Learning to Love Cooking and Self: How Gena Hamshaw’s Vegan Lifestyle Became a Path to Healing
Best-selling author, blogger, certified nutritionist and RDN in training, Gena Hamshaw, shares her whole story and gentle guidance in her newest book, Power Plates. Not only does it include 100 nutritionally balanced meals but it also contains rich information on key ingredients, how her vegan lifestyle unfolded, and non-prescriptive options for the vegan-curious and experienced plant-based eaters alike. Gena has also authored Food 52 Vegan and Choosing Raw and writes about her journey with food on her blog, The Full Helping. Read on to hear how Gena’s vegan lifestyle both led to learning how to cook and became her path for self-care and healing.
On your blog, you’re very open about your recovery from a lengthy eating disorder. Tell us how learning to cook and becoming a plant-based eater started for you and how your journey with food has since evolved.
Being vegan and learning to cook were linked journeys for me. I went vegan not long after a major eating disorder relapse. The choice was initially motivated by health—the hope that veganism might help with my longtime digestive struggles—but not long into my vegan journey, I visited a farm animal sanctuary. It was a deeply impactful experience for me. After that weekend I knew that I’d remain vegan and that it would become a lifestyle, rather than an eating style.
I wasn’t sure how the choice would interact with my ED history, but I was surprised to find that practicing compassion for animals was profoundly freeing. It reminded me that my food choices stretched far beyond my plate and could actually be a vehicle for doing good. It encouraged me to live with compassion, including compassion toward myself and my body.
At the time, I really had no idea how to cook, and it was still sometimes difficult to find vegan options in restaurants and on-the-go. So, I figured if I was going to remain vegan, I had to start teaching myself the way around a kitchen. That’s how my culinary journey began. A little while after that I got into raw foods, and I was still heavily influenced by “un-cooking” when I started blogging. For me, raw foodism became a trigger for old demons—not anorexia, per se, but orthorexia, or unhealthful fixation on healthy eating—and I ultimately moved away from that lifestyle, and back to the inclusive vegan diet where I had begun. That journey has unfolded on the blog over the years.
Nowadays, I eat a vegan diet that feels expansive, nourishing, relaxed and grounding. I focus on macronutrient balance (which is what inspired Power Plates) and like to maximize healthful foods, but I also eat for pleasure and fun, which means that not everything I eat is necessarily nutrient dense. It’s the balance that feels right to me.
To heal and change the way you view food and yourself, what have you had to leave behind?
Rigidity, catastrophic thinking, anxiety about my body and my health, binaries and good/bad thinking. I’ve had to leave behind fixation on detail and learn to embrace a big-picture vision of health and wellness.
In the wellness world, there can be an emphasis on clean eating, food restrictions and detox. How can these ideas contribute to disordered eating for some?
I hesitate to generalize about this because triggers are different for everyone. For me, the expression “clean eating” implies that some foods are dirty, and it’s a kind of language that doesn’t align with my recovery. So, I don’t use that term, and I don’t write about foods as being detoxifying or cleansing, because I don’t see a basis for that in the body of nutrition evidence that we have.
That’s my perspective as an eater and a professional in training. But I realize that all sorts of dietary nuances and philosophies can be either healing/helpful or triggering and confining, depending on how they’re experienced. What’s definitely triggering for one person might be inspiring or rewarding for another. So I guess I’d say that this emphasis might contribute to disordered eating among those who experience it the way I do; I can’t say whether every person is bound to experience it that way.
We all wake up from time to time with negative body thoughts. You call them “bad body days” on your blog. How have you learned to support yourself with what you eat vs. what you restrict? What are some of your best self-care practices?
For me, the most important thing is to not restrict on these days. Restriction only compounds the feeling that my body is a problem that needs to be controlled. What turns these days around is my being able to befriend my body, to see it through loving eyes and to treat it with the same kindness and generosity that I’d extend to a friend, a child, a family member.
When I have a bad body day, I make a point of giving myself a nourishing, filling, grounding breakfast—that’s the best thing I can do early in the day. I go for hearty breakfasts in general, but on these days I do my best to make breakfast particularly fun and rewarding: maybe a bowl of “fancy” oats, with lots of tasty and varied toppings, or tofu scramble, which I usually only make on weekends.
