Real Life Minimalists: Sylvia Black

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details.

This week, Sylvia Black tells us about the many ways in which she’s practicing minimalism, including her approach to food and diet (always an interesting topic!). To learn more, surf on over to her blog, Vegan Advantage.

Sylvia writes:

Sylvia Black

For me, the main area of my life in which I’ve consciously explored minimalism is my diet.

Diet, I think, sometimes gets overlooked as an area in which minimalism is applicable – or if it does get considered, people might perhaps think of counting calories and diminishing only the quantity of what they eat.

That might be helpful for some people. But for me, I’ve never counted calories, never ate less than my body wanted, and lessened only the types of food, not the amount of it, that I eat.

In the past, meat, eggs, dairy products, processed foods, refined grains, and sugary fruit juice made up the large part of what I ate. In recent years, I’ve gradually given up all those things either mostly or completely.

Now, I’m transitioning to eating only what my body really needs – fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and water.

Changing to a plant-based diet has minimized my impact on the environment (raising animals for food requires huge amounts of land and resources), my intake of pesticides and other chemicals (which accumulate as you go higher up the food chain), and even my grocery bill.

Recently I’ve been minimizing my possessions, too – I’ve set a goal to get rid of half of what I currently own before I move in a few months.

That way, in my new living space I can make a fresh start, with less clutter and more simplicity.

The third area of my life that I’ve been practicing minimalism in is my to-do lists, tasks and commitments. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with obligations and projects, either imposed by myself or someone else.

I’ve been trying to cut back to just the essentials, doing only what’s most important, one thing at a time.

For me, all three of these transitions are teaching me a lot of the same lessons.

The most amazing thing about minimalism, I think, is realizing how much abundance there is in having less.

With fewer possessions, you’re more aware of and grateful for those that you have left.

With fewer foods to choose from, you realize how much taste, texture, and richness there is in just the foods that nature provides – and you discover new, healthier favourites that you hadn’t tried before.

With fewer treats, you appreciate and savour those you have.

With less sugar and salt in your diet, you become more attuned to subtleties of taste, and appreciate the sweetness, sourness, or saltiness in foods you didn’t realize had it before.

With less to do, you focus more on the present moment, and on appreciating everything there is around you.

I’ve also learned to trust – to trust that among the twists and turns of fate, things will work out okay in the end, and you don’t need to prepare for every eventuality by keeping boxes and boxes of things “just in case”.

To trust that I don’t need processed foods or expensive supplements to nourish my body.

To trust that I don’t need to do everything, or solve every problem right now, but that I can simply focus on the present and let the future take care of itself.

And I’ve learned about fairness. About not taking up more than my share of the world’s resources, whether that be in physical possessions, or in the sixteen pounds of edible grain it takes to produce one pound of edible meat.

It seems greedy to take more than I need when there are so many people in the world who don’t even have the essentials.

And with so many people and causes already clamouring for our attention, I prefer to focus on just a few meaningful projects, and hopefully not add too much noise and distraction to the world.

For me, I try never to aim for less just for the sake of less. Instead, it’s about having exactly as much as I need and no more than that.

So in that sense, it’s not about minimizing so much as optimizing – getting rid of anything in my life that’s unnecessary so that I have room for everything that’s really desirable.

Note: for more about a minimalist, healthy, and compassionate diet, come visit my blog at www.veganadvantage.com.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

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44 comments to Real Life Minimalists: Sylvia Black

  • Laurie

    I’m not sure where the “16 pounds of grain” figure originates from. I follow a primal lifestyle after being a vegan for a decade – which contributed in no small part to my diabetes. The meat I eat is GRASS fed, not fed with grains.

    The problem I increasingly associate with the minimalist movement is the binge/purge syndrome, and this is also something I see associated with eating disorders and veganism.

    • Caroline

      I found a book in the library about veganism for diabetics and it made me want to scream! I had just watched Fat Head.

      Side note – my interest in the Blood Type Diet leads me to believe that some people actually should be vegetarian, but the majority of us should not, and that’s why the primal diet works on a larger scale.

