It’s January, so you know what that means. Time to realign those priorities and kick all the bad habits to the curb that we’ve spent years cultivating — especially what we eat.
Diet. On its surface, it’s a word that Julie Wilcox is not particularly fond of, given its association at this time of year with New Year’s resolutions and the deprivation of culinary enjoyment.
But diet, it turns out, is a word with another meaning.
While it’s true that in its strictest sense, a “diet” is an eating program that severely limits one’s intake of certain foods (usually the most enjoyable kinds) for a specific period of time, and the verb “dieting” is the process of doing just that, the word “diet” is also one that describes how we fuel our bodies. In other words, diet as a noun that encompasses the full range of what we eat.
Next week, Wilcox’s new book, “The Win/Win Diet: How to Be Plant-Based and Still Eat What You Love” (Post Hill Press) will hit bookstores and it focuses on that latter sense of the “D” word. In it, Wilcox encourages readers to explore four distinct styles of eating — flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan. In addition to providing steps and recipes for transitioning from one eating style to another, depending on where readers currently fall on the carnivore/vegan continuum, the book is also a guide for raising environmental awareness and offers detailed explanations of food production methods and how changing one’s diet can improve the health of the planet as well.
On the day of the book’s release, Tuesday, January 18, BookHampton will host a virtual event at 7 p.m. featuring Wilcox in conversation with Dana Cowin, former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. Wilcox, who has a home in the Northwest Woods of East Hampton, is well-versed in this topic and comes armed with the knowledge to back it up. The founder of Julie Wilcox Wellness and co-founder of ISHTA Yoga, she has two decades of experience as a wellness consultant, writer, teacher and coach. A graduate of Harvard with a degree in English and American literature, she also has a master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from New York University.
Wilcox’s journey in nutrition and wellness began not in a university classroom, but in the gym, where, from the ages of 8 to 15, she trained as a serious gymnast under Russian coaches.
“I had Olympic hopes,” said Wilcox. “I was really wanting to make the grade there.”
But by the age of 15, Wilcox had grown too tall for the sport and quit. Still, she keenly recalls the important role diet played for athletes like herself.
“I had to adhere to an incredibly restrictive diet to keep my energy up and my body fat low. It was no fun at all and incredibly rigid,” she said. “Diets like that are very difficult to maintain, even for athletes at that level, and what ends up happening is they usually incite rebellion.”
Wilcox recalls that after practice, she and her fellow gymnasts would occasionally sneak off to Carvel for a forbidden treat.
“One of us would stand at the window and call out when the coaches drove by,” Wilcox said. “There was always some guilt in that.”
In her 20s, Wilcox discovered yoga and became a devoted student and eventually, a teacher with her own yoga studio in New York City.
“I came to learn to embrace balance and mindfulness, and that definitely changed how I approached food. In Ayurveda which addresses food in the context of an individual’s three constitutional types — fire, water and air,” Wilcox explained, “Essentially, you want all of the elements to be in harmony and equal, but frequently they’re not with one dominating the way you eat and operate in life. The goal is to become more mindful so that you can bring the others up and all three into balance.”
“It’s complicated, but ultimately when simplified it is really about personalization,” she added.
The idea of personalization is a philosophy that stuck, and it became an important aspect of eating that Wilcox focused on while pursuing her master’s program at NYU.
“I think personalization is still fringe. Diets for the masses are what get popularized,” she said. “My unique approach to food integrates the discipline I got out of gymnastics with balance, mindfulness and personalization as well.”
Wilcox adds that flexibility and enjoyment is key. She also isn’t a fan of punishing oneself when things don’t go as planned in an eating program.
“I’m not someone who is like, you can’t have sugar now and then, or a bag of chips,” she said. “I don’t perceive things as falls and failures. Everyone has their own take. I eat dessert most nights but that’s in the context of the rest of my day, which is extremely healthy. I know when my body feels fine and when it doesn’t — I listen to its intuitive cues — and am careful about what I put in it, and I exercise. One of the most important things I work with clients on is listening to the body with mindfulness tools.”
Which is why rather than focusing on a strict eating regime that must be adhered to, “The Win-Win Diet” offers flexibility by outlining four distinct eating patterns which allow people to choose what works best for them based on tastes and lifestyle — and also consider what they’re willing to give up for the health of the planet. While some may not be ready to give up red meat altogether (those are the flexitarians), the book offers guidance to help people at least reduce the amount of meat consumed and move toward a pescatarian or vegetarian eating style if it feels right. At the other end of the continuum, those eager to make the leap from vegetarian to vegan by eliminating all animal products, including dairy, from their diet are given the guidance to do just that.
