By Bianca Alexander
The science is in: adopting a whole food, plant based diet is key to staying healthy and avoiding chronic diseases like high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cancer.
But if you’re still eating meat, consider yourself pescatarian (still consuming fish occasionally), or lacto-ovo vegetarian (still consuming dairy), going 100% vegan may seem difficult, if not utterly impossible. It certainly was for me – until I committed to regular detoxing.
Growing up, I was a total carnivore, eating meat and dairy nearly every meal without a second thought. Despite otherwise being a healthy person, I suffered from a host of ailments for as long as I can remember: frequent bloating, constipation, sinus issues, PMS, colds and skin breakouts, not to mention consistently being 20-40 lbs overweight.
Into adulthood, as I deepened my spiritual practice, I became more aware of the impact a more compassionate, healthy diet could have on my inner peace, mindfulness and overall wellbeing.
My First Detox – Vegetarian
At a friend’s suggestion, I tried my first seasonal herbal detox. Though it lasted just over a week, I was free to consume whatever I wanted (except alcohol). Afterwards, I felt lighter, clearer and better able to sense what my body needed, not just what it wanted. By my second detox that summer, I began incorporating more fruits, veggies and nuts into my diet. Immediately, I noticed my digestive system working better, so I decided to begin eliminating beef and poultry.
Soon after, I bit into a tuna fish sandwich (my standard “healthy” lunch up until that point) and something just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t the taste – it was the vibration. With my senses more finely tuned, I intuitively connected to the anxiety and terror the fish must have sensed at the time it was caught. That day, I decided to give up eating all animal flesh. At the grocery store, I swapped out my favorite burger, fish and chicken meals with faux-meat versions that tasted just as good and satisfied the need to chew something meat-y. I was officially vegetarian.
The Dairy Conundrum
Though letting go of meat was relatively easy, eliminating dairy was twice as hard. Just the idea of giving up savory cheeses and daily egg white omelets made me a little anxious. As my spiritual journey deepened, I became a dedicated mindfulness practitioner, yogi and green living advocate espousing the benefits of sustainability and non-violence. Through this work, I learned that methane gas pollution and water waste from animal husbandry is exponentially more environmentally toxic – and more linked to global warming – than C02 emissions.
This was life-altering information, but it didn’t stop me from daily indulgences in eggs and dairy. As I researched more about dairy farms, I learned that baby calves are cruelly snatched from their mothers after birth, who spend the remainder of their days in captivity attached to milking machines. All this so I could gnosh on my favorite cheese, ice cream and organic yogurt? Sadly, even this painful truth wasn’t enough to change my lacto-ovo cravings.
There I was, addicted to dairy. Fortunately, everyone else around me was addicted too, which made indulging in my habit even easier. Whenever speaking to vegan friends, I often justified my diet due to the “need for protein”. Even as a vegetarian eating a balanced diet, I was convinced I needed to eat eggs and cheese in order to get “enough” protein to survive and feel energized. Many doctors and plant-based nutritionists call this the “protein myth.”
The Protein Myth
True, our bodies need protein to function properly, but most people actually consume way too much – especially of the wrong kind. In accordance with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein in a healthy, balanced diet is a mere 10%. Numerous researchers, including Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the world-famous The China Study have shown that this is precisely the amount of protein – 10-12% – provided by a whole food, plant-based diet. According to Dr. Campbell, there are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.
Dr. Garth Davis, author of Proteinaholic, states that most people who consume the highly processed Standard American Diet (also known as S.A.D.) packed with excess fat, sugar, cholesterol and preservatives are proteinaholics addicted to the idea of animal protein as necessary for optimal health. However, over the past 30 years, the overwhelming body of evidence from numerous scientific studies shows that consuming a diet with as little as 20% protein can actually “turn on” chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis.
But what about those who eat just a little meat and dairy? Animal products contain about 50% protein, so consuming just one or two portions per week can boost the amount of animal protein in our diets well in excess of RDA guidelines and more than enough to reach the 20% level that can eventually turn on chronic disease.
Despite intellectually understanding the harmful effects of consuming dairy, emotionally, I still couldn’t bring myself to give it up. Not even close.
The Addictive Nature of Animal Protein Casein: A Pleasure Trap
In recent years, numerous studies have shown that consuming casein has the same chemical effect on our brains as consuming opium. According to Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, during digestion, casein (animal protein found in meat, cheese and all dairy products) breaks down in our stomachs to release a host of opiates called casomorphins. Casomorphins lock with opioid dopamine receptors in our brains, which are linked to the control of pain and reward and can trigger lasting addictions.
