My Journey with Veganism + My Thoughts on the What The Health Documentary

My Journey with Veganism + My Thoughts on the What The Health Documentary

After sharing on Instagram that I was watching the What The Health documentary on Netflix, I was inundated with messages asking me a variety of questions, but mostly, “What did you think?”

Since it’s such a hot topic right now and one that I do have strong opinions on, I figured I’d write about my thoughts on this documentary and at the same time, share more about my experiences with veganism.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the What The Health documentary, it’s a documentary meant to “[expose] the collusion and corruption in government and big business that is costing us trillions of healthcare dollars, and keeping us sick.” How is the government and big business doing that? Through the promotion of animal products.

Thus, this documentary is pro-plant based and anti the consumption of animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, etc), due to the positive health benefits of plant-based eating and the supposed negative effects of consuming animal protein. There are many other documentaries like this one out there, such as Forks Over Knives.

My journey with veganism

Now, before I get into what I think about these claims, let me share my journey with a plant-based diet. Many of you already know that I eat 80% plant-based and 20% omnivorously (aka most of the time, I eat vegan/vegetarian and the other 20% of the time, I eat animal protein.)

Turn the clock back to the summer before my senior year of college, in 2008. I had just gotten back from studying abroad in Europe and I was pushing the scale at 190 (I remember hopping on a scale at my then-boyfriend’s house and weighing in at 189 and gasping.) What caused that weight gain? A lack of self control. I ate everything – in large portions. Sure, I ate vegetables, but I also ate pizza, pasta, ice cream, cookies, and lots of bread.

I spent that entire summer trying to lose weight. I was interning and living in New York City and found myself eating under 1,000 calories Monday through Thursday and then consuming 2,500+ calories on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It was totally unhealthy and this was the first time in my life that I felt out of control of my health.

My friend Sarah shared a book with me on veganism (Skinny Bitch.) She had read it and said, “Read it and let’s go vegan together!” I spent one Saturday afternoon in the summer by my parents’ pool reading it from front to cover. I put the book down and remember thinking, “How did I NOT know about all of this?!” From that exact moment on, for the next 2 years, I ate a 100% vegan diet. I took it a step further and eliminated all processed sugar, foods, and caffeine.

What did I read that caused this decision?

  • Eating plant-based is epically better for the environment (no matter how organically you feed your cattle, their farts and burps release methane which is really damaging to the ozone layer)
  • Even if you’re eating organically and ethically raised animals, you’re still contributing to the grander ‘demand’ for animal protein and thus, continuing the vicious cycle of environmental damage
  • Plants don’t clog arteries or cause heart disease – they do the exact opposite, it’s possible to cure debilitating ailments through a plant-based diet.
  • The role of big corporations and the government in promoting the consumption of animal protein is terrifyingly corrupt

Since then, my body has never felt better than I did back then, when I first started eating vegan. I felt like I was always walking on clouds – so energized, so focused, and my digestive systems worked so well. I was tired when I was supposed to be tired and I had so much energy, I worked out 7 days a week, just because I needed a way to spend that energy. My skin was gorgeous and glowing and I went from weighing in the 170s to my lowest weight at 128 pounds.

Why did I stop eating vegan?

I graduated college and life changed. I moved into my first apartment and lived alone. I had my first job (a very time-consuming, taxing job working for the Trump organization) and no longer had the luxury of time on my hands, like I did in college. I worked weekends, long houred events, and lived in Hoboken, NJ, right near New York City, with all the great culinary experiences of that city at my fingertips. I was going out to bars with friends, and living the life of a woman in her early 20s.

My health took a backseat to my social life and I was finding that while, yes, I was eating vegan, I was no longer doing the diet in a healthful manner. Since I wanted to go to all these amazing restaurants in NYC with my friends, I would go and have to eat a side order of steamed broccoli and a baked potato for dinner – or, worse, if there was really nothing on the menu to eat, I’d just raid the bread basket to fill myself up and soak up the bottle of wine I was drinking with my friend at dinner.

Needless to say, I was no longer cooking for myself every night in my college apartment and since I was living near New York City and not a town in North Carolina, the temptation was just too great. I wanted to live my life, and although there were vegan restaurants available (and I went to ALL of them), NY wasn’t in a point at that time where there was an abundance of vegan options on the menus (this was back in 2009/10.)

I wasn’t doing veganism right and I found myself eating lots of sugar and processed foods and saying, “Well, they’re still vegan!” I found myself sticking to veganism just to be a vegan. I was being a vegan for the wrong reasons and at that point in my life, veganism wasn’t the right choice for my lifestyle. I needed something less restrictive. If only I knew that 80/20 was an option.

