Food & Drink

How My Family Is Adopting a Plant-Based Diet After Watching ‘You Are What You Eat’ on Netflix

written by ANNIE ATHERTON

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Source: Elevae Visuals
Source: Elevae Visuals

I’ve known that a plant-based diet is healthy for a long time, but knowing it and doing something about it are two different things. And with the chaos of raising a toddler, it’s been easy to slip into old habits, like eating a slapdash turkey sandwich multiple times a week.

But after finishing the Netflix documentary series You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment, which came out in January of this year, both my husband and I felt super motivated to clean up our diets. The documentary is based on an eight-week study of 22 sets of identical twins who were put on different healthy diets (one vegan, one omnivore). They then measured a bunch of different health metrics at the beginning and end. I figured they’d maybe shed some body fat and feel more energized, but the effects were way deeper.

Lessons learned from ‘You Are What You Eat’

The twins eating a vegan diet had lower cholesterol and lower blood sugar levels.​​ They didn’t just have less fat—they had less of the specific kind of fat that clings close to internal organs, putting you more at risk for serious health issues. Not only that—they actually showed a reduction in “biological age,” which researchers define as the amount of damage in the body on a cellular level. As in, someone could be 50 years old on paper but have a biological age of 45. On top of all that, the vegan twins had higher libido. 

Meanwhile, the series dug into the ugly side of the agriculture industry. While I wasn’t unaware of it, it was painful to see the awful conditions that the vast majority of farm animals in our country live in—cramped shoulder-to-shoulder in enclosed buildings where they never see the sun, suffering from untold diseases. 

All that being said, we didn’t want to swear off animal products entirely. I just don’t have the willpower, to be honest, and I also know that it takes a lot of effort to get enough protein on a vegan diet. I especially don’t feel equipped to provide that kind of diet for my toddler in a healthy way. But I also believe in the edict to not make perfect the enemy of good. For us, it’s about effort, not perfection. Here’s what we’ve learned after a few months of making a concerted effort to eat a more plant-based diet.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet is not necessarily vegan or even vegetarian. It just means you eat mostly food derived from plants, which includes fruit and vegetables but also grains, beans, and nuts. When you think about how much that encompasses, it’s a lot of different food.

How my family is adopting a more plant-based diet

Our family has a flexible approach. We think of it as a sort of aspirational guideline rather than a set of rules. So we still eat eggs for breakfast every day, though we buy them from Wilcox Farms, which uses pastured raised hens (and yes, it is more expensive, but I feel better about it). We buy a bit of meat but look for more humane brands. And at someone else’s house, we eat whatever they serve. 

Basically, I find it a lot more fun and fulfilling to think of it as being more about adding than subtracting. As long as we’re eating lots of plants, we can tip the ratio of plants to animal products.

We make ‘fancy’ salad bowls

My favorite plant-based meals are hearty soups and the fancy salad/grain bowls you get at chains like Chop’t or Sweetgreen, so I wanted to try to recreate those at home. To start, we did a massive grocery shopping haul at the health food store nearby. It was honestly really fun, and felt like the first time in a while that we had a project we were mutually excited about. Not only did we get a ton of vegetables—both fresh and frozen (which are often just as healthy as fresh)—but we stocked up on all kinds of dry beans and grains in the bulk section. Chickpeas, beans, and split peas are all super filling and protein-packed staples. 

It’s easy to forget how many kinds of grains there are, all with unique textures and flavors. Within the rice genre alone, there’s red, brown, black, jasmine, Basmati, Arborio, and more. Then there’s quinoa, farro, barley, and so many other grains. Eating a wider variety of them is a great way to get more nutrients while keeping simple dishes feeling new. We have a $30 rice cooker that makes it super easy to cook nearly any grain. It may be the one kitchen appliance I can’t imagine living without (after a coffee maker, of course). To add more flavor to your rice or quinoa, just throw in a tiny bit of butter, oil, and/or bouillon.

