Apr 6

Enlightened Eating by Dr. Cassandra Ohlsen + My own health journey

in Book Reviews, Vegan

*I was sent a review copy of the book featured in this post by the publisher, Cypress House.

The United States is one of the fattest, least healthy nations in the world, yet information about nutrition and weight loss seems to flow in abundance around us.  The problem is that nutrition can be confusing.  So many sources disagree with each other, whether it be an article in a magazine, or a new book by a doctor, contradicting whatever source you read last.  This is exactly the predicament that Dr. Cassandra Ohlsen found herself in.  Dr. Ohlsen is certified in Internal Medicine and has been practicing medicine for thirty years and just wrote her first book, Enlightened Eating, The Eightfold Path to Health. The book shares her journey, as well as the journeys of some of her patients, shares the extensive health benefits and other benefits of a plant-based diet, and includes advice on how to change eating habits using Buddhist psychology.

Englightened Eating by Dr. Cassandra Ohlsen

In Enlightened Eating, Dr. Ohlsen describes the different diets she tried in an effort to lose weight, without the ability to keep the weight off, then her gastric bypass surgery, and finally, in 2009, 6 years after her surgery, the event that really started to change her health–reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD.  The China Study describes Dr. Campbell’s research that shows that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of many of our chronic diseases and that plant protein did not promote cancer and was the healthiest of all proteins to eat.  Dr. Ohlsen talks about how she had already been learning about the health benefits of plant-based eating, but had worried about getting enough protein, due to how she had been instructed to eat after her gastric bypass surgery.  After she read The China Study, however, she realized that the amount of protein that we actually need is much less than many experts believe, and made the changes to become a vegan almost overnight.  That same year she was also introduced to meditation at a Zen Buddhist center, which led her to learn more about Buddhism.  She went on to use the Buddhist ideas that she learned to heal, grow, and continue eating in the healthiest way possible.  It was this journey, the change she experienced, and the knowledge she gained that led her to reevaluate what she was teaching her patients, as she saw the consequences daily in her practice for those who did not eat thoughtfully.  She realized that humans are complex, having been shaped by “unique experiences, struggles, and pivotal events,” and that as a result she couldn’t judge how they arrived at their current health problem, but that she could be there for them as a partner in their health journey, to help and encourage them.

In the book, Dr. Ohlsen shares her method that she uses to help others make true, lasting changes in their health.  Enlightened eating is her way of applying the Buddhist principles she learned to change your health by changing what you eat, as well as how to change how you think and act with regard to food.  She begins with describing the process of starting change.  She writes that “[b]efore we can start to make changes, we have to decide exactly what we want to change or what we want to change first.”  Then she walks you through the steps of figuring out how best to make that change, by taking mental control of the change, breaking it down into figuring out how you got there, breaking the change down into small, manageable pieces, visualizing yourself making those changes, using positive affirmations to guide your thoughts and actions.  Then she talks about the steps of the actual transition to plant-based eating, showing you how to think differently about what you already eat and how to make practical changes, including lots of ideas on topics like how to include more vegetables on your plate, how to build time into your week to cook healthy meals, etc.

Square Meal Plan

She also includes a simple plan that she has developed, to help simplify your day, giving you a simple way to visualize what you need to put on your plate to get the nutrition you need.  She calls it the Square Meal Plan.  Mentally divide your meal into quarters.  One quarter should be filled with dark leafy greens and other vegetables, one with legumes, one with fresh fruits, and the final quarter with whole grain.  She writes that “[b]y following this plan you’ll automatically increase your fruit and vegetable consumption and significantly improve your nutrition and ultimately your health.”  She goes on to share lots of ideas for each meal of the day on what the Square Meal Plan can look like, as well as some of the recipes for her own favorite dishes.