I moved on to a ‘pescatarian diet,’ where I ate fish and dairy, but no meat or poultry. This was my middle ground and I started to feel better. It felt more sustainable. I was a pescatarian from about 2010 to 2013, when I started Inspiralized. I wanted to create a blog that promoted a balanced way of eating and fueling yourself. I didn’t want someone who enjoyed meat to feel excluded. I wanted vegans and meat-eaters to be able to find something at Inspiralized. Basically, I didn’t want Inspiralized to have any labels but ‘healthy.’ I was sick of diet labels. So, I started experimenting with animal proteins, like ground turkey, chicken, and pork. I started teaching myself how to cook these meats, and I incorporated them back into my diet, slowly.

I think I’ve only had steak once or twice since going vegan (I’ll cook it for someone else and for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to eat it.) If there’s a beef meatball, I will enjoy it, but there’s something about a slab of steak that makes me nauseous, so I can’t get myself there.

I’ve just found what works best for me, in the sense of a balanced, sustainable lifestyle for this stage of my life. I’ll be honest, I’ve been getting random meat cravings in this pregnancy, so I’ve had lamb chops randomly and beef meatballs more in the past 5 months than I have in the past 5 years.

It’s all about listening to your body and figuring out what fuels you best for now. If it’s an indulgence, learning how to give into the indulgence without overdoing it is important (ie having one chocolate chip cookie instead of a full bag or going out for ice cream once a week instead of every night.) Nothing is forever! And one bite of cheesecake isn’t going to shave a year off your life.

For example, I know that veganism makes me feel the best, but only when I have the conviction to follow that ‘diet’ properly. Thus, I try to eat vegan as much as possible and, when I need a reset, I go 100% vegan for a few days or a week.

I know that eating dairy or any animal protein before 6pm does not sit well with me. Thus, I tend to eat vegan for breakfast, lunch and all snacks in between. Dinner is sometimes vegan, but this is when I’ll cook an animal protein like a salmon or make a lean turkey meat sauce. I’d say 2-3 weekly dinners are vegan and the rest are not. However, I don’t hold myself to any metrics (ie I must eat a certain number of vegan meals a week), I just do what works for my schedule/my cravings/my well-being.

I hate feeling bloated. I hate feeling tired. I hate it when my skin breaks out. And these symptoms are always caused (for me, at least) by animal protein, whether it’s a bowl of sugary ice cream or a lean, ‘healthy’ turkey burger. I just know that’s how my body reacts to it. So why do I eat foods that give me these symptoms? Because I’m human – and they taste good! And life is short and there are some seriously talented chefs out there and I love nothing more than a culinary experience!

And as I’ll discuss in a moment, even swapping out one meal a day for a vegan one can have profound effects on your health and the environment, so me eating an 80/20 vegan ‘diet’ makes me feel good about my decisions both personally and globally.

Finally, My Thoughts on the What The Health Documentary

Now that you know my back story on veganism and that I already lean towards the ideals that the What The Health (let’s call it WTH) doc was promoting, here are my thoughts.

If you know nothing about veganism or it’s purported health benefits, don’t let the What The Health documentary scare you into becoming a vegan

Right after I read Skinny Bitch, yes, I started eating vegan, but while I started, I began reading more into veganism. I wanted to really make sure what I had read was true. Sure enough, it was, but there were definitely some ‘scare tactics’ used in the Skinny Bitch book, just like there were in the WTH documentary.

The documentary definitely omits any information about eating ethically and responsibly grown animal proteins, so yes, there are ways to limit the nasty effects of consuming meat and dairy by consuming products that aren’t made in unethical slaughterhouses and full of disgusting (and scary!) diseases and bacteria.

This would be like the equivalent of an anti-vegan documentary saying, “Vegetables are full of GMOs, they are so bad for you and result in reproductive issues!” without mentioning that if you purchase non-GMO vegetables, all of those concerns go away.

What to do? If you think veganism is too strict for you, read more about the benefits of moving over to organic meat and dairy products.

Having said that, I think these documentaries are great as conversation starters

Health is like religion. More specifically, diet is like religion. Some people swear by Paleo diets, which, in general, are more dependent on animal proteins (since you eliminate many vegan proteins like lentils, tofu, and beans.) Some people swear by veganism. There are so many diets out there, because there are so many unique individuals – there’s not one diet that fits all.