When we got home, we cut up and roasted a bunch of vegetables, including cauliflower, onion, and broccoli. All we did before popping them in the oven was season them with salt and oil. That way, we had a bunch of ingredients for salad bowls ready to go. Lazy girl tip: When I make myself lunch on a workday and want to add kale to it, I don’t even get out the cutting board. I just rip pieces directly off the stems and toss them into a bowl raw or into a lightly oiled sauté pan to soften them up. 

plant based meals
Source: Elevae Visuals

We copy restaurants and salad bars

If you come across a healthy dish you love at a deli or restaurant, you might be able to copy it. You’ve already sampled it and know that you like it. Our local grocery, PCC, has delicious, healthy prepared food in the deli, with lots of plant-forward dishes like a salad made of chickpeas, spelt berries, and mayonnaise or veganaise. I realized that they publish the recipes for these online. They also list all the ingredients of a given dish on the container itself, so I can get the gist just from that. For other restaurant chains, you can get the basic idea for various salad bowls just by looking at the ingredients on the menu. Salads are an art, not a science, so you really don’t need precise quantities.

We use ‘Oh She Glows’ for vegan recipe ideas

Angela Liddon of the brand Oh She Glows is famous for her delicious vegan recipes, which you can find online, in her bestselling cookbooks, or in the Oh She Glows app. Though it costs $3.99, the convenience of having all the info on a nice, sleek app is nice.

We’ve made her 10-Spice Vegetable Soup dozens of times, and it is spicy, warming, and super filling. I often simplify it by cutting corners: Instead of portioning out each spice, I use one Cajun seasoning mix. And I often substitute butternut squash for sweet potatoes, which are so much easier to cut. My husband also made her Instant Pot Butternut Squash and Cauliflower Curry recipe, and it was a hit. Granted, it came out very spicy, so you might want to go easy on the red curry paste depending on you and your kids’ tastes.

We splurge on good condiments and add-ons

We already had a lot of great Asian condiments, like soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, Sriracha, and furikake. Any of these make the simplest dish of sautéed veggies, tofu, and rice delicious. But as we looked to explore new recipes, many called for condiments we didn’t have, like harissa, a hot chili pepper paste commonly used in Middle Eastern and North African dishes, or tahini, an Arab condiment made of toasted sesame, which gives hummus and many other dishes their nutty, savory flavor. Neither were cheap to buy, but they added so much to the dishes we used them in. 

For salads and salad bowls, having nicer olive oil and vinegar on hand makes a big difference. Williams Sonoma’s balsamic vinegar is some of the best I’ve ever had, and it’s strong, so you only need a bit for salad dressing or to drizzle on roasted vegetables. As for premade salad dressings, Trader Joe’s Green Goddess salad dressing and Brianna’s dressing line are personal favorites. Of course, fresh herbs and citrus add a lot, too. Just a squeeze of lemon in a salad or some shredded cilantro, and you’ve got a far more flavorful meal.

Source: Elevae Visuals

We reach for nutrient-dense snacks

Seeds are magical when you really think about it. A single serving of chia seeds (2.5 tablespoons) has 5 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, and tons of healthy fats. I like to stir it into yogurt or a smoothie. Just be sure to clean out your dishwasher after, as it can kind of gunk up the filter. Ground flaxseed is another super nutritious add-in for smoothies and other dishes. For other filling snacks, I love having lots of roasted almonds, cashews, and pistachios around, which you can grab at Costco for a little cheaper.

We experiment with meat and cheese alternatives

I’m very skeptical of meat alternatives because many of them are super processed. Still, our reasons for cutting back on animal products aren’t only about health; we also want to contribute less to an inhumane agriculture industry. So, if we’re craving a burger once in a while, why not try a soy-based one? The Beyond Burger was really good once we added condiments. It genuinely felt like eating a burger. Some of the nut-based ‘cheeses’ at our local health grocery were solid, too. I think everything in moderation is the best strategy for us to move toward a more plant-based diet.

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