Nearly every time I ask my server if there is dairy in a dish or if I can get an entree without bacon they half graciously, half begrudgingly reply, “Oh, are you vegan?” And my head starts to spin. How do I answer this? I could go into lengthy explanations: That, technically, Oreos are vegan even if they aren’t healthy (too preachy); or that it’s not that I don’t like cheese and butter, they just don’t make me feel good (too personal). The truth is that I just don’t eat animal products; I consider myself a plant-based eater. But, to make it easy for everyone, I say yes. “Yes, I’m vegan.”
The real question I should be asking myself is why I care what my server thinks about my diet. Maybe it’s because I know how I used to feel about the “v-word” and, even worse, how I felt about super-healthy eaters. I thought healthy eaters were really missing out. There is no way they were satisfied after their hippie meal of sprouted-whatever. They certainly weren’t having as much fun as I was with my cheese-covered-everything.
But during this time, I was also in a lot of pain. I had a condition that had gotten so bad that most days I couldn’t get myself out of bed, let alone be creative. After two surgeries—and too many doctor visits to count—the verdict was for me to get a hysterectomy. As crazy as it sounds, I was OK with it. I just wanted to feel productive again. I wanted to be able to wake up and be excited to start the day. Before my scheduled surgery, a friend suggested I try a plant-based diet. Reluctantly, I gave it a shot. After a few months all of my pain was gone. I never got the surgery, and I have never looked back.
Good food was the medicine my body was craving. It was a magical potion that none of my doctors had told me about. As transformative as it was, it wasn’t exactly easy to overhaul my diet. In fact, I was pretty mad about it. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to eat and assumed I didn’t like the things I could eat. I was mourning my food rituals. I think we all have a few: a pint of ice cream when your heart gets broken or a big fat pizza to celebrate a new project. In design school, I would “reward” long sessions in the lab with Big Gulps and vending machine finds. After college it wasn’t much different; I’d graduated to giant bags of Sour Patch Kids and Diet Coke (in an effort to be “healthier”). With my new diet I didn’t eat these anymore, and it felt strange. What I didn’t realize is that what I’d considered soothing treats were actually having the opposite effect on my brain and body. They were making my head fuzzy and making me less productive. It wasn’t until I cut them out that I realized just how much they were slowing me down.
There are days that I look at a blank canvas on my computer screen for longer than I’d like. There are times I spend two days sketching just to hate everything and start over. Good food hasn’t necessarily made me better at design, but it has made me a better designer. I’ve noticed a better sense of clarity and passion for each project since I’ve changed my diet. I feel awake and alert, no matter what time of day. And “designer’s block” feels a lot less frustrating when I am treating my body right. But how could eating whole foods make such a dramatic change? It all comes down to the gut.
Wellness guru Dr. Mark Hyman explains that the gut is “your second brain.” He has found that it contains more neurotransmitters than the brain. He believes that food is information, not just calories. When I was feeding my gut with crappy Sour Patch Kids and Big Gulps, I was sending a message to my brain to feel like crap, too. On my former diet I was more worried about this junk making me fat. I didn’t even consider it was also making me feel uninspired and inefficient. When I started treating the brain that was in my belly with the same care as the one up top, powerful productivity changes happened.
An important thing to remember when changing your diet is that it is doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Start slow and see how your body reacts. Figure out what works best for you and keep doing it. (You will never want to stick with something if you loathe doing it.) Below are some first steps to get you started.
- Start your day with greens. Whether it is a juice from Whole Foods (I love the brand Suja) or a simple smoothie in your blender, this little change can make a huge impact on your day. I blend a frozen banana (peel before freezing!), one cup of almond milk and one-to-two handfuls of spinach or kale. It might seem strange at first but after a couple of weeks you won’t know how to start your day without one.
- Get creative in the kitchen. I always felt lost when it came to cooking with plant-based foods. It wasn’t until I started giving my new dinners the same treatment as my old ones that I came into my own. I didn’t serve unseasoned, undercooked pieces of meat, why would I do so with plants? Experiment with sauces, dressings and seasonings to make your veg meals exciting. Swap out dairy for unsweetened almond milk. I swear my mashed potatoes have never tasted better.
- Make veggies the centerpiece, not a side. A side dish of sweet potatoes can feel boring, but a plateful of sweet potato-and-black bean tacos doesn’t. A couple times per week, make plants the main event by combining your favorite veggies and grains. Adding a few slices of avocado makes everything taste better.
- Try baking with natural sugars. Sugar—white, cane juice, brown—was the last thing I ditched from my diet. I love to bake. I thought I couldn’t survive without sugar. But I discovered cooking with pure maple syrup. It makes my desserts lighter and richer. I can’t imagine ever using the white stuff again. Try one of my favorite cookie recipes and see for yourself.
Jessica Murnane is the founder of One Part Plant, a guide to clean food and a happy head. On her site, you’ll find new recipes, fun how-tos, and real-life advice. On the street, she's partnered up with some of the best restaurants and chefs in the country to offer plant-based dishes on their menus. Partners include Trenchermen, The Bristol, Floriole and more. In addition to One Part Plant, Jessica is the creator of So, How Was Your Day? and the owner of the stationery brand Suitor. Her work has appeared in publications such as House Beautiful, Oprah Magazine, and Real Simple. She’s currently a contributing editor at Country Living Magazine and a brand ambassador for Park Hyatt Chicago.