I think it’s definitely an eye-opener about the government and the big businesses that are fueling the consumption of animal protein. The whole “Got Milk?” campaign is truly deceptive and if you don’t know that by now, perhaps you learned it in the documentary. Dairy milk is the last thing we need for healthy bones – it’s bad for our bones (did you know that Asian countries have the lowest rate of osteoporosis and consume the LEAST amount of dairy milk, while the US consumes the most dairy milk and has the highest rate of osteoporosis?)

At the end of the day, I think it’s great that these documentaries start the conversation, especially for people who had NO idea that animal protein can have negative effects on your body. People have no idea that medicinal properties of plants – there are people out there curing their ailments through vegan diets! Type 2 diabetes can literally be reversed on a plant-based diet – now that’s incredible. There’s something there.

The documentary made it seem like diabetes is caused solely by meat consumption

I think this was the biggest scare tactic of the film that was misleading. Personally, I know several diabetics that have diabetes, unrelated from diet. For example, my mother got diabetes while pregnant (called gestational diabetes.) This is something that develops in the placenta and is actually not diet related. If not treated, it can turn into full-blown Type 2 (or even Type 1) diabetes, but at first, it’s not related to diet at all.

If you get one thing from the documentary, stop eating processed foods (like sugar) and lower your intake of meat and dairy

First and foremost, eat real food. Cut out the processed foods (especially sugar) as best you can. Shop mostly from the produce section and eat mostly plants. Cut out as much dairy and meat as you can and see the effects it has on your body.

Here’s a personal example. In my second trimester, I was eating a lot more dairy and meat than I had ever before (thanks to crazy pregnancy cravings) and I was getting bad back pain. I blamed it on my growing belly, but as it worsened, I told myself to go back to basics and rely on my diet as the medicine. Sure enough, the lower back pain I was riddled with in my second trimester has nearly disappeared, despite an even BIGGER belly. I cut out the nightly frozen yogurt and Friday night sausage pizza, and sure enough, I felt a million times better.

I wholeheartedly believe that a plant-based diet is the best way to eat, if you can maintain it, but if not, just making small changes in your diet can be immensely helpful in your short and long term health.

How can you start?

  • If you have eggs for breakfast or yogurt, try swapping in with something vegan instead, like some avocado toast, a vegan protein smoothie, oatmeal and berries, or toast with nut butter and banana.
  • Replace one meal a day with something completely vegan. Try to increase that to two meals a day, a few days a week.
  • Always order the side salad (not fries) when you’re out to lunch – use every meal/moment as an opportunity to cram in veggies.
  • Cooking veggies with butter, processed oils or cheese doesn’t count – season your vegetables with spices, seasonings, and healthy fats (like olive oil) to give them flavor and eat them in their true state, not melted in cheese or doused in butter
  • If you’re busy and on-the-go, green juices can be an easy and quick way to guarantee you get a serving of veggies in your day.
  • Don’t look at processed foods differently just because they’re vegan – a bag of potato chips might be potatoes, but when they’re fried in GMO-ridden canola oil, the nutritional integrity of the potato is no longer there. Eat real, whole food.

For those of you who watched the documentary, what do you think?

