dietary changes are going to result in major body changes, some of which may be uncomfortable for a bit. If this were a “diet” that someone suggested to you, promising you would lose weight and be healthier in the end, you would be more likely to accept the side effects and power through them. Because this is a lifestyle that has been conditioned into us as being full of nutrient deficiencies and health problems, there is a lot more fear surrounding these symptoms. The most common symptoms when switching to a plant-based lifestyle are headaches, fatigue and more frequent trips to the bathroom. The last one is nothing to sweat about (so long as you don’t have diarrhea) and is a sign that the digestive system is coming back online. The headaches are frequently from an intense drop in caloric intake. Because people eating the Standard American Diet often eat 2-3x times the number of calories they need in a day, cutting out the excess can shock the body. This can be combatted by eating more frequently throughout the day and making sure to stock up on healthy snacks. You should never feel hungry! The fatigue can be a sign that you aren’t eating enough foods with B12 and iron, so make your vegan milk is fortified with B12, make friends with nutritional yeast and fall in love with spinach, sesame seeds and turmeric. Of course, don’t forget to drink lots of water to facilitate the removal of the waste and toxins built up in your system.
How can our readers build up their immune system on a plant-based or vegan diet? Any recommendations?
Compared to nonvegetarians, vegetarians typically eat more soy products and have a higher intake of antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals, all of which can have incredibly beneficial effects on the immune system. However, they also tend to have lower levels of B12, Omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, all of which are important to a healthy immune system. Consuming B-12 fortified flax milk will actually hit all three of these! Other great things every vegan should be adding to their meal plans to combat this are nutritional yeast, walnuts and spinach
Can you share some plant-based diet recipes? Maybe you have some that are your favorites. Are there any plant-based foods that you like to include on a daily basis?
I have a smoothie every single day because it is the easiest no-nonsense way to pack in a ton of nutrients with minimal preparation. You can add in so many boosts such as: chia seeds, hemp seeds or nutrient powder. Here is my favorite recipe: https://amandawebsterhealth.com/recipes/protein-berry-smoothie/
What would be your number one tip for anybody looking to adopt a whole food plant-based diet?
Do your homework. Take the time to go over the basics of plant based nutrition so that you know what you should be and shouldn’t be consuming and what essential nutrients are and how you can make sure you are getting enough. Trust me, it’s much more fun to have a quick, confident answer when people ask (oh, they will ask) where you get your protein, iron and calcium.
Are there any supplements or vitamins that are required when it comes to a plant-based diet?
While the body can convert the Omega 3 ALA into DHA/EPA, it isn’t the most efficient way to get DHA/EPA, the most important Omega 3’s. A supplement made from microalgae is ideal. Otherwise, it is absolutely possible for a standard person to balance their nutrition and have their nutrient needs met. I always recommend that my clients get an annual Complete Metabolic Panel (CMP) from their doctor to test for common nutrient deficiencies regardless of what their current nutrition regime is like. This allows us to see what nutrients they might need to be supplementing with and what foods they might need to be increasing. If a client is pregnant, elderly or has a specific condition, additional supplementation might be appropriate.
Speaking of supplements and vitamins, chlorophyll is the foundation of plants, would you recommend adding liquid chlorophyll + water to your diet? What are the benefits of chlorophyll water?
Because chlorophyll cannot survive digestion, consuming it through water as opposed to plants helps it absorb into your system. Some of the benefits are: immune system stimulation, blood and intestine detoxing (which leads to clearer skin, less bloating and better digestion), energy production and it has been reported to have a positive effect on cancer treatment and prevention.
What are your favorite plant based or vegan books, podcasts or websites you recommened?
https://www.worldofvegan.com/ is my favorite go-to
Where can we find you on social media? (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
Anything else you want to add?
For anyone that ever tells you that vegans have less options and variety than omnivores, tell them to watch a vegan make a salad versus a meat-eater. We know how to load those suckers up!