Friday, September 25, 2009

Getting My McDougall On and
Changing My Fat-Vegan Ways

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!


Ellen said...

Girl, I thought you looked great the last time I saw you, but if you wanna lose a few pounds, I can sure understand how you feel. I'll be interested in knowing how you feel energy-wise on this diet and how Mark does with it, too. Thanks for always sharing your insights and for being so candid.

alicia said...

Please let me know how you do with this. I think I also want to try it. I'm a failed raw-fooder, too. I hated eating all that fat. Most of the raw cookbooks recommend using tons of nuts, seeds, and oils in everything. The McDougall plan sounds very sensible to me.

Tanya said...

This really caught my eye. I will be watching closely, maybe I'll try this sort of diet too. Although, I'm only veg, not vegan. But still very interested! I look forward to seeing what you make :)

ginger said...

i am 60 pounds lighter now than i was 4 years ago. i lost about 30 pounds when i went vegetarian and another 30 when i went vegan. i'm still obese. a few years ago my weight loss tapered off and i actually began to struggle with weight gain again so i float within a 10 pound range now.

i tried to go raw for 2 months last year and gained 15 was so hard and i was never not hungry. i usually do best with cooked vegetables and tofu/seitan/tempeh and lots of fruit and whole grains. my problem is that i eat too much yummy pastry and i don't exercise.

anyway...i could write a blog about this so i'll stop now, haha. this is interesting though...i thought i was the only fat vegan in existence. :)

Vegiegail said...

Unless you're one of those lucky people who can eat 'til you bust and never gain a pound (like my husband), overly processed, refined, fat- and sugar-laden foods are easy to overeat on and really help pile on excess pounds regardless of whether or not you also eat animal foods. Sitting in front of a computer all day long certainly doesn't help, either. So I should add that I'm increasing my exercise while fine-tuning my diet. Why don't we do it together?

ginger said...

I'm in! I will search out the book this weekend and let you know. :)

The Vegan said...

Regarding obesity: My understanding is that basically if you weigh 20% more than what your ideal weight should be, you are obese. This being the case I have been obese for several of my vegan years. I use to weigh somewhere in the 180's. My ideal weight, I would put at about 145, with a max of 150. 20% of that puts me at 180 so I was, by definition, obese. Most people thought of me as healthy looking, and maybe a little overweight. I suppose I hid it well. Anyway, my points are 1) a very high percentage of the American population is obese and 2)it is very easy to be an obese vegan, although a high fat vegan diet is far less detrimental than the average meat eating diet.

And vegan or not, excess weight is a big factor in decreasing one's life span.

As for which diet is healthier between what McDougall recommends and what Doug recommends, I have long believed a diet that a diet that consists of raw, organic, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds is by far the healthiest way to go. I have believed this for as long as I have been vegan(almost 21 years). And my beliefs began long before I even knew who Doug was. Of course I have never made the permanent transition. I did a juice diet once for 38 days and then I transitioned off it for about 2 weeks. I wouldn't recommend doing a juice diet but during those 38 days plus the 14 days transitioning back to cooked foods I never felt better in my life. The first cooked thing I ate was steamed veggies and the that was the beginning of the end of my feeling incredible. I got a headache and felt lethargic. And when I went back to the other cooked foods, I initially felt similarly shitty. But in my mind I was dying to eat those foods I had been away from for the 52 days. Actually when I first ate them they tasted horrible. I guess my clean body was rid of the craving for them and had reached a healthy state. Why I ever went back to cooked I can't explain but I did. It took a lot of discipline to go vegan overnight like I did 21 years ago. And then a little over a year ago, knowing I was diagnosed as gluten and soy intolerant I quit gluten and soy.(note, since quitting gluten and soy I have lost about 20 pounds) So I do have some discipline but I have not yet quit cooked foods. I don't know if I ever will....

So my extremely long worded point is that after many years of learning I continue to believe what I first learned years ago and that is that the healthiest diet one can eat is a diet that consists of only organic raw fruit, raw veggies with moderate amounts of nuts and seeds.

Eliminating oils if you are eating cooked is a wonderful idea though.
Personally I would try and eliminate grains too, although myself, I still eat a ton of rice.
None the less I think you will drop weight and be so much healthier without the oils and all the "fake" processed foods.
And given what a wonderful chef you are, you will find you still enjoy your food. It will be a delicious, healthy and slimming adventure. Enjoy!!!!

ginger said...

i believe that many people who are considered obese are not really so...i, however, really am. i cold easily lose 100 pounds and still have room for more weight loss.

i found his website and read a lot of his newsletters. i then found 2 of his books for super cheap on and have ordered them. he's an interesting guy and it's refreshing to see someone that doesn't think cooked food is to speak.

The Vegan said...

One correction to my above comment: I said it took a lot of discipline for me to go veg. Actually, that isn't true. Once I realized the reason I should go veg, I had no choice.

Vegiegail said...

Thank you for your thoughts and your kind support! I have also long believed that a diet high in whole, ripe, raw, organic, fresh fruits and veggies is ideal, but as you pointed out, McDougall has some very convincing arguments for why starchy foods like tubers, whole grains, and beans may also be healthy staples of the human diet.

So far, I'm feeling pretty good on this diet. I've got more energy, I don't feel hungry or deprived, and now that it's getting cooler here, I am comforted by the warmth of cooked food. I'll check back in with you in about a month, and let you know if I've lost any weight. I don't ever go near a scale, so I won't be able to say "I lost x amount of pounds this week." But I can certainly tell by how my clothes fit and how I look when I see myself in the mirror.

