I never thought I'd follow a plant-based diet.
Growing up with cystic fibrosis and pancreatic insufficiency, I was encouraged to eat lots of fat and calories to keep my weight up. The recommended lunch for a kid with CF? A double cheeseburger and fries, polished off with an ice-cold milkshake.
In my mid-20s, I learned more about the pitfalls of the standard American diet -- how processed foods and saturated fats could lead to serious chronic illness, like heart disease, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes.
I worried that just as we're living longer with CF, we'd all end up with heart disease thanks to a lifetime of burgers and fries.
And, heart disease runs in my family.
A few years ago, my grandmother, who has congestive heart failure, saw her heart health transform when she switched to whole, plant-based foods. Her heart function went from 10 percent to 45 percent.
I knew CF wasn't the same as heart disease and couldn't be reversed, but I wondered if I could still benefit from eating this way. At least one study shows a plant-based diet may improve digestion and reduce inflammation.
Talking To My Care Team
I decided to give it the old college try -- add more fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes to my plate and avoid meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods.
I went to clinic braced for a lecture about needing animal proteins and fats, but it never came. I sat down with the nutritionist at National Jewish Health in Denver, and she showed me how I could meet my unique dietary needs with plant-based foods.
Question #1: Can you get enough calories and fat?
Plant-based foods can lead to weight loss. They're lower in calories than standard American diet fare. But, with sticky mucus making it harder for my body to absorb nutrients and fat, I need those calories and fat! I'm also on Orkambi, so I have to get 20 g of fat with each dose.
The clinic nutritionist ran through a list of plant-based fat sources with me, which included:
- Nut butters
- Chia seeds
- Coconut milk
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews)
Now, instead of bacon and eggs, I have hummus and avocado toast or peanut butter green smoothies in the morning. My body mass index (BMI) and weight are stable.
Question #2: What about salt?
A whole food, plant-based diet has minimal sodium. This is great for those looking to lower their blood pressure, but I lose salt and need 2-3 times more than the average person. The American Heart Association recommends less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day for the average adult.
At clinic, we discussed aiming for 4,000 mg a day. (Please check with your CF care team about the proper amount of sodium for you.)
I add salt to my home-cooked meals, either by cooking with a splash of organic soy sauce (1 tablespoon has 700 mg of sodium) or sprinkling on some sea salt (1 teaspoon has 2,325 mg). And I'm extra cognizant of my salt intake after exercising.
Question #3: Where will I get my protein?
A typical lunch is a Buddha bowl. Protein comes from the chickpeas and quinoa, and I get fat from homemade, refined sugar-free peanut sauce.
How do you get protein without meat? It's easy. The nutritionist sent me home with a list of plant-based protein sources, including:
- Black beans
- Brown rice
- Chia seeds
- Peanut butter
- Steel-cut oats
No protein deficiency here. My blood work has come back normal at every clinic visit.
Question #4: Where do you get calcium aside from dairy?
I have osteopenia, so calcium was a concern. Turns out, you can get calcium from plant-based food, such as kale and broccoli. I do, however, continue to take the calcium supplements I was on before changing my diet.
As for my bone health, it's improved. The osteopenia in my wrist went away since I changed my diet. (I do still have osteopenia in the base of my spine).
Why I'm Still Plant Strong 2 Years Later
My unpredictable stomach has been a source of embarrassment and pain for most of my life. Today, my gut health is better.
My tummy isn't perfect, and I'm still pancreatic insufficient, of course. I get stopped up occasionally, but mostly I'm regular. Like clockwork every morning, if you want to know. I feel lighter, less bloated. And, I've had zero embarrassing public restroom incidents.
My energy and lung function are also up. CF can still kick my butt -- but not as often. I'm not sluggish after meals. I sleep better. I am less fatigued throughout the day. Thanks to this newfound energy, I exercise more, which has led to improved lung function.
Everyone with CF has different needs, and I get that. This disease is complex, and some folks struggle more with weight than I do. But, if you're interested in making lifestyle changes, do your research, and talk with your care team dietitian to come up with a game plan that works for you.
There's so much we can't control about CF, but diet, exercise, and a treatment routine all help me to better manage my disease. Two years into this plant-based life, I'll take a higher FEV1 and fewer stomachaches over a cheeseburger and fries any day of the week.