Brain Food

For me, trying to move my family to healthy eating is a slog.  A marathon.  A never-ending battle.

In one corner, we have my convictions that they will be physically, intellectually and emotionally healthier if they are given healthy fuel for their growing bodies.

In the other corner we have some really strong opponents.  Taste buds that are motivated by sugar and salt and a food industry that has decades of research on how to make the foods they sell taste best to consumers. Confusing information about nutrition and food guidelines from the government, industry and doctors. Fatigue, stress and hungry kids. (I dare you to have no plan and quickly come up with healthy food options for kids who are melting down. Try offering them a salad instead of granola bars, and see what happens.)

So recently I had my own mini-crisis. I’ve been happily plant-based for two years, but then read a book by a well-known MD and started questioning. Maybe animal products aren’t so bad. Maybe a couple of cage-free, organic, pastured eggs for breakfast every day would be good for me. Maybe bacon, chicken and beef aren’t so bad. It’s fascinating to me how quickly my brain is able to adapt it’s views of what is and is not healthy. However within two weeks of adding back meat and more eggs my acid reflux, constipation and generally feeling poorly was back.

I connected with some other MDs, and asked their opinions re: the theories put forth by Dr. X, and the responses ranged from “that doesn’t sound right to me, there is a lot of research to the contrary” to “This is simple. This particular doctor is motivated by making profits and selling books and supplements.”

How Not To Die.jpgI’ve discovered that what I feed my brain is as important as what I feed my body. And I’ve got some new food for my brain. The book “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger. I was extremely pleased that in the forward of his book he notes that all of his speaking fees and book profits go to charity. I was more pleased at the solid research he uses to inform his advice. And I’m even more pleased that after a week of returning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet I feel more energetic and my abdominal symptoms are completely relieved.

So, for my kids, I’m back in the ring and ready to fight. This morning I won two out of three matches (kids) with Chocolate* Pancakes.

The * is for the hidden ingredients… whole-grain flour, about 3 cups of spinach, 3 tablespoons of ground chia seeds, two cans of  organic coconut milk.

I’m not a chef, and I’m confident others could improve on my recipe. Especially since I’m not big on measuring, I’m more of a “concept cook”.

But in case you want to give it a go, here’s the approximate recipe:

  • 1 tub organic spinach, blended in vitamix with 1-2 cups water
  • 3-4 tbsp chia seeds, ground and mixed with about 3/4 cup of water to make a goopy paste (egg substitute)
  • 2-3 cups whole-grain flour (I used wheat)
  • About a cup of baking cocoa
  • About a cup of coconut sugar
  • 2 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • Two cans organic full fat coconut milk

Mix everything well to pancake batter consistency. You may need to add more or less water or flour. Cook on a griddle like regular pancakes, although these are slightly more delicate conventional pancakes. Top with strawberries. Or (sigh) jam.  Because to win the war, I’m going to need to compromise on a few battles.

Plants for the Long Haul

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 11.03.23 PMYesterday was a sunny day in Chicago, and I experienced first-hand the exuberance of Chicago marathon spectators on a 26.2 mile tour of this city.  This was the sixth marathon I’ve run, and even though it wasn’t my fastest, I think it was my best.  For the first time, I completed the course giving it my sustained effort without succumbing to fatigue and walking because I just didn’t have it in me to keep running.  This also happens to be the first marathon I’ve run since evolving to a whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet.

I became vegetarian two years ago, felt an improvement in well-being, and then reverted to a more conventional American diet last winter.  In February I finished my fifth marathon.  I just edited my word-choice there, changing “ran” to finished.  This marathon, physically speaking, was my worst.  I didn’t train because of chronic injuries and frankly just feeling blah.  So I ran about half of it, and walked the other half.  Shortly after that, I made the transition to a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

So yesterday, in Chicago, I had trained.  My chronic injury was still an issue, but it felt reasonably good.  My stomach felt good, the weather was clear, and the energy from the other 39,999 runners was infectious.  I was cautiously optimistic that I might be able to run the whole thing, despite the inevitable deviations I had made from my training schedule.

In the first miles I remembered the classic marathon advice not to start out too quickly.  I ran comfortably but steady and found the first five miles passed easily.  At 10 miles, my injury — plantar fasciitis — started acting up a bit, but my legs still felt strong. And that’s when I realized that my body felt better in this marathon than it had in the past three.  Although fatigued, I was buoyed by the impression that my body was working more effectively because I was fueling it better.  Success in any endeavor is due to a complex mixture of circumstances.  But one important factor in my personal success yesterday has been the change in my diet.

