For many, it’s the hardest part of adopting a healthier, plant-based diet: that lonely void where dairy-rich desserts used to be. A week into chef Beth Love’s “30-Day Health Challenge”—a group-supported program of eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes—that void had grown into a gaping chasm that no amount of dates could fill.
This is how I found myself squeezed into Love’s cozy West Side living room, nibbling on homemade cashew cheese atop homemade crackers, for a “Desserts in the Raw” class. At a kitchen table the size of a bocci ball court, I and 15 others would create four palate-dazzling iterations of a total paradox: healthy dessert.
Yes, beyond frozen bananas blended into “ice cream” (try it, trust me), there exists an entire world of opportunity for successfully swapping out ingredients that are unhealthy to the body and the Earth with healthy ones. Take, for example, Brazil nuts, four of which have been found to lower one’s bad cholesterol for a full month (though eating four every day may raise selenium levels beyond the tolerable limit). Or dates, a key sugar substitute that happens to contain fiber, minerals (especially potassium), vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients.
“Since they are whole foods, the sugar in dates metabolizes more slowly in the body than refined sugars do,” says Love. Since embarking on her mission to help locals transform their diets and reclaim their health a couple of years ago—sparked, in part, by her viewing of the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret—Love has noticed a most common Achilles heel: ice cream and chocolate.
“The sugar is like the seductress that calls you in, but it’s not the unhealthiest part. What’s in those foods that is equally addictive and unhealthy is dairy products,” says Love, who recommends The Cheese Trap by Neal D. Barnard, M.D., for anyone interested in learning more.
Baked goods, Love points out, are full of refined flour, which depletes the grains of their nutrients and fiber—and if you’re buying them rather than making them, they are likely full of chemical additives, too. Aside from contributing to environmental destruction, dairy products come with a load of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein. “We’ve been conditioned to think animal protein is something we should be eating, and something we should be getting a lot of, but it’s actually toxic for our bodies,” says Love.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, but within the past generation, the number of deaths from chronic kidney disease has doubled. Excess table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are culprits, while high animal protein intake overloads the kidneys in a way that plant protein does not, explains Michael Greger, M.D. in his nutritional tome How Not To Die. Late last year, an expansive Harvard study entitled Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality, concluded that replacing animal protein of various origins with plant protein was associated with lower mortality, while animal protein intake was positively associated with cardiovascular mortality.
But the USDA has two mandates: to protect public health by helping to develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and to support the growth of the agricultural industry—a conflict of interest addressed by the Food and Drug Law Journal: “The Guidelines sometimes favor the interests of the food and drug industries over the public interest in accurate and impartial dietary advice.”
Which is why it’s important to do our own research, says Love. “There is a huge industry, the food industry, that is spending billions of dollars to engineer foods that will hook you,” says Love, on why we shouldn’t feel so guilty about our Achilles heels.
Devoid of extracted oils and cholesterol, Love’s desserts are sweetened with fruit, made creamy and rich with nuts, seeds and avocados, and launched into heaven by spices like freshly grated nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. They’re also teeming with phytonutrients. At the end of the evening we enjoyed a Fruit Torte with Avocado Lime Cream, a Raw Zucchini Hazelnut Cake with Cashew Cream Cheese Frosting, and a Raw “Faux” Pumpkin Pie. All otherworldly. Epiphanic was the torte’s no-bake crust, made with energy-rich chia seeds, coconut, Brazil nuts and, of course, dates.
“What I found is that when I talk to people, it feels overwhelming. People feel like ‘oh, I can’t do anything to save the Earth,’ and it’s hard for people to get on board,” says Love. “But what really is a driver for people is the pain in their bodies and the sickness that they are facing. People are more receptive to hearing how they can, instead of killing themselves by fork, bring life to their bodies with their fork.”
More info at tasteslikelove.com.
Thank you for your excellent reporting and engaging writing, Maria! It is a blessing to partner with you for human health and environmental sustainability!