Making cooked kale

One of her favorites is also my favorite, and it’s super simple: cooked kale.  Our methods are similar.  Start by washing your kale leaves, then remove the stems and tear the leaves into small pieces.  I usually start with 2 bunches of kale, which will look like a lot, but will cook down to be a lot less.  I add about a half-inch of water to a wok, then add the kale to the wok.  Cover the walk with a lid and cook the kale, covered, over medium heat, checking it every 10 minutes to see if more water needs to be added and giving it a stir so that it cooks evenly.  Cook it until it is tender—about 30 minutes.  Add some freshly squeezed lemon juice (I usually add the juice of one big fat juicy lemon, or the juice of 2 less-juicy lemons) and a pinch of salt.  You will find that you need less salt than you think because of the lemon juice.  Transfer the kale to a container to keep in the fridge or freeze it for later!  I like to use my kale over the course of the week in different ways.  It’s wonderful as a side, added to a big salad, as a sandwich topping, or added to a Buddha bowl.  It’s a very neutral element that can be dressed up to suit whatever you are eating.  You can added additional spices and seasonings like ground sesame seeds and taco seasonings to bump up the flavor.

Cooked Kale

I loved this book and would encourage anyone looking to improve their health and make permanent change to read it.  I identified with the stories of the people in the book on a deeply personal level.  As some of you know, I have gone through my own personal health journey.  8 years ago I became sick, and my health seemed to spiral out of control.  It took several years, but I was eventually diagnosed with Lupus and Sjogren’s syndrome.  When I received my diagnosis I sat down with my rheumatologist to work out a treatment plan, which mostly consisted of an assortment of medications that we would try.  At one point I asked if there were any lifestyle changes I could make, including changes to my diet.  My doctor looked at me, almost with annoyance, and said that my diagnosis had nothing to do with what I was eating, but did suggest that I listen to my body and not push it too hard.  I remember being taken aback, thinking that there must be more I could do.  To me it made logical sense that there must be ways I could be proactive in my own health.  For almost every disease I could think of there were changes that one could make, whether it was removing processed sugars to better regulate blood sugar for diabetes, or removing saturated fats and exercising to help with heart disease.

A few years later we moved and I had to find a new rheumatologist.  This move changed my life.  I expressed my desire to my new doctor that I wanted to find ways I could change my lifestyle to help my body better cope with disease.  My immune system was a bit out of control and my last doctor had started to discuss the possibility of trying chemotherapy drugs to help reign it in.  That terrified me.  My new doctor immediately said, “Absolutely” and explained that her own research had led her to believe that there was a huge connection to our gut and what happened with the rest of our body.  She worked in concert with my primary care physician to walk me through an elimination diet, which resulted in the removal of dairy and gluten.  I began to see improvements in the way I felt and huge improvements in my blood work.  Then at an appointment in January of 2016 my doctor asked if I was willing to do a 6 week experiment.  I said absolutely and she proceeded to explain that she wanted me to try eating a strictly plant-based diet for 6 weeks.  We would draw blood before and after the 6 weeks and I was to keep a detailed journal of how it went.  So in February of 2016 I started my 6 week experiment.

To make a long story short, the results of that experiment made the changes we had made in the years before look inconsequential.  I felt amazing—better than I had in years.  I made the experiment permanent (it was a no-brainer) and have had no desire to look back.  Over the past 2 years we have slowly removed most of the medications I was on and reduced the dosages of the medications that remained.  Just as an example: before the experiment my body wasn’t absorbing vitamins properly.  Among other things, I was taking 10,000 iu of Vitamin D every day, just to be in the lower limits of what was normal.  I am no longer taking any Vitamin D and the results from my most recent physical came back 3 weeks ago and showed that my Vitamin D levels were solidly in the normal range, along with all of my vitamin levels.  My inflammation markers all came back normal, my antibody levels show no indication of disease, and my cholesterol, which had always been good, is now so good that my doctor called it “impressive to say the least.”