Friends who find out I’m WFPB/vegan frequently voice concerns about the importance of protein and meat in their diet.

  • “My body just really loves a good steak.”
  • “I could never do that, because I know I don’t feel good when I don’t get enough protein.”
  • “I tend to be anemic, so I have to eat red meat.  When I get really tired, I know that’s what I need.”

I don’t presume to tell these friends what food choices they should make any more than I would tell them who to have a relationship with or what career they should pursue.  However, in my reading – which is admittedly biased thus far towards authors who endorse a whole-foods, plant-based diet – suggests to me that these ideas are rooted in some of our cultural associations between meat and strength, and not necessarily in rigorous scientific study.

My original inspiration to pursue a WFPB diet actually came from an athlete:  Scott Jurek.  In his book “Eat and Run” he details the relationship in his own life between WFPB eating and his extremely successful career as an endurance athlete.  He has had many running achievements, including winning the Western States 100 mile endurance run seven times.  A second athlete who spurred me on my journey was Rich Roll, who’s book “Finding Ultra” details his transformation from fatigue, depression, excess weight and poor health to a transformation that began with what he calls “plant-powered” eating.  In his case, the changes in his diet came first.  He felt so much better with these diet changes that he then took up running, and eventually evolved into a world-class ultra-endurance athlete.  Let me spell out for you what ultra-endurance means.  One of his feats is competing in the Ultraman World Championships.  Powered only by plant-based nutrition, he completed the three-day event consisting of a 6.2 mile ocean swim followed by a 90 mile cross country race on the first day.  The second day is a 170 mile cycling race.  The final day is 52 miles of running.  These types of distances sound super-human to me.  But I find Rich Roll inspiring in part because his changes started when he was out-of-breath simply climbing up the stairs in his own home.  He cites plants, rather than steaks, as the key to his success.  Running happens to be my preferred sport, but what about other sports?  A quick web search will yield names of athletes from mixed marital arts cage fighting to power lifting to figure skating who have succeeded and choose a plant-based diet for fuel.

So what about my assertion above, that the idea that meat and lots of protein are required for strength and energy is not based on rigorous scientific study?  Stay tuned for the next post.


When I was in college, I created this meal I called “cheesy egg pancakes.”  It was sort of half-omelette, half-pancake with a few slices of cheese melted on top.  The reason this became a favorite for me was simple:  I could whip it up without a recipe, with ingredients that were easily on hand, and it was quick and filling when I was hungry.

I think most people have at least 2-3 “memory meals.”  Quick dishes they can whip up without cracking open a cookbook or thinking carefully and shopping for unusual ingredients.  With new recipes, I always find that I need to expend some amount of mental effort to monitor and follow new directions.  Did I add enough flour?  Wait, how long am I supposed to saute this ingredient?  But those memory meals — grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, a bowl of cereal, spaghetti with meat sauce — these ones become staples in our diets because of how little effort it takes to whip them together.

Often, when people hear that I follow a plant-based diet, they comment how hard it sounds to follow this new and strange way of eating.  However, I think success is linked to practice, and one key is to develop a few easy meals you can make without much effort.  When you’re hungry, you don’t want to spend 30 minutes exploring a half-dozen websites, you want to just open your fridge, pull out a few things, and happily munch away in less than 10 minutes.

With this in mind, I’ll share my new favorite easy-to-make-it-from-memory staple:  Chick-in-Salad.  The Chick is for chick-peas, and the process it pretty simple and adaptable to your tastes.  That’s what I love about this recipe:  once you’ve made it a few times, you can easily recreate it from memory, and adapt it to both what you have on hand and your personal tastes.  The recipe I have listed below is adapted from Angela Liddon’s blog “Oh She Glows.”  Here is a link to the original recipe.  Her original recipe is delicious, but what I really love about this — now that I have made it a few times — is how easy it is to make and adapt without a lot of thinking.  That’s why my version has so many optional ingredients — they are all for flavor for your personal taste.  Start with the basics:  chick peas and vegenaise, and it’s unconsciously easy to go from hungry to chick-in-salad sandwich in about 10 minutes.  Yum!

Some readers may be wondering if this is really any healthier than chicken salad.  It’s a valid question, and the short answer is YES.  Chick-in-salad has more fiber, less calories, and no cholesterol.