Yes, animal protein is an opiate – which explains why foregoing animal products and adopting a plant-based diet can be so challenging for many despite knowing better. The pleasure principle is simply too great to overcome.
In The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness, Dr. Douglas Lisle and Dr. Alan Goldhamer explain why so many of us suffer from what they call “The Pleasure Trap” in our diets. Dr. Lisle spent the last two decades researching an evolutionary syndrome he calls The Motivational Triad: the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, and the conservation of energy. In present day America’s convenience-centric, excess-oriented culture, fast food, recreational drugs, and sedentary shopping have become the norm. As such, basic instincts that successfully insured man’s survival and reproduction millennia ago, no longer serve us well.
For example, instead of eating whole, natural foods that require more effort to buy and prepare, most of us conserve our energy by pursuing the pleasures of easily accessible “insta-fare” that promises loads of sugar, fat, and refined carbohydrates. Replete with processed foods and quick fixes, the Standard American Diet actually fools the senses, causing us to blindly over-consume the wrong kinds of foods with little nutritional value. Over time, this results in degenerative disease and environmental decimation.
According to Dr. Lisle, the only way to step beyond the addictive pleasure-pain trap and overcome this downward dietary cycle is regular detoxing. Like any other addiction to alcohol or drugs, the key to breaking the cycle is committing to total sensory deprivation, or complete abstinence from the stimulant: in this case, meat and dairy. Whether through fasting, detoxing or simply committing to a restricted diet, this reprieve allows the body to eventually withdraw from its dependence on artificial chemical stimulants, putting an end to the pleasure trap cycle. According to many experts, this can take anywhere from 4-10 weeks before the brain is able to consciously make a healthier choice.
How I Detoxed My Way to Vegan
Building on the success I experienced from seasonal 10-day detoxes over the course of many years, I was ready to take my next big step. With the help of a plant-based nutritionist, I committed to thirty days of eating nothing but healthy herbs, juices and raw and vegan cuisine. I swapped out my favorite butter and cheese products with plant-based brands like Earth Balance and Daiya. Instead of milk and yogurt, I chose products made from rice, almond, and hemp milk, which taste great and are rich in protein – without the harmful and addictive effects of casein.
The first two weeks of detoxing were challenging: though I never felt hungry (I ate as much food as I wanted, whenever I wanted), without the dairy, my body started to go into withdrawal. I felt cranky, achy and irritated, but because I knew what to expect, I stuck with it. During the detox, I was forced to confront feelings of anger, sadness and boredom that eating meat and dairy (and the resulting comforting dopamine hit) had helped me to suppress. I cried many tears. I snapped at my husband. I journaled, took long baths and indulged in alternative therapies like massage, colonics, and acupuncture to calm and energize my body as the toxins moved out of my fat cells, into my blood stream and eventually out of my system.
During the third week of detox rehab, I had a vibrational epiphany. My mind was less muddled. I began to feel happier, even smarter. My body was leaner and lighter: I lost ten pounds without even trying, and that ever-present hard to lose belly pooch all but disappeared. My skin cleared up. I could even see better.
For the first time in my life, I felt my body free of the chemical effects of dairy. The withdrawal process was done. I was now dairy “sober,” – a full fledged vegan – and there was no turning back.
In the years since, I’ve committed to detoxing quarterly with the seasons, as most traditional Chinese doctors recommend. I eat delicious raw and vegan cuisine full of flavor and health-enhancing enzymes. I’ve kept the weight off and feel younger, happier and more vital with each year that passes. My meditations are deeper and more restorative, and my life is more mindful.
Today, as a certified plant-based nutritionist, I enjoy teaching meat and dairy addicts like me how to kick the habit and take the next step towards optimal health. The results have been staggering—weight loss, reduction or elimination of prescription drugs, reversal of diabetes, elimination of arthritis, etc. As I see more and more of my friends and family adding bevies of prescription drugs to their daily “health” regimen, or trying to manage the symptoms of high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and high cholesterol, it’s clear to me that detoxing – and going vegan – has literally saved my life.
It’s not an easy road to travel, but like all 12-step programs, it works if you work it. So work it – because you’re worth it.
To learn more about how safe, effective detoxing can support your journey towards a plant-based diet, click here.