    • After being vegetarian, and then vegan, for several years and my physical and mental health failing during that time, I just cannot listen to the proselytizing anymore. The most frequent issue I have is, as Laurie stated, that “16lbs of grain” (16lbs! Talk about inflation, when I started being a vegetarian is was 6lbs.) being fed to animals who don’t need to eat grain, and really shouldn’t be eating grain at all. They should be eating what they would in the wild, grass, or if they’re browsers like goats, most other low-lying plants. Not grain. And they can be part of an ecosystem, whereas agriculture provides no space for other life, at all, on the land it uses. Changing our livestock practices, especially in BigAg? I’m all for it. There are practices I can’t condone. But I also can’t subscribe to the “vegetarian is better for you/the environment” because it’s not. Agriculture is straight up bad for the environment. It destroys ecosystems all over the world. Permaculture is far better, but still not a solution.

      Be vegetarian, that’s fine with me. It’s just like religion to me, be whatever you want, just don’t try to sell it to me.

      • Ashley

        Amen, munin_and_hugin – very well put.

      • LM

        Exactly. I tried vegetarianism – not even veganism – for about a month. In that month, I developed a memory problem. All my blood tests were normal, all the nutrients were there, everything was normal, except my brain didn’t work. I went back to eating meat and the problem went away.

        Never mind all the processed yuck that a vegetarian or vegan has to eat to meet their protein requirements – tofu, tempeh, all sorts of highly processed foods with tons of preservatives. What’s the environmental impact of that?

        • v

          Clearly your month-long experiment with vegetarianism didn’t include any self-education on the subject, and that’s a shame.

          There are a variety of unprocessed or minimally processed vegetarian (and even vegan) protein sources available. A few vegan examples include beans, quinoa, nuts, lentils, brown rice, and nut butters. Vegetarian examples include eggs, yogurt, and cheese. Most of these can be a delicious foundation for any meal.

    • For my husband too. After he developed diabetes on what I thought was a healthy diet (mostly vegetarian, no processed foods, minimal sweets), he’s now gone to a low carb/high protein diet. We both feel better and most importantly, he is able to manage his blood glucose levels thus avoiding the serious health issues that seem inevitable with poorly managed diabetes.

  • Great post. Minimalism has touched all aspects in your life not just physical possession.

  • Nicole

    “it’s not about minimizing so much as optimizing”. I agree with this absolutely. The more I do minimalise the more I feel like I am progressing towards the “optimal me”. By simplifying my time I am finding more time for exercise and more time to plan and shop for healthy meals. Chaos and clutter distract me from me – space and time allow me to get on with being me.

    Thanks for a very simple and powerful post.

  • Even though I don’t consider myself a “minimalist” I always say, “Less is more”. When you don’t have an overwhelming amount of choices to make, it makes life so much easier. Thank you for sharing!
    Bernice
    Creating our perfect path

  • Caroline

    Diet is the last thing I’ve looked at, probably because it’s the most difficult (for me)! Someday I hope to eliminate wheat, potatoes, corn, and some dairy (all delicious, but terrible for me). Having read about the Blood Type Diet for years, watched the documentary Fat Head, read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, and generally felt like hell on a vegetarian diet, giving up meat is not something that will make my life simpler. I know it’s good for the environment, but it’s not good for my health. Instead, I’m focusing on getting my meat from good sources and cutting out the processed junk (also so very delicious sometimes!). Having fewer possessions means many things, and it’s great that we have more time to focus on really important stuff, like our health and the environment.

  • I love this post. Thank you, Sylvia! I would love to someday make the diet transition that you are making now. I need to practice more in the third area of implementing minimalism into my commitments. Great idea! I’m hoping you keep your blog as a lifelong project. I’ve bookmarked it and I know it will be something that will be important to me on down the road.

  • Lorna

    While being a vegetarian just wasn’t for me…I tried, I have cut back on the amount of meat I eat. I do appreciate your story, Sylvia. I am always trying to find the perfect amount of possessions that work for my life.

  • Ariel

    I’m sure many of you have heard of the zero-waste thing and Bea Johnson, but I just wanted to add that avoiding packaging is an excellent way to eat healthy! It’s amazing how easy it is. You end up eating no candy, chips, ice cream, etc., but instead lots of grains, lentils, veggies etc. If I want sweets I make cookies, which at least have whole wheat flour, oats and raisins in them, versus candy that is pure sugar. The one thing I can not give up is crackers, which I enjoy all the more because it’s my one rebellion against zero waste. When you are forced to buy what is out in the open (fruits and veggies) or in bulk (rice, beans, lentils, dried fruit), you automatically eat healthier.

