5 Big Years, 5 Big Lessons

It’s been quite a celebration around here lately with UCDIM’s 5-year anniversary.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the past, reflecting on how far we have come.

So before we embark on the future and our next five years, Fruit: Red GooseberryI thought it would be worthwhile sharing the five important lessons we’ve learned over the last five years.

Here goes…

#1 – People Are Ready to Change

Five years ago, when I first started at UC Davis, not many people knew what a “plant-based” diet was. Even those who understood its benefits considered it a “tough sell” to patients and especially to the general population.

For example, when I started to invite guest speakers for the Pioneers in Integrative Medicine Grand Rounds series, doctors would often tell me, “I can’t ask my patients to change their diet like that. They won’t do it. So I just ask them to eat less meat and dairy.”

My answer? “Your patients won’t change if you’re not willing to do the same.”

Even for doctors (maybe especially for doctors), you cannot ask others to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. It’s the old do as I say, not as I do problem.

Simply put, we have to lead by example – always.

Here is the good news: in the last five years, we have seen SO many physicians change their diets – and guess what? Their patients are following suit.

The proof points clearly to the fact that the plant-based lifestyle is on the rise. According to Google, the search interest for ‘vegan’ has increased 250% in the last 5 years. And a whopping 12% of millennials (now the world’s largest generation) call themselves vegans.

iStock_000074338137_MediumAnd even for those who are not 100% plant-based, it is estimated that over a third (36-39%) of the US population is interested in reducing or eliminating their meat and dairy consumption.

People really are ready and willing to change. All they need is information.

And they are getting it.

There are so many resources!

In the past 5 years, we have seen so many resources become available that raise awareness of the whole food, plant-based lifestyle.

From documentaries like Forks Over Knives to websites like NutritionFacts.org, which shares scientific evidence about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, we now have easy access to tons of information about following a plant-based diet.

And of course, our own blog is another rich resource dedicated to in-depth discussions about all aspects of the plant-based lifestyle.

#2 – It Is Easier Than Ever

Just 5 short years ago, there were only a handful of companies offering meat and dairy alternatives. Since then, there has been a virtual explosion of plant-based options on the market.

And the expansion has been not only in the quantity of what is offered but the quality of the foods available to us.

“Back in the day”, we could only find highly processed, sugar, oil, and salt (SOS)-laden meat and dairy substitutes. The taste and texture of this “food” did very little to inspire a diet change.

Now we find products made with 100% whole ingredients.

Products free of added oils, salts, and sugars.

These new plant-based foods actually look and taste like real food – because they are real food.

And they are so delicious that even people who have not transitioned to a 100% plant-based diet are eating them up.

We are living in an exciting time. A time when the pleasure of eating whole, plant-based foods equals, if not surpasses, that of eating animal-based foods. They taste better. They are better for you. They are better for the planet. And they do not harm any animals. Win-win-win-win!

Nuts- Pistachios_iStock_000010702489_MediumThe trend is not letting up soon, either. These exceptional food companies have now banded together to found a new trade group so they can have a seat at the regulatory table in Washington, D.C.

The goal is to “level the playing field so that plant-based foods [get] the same consideration as meats in debates about school lunches, dietary recommendations, and even environmental issues.”

Interestingly, it is the millennials who, concerned about the environment and daring to imagine alternatives that feed an ever-growing population with less damage to the planet, founded many of those companies.

These millennials are true innovators, shifting how we view ourselves in relation to our food and environment and contributing greatly to the “One Earth, One Health” initiative.

#3 – For You. For the Animals. For the Planet

We’ve talked about this one a lot in the past couple of weeks with our One Health series, but it bears mentioning again…

Since the term ‘vegan’ was coined, we have seen droves of people give up animal foods with the sole purpose of protecting the earth’s creatures from harm. Though the human health benefits of a plant-based diet have become a central reason for choosing a different lifestyle, many people still say animal welfare is an important part of why they chose and continue to choose this diet.

The big change that I have seen is that the focus has changed– from “avoiding animal foods” to “embracing whole, plant-based foods”.  This is exciting because this lifestyle is not just about what you should avoid, but what you should include in your diet.

#4 – Progress, Not Perfection

Progress–not perfection–should always be the goal.

Mar31_5Lessons_Illustrate10_000017316940In keeping with that, those of us who are plant-based should lead by example, provide information and support but never ‘demand’ people to change. Right here. Right now.

The truth is that, even if we are coming from a place of passion and compassions, we cannot help people by imposing our views on them.

For those of us who have been living plant-based for a long time, it is easy to forget how it all began.

Most of us started by cutting certain animal foods one at the time until we were 100% plant-based.

It is tempting to think that we might have gone straight to 100% plant-based if we had had all the information we have today (“If I knew then what I know now”). But the truth is we will never know what we might have done.

So, in the same way people around us respected our journey, we must respect and acknowledge the path our friends, family (or patients) are on now.

And in any event, the best part is that progress is being made.

I have witnessed a lot of change around me these past 5 years.

So many family, friends, and colleagues started to change their diets. Some made changes more rapidly and some took their time, but they have all made progress. And that is what matters in the end.

We all grow and evolve in different ways. The most important is to respect and appreciate everyone’s “imperfect” progress, including our own.

Progress–not perfection–should always be our main mantra.

#5 – Education, Education, Education

Last but not least, the fifth lesson I have learned is about the constant and never-ending need for education.

Not just for doctors and health professionals, but for each of us.Few Hazelnuts Isolated on White Background

The more we educate ourselves the more we trust our plant-based lifestyle choice.

With all the contradictory information out there (plus everything we hear from concerned family, friends, colleagues, doctors, dietitians), it can be hard to stay the course even though we know we are on the right track.

If we keep learning and understanding why our dietary choice is the best one for us, it becomes easier and easier to maintain the path we have chosen.

Education is the basis for everything.

It is a spark that must be kept alive.

That is precisely why we started to teach plant-based nutrition to our medical students last year.

As an academic medical center, it is our goal – our duty – to educate the doctors of the future.

We are on a mission to make sure every medical student has a chance to learn about plant-based nutrition before they graduate.

And the students love it, many of them changing their own diets as their education deepens.

Five years.

Five lessons.

And we just keep learning every single day.

I trust five years from now I will be able to update this post with five more lessons we have learned.

Or maybe even more than that.

As long as we never, ever stop learning, anything is possible.