I’m a regular yoga practitioner, but on a bad body day, I might take a longer or a restorative class so that I can really settle into my body and breath. Walking with music, guided meditation, breathing exercises and chanting a few of my favorite mantras also help.
Aside from this, I stay hydrated, I get lots of sleep, and I keep my diet nourishing from morning till night. I also remind myself that I’m not my mood. It may feel permanent or oppressive, but it’s not; it’s a transient experience, which will pass. I challenge myself to be patient and self-compassionate while I wait for it to leave me.
Your new book Power Plates: 100 Nutritionally Balanced, One-Dish Vegan Meals is a collection of recipes with an emphasis on three macronutrients in every dish. Tell us what you’ve discovered about eating a combination of protein, fat and carbs, and how you feel this can be a useful strategy for eating that is both nourishing and satiating.
It was difficult to articulate this strategy in the book because I don’t present it in a way that’s structured or prescriptive. I don’t advocate for a macronutrient ratio or for counting or tracking anything. The goal was really to present a simple means of making meals feel grounding, satisfying and nourishing, and for me, a key part of that is to include complex carbohydrates, protein and healthful fats with every meal.
I don’t look at it numerically, but rather in terms of food: When I sit down to eat, I ask myself, “Do I have a solid source of plant protein here? Some healthy fat?” etc. With my history of dietary extremes, I’ve eaten many plates of food that were lacking in one macronutrient or another, and I did really start to feel more vital when I gave attention to a balance and interplay of them all.
So, that’s the idea. Not every recipe in the book is a stellar source of all three macronutrients, and I encourage everyone to find a balance that’s appropriate for their bodies and lifestyles. But the book is a gentle invitation to seek for balance and to craft fulsome plates of food.
For someone curious about a vegan lifestyle or for anyone wanting to incorporate more plant-based meals into their lives, can you suggest a great recipe to start with from Power Plates?
Oh gosh, it’s hard to pick! The Rice, Beans, Tofu and Greens is a good starting point for a super simple, weeknight-friendly, hearty dinner. The Kitchari is one of my favorite breakfasts, but it’s a comforting dinner or lunch, too. For weekends or batch cooking, I love the bowls, especially the Golden Rice and Sweet Potato bowls. And, for a potluck or gathering, I love the Butternut and Kale Enchiladas.
Rice, Beans, Tofu and Greens
This dish grew out of my tremendous love of rice and beans, as well as my tendency to load up the dish with extras: greens, peppers, sautéed mushrooms, tofu or tempeh, and whatever else strikes my fancy. I love it because it’s fast and filling, and it all comes together in a single pot. I’m the sort of person who can eat plain tofu right out of the package, so adding unmarinated, uncooked tofu doesn’t bother me. If naked tofu is a turnoff for you, feel free to use 8 ounces (225 g) smoked or baked tofu instead.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 white or yellow onion, chopped
- 1 small bell pepper, chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1⁄2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 11⁄2 cups (270 g) cooked black beans, or 1 (15-oz, or 425-g) can, drained and rinsed
- 1 (14.5-oz, or 411-g) can diced or crushed tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
- 1 cup (185 g) white or brown basmati or long-grain white rice
- 2 3⁄4 cups (650 ml) water
- 1 (15-oz, or 425-g) block extra-firm tofu, preferably pressed, cut into 3⁄4-inch (2-cm) cubes
- 1 small bunch collard greens or other greens, stemmed and cut into thin strips
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
- Freshly squeezed lime juice
- Optional Toppings: Crumbled corn chips, chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges, hot sauce
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion is tender and translucent. Stir in the cumin, chili powder, paprika and salt, then stir in the beans, tomatoes, rice and water. Add the tofu and stir gently to combine. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring gently from time to time, until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes for white rice or 40 minutes for brown rice.
Add the greens, cover and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until the greens are wilted. Season with red pepper flakes and stir in lime juice to taste. Taste and adjust the seasonings if desired. Serve right away, with any additional toppings you like.
Reprinted with permission from Power Plates, copyright © 2018 by Gena Hamshaw. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Photographs copyright © 2018 by Ashley McLaughlin.
To hear more from Gena follow her website or find her on Instagram and Facebook. For more stories on food and healing, check out our conversations with A Couple Cooks, Phoebe Lapine and Jessica Murnane.