  • MelD

    Personally, I don’t see why we should have to cut out anything from our diets, it’s all hype. We are omnivores, after all, biologically speaking.
    If we ate plain foods, simply prepared, took the time to enjoy reasonable portions and the company of our partners and families without the typical stresses, we would soon see what did us good or where we perhaps might feel better for reducing the frequency of some foods. The way our grandparents ate in the 30s or 40s covered all types of foods in this way, sweet or special things were treats and people were a normal size; many of their generation lived to a healthy old age (my grandmother is 95 and fit as a fiddle with no fads). In those days, children were taught to not be greedy, something I haven’t heard said to a child for many years.
    Today’s widespread allergies and food fads have a lot to do with processed foods in ridiculous quantities consumed for lack of anything else to do.
    Anyway, this is the conclusion I have come to and aim for. Common sense and don’t be greedy! In a way, apparently, that’s minimalism, too…

    • Mmmm some great points there…we can learn a lot from the past..I especially like your last two sentences. As a teacher, seeing what is in the kid’s lunchboxes, they are all over fed but totally starving. White bread, unhealthy oils, sugar, salt…ew, no wonder they’ll be the first generation to not outlive their parents !

  • Henny

    I think for some people, vegetarianism and veganism can be great. But they are not for me. I tend to become iron deficient quite rapidly (no matter how much spinach I munch!)

    My husband and son need meat in their diets more than I do, and while we have all cut back, they would definitely struggle and probably suffer to stop eating meat completely. We love our eggs, too.

    I totally agree with Ariel. We have been buying bulk foods, local where possible, going back to food in its natural, wholesome, unprocessed state (while avoiding packaging). We still have a long way to go, but I can already see the benefits for us and the environment. We will also be supporting pasture-raised beef on the rare occasions we do eat beef, and this in turn ensures money is heading back to the right kind of farmers, so they can stay afloat in competition with ‘Big Ag’.

    My mom always taught me that when it comes to food ‘variety is the spice of life’ (so we get a broad range of natural vitamins and minerals). For me, the minimalism is in the packaging and rampant consumerism we avoid, the minimal resources that are consumed in producing our unprocessed food, and the loving care that goes into preparing it in simple, healthy, delicious ways.

  • Lots of things to think about, I guess it’s horses for courses. It is good to hear lots of different points of view and hopefully from that we can gain further education, knowledge and a place where we can make sensible caring choices for ourselves. Thank you everyone for debate !

  • LM

    How is veganism at all “minimal” when it requires B12 supplementation – which is not present in plant matter, and which is required so that you don’t die?

    I’m all for dietary minimalism, but you can’t cut so many nutrients from your diet that it will no longer keep you alive without complex and expensive artificial supplements. By those standards, breatharianism is even more minimal – at least, for the 20 or so days it’ll take you to starve to death.

  • Heather P-K

    One thing I really appreciate about this blog is the opportunity to hear about approaches to minimalism that I might not have considered. None of these are right or wrong, they are simply part of the human experience. I thank all of the Real-Life Minimalists for putting themselves out there.

  • miss minimalist

    Well said, Heather.

    Let’s remember that our Real Life Minimalists are simply writing about the choices they’ve made in their *own* lives — and certainly not preaching or suggesting others do the same.

    I’m glad we can have such interesting discussions, while respecting each others’ personal decisions.

  • AussieGirl

    I think too many people have focused on the diet aspect and not enough on the rest of the article.

    I believe some bodies are truly cut out for being vegetarian. No one needs to have meat as part of every meal when there are many other alternatives which can provide an array of vitamins and minerals – pasture raised egg yolk for example or grass fed raw milk. Both of these do not need a life to be cut short in order to be nourishing and they can certainly take care of the B12 deficiency as someone else mentioned.

    Anyway, I digress. I found the story very uplifting and I thank you for sharing Sylvia! Best of luck on your journey and I’ll be checking out your blog! :)

  • I think the simplest approach to food is best summed up in Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”.

    Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

    Meaning: eat ONLY food (not high-glucose, sodium dense, enriched, mystery ingredients) – reading the label is vital and so is knowing WHERE your food came from. Eat portions that are realistic by truly listening to your body as you eat mindfully, the body knows when you have had enough when you are eating real food. And by having (quality) animal protein occassionally (instead of as the foundation for every meal) you will maximize your chances for a healthy diet even without “dieting”. He also touches on how quickly nutrients degrade once the veggies are picked, so local in season produce with have way better quality nutrients than far-off grown produce. “Not all carrots are created equal”, and neither are all chickens!