Inspiralized

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Comments

  1. What a great and enlightening article. I have not eaten meat in probably 10 years and truly never crave it. I am basically plant based and use some veggie burgers and Quorn meat substitute products occasionally. I do enjoy Greek yogurt and I use almond milk. I rely on the yogurt as protein source. My question is how to reduce dairy and which Vegan protein powder do you use? I have had breast cancer so I stay away from processed soy and just use tofu etc. I know the protein helps my hunger so need to get it from other sources. Thanks!
  2. I found it to be great and right down my first class for my masters degree in nutrition. But I, like you, caught the diabetes statement which was misleading. Now diabetes will be helped with more of a plant based diet for sure.I was actually ready in one day to begin the body redesigning - anti cancer diet / life style. This helped me get back on track and kick me down the motivation road
  3. Great post!! I'm trying VERY hard to follow an anti inflammatory diet, which is basically plant based, Whole Foods, no animal protein except high quality cheeses (in moderation), yogurt and seafood (for inflammation purposes).... I'm following this diet for RA, but also for weight loss. Did you have a lot of success with weight loss when you were Vegan?? I've seen so many you tube Vegans also restrict fat?? Even healthy fats....? This seems nuts... (they also cut out nuts!!). Just curious if you also restricted fat??
  4. Ali, I started following you right when you started your blog and have bought both your books and your Inspiralizer. I enjoy everything that you write and love your recipes. (I also lived in Jersey City for a year after college as I did a year of volunteer work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. so I love that connection) This article has touched me and I am going to be mindful of eating more vegan and your 80/20 rule sounds doable. I have also been a fan of the Peloton bike before I read that you incorporated it into your exercise routine, so that was another strong connection for me too! Well, today my Peloton bike is being delivered and I look forward to incorporating your food habits, insights, and exercise with my new Peloton in hopes to feel better and lose the weight that I need to lose! Thank you for all of your inspiration and for sharing from your heart.
  5. Fiona McGregor :
    Please stop calling yourself vegan, you are mostly plant based, as veganism isn't a diet, it is a belief. Vegans try to cause the least amount of harm to animals and the planet by not using any animal products, so is so much more than a diet, food is only a small part of it. You can't be a part time vegan. I enjoy some of your recipes, but would much prefer you to call them plant based meals please.
  6. I made your veggie sandwich last night and it was Ah-mazing! Who knew some veggies on wheat bread could be so good! I made another one for lunch today and a friend saw it and she is going to the store after work to get ingredients to make one too!
  7. I love this post... My husband works on programs that promote behavior change specifically related to climate change (and the environment) - and one program is incorporating more plant based meals into your diet (not necessarily going fully vegan or vegetarian because as you mention some people find that impossible). We've been eating plant based about 80% of the time - I just got your cook books and the inspiralizer and can't wait to incorporate them!
  8. Ashley Messer :
    This was so great and well written! I wish there were more articles like this about vegan/veg lifestyles. I read skinny bitch in college and went pescatarian for a year and so many people gave me SO much crap for it but after being fed information (like the "Got Milk" campaign) for so long, it's all they know and it's hard for them to accept anything else. More conversations like this about meat in moderation and the 80/20 rule are a great start and so awesome for moving away from the classic "meat with every meal" mindset that so many Americans live by. Thanks, Ali!
  9. I LOVE this post! my husband and I just watched this which I was grateful for since I already know all this (read the china study years ago)... he's finally starting to pay attention to why I'm a vegetarian :) that being said I need to cut down on cheese for real. thanks for sharing your story!
  10. I went vegan after reading Skinny Bitch too! I lasted about six months and weighed the lowest I have since fifth grade - around 108 lbs. My favorite cookbook was Veganomicon. For the most part, I ate health food, but the diet wreaked havoc on my digestive system. Several years later I went Primal/Paleo and felt a lot better. I think the balance you describe in your own diet is great. I would love to revisit some of my favorite vegan recipes but without the gluten. I'm not sure I will check out the documentary, but I really appreciate your analysis.
    • Hi Jillian,I have been vegan for almost 3 years and it seems my digestive system keeps going up and down. I saw you had issues when you were vegan, what was it do you think that was causing these issues?
  11. Bryan Clifford :
    I'm a type 2 diabetic ,I recently started a plant based whole food life style and I have cut my meds in half and I hopefully I will be off all meds in a few months !!! I love this life style it is working for me . Thank you for sharing your story !! I look forward to your blog thank you !!!
  12. Grace Merchlinski :
    Yes yes yes!!! Love this!
  13. The documentary left me feeling like I really did need to make a lifestyle change. I was only ever eating chicken & turkey, as beef and pork, seafood, other animal products, didn't appeal to my tastebuds, I never liked them, and spent my entire life only eating poultry. I am also lactose intolerant, but am able to eat cheese for some reason, without problems, except in large quantities. I was eating 2 eggs for breakfast every day also - and love eggs and cheese, love love them. After having watched this doc I decided, I will need to cut down on my eggs and dairy, but do not ever think I could eliminate them altogether, so in return - I will cut out meat entirely, since I was only ever eating poultry - this was not going to be hard to do - subtracting meats from my home meals would not be an issue for me. I am not naive enough to think that I have to go full vegan and all these terrible things will happen to me if I do not - but it definitely did leave me feeling like my overall health and footprint on the world would improve should I cut back on eggs and cheese, and eliminate meat altogether. I would say this documentary has changed my life - positively, and I hope it continues to make positive changes on others in the future.
  14. I needed to send you one tiny word to be able to give many thanks once again for the stunning pointers you have contributed in this article. It is quite surprisingly open-handed with people like you to deliver openly all that many of us could possibly have sold for an electronic book to help with making some profit for their own end, particularly considering that you could possibly have done it if you ever decided. Those tactics as well served as a good way to comprehend most people have a similar dreams like my own to know a good deal more on the subject of this condition. I am certain there are several more enjoyable sessions ahead for folks who browse through your site.

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  1. […] I’m an avid follower of Ali Maffucci on Instagram (she’s the woman who created the Inspiralizer, and she recently did a review on the documentary including her decision to go vegan many years […]

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