Wilcox maintains that from flexitarian to vegan, whatever change people make along the continuum toward a more plant-based eating style will have health benefits for body and planet. A collection of recipes and meal plans in the book provides structure and helps readers put the program into action.
“You get to personalize your diet and not do a made-for-the-masses one, which doesn’t ever work,” Wilcox said. “I wanted to design something entirely achievable. At the end of each section, you do a medical, emotional and psychological check. I encourage people to go through the questions and be honest. Is the eating pattern you’re on or transitioning to the right diet? If not, maybe you need to go back or take more time to let yourself adjust to the new diet.”
Exercise, she notes, is also key. Finding and making time for it — even if it’s just a series of regular strolls throughout the day — is an important part of any healthy eating plan.
“It doesn’t have to be spin class. Any form of movement is good, even if it’s in fits and spurts of 10 minutes or 30 minutes,” Wilcox said. “I like to run and walk outside. I do my yoga practice. I believe in mixing it up.”
When making life changes, there are always hurdles to overcome. In counseling her clients on nutrition issues, Wilcox finds that the biggest challenges are often related to figuring out how to operate in various environments or contexts, such as work, travel or considerations related to other family members.
“The more you can cook at home, the better off you are. If you make a point of preparing, planning and learning the skills you need, there is a way to integrate home cooking into your life more, without it being such an inconvenience and time commitment” she said. “And if you order out or eat out, doing it in the healthiest way possible is important. Ask questions of the server or share a dish, or choose something different if it doesn’t fit.”
To take part in Julie Wilcox’s virtual talk on “The Win-Win Diet: How to Be Plant-Based and Still Eat What You Love,” on Tuesday, January 18, at 7 p.m., visit bookhampton.com.
Recipes From “The Win-Win Diet” By Julie Wilcox
Morning Antioxidant Smoothie
Preparation Time: 3 minutes
1/2 frozen banana
3/4 cup frozen blueberries
3 frozen strawberries, stems removed, and cut in half prior to freezing (about . cup)
1 cup coconut water
3 tablespoons unsweetened almond milk
1 tablespoon almond butter (unsweetened, either smooth or chunky)
Optional: 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon organic maple syrup
Place all the ingredients in a blender or Vitamix (Vitamix is preferred). Blend until completely
smooth, with no visible blueberry bits. Pour into a glass and serve immediately.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
Preparation Time: 50 minutes
Makes 2 bowls or 4 cups
1 cup butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (you can purchase butternut squash
peeled and cubed at certain supermarkets)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup onion, chopped
2 cups vegetable broth
½ teaspoon fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon butter or vegan butter
1 teaspoon honey, or maple syrup if making vegan
2 tablespoons Cashew Cream (optional; see recipe below)
1 teaspoon pumpkin or sunflower seeds, toasted about 4 minutes at 325°F, until golden
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Place the squash cubes in a Pyrex baking dish or on a sheet pan and brush with a tablespoon of the olive oil. Transfer to the oven and roast the squash until soft and tender, about 35 to 40 minutes (open the oven and toss the squash with a spatula at the 15-minute mark).
Meanwhile, heat the other tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Remove the squash from the oven and transfer to the pot with the onions. Add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Transfer the soup from the pot to a blender (in batches if blender is small) and blend until smooth and creamy. Stop the blender to scrape down the sides with a spatula and add the salt, butter, honey and Cashew Cream. Blend again, adding a little extra water if needed for a thinner consistency. When done blending, transfer the soup back to the pot and cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes.
Serve the soup immediately, topped with the toasted seeds, or cover and transfer to the refrigerator for up to a week. You can also freeze this soup for up to 3 months.
Cashew Cream (a vegan alternative to dairy cream)
Preparation Time: Several hours to overnight
Makes 1 cup
1 cup cashews, raw and unsalted, soaked overnight
2½ cups water, divided
1/8 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
Add the cashews to a bowl with 2 cups of water. Cover and soak for 2 to 4 hours or overnight.
(The longer you soak, the creamier and less cashew-tasting your cream will be).
After soaking, drain the cashews and transfer them to a blender. Add the remaining half cup water and salt and blend until the cream is silky and smooth. Depending on your usage, you can experiment with adding more or less water to achieve different consistencies.