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Plantastic: A Little Science From the Shivering Chicken

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

By Anne Trominski:

So, I’ve made clear that I am a proponent of guilt-free eating. I give myself breaks when I can’t be a 100% plant-based angel. This is how I make healthy work for me. I build wiggle room into the equation because I have found that to be more realistic for who I am. An all or nothing mentality tends to lead me to a “Fuck this” mentality, or worse, an “I can’t” mentality. If that feels familiar to you, a little wiggle room might work for you too. However, there is something to be said about jumping into the plant-based diet full tilt and not wiggling about it. I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least bring it up.

When I began my plant-based journey, I went from healthy omnivore to vegetarian to full vegan meals. I would like to tell you this was because I had some grand plan to ease myself into a challenging change to my lifestyle, but really I just had meat and cheese in my fridge and I didn’t want to throw it away. That’s just wasteful. I purged meat from life by cooking it and serving it for dinner. That’s a perfectly reasonable option if you are choosing to embark in a plant-based diet. However, there are some solid reasons to go cold turkey when you decide to eat vegan.

A shift in diet from not-so-healthy to healthier is always accompanied by cravings. There’s some really interesting science behind this that is described in detail by Drs. Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer in their book The Pleasure Trap. It’s also more briefly explained in Dr. Lisle’s TED Talk:

Or you could just keep reading for my exceptionally brief unscientific take on it. Basically, human beings are just another type of animal. Like all animals, we go about our lives trying to survive and mate in as efficient a way as possible. When we do things that help us survive efficiently, we feel good. This is evolution in action. Our brain triggers a sense of contentment when we go about doing the things that we need to do to survive. However, we, like the other animals, can get confused easily. Our brains think it works the other way, too. If something makes us feel good, it must mean its helping us survive efficiently! That’s why an intelligent human being can know there is scientific data showing that we don’t need all the calories in a commercially bought bacon cheeseburger, but our brain still really wants one. Calories are good! Calories mean survival! Lots of calories must be really good then!

The good news is, our brains can learn. If you stop eating the bacon cheeseburgers, your brain might initially go, “Ahhhhh, ready source of calories is missing, go eat that thing!” but eventually it will calm down. It will go, “Hey, I get enough calories from this mushroom stir-fry!” and stop trying to get you to drive to Chili’s. Your cravings will decrease the longer you go without eating those unhealthy foods, and it will even switch over so you crave things that are good for you. People aren’t lying when they say, “Mmm, they have a Brussel sprout appetizer!” They’ve just retrained their brains’ expectations from the brains of the people going, “You know they serve cheese fries here, right?”

The problem is, even if our brains can learn, they can also get confused again. Partaking in cheesecake can send your brain back into caloric bliss, so the next night when you want to go back to grapes for dessert, your brain will send you a hallucinatory cake craving that leaves you weak in the knees. The best way to avoid one of those is to avoid the cheesecake in the first place. So, every time I wiggle and toss some feta into my otherwise vegan salad, I’m making it harder on my evolutionary self. Science says that in the long run, cold turkey is actually easier than my shivering chicken approach.

In a webinar, Dr. Lisle said that the strongest cravings last about a week. If you can get past a week of clean, angelic veganism you will start finding it easier and easier to stick to. After that, it takes a few months of plant-based eating to really retrain your brain.

This is why a lot of health advocates of the plant-based lifestyle recommend avoiding even the substitutes for meats and cheeses when you first get started. For one thing, vegan “meats” and “cheeses” are highly processed and not the healthiest thing you could be eating. Is your goal less unhealthy or actually healthy? The sooner you accustom yourself to truly healthy foods, the easier it will be for you to resist the unhealthy ones. Also, if you’re trying to not eat bacon, maybe putting something that’s a lot a like bacon but not quite isn’t really the best way to avoid it. It might just make the craving stronger.

If you do go to the actual scientific sources for some of this information, you’ll see that some people suggest fasting to arrive at your new state of brain happy even faster than just jumping in to full vegan eating. Dr. Lisle ends his Ted Talk with such a suggestion. I, personally, get antsy when people start talking about fasts and cleanses. Us kooky-brained animals are super good at messing up good things. It’s so easy for us to take ideas that are about eating and being healthy and turn them into eating disorders or, at least, risky behavior. Remember, it was your overly enthusiastic brain that got you here in the first place. Don’t drink lemon water and cayenne pepper while dancing naked with crystals for a week because someone posted it on Pinterest as the way to learn to love kale. There are better ways (they’re called kale chips). If you are considering fasting and/or cleansing to jump start a healthy mode of diet, please follow the procedures exactly as they are described by the doctor recommending them. Even better, do them under a medical professional’s supervision.

So, scientifically and definitively, it is healthier to go full-on healthy vegan when it comes to eating. It’s also hard to do at a holiday party. A gal can only eat so many dry carrot sticks before she starts eyeing the cheese ball, am I right? If you wiggle a little in your healthy eating, and partake of the calorie-ridden side of life, be prepared to deal with some post-holiday cravings. But reassure yourself that (1) its normal you crazy, kooky animal, and (2) you can outlast the cravings. The wonderful thing about eating righteously is that it makes it easier to eat righteously. Your brain will even (eventually, the bastard) reward you with a sense of healthy contentment.

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