As you can tell, I had a terrific time eating my way through the Portland VegFest last weekend. But when I walked into one of Dr. McDougall's lectures and saw the following two words glowering at me like two finger-pointing giants, I just about fainted:
Dr. McDougall began:
"You may consider this an oxymoron—a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms, but in real life this concurrence is all too common. You may also find the phrase offensive."
He was right. I did, and I did. But wait a minute. I had just walked through an exhibit hall filled with lots of fat vegans! Yes, there were tons of fat non-vegans, too (sorry for the pun), but I can usually tell who's a vegan and who's not. (It's kind of like vegan gaydar.) To my horror, one vegan in particular had grown to enormous proportions since I had last seen him. I had to take a double take to make sure it was really him. He was still vegan, and yet he was bordering on obese. No, now, wait a minute. I'm being kind. He wasn't "bordering on" obese. He was obese! And only just recently, I had begun thinking of myself as fat. So when I saw this very fat vegan I thought to myself, "That's me in another year, if I don't watch out!" How fortuitous that I should walk into a room with the words "FAT VEGAN" staring me in the face, just moments after this startling revelation!
Let me backtrack a bit: Two men whom I have long admired as pillars in the vegan movement are Dr. John McDougall and Dr. Douglas Graham. Each of them have a long history of successfully teaching people how to adopt a low-fat vegan diet and achieve vibrant health. But that's where the similarities in their philosophies pretty much begin and end. Dr. Graham advocates for a totally raw vegan diet comprised primarily of ripe, raw organic fruits and vegetables supplemented with small amounts of raw nuts and seeds. Dr. McDougall believes that the proper diet for human beings is based on starches, and that the more rice, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans you eat, the trimmer and healthier you will be.
Since Dr. Graham is both a mentor and a friend, as well as someone whom I worked with for several years, I have had the gift of his personal guidance and the opportunity to read just about every book he's ever written. I can never completely express my gratitude to him or overestimate the value of his teachings.
In 1986, I was living in New Jersey and working on legislation concerning breast cancer prevention and treatment. Dr. McDougall was not only the inspiration for this bill, but kindly shared his time and experience with me, helping me immensely in getting the legislation passed. I feel deeply indebted to Dr. McDougall for his support.
I have failed at staying on a low-fat raw vegan diet many times in my life. My longest run lasted two years when I was living in Santa Barbara, where a variety of fresh fruit is abundant year-round, and the climate is mild and sunny. But even there, the lure of delicious Thai and Mexican food restaurants was too great, and I slowly drifted back to cooked foods. Why did I keep failing? Is it just that I don't have the needed self-control and couldn't get a handle on my cooked-food addiction? I don't think that's it, because I am a person who successfully dieted and lost forty pounds, and even more difficult, I kicked a 3-pack-a-day 15-year-long cigarette-smoking habit. So it isn't just about discipline or self-control. As much as I adore eating fruit, I just find it incredibly difficult to stay on a low-fat raw foods diet, especially when the temperature dips below a certain point. Why is it so hard for me to eat the way Dr. Graham believes we ought to?
And what is the ideal diet for humans, really? Dr. Graham frequently points out that among all primates, bonobos are the closest to us genetically, sharing 99% of our DNA. But one of the ways in which bonobos and humans differ is with respect to the digestive enzymes we possess—and it's a significant difference—one that cannot be casually overlooked.
The average human has roughly three times more salivary amylase gene copies than chimpanzees, and bonobos may not have any salivary amylase at all! In other words, we have the digestive enzyme that converts starches to sugar, and bonobos don't!
Why? Like all living creatures, humans adapted over time to their environment. Tens of thousands of years ago, we left the jungle and migrated to northern climates where fruit is not abundant year-round, and it became necessary for humans to adapt to eating other food sources in order to survive.
By 10,000 BCE, the first agricultural revolution was in full swing with various forms of domestication of plants and animals taking place in at least seven or eight locales worldwide. While there is no biological evidence to support the premise that humans evolved into meat and dairy eaters, (just because we eat them is not evidence that we can do so healthfully, in fact, just the opposite is true), the presence of multiple copies of the digestive enzyme, AMY1, in human DNA does indicate that we did in fact, evolve into starch eaters.
Do I feel great when I'm following a low-fat raw vegan diet? Absolutely! Does it come naturally or easily during the cold winter months? Absolutely not! Though I acknowledge that some people can successfully follow a low-fat raw vegan diet, most raw fooders I have met consume a dangerously high-fat diet, with some 50-80% of their total daily caloric intake coming from fat! That's even more fat than the average American eating the standard American diet consumes.
Where Dr. Graham and Dr. McDougall part ways, is where I have to ask myself what feels right to me? If humans possess the genes to digest starches, then it would seem logical that we have evolved into starch eaters. And it's turning out to be a lot easier for me to live on sweet potatoes, quinoa, and beans than it was on fruit and salads.
So I'm going to give this cooked, low-fat high-starch vegan diet a shot and see how it works for me. It means I'm going to have to learn a whole new way to cook without oils (even coconut oil!), bake without Earth Balance, make untuna salad without Vegenaise, and prepare quick and easy, but great-tasting meals without depending on processed foods like meat analogues and soy cheeses. Thankfully, culinary experts like Mary McDougall and Fatfree Vegan Kitchen's Susan Voisin have paved the way with hundreds of recipes for me to start from. Ultimately, my journey may lead me to a high-raw low-fat vegan diet that includes moderate amounts of cooked starches. But wherever it leads me, I'll be sharing the adventure here with you and will keep you posted on my progress.
For starters, here's the first meal I made McDougall style. It's a Monk Bowl with tempeh, kale, carrots, broccoli, and brown rice in a spicy Asian Ginger sauce. I thought it was quite tasty and definitely filling. It sure was pretty to look at! The verdict from my finicky husband: Delicious! Recipe here. Enjoy!