    I don’t have the discipline for Vegan. But I do have the discipline to eat mindfully by chosing less packaging and less processing too.

    • LM

      Yup. That’s the approach I follow – and to me, this seems to be the most minimalist choice of all. I’m not eating processed yuck with mystery ingredients; I’m not complicating my diet to the point that I need a bookshelf full of nutrition books to make sense of all of it; all I’m doing is eating real food and not worrying about vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, carbs, or any of that nonsense.

      Part of my approach to minimalism is to avoid clutter in all aspects of my life, including my brain. The above approach avoids brain clutter.

  • Alaine

    I loved this story – thank you for sharing! It really resonated with me and through the comments I’ve learned about the zero-packaging approach to dieting. Thank you! And hurrah for another vegan! :)

  • jenifer

    i think diet minimalism can work with any number of dietary options.

    as others have stated, i was also vegan for a time. i loved the simplicity of it. i enjoyed the food a lot (and i didn’t eat tofu, tempeh, etc). i didn’t have a problem with b12. i was eating all whole foods (and a lot raw) most of the time. i was low grain/legume, prefering to have these sprouted rather than eat them cooked (just a preference for how my body handles them).

    my issue was my cholesterol. it got too low. added in eggs, then dairy, and then meat. have since cut dairy, grains, legumes. it’s a very simple and flavorful diet, and it is definitely “minimal” in a lot of ways.

    so, i think that veganism is one path to minimalist diet. just as going without packaging is (we’re getting close to that ourselves!), and really just figuring out what works for you.

    and it’s like that with all minimalism. missminimalist has some great points and lifestyle choices, but i wanted my own bed in my new house, you know? not an air mattress. not a futon on the floor. not a borrowed bed (furnished place). I wanted my own bed. It’s not a sin, you know, to futon over bed or bed over futon or whatever. it just isn’t.

    we have to live our lives consciously, and we do that. my minimalism isn’t as minimal as her’s, but it’s still minimalism. :) and my minimal diet isn’t like this lovely lady’s, but it’s still a minimal diet. just different. :D

  • Tegan

    I love the real life minimalist stories and appreciate people sharing thief stories. With regards to the food issue I often think it would be interesting to see a comparison study done on the amount of work that goes into producing local scale produce Vs the amount of work that goes into producing produce made by big agricultural companies, I mean a real study , how much fuel, energy, raw materials they use down to the smallest detail. From experience I used to work for a huge agricultural company that produced sugar in uk. And out of 7 million tonnes of sugar beet processed each year, they only produced 4000 tonnes of waste, divide this by a unit bag of sugar and this worked out to a small amount for such a large producer. They also recycled ‘waste’ heat from the factories into green houses to grow tomatoes and recycled the shreds of sugar beet into animal produce , this was in the form of pellets (so I can understand why people assume it’s grain that cattle are fed on because it does look like grain). It would be interesting to know how much waste per unit of product the small producers generate so a fair comparison can be done on the merits of either method of food generation.

  • Tegan

    Oops I meant sharing their stories (not theif stories!)

  • I rarely buy DVDs these days, but I did really want the old Julia Child French Chef series which I watched in reruns in the early 70s with my mother (every evening at 6:00, followed by the Galloping Gourmet). I hadn’t seen these shows in years and I am struck at how simple Julia’s techniques, ingredients, and equipment are (she even uses an electric stove, a no-no now for serious cooks), compared to what you see on Top Chef or Food Network Star or Iron Chef, where lemons must be Meyer Lemons and the more ingredients the better, and the most obscure hard-to-find components prepared in the most complicated counter-intuitive way always wins the day. I never heard Julia use the term “sous vide,” or pull out the liquid nitrogen to do whatever it does to food, or refer to molecular gastronomy. I stopped real cooking a few years ago for a lot of reasons, none of which actually had to do with minimalism, but watching those French Chef episodes has made me want to pull out a plain old frying pan and make an omelet.

  • Anna D.

    “I wish I could be vegan, but can’t…I wanted to cut out eggs and dairy, but can’t.” Who cares? Eat what is right for your body for that season of your life and move on. I have to take a prenatal vitamin everyday no matter how “good” I eat diet-wise. My kid is not like, “geez, mom, why can’t you have more discipline?” Do the best you can when you can.

