My name is Jody, and I eat too much dairy. I eat dairy with every meal, and I would never know how it affects me because I’ve never gone without. So last week I was strolling through Whole Foods in Boulder, CO late in the evening and a t-shirt caught my eye. I’m not one to purchase clothing from a grocery store, but this was a black organic cotton t-shirt in my size, which hardly ever happens. The design was a really nice avocado green logo of “plantstrong” on the front, and “Engine2” on the back. I don’t know what plantstrong is, nor have I ever heard of Engine2. It didn’t occur to me to look it up on my smartphone; the shirt was cool and it was my size. What else matters?
At the register, the cashier rang up my organic yogurt and pasture-raised eggs and asked me, “So are you participating in the challenge, or are you just buying the shirt because it’s cool?”
“Psht- of course I’m joining the Challenge. Aren’t you?” <-- This was a lie. I had no idea what The Challenge was, but suddenly I was standing at the customer service counter filling out a registration form for something as enigmatic as “plantstrong” and “Engine2”. I assumed it had something to do with diet.
At home I immediately Googled “Engine2” and “Whole Foods Boulder”, where I learned that the 28-day vegan diet I just blindly signed up for is based on a book by Rip Esselstyn called The Engine 2 Diet. I read all about how he challenged his fellow firefighters to a healthy diet that requires a strict non-dairy/no-meat or fish shopping list. It appears that a farmer’s tan is also required. The website stated that registration had closed moments before I signed up.
This could have been my way out of The Challenge.
Instead I emailed the director of the program, Dani Little, the Healthy Eating Specialist at Boulder’s Whole Foods Market (does your store employ a Healthy Eating Specialist?). I begged her to let me into the program, telling her I’ve been meaning to get around to reducing dairy in my diet. I shamelessly dropped Walter Robb’s name as a speaker at Expo West 2011, and told her I would blog about this experience if I could squeeze in. She wrote back within an hour. “I never imagined the turnout would be so HUGE!” she wrote. She invited me to one of the orientation meetings at the YMCA on Saturday morning.
The orientation meeting was in a small room, where 45 of us crammed into chairs, on the floor, or leaned against the walls (a total of 228 local people have signed up for the challenge). Dani led us through a powerpoint presentation on just what we’ve all gotten ourselves into. Not only is the 28-day challenge based on eating whole foods, we must also cut out refined oils such as olive oil, safflower oil, and coconut oil which deliver fat content without whole food nutrients. When I lived on California’s Central Coast, where local produce is available year-round, this would have been a little easier. Although Boulder is known as a natural foods Mecca, we have real winters. Sometimes we even have snow (I’m convinced I’ll starve to death somewhere around Day 12 of the challenge).
Why the Engine2 Diet? Some people are looking to lose weight or lower cholesterol. Some just want to eat healthier. I just want to see if I can do it. With my socially-acceptable addiction to dairy and sugar, I’m the only person who will ever challenge me to try this. And I’m nervous. In addition to committing to whole foods for 28 days, I’m also cutting out alcohol and reducing coffee intake. This is going to be difficult; I keep a coffee machine at work and literally brew coffee at my desk to sip from 8:00 to noon (cream and sugar included).
After the orientation meeting, we met Dani at Whole Foods down the street for a store tour. She led us through the aisles to point out alternative options to the foods we’re used to buying; essentially indicating which items constitute whole foods at Whole Foods. The irony is not lost on me. This is a plant-based diet, so obviously we spent some time in Produce, then the bulk bins where we can find raw almonds and steel cut oatmeal, as well as flax seed that we can grind up in a coffee grinder at home. If you shop at a Whole Foods near you, you might notice large signs posted above each store section listing ANDI Top 10.
ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. On a scale of 0 to 1000, foods are scored and rated based on a set of criteria compiled to help determine the nutrition level of that item. For example, leafy greens like kale, collard greens, mustard greens, and watercress all score 1000. A serving of a soft drink scores a 1. For the Challenge, what do I sauté my vegetables with if I can’t use safflower oil or butter? Dani suggests carrot juice, low-sodium vegetable juice, or low-sodium vegetable broth. Or just plain water. As part of the challenge, I signed up to have my biometrics taken in the parking lot of the YMCA on Day 1 to compare to Day 28 (cholesterol levels, body weight, etcetera).
Day 1 is in two days. In the meantime I’m binging on every soon-to-be forbidden item in my kitchen, including milk, yogurt, organic oreos, mild cheddar cheese, and a stick of butter.
All this for a t-shirt.