I’ve had so many people ask me about this, I decided to write it down …
Last week someone I really admire posted on Facebook he had become a vegan and people around him made very negative comments. He noted that nutrition is a very touchy subject. My nutritionist says it’s the touchiest of them all, even touchier than sex, religion or politics, and I agree with both of them.
It’s a very personal choice what goes into our mouth.
I became vegan nine years ago. There are many kinds of vegans. I follow a program called “high nutrient density”, it’s a very specific type of vegan and there aren’t many of us.
Nine years ago one of my best friends, after a long period of severely declining health, was clearly dying. It was ripping my heart out. Then out of the blue she suddenly experienced a very rapid resurgence and soon was bursting with vigorous health.
She lived 3,000 miles away from me and I was doing everything I could to be close to her. When her health turned around and I could trust it was really stable, I asked her how this miracle had come about. She said she read two books and worked with a nutritionist to apply what these books recommended. The change was immediate and dramatic. She came off all her medications and regained her health. And even her youthfulness and vigor.
I sobbed with relief for a solid 30 minutes.
I bought the books for no other reason than I believed reading them would bring me closer to her. I had no health issues and thought I was eating very healthy already (primarily chicken, fish, salad and vegetables).
I found the first book, The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, eye-opening, interesting and compelling. I found the 2nd one, Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman, even more so.
On a spontaneous impulse I decided to try the Eat to Live program for one day. My only reason was to bring my friend closer by sharing the same experience she was having, 3000 miles away.
After the first day, I surprised myself by how good I was feeling. So I decided to do it for a second day. I felt even better. I decided to quit when I stopped feeling so fantastic. It turned into a third day, then a fourth, then a fourteenth…
My friends began to ask me, “So are you vegan now?” I said, “No, I’m sure that I’ll soon crave a cheeseburger and I’ll go back to the way I was eating.”
Nine years later…
I’m a big fan of understanding the precise definition of words. Back then when I read that this program was a high nutrient density program, I realized I didn’t know what the word nutrient meant. If I was going to consume nutrients in high density, I certainly wanted to know what a nutrient was.
The word nutrient means any substance that, when taken in, serves to enable an organism to survive because it nourishes, promotes growth, replaces loss and provides energy.
That sounded very cool.
Then I realized I didn’t really know what it meant to nourish the body. I thought food in general nourished and had the vague idea that broccoli was more nourishing than french fries. But my intelligence on the subject was rather limited.
Everyone I know who has ever been on a nutrition program (and I know thousands!) has talked about fats, proteins and carbs. I learned that these are called macronutrients. Macro means large and these are things you need in large quantities. But not all proteins are alike, not all carbs are alike, and certainly not all fats are alike. So focusing on macronutrients alone isn’t a guarantee of nourishing the body.
I learned that micronutrients are the keys to nourishing the body and, even more importantly, were responsible for the incredibly great feeling I was starting to get used to.
Micro means very small. Micronutrient means very, very tiny essential nutrients that bodies require in small amounts and which are vital to growth, energy, disease prevention, repair, healing and well being.
Micronutrients are basically vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (phyto means comes from plants) and antioxidents. Just to give you an idea of quantity, scientists have discovered over 10,000 different phytonutrients that are really good for the human body. If you want to get more technical about what each of these categories mean (I discovered I knew nothing about them and they were of great interest to me), I recommend reading Eat to Live (link above) where they’re explained really well.
And then I got interested in why micronutrients nourish the body and discovered mitochondria.
I think that back in my school days I had several biology professors who talked about mitochondria in severely boring lectures where I dedicated myself to not paying attention, so all I knew was that they were part of a cell. And, of course we all know our bodies are made up of cells. My knowledge ended there.
Now that I have learned what they truly are, I have fallen in love with my mitochondria. They are the power generators of the cell. They convert oxygen and nutrients into ATP, which is the chemical energy that powers all of the cell’s activities. Just like your car runs on gas (or electricity), your cells run on ATP.
Mitochondria require both oxygen and nutrients to make ATP. They need lots of each.
Simply put, your mitochondria produce your physical energy. In addition, they regulate cell growth, health and death. They also make the iron compound that allows your red blood cells to transport oxygen to the rest of your body. They do a million other complex and vital functions.
Mitochondria are commonly called the powerhouses of the cell.
They take in nutrients, break them down, and create energy rich molecules for the cell.
They can’t function without nutrients. With the right nutrients, they are powerful. Without them, they simply can’t function. And get this – loss of function in the mitochondria speeds aging, disease and death. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to an array of degenerative illnesses, ranging from diabetes and neurological disorders to heart failure.