    • The standard patterns of healthy eating can be a challenge is you have any digestive issues, too. I have IBS and so the kind of raw fruits and vegetables that seem required by the various versions of the food pyramid make me literally sick.

      • Anna D.

        Sometimes it’s not meant to be- like the fruits and veg that everyone says you “should” eat. My FIL cannot eat green, leafy vegetables because of a blood condition he has and he has moved on. I think it’s easy for people to get carried away with what they eat (or don’t) just as people can get carried away with out-minimalising (sp?) each other;)

  • SG

    OK, I’m gonna jump in the shark tank here….My husband and I own and operate at cow/calf,and feeder business. I would like to warn everyone to not make a habit of grouping others by a sterotype. We have a little under 100 head of momma cows. They are well cared for, recieve antibiotic only if it is live or death, and are on a grass/hay diet. Their offspring get the same care. Reasoning: Grass and hay is MUCH more economical than grain. Antibiotic to in extremely overpriced, and the cattle are impossible to catch if they aren’t really sick. The feeders we have are slightly different. They have a higher risk of getting ill. Moving them from their birth place, to the sale barn, and then to our farm, is very stressful for them. Pneu. is common, as is an intestinal infection. Both of these conditions can easily spred to the rest of the herd, but we treat them at the first sign as to “nip in in the bud”. Once again, we want to prevent the outrageous cost of antibiotic. Grass and hay is their only diet. High protien hay has the ability to add more weight than feed anyway. These are not just practices the my husband and I have addopted, but are common in our area. Every operation is differnt, and the rancher isn’t always the bad guy. Packing plants, feed lots, and slaughter houses have different practices too. Choose one that is best for you.

  • CJM

    Funny how veganism triggers such strong reactions! I suspect people know deep down it is good for the planet, the body and our compassion to fellow “beings”, but their internal struggle causes a reaction instead of a response… After all, those of us with box springs don’t harbor ill feelings to those of us who share they use a futon or sleep on the floor without a mattress. I didn’t find this story to be “preachy” in the least. Recent documentaries that present the positive side of a whole food plant based diet include “Food Inc.”, “Forks Over knives” and “King Corn” – I encourage people with open minds to consider viewing these films.

  • Tim

    Vegan minimalist since 93. Sorry for folk with health probs. Perhaps had slightly unbalanced version vegan diet? Recommending vegan diet.:)

  • Sara

    I took a long road in transitioning to veganism. I guess my body and my head just wanted and needed to take their time in this.

    Just as a little reminder – veganism is about compassion, not about being a perfect human being out to preach to every one else. Just as Sylvia’s story is about her personal choices, veganism can be about environmentalism or health reasons, but at its roots it’s about not wanting to raise, kill, eat, or wear animals.

  • Tina

    Probably moderation is key as it is in most things.

  • Tina

    I was re-reading a lot of the above comments. I like this site for the dialogs which take place. Most of the readers mean well and want to share what has worked in their lives. My kids are 41,38 and 34. I worry about the 38 year old because her diet is mainly fast food, candy and sugar sweetened soft drinks. However, she is employed and living on her own and I accept that there are areas I can’t control.

  • Tina

    My daughter’s Dr. Says she has pre-diabetes. After years of living on junk cereal, uncooked pop-tarts, candy bars and full sugar soft drinks, it came as no surprise to me. She is supposed to be eating protein and complex carbohydrates. She went out and bought a Snickers bar. I don’t like being in the position of saying “I told you this would happen” but her father and I as well as both her brothers told her that her diet was what a 4 year old would grab on his own. We’ve always had a bowl of fruit sitting on the counter and a pitcher of ice water in the refrigerator.

  • Shanta

    My ancestor were all 95% Vegan 5% Dairy. I grew up same ways. I am lucky to have healthy body & mind.
    I do not say folks what to eat. Its very personal.

    But we should not spread incorrect information just to prove your point.
    To folks who are stating they had health problem cause my eating :- fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grain, nuts, legumes, beans & seeds.

    Are you sure your health problem is due to eating above foods?

    What is making us sick n unhealthy?

    Chemicals in our water
    Chemicals in our food system.
    Processed food
    Harmful chemical in everyday use household products
    Over medication

    etc.

    Lets not focus on fancy diets. Lets not put down others on their choice. Eat what you think is good for your body. Know what’s in your food.

    We only have one life, lets live healthy.

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