Vegan Marr said...

Alicia & Ginger - you followed the wrong raw food advice. High amounts of nuts & seeds & avacado & cheating by using olive oil & coconut oil is NOT a correct raw diet. A correct one is LOW FAT, eating an abundance of fruits & veggies in their original state. No dehydrating & removing all the valueable & much needed water in it.

2nd best choice is a low fat cooked vegan diet with at least 50% raw. No one will be healthy w/o a good amount of raw fruit in the diet, and some raw greens.

Yes, too many vegans feel as long as it is vegan, they can eat it--without consideration for the fact that many snack & processed vegan foods have tons of crap ingredients that irritate the body, block the intestines & cause a variety of ailments. Just being vegan is no guarantee of no disease. One can still get stomach cancer, colitis, arthritis, a stroke. It's about the amount of fat & chemicals in the diet, and also about lifestyle--smoking, drinking, not enough sleep, not enough exercise, holding on to anger, staying in negative relationships, breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water--all have negative effects.

Buying everything certified organic is crucial. Ingesting invisible herbicides & pesticides is carcinogenic. The higher price is well worth it. What's more important to spend money on than the quality of the "fuel" you put in your body? If you're not well, nothing else matters.

I hope everyone will move to a vegan diet & then continue to refine it. The cleaner your diet, the better chance you have of a long, active life. And to have that, one needs to start now! Not when the ailments surface.

ginger said...

Wow, I don't believe I clarified what kinds of raw foods I ate when I tried a raw diet and the problem with raw food advice is that every single person who's ever given it to me has given me different advice than the last five people who each told me something different...just like any diet, it doesn't work for everyone, yet everyone thinks they know how to do it better than everyone else. And with all due respect, you have zero idea of the percentage of raw foods I currently consume or anything else, for that matter and, if you haven't figured it out by now, I find your assumptions and patronizing advice to be rude.

Vegiegail said...

Are we designed to thrive only on raw fruits and veggies, or have we evolved into starch eaters? It's true that most of eat far too many prepackaged convenience foods. (Hey, I wrote the book on it!) And it's also true that fruit is the ultimate "fast food." But I also think that science and archeology may show that tubers, beans, and whole grains are also ideal fuels for us. So I'm looking forward to reading Dr. McDougall's new book, The Starch Revolution, and for now, I'm going to see how eating cooked starches along with generous amounts of raw fruits and vegetables makes me look and feel.

Fifi said...

Wow and I thought I was the only obese vegan on the planet. I am 5 ft 1" having shrunk a bit and weigh 138lbs - damn!! My BMI says I am obese. All the vegans I have met are skinny. I was very pleasantly surprised when I turned vegan overnight just over a year ago (for compassionate reasons) when I realised that most of the vegan websites were focused on health too - minimal oil, lots of fresh organic veggies etc. etc. At 50, it's been a struggle losing the weight. I've probably lost 10 lbs since becoming vegan but it's not easy and I don't eat refined, processed foods or grains or sweets much. Now I'm trying to use less oil and control portions. Urg! Anyway, glad I'm not the only obese vegan out there although it sure feels like it - LOL!!!

Heidi said...

I can vouch for the energy levels of the starch based diet, as I've been eating that way for a month and never felt better in my life. I also ate 70% raw, including avocado, nuts, nut butters, and seeds, and didn't have the energy nor the weight loss I expected. In three months of "lots" of raw, I lost zero pounds. In three weeks of starch based vegan with about 50% starch, 50% veggies, both raw and cooked, I've lost 8 lbs. but more than the weight loss is the amazing clear headed, calm energy I am experiencing. I'd go with the starch based diet every time, though I do love raw foods, too.

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find the McDougall relatively easy to follow, and much easier in terms of weight loss and long-term weight control. I tried raw/vegan for a while, and in my case it was just not sustainable, nor satisfying. I'd also recommend reading Dr. Esselstyn's book on preventing heart disease. He has over 20 years of clinical experience showing how the McDougall diet (with no nuts at all) reversed even severe heart disease in his patients. To my knowledge, there is no similar research showing equal effectiveness of a raw diet. I've been able to keep 50lbs off for over 2 years now with the McDougall diet, and I can't recall ever going hungry once in that time.

Vegiegail said...

Hi Fifi! Welcome to my blog, and thank you for your comment! I think you'll find that if you eliminate oil and overt fats entirely (nuts, seeds, nut butters, tahini, etc.), you won't need to worry about portion control. And I'm finding after just a couple of weeks that just as Heidi and Anonymous (many thanks to both of you, too) stated, with a starch-based diet, you'll find the pounds coming off, and you'll feel satisfied and energized while they do!

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Michele Way said...

I know this is an old post but as a fan of McDougall, I love to read about others doing the same. Are you still following his plan?

Vegiegail said...

Hi Michele! Thanks for stopping by and also for your question. For the most part, yes. I'm plant-based all the time and for the most-part, eating low-fat whole foods. I'm also recognizing when my body needs more Omega 3 fatty acids, that I don't want to live without chocolate, and that I just might reach for a jar of Veganaise, because I'm craving an untuna salad sandwich. And I'm also noticing that potatoes are not necessarily my friends, but sweet potatoes and yams definitely are. How goes it with you?

Michele Way said...

I am similar in my eating style. I do great w/potatoes, but not so well with bread and other processed "white stuff." I eat a bit of chocolate now & then and do use a little cooking spray when I make oven-baked potatoes. I'd say I'm about 80% compliant w/McDougall, and that's good enough for me. :)