Let’s look at the two basic ingredients that make up the bulk of the recipe

Vegenaise vs. Mayonaise:  1 tablespoon of Vegenaise has 45 calories, 3.5 grams of mono-unsaturated fats and 0.5 grams of saturated fats, and no cholesterol.  Compare this with one tablespoon of mayonaise:  94 calories, 1.6 grams of saturated fat, 2.3 grams monounsaturated fat, 6 grams of polyunsaturated fat, 0.026 grams of trans fatty acids and 6 grams of cholesterol.  Overall, the mayonnaise packs in a lot more calories, and a lot more unhealthy fats.  Vegenaise is still primarily a fat, though, and should be eaten sparingly. 

Chick Peas vs. Chicken:  1 15-oz can of chick peas (about 1.75 cups) contains 130 calories, 5 grams of fiber, 7 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat (no saturated or trans fat), and 21 grams of carbohydrates.  It also provides a fair amount of folate, along with magnesium, phosophorous, zinc, iron and calcium.  About 1.75 cups of roasted, skinless chicken breast contains 404 calories, 76 grams of protein, 2.5 grams saturated fat, 3 grams monounsaturated fat, 1.9 grams polyunsaturated fat and 208 mg of cholesterol.  I was surprised to find that chicken also contains some calcium, magnesium, iron and phosphorous although the chick peas were a much better source of these minerals.

Print Recipe
Learn to substitute chick-peas for your favorite chicken or tuna salad recipe.
  1. Drain and rinse chick peas. Dump entire can into food processor and process until the mixture is even crumbles.
  2. Transfer chick peas to a medium mixing bowl, add additional ingredients and stir to mix well. That's it.
Recipe Notes

If you'd like to try with cashew cream, rather than vegan mayonnaise, here's a link to a good basic cashew cream recipe from Meg van der Kruik at her blog "this Mess is Ours."  Cashew cream is great to have on hand and works in a variety of different recipes, but takes some advanced planning to soak the cashews.

I make this when I'm hungry for a quick and filling sandwich, and keep the extra in little glass jars in the fridge.  I've never had it stick around longer than a few days because it is so delicious and easy to use on top of spinach, in sandwiches, scooped up with crackers ... but it should keep for 4-5 days in the refrigerator.

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The Root of Doc’s Kitchen

In 2016 I woke up. I was tired, stressed out and unhappy with my health and energy level.  The previous ten years of a busy but sedentary life were taking their toll.  As a medical doctor, I assumed I had the tools to change my life.  Begin exercising.  Eat a more healthful diet.  Get eight hours of sleep.  This was step one.  I began running (again) and embraced a vegetarian diet and cut out desserts.

That first year had it’s ups and downs.  I lost 35 pounds and completed two marathons.  But inevitably, I ran out of will power and a chronic injury flared up which sidelined my running.  My diet fell apart and my weight crept back up by 15 pounds.

For inspiration, I listened to two books “Eat and Run” by Scott Jurek, and “Finding Ultra” by Rich Roll.  Both of these extreme endurance athletes embraced a vegan diet and wrote passionately about how their diet has fueled their success as endurance athletes.  Intriguing, but … my family eats meat and dairy.  I love cheese, and yogurt, and ice cream.  It’s just a little too extreme.  And then I remembered another book, The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.  I will be eternally thankful to a good friend who recommended this book to me, three years before I actually listened to it.  As I listened, I was aghast at the information presented.  As an ophthalmologist, I was well aware of the links between a poor diet and eye diseases.  Little did I know that when I smilingly earned my medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 2000, my understanding of nutrition and disease was frankly fairly rudimentary.  Dr. Campbell presents a synopsis of decades of research that are a compelling case that all of us should be on a whole foods plant based diet.  Not just to control obesity, but as an effective treatment for diabetes, heart disease, cancer prevention and much more.

I am now three weeks into a whole foods, plant-based diet.  My energy level is back up, I am running better than ever, and along with the help of my physical therapist my chronic injury is under control.

This is a long introduction to what Doc’s Kitchen is all about.  But here’s the deal.  I want to invite you along on a journey, and there are going to be some challenges.

  • My supportive husband is also wonderfully skeptical.  Is a whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet really the cure for what ails our patients?
  • My three children are like many kids:  picky eaters.  Most nights it is easier to put chicken nuggets or corn dogs on the table then try for the 300th time to get them to eat something healthier.
  • Just like everyone else, we are a busy family.  It just isn’t likely that I’m going to grow my own organic vegetables in the back yard and then spend 90 minutes preparing a meal from scratch.

So I’m inviting you into our kitchen.  Pull up a chair and let’s chat about what’s for dinner tonight, how I’m doing with getting moving the kids towards a WFPB diet, and consider available research.

Disclaimer:  I am not a nutrition specialist, and the information I present on this blog is not intended to substitute for medical advice.  What I am is an informed friend, who would like to help you benefit from what I am learning on this journey.