My experience has been a beautiful one, and I have seen more than my health change.  Dr. Ohlsen writes, “Initially, I changed to a vegan diet to improve my health, but after I made that change and was no longer eating animal products, I was able to look at the impact my food choices had on the environment, on world hunger, and on animals.”  This was me.  The book includes a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, who said, “Eating becomes a very spiritual thing.”  I couldn’t agree more.  As you are able to change what is on your plate, eating becomes joyful.  Your body and mind become more clear, your appreciation for your health deepens, your desire to continue eating this way is strengthened as a result and also as a desire to help the world around you.  It’s a beautiful thing.  I won’t lie and say that this type of change is easy.  It isn’t.  It’s difficult to change the food culture that you have grown up with and be different than those around you.  Sometimes being different is difficult or uncomfortable.  I like to be accepted just as much as anyone else.  But it has also surprised me that as I changed, I also found a new community of people that were like me, and the change became easier and less lonely.  I encourage you to give Enlightened Eating a try.  Even if you think you are already healthy, I challenge you to read this book and try your own experiment.  I think you might be surprised at what you find.  Dr. Ohlsen finishes the book with the statement: “One thing I feel sure of: When you change your eating, it’s not just your eating that will change.”

*Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher, Cypress House.  I received no other compensation for this post.  All experiences and opinions, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Marlene Schick April 6, 2018 at 8:03 pm

Thanks for this! I was diagnosed with auto-immune disease two years ago and finally went to see a naturopath because I disagreed with what the rheumatologist wanted me on (lots of drugs). I also did not do well on the steroids I was initially prescribed (although they did help with the pain). Mynaturopath, Dr. Laurie Steelsmith, does not take any insurance so she is VERY expensive, but VERY worth it! She is amazing! Of course, diet makes a difference!


La Fuji Mama April 12, 2018 at 2:26 pm

Yay!! So glad that you found an alternative path that has helped!


Margaret April 7, 2018 at 4:21 pm

Rachael, you are an inspiration! I loved reading about your journey into health. I’m so happy that you have found a way of life that has blessed you and your family. I know there are changes I need to make in my life and diet. I’m tired of feeling exhausted all the time! Thanks for inspiring me to try harder and to own my health.


La Fuji Mama April 12, 2018 at 2:28 pm

Thank you so much! Food is so hard because it’s so wrapped up in our culture, habits, celebrations, emotions…it’s no wonder that people struggle! But knowing you, I know you are capable of doing whatever you set your mind to do!


Judy April 7, 2018 at 11:01 pm

It interesting to read this all now that we have hindsight. I’m so glad you persisted and found a better, healthier path.


La Fuji Mama April 12, 2018 at 2:29 pm

I just wish that this information was more readily available! It would have personally saved me some years of struggle, that’s for sure!


Bob April 9, 2018 at 9:28 am

A number of years ago I read the China Study, among other books, and went vegan for about a year. I had both my family doctor and internal medicine doctor tell me that “you probably expect me to congratulate you” (as my tests were all much better), but they thought I was wrong and needed to add protein to my diet. I ultimately succumbed and tried unsuccessfully to eat mostly a plant-based diet and got back into my old habits of eating way to much meat and fat. I’ve put back on the weight I lost and do not feel as good. However, trying to go back to being vegan is very tough. It has been amazing to see how your diet has impacted you and your family for the good.


La Fuji Mama April 12, 2018 at 2:33 pm

For some reason I had thought that one of your doctors had suggested eating a plant-based diet. I’m so sad that’s the reaction you got! But then again, I’m not totally surprised, since a pediatrician told me last year that my kids needed meat and that if I wasn’t going to “allow” them to drink milk, then I needed to be giving them orange juice fortified with calcium. I wish more nutrition was included in medical school…but I guess medical school is long enough as it is!


Cristina April 19, 2018 at 9:50 am

Hi Rachael: Thank you so much for sharing about your health journey. It is truly inspirational and I can relate as I have been on my own journey. I made some lifestyle changes that included dietary modifications and have felt so much better, although I have not gone completely vegetarian. I’m going to look into this book… Thank you again!


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