The cells are nothing without mitochondria, just like a car with no gas can’t do anything. These little buggers are really important. And nutrients are really important to them.
So I learned what they like to eat, what they consider a nutrient. It’s very different from what most restaurant menus present.
They LOVE micronutrients. They like them in high-volume and high variety. Mitochondria ADORE high nutrient density.
So, I made a HUGE mental shift. Instead of worry about my proteins, carbs and fats, I started counting my micronutrients. Yes, counting.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman did the painstaking research to measure and rate the nutrient density (quantity of micronutrients) of a variety of foods and came up with an extremely useful scoring system: Food Nutrient Density Scoring System
His extremely thorough research is one of the many reasons I like his Eat to Live program best.
It turns out that blueberries have bazillions of micronutrients, but kale has bazillions of completely DIFFERENT ones. Each different super food has bazillions of VERY different micronutrients. Remember I said mitochondria LOVE variety, so you can’t get all your micronutrients from 3-4 foods and expect to feel fabulous.
I started loading up on a WIDE variety of foods that are the most micronutrient dense and flooded my mitochondria with micronutrients.
Not only did I suddenly feel amazing, I had no craving whatsoever for junk food or unhealthy sweets. This is a HUGE change for me. While I was predominantly eating healthy meals, I also adored cheese and cheeseburgers and was also well known to periodically sit down someplace (like at Olga’s diner near where I grew up and my friends from Medford Lakes know what I’m talking about here) and had no trouble putting away a large cheeseburger, a giant plate of cheese fries followed by a massive piece of homemade cheesecake for dessert. Suddenly I had no desire to do that. It almost felt weird.
Just to give you an example of what I mean by flooding my mitochondria with nutrients, for breakfast I get more micronutrients than I used to get in a week. It’s winter now so I start with fresh pomegranate, grapefruit and persimmon. I have a gorgeous cold press juicer and make a very potent juice with beets, cabbage, bok choy, carrots, celery and kale. I use that juice as the liquid base in a green smoothie I make by adding frozen blueberries, strawberries, one entire bunch of kale, half a bunch of collard greens, fresh ginger and chia or flax seeds. Everything is organic. Most is from the farmer’s market. The quantity of micronutrients is off the charts. All that is breakfast.
My friend who volunteers at the Oakland zoo said my refrigerator looks exactly like the chimpanzee refrigerator. It turns out their DNA is similar to humans, so I guess I’m not surprised. I love bananas too, even if they’re not so nutrient dense.
Most people see what I eat and their first comment is, “I could never eat that way.” I think that’s fine. As I said before, it’s a personal decision what goes into your mouth. I have better things to do than debate this point.
But I will say most people are surprised when they have dinner at my house. I’m not going to go into all my meals, but recently I had good friends over who brought chicken over for dinner thinking I would provide the “sides”. They ended up forgetting the chicken, having 2nds and 3rds of what I cooked, and completely cleaning their plates. I have amazingly good recipes (thanks to my fabulous nutritionist who has helped me with all my questions (Arnell at ArtOfEating@hotmail.com) and some recipe books)
The most common comment I hear when I have people over is, “Well if it tastes like this, I actually could eat it every day.”
But here’s the deal, I wish you could feel how I feel. I can actually perceive every cell in my body rejoicing. I can feel it. I have so much energy. I often work with people 30 years younger than me and find I have more energy than they do. I have energy throughout the entire day until I go to sleep at night. It’s a calm energy, not a hyped-up caffeinated kind. I don’t have energy slumps. My mind feels incredibly alert and my mood is rather joyful. When I sit down to relax in the evenings, my body hums happily and peacefully. I sleep incredibly well. I wake up refreshed and feeling light, ready for a morning run and Pilates.
Scientists estimate the average human body has 37 trillion cells and many of them have 1,000-2,000 mitochondria EACH. It staggers the mind. That’s A LOT of mitochondria! When every single one of them are happy, you can really feel it!
I’m not writing this because I think you should read it and immediately start this program. I just think that in order to understand what nutritious really means, the world should know what a nutrient is. And I think it’s time we discovered our mitochondria. They don’t really tell you what you need to know in biology classes.
Mitochondria are fabulous. And when they all do the happy dance, it’s out of this world.
Being nourished physically is very important. Being nourished spiritually, emotionally and intellectually is also important. These four are all vital to a happy and healthy life that’s brimming full with pleasure.
May you be nourished in all of them.
Wishing you vibrant health and happiness in all aspects of your life!