Healthful Resolutions

Monday, January 4, 2010

With the new year comes many resolutions. Most commonly people resolve to lose weight, eat better, be more fit, etc. I thought this might be a good opportunity to reflect on some things I learned while completing my Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell's online learning program (eCornell).

First I'd like to review the program itself, as I had a hard time finding much feedback when I was deciding whether or not to sign up. It's not a cheap program and I wondered whether I could just read The China Study to get the same knowledge. The short answer is yes. The vast majority of the course was redundant and some of it (especially in the first course) seemed to get into way too much scientific detail and not enough practical information.

The third (of the three) courses definitely deals with the most hands-on information and was what I liked the best. In particular it touched on school lunch programs and my favorite unit was an awesome practical guide to understanding nutritional labels on packaged food.

Part of my problem with the program is that I don't think I do well with online learning, or at least not in the way it was designed here. Each module is an audio lecture with little visual stimulus. (Strike one: I'm not an auditory learner.) After each lecture you either take a short multiple choice quiz (Strike two: I despise multiple choice and true/false quizzes. These were particularly poorly written and don't test key concepts.) or you have to briefly answer a question in the discussion forum.

The forums were Strike three. If you came late to questions (it's entirely on your time with no deadlines within each course) you found yourself basically re-stating everything that had already been said or struggling to make a new point. And nobody was going to follow up with any constructive feedback, questions or responses because they'd moved on to the next module. It made a dialogue difficult and that is what I have always thrived on in classes. I need group discussion. On the plus side, the professor for the first two courses was great. He always followed up with comments and answered questions. The final professor was fine, I just didn't hear from her as much.

Perhaps another criticism is that the program should be called "Non-Animal Nutrition" to be more accurate. The majority of it was focused on the things that are bad for you in meat and dairy, and far less on the things actually good for you in veggies. I often wondered to myself, "well, what can I eat?" when learning that soy milk, tofu and tempeh - foods most people would certainly rank as health foods - are considered processed and should be kept at a minimum in the plant-based diet.

Through the course I cut caffeine, refined sugar, refined flour, and vegetable oils out of my already vegan diet, and focused much more on whole foods. Basically, I shopped in the bulk section. I went about a month on this diet. The problem is that it's pretty unsustainable for anyone with a social life. While vegan food is pretty easy to come by in restaurants these days, it's often in the form of pastas, stir-fries, baked goods. There was no way I was going to New York, for example, without sampling their finest vegan foods.

The course seems to rely on the idea that a varied enough diet of plant-based whole foods will give you everything you need. But it doesn't address how to handle those with other health concerns like food allergies, digestive diseases, etc. It worked more on converting people towards a specific diet and less on helping those already on this diet to maintain optimal health and get enough of a variety of nutrients.

So one of my resolutions for 2010 is to work to maintain this balance in my diet -- cooking whole foods at home, allowing for indulgences when I dine out. It's all about what's personally sustainable.


vegan-ness said...

Thanks for the review!