Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How I (accidentally) (temporarily?) became a Vegan

I know I still need to write my 2011 Ironman Canada race report. It is in progress, but I thought I would write about my next (current) conquest. A 100% plant-based diet. No dairy, eggs, animal foods, meat, fish, caffeine, soda, pasta, bread, processed sugars, or candy.


When I was training for Ironman Canada, I was easily consuming 3,500-5,000 calories a day to compensate for 13-17 hours of training exercise per week. I was eating a ton, usually cheeses (cream cheese, cottage cheese, cheese sticks), meats (chicken, cheese burgers), peanut butter (PB&J sandwiches), soda (mountain dew and coke), candy (2-3 bars a day), bagels, and pasta (with tons of butter and salt). I needed to eat a lot to keep up with the calories I was burning, but frankly, I was getting sick of eating.

When I started my Ironman training (February 2011), I weighed 197 pounds (I'm 6'1"). After 30 weeks of training between 12-17 hours per week, I weighed 201 on race day (and my weight was as high as 204 while training). I gained some muscle (which weighs twice as much as fat) and my waist went from 36 to 34, but I still felt bloated from all the food I was eating. I thought about food most of the time and I knew that most of what I was eating was processed or unhealthy.

One day during a long training run, I heard an interview on Ben Greenfield's fitness podcast where Ben was interviewing Dr. Bill Misner, a 71 year old athlete who recently switched to a 100% plant based diet. He said that he became leaner, felt more energy, and his times were improving - all from going on a 100% plant based diet. He talked about a 43 year old male that had a heart attack - this person ate a pretty good western diet, was in shape, and had no family history. When this 43 year old doctor, who had a 90% blocked artery, asked his doctor "what do I do?", his doctor replied "go on a 100% plant based diet". So, the 43 year old male did so and 23 months later, his 90% blocked artery was 100% OPEN. When I heard this, I said to myself "hmmm, maybe I can reverse my coronary artery disease (diagnosed in 2010, huge family history of heart disease in my family)". Dr. Misner also talked about how people on a plant based diet have a much lower risk of heart disease and cancer. I was sold.

See below for the link to the podcast I mentioned. The interview starts around minute 33. This podcast turned me on to trying a whole food plant diet. It is well worth the time.

Ben Greenfield interview with Dr. Bill Misner (it is episode #154)

I got home from my run after listening to the podcast and told my wife "when I finish the Ironman I'm going to try a 100% plant based diet for a little while". Yeah right Jim (or something like that) was her response. 6 weeks later, I finished my Ironman, and on Friday September 2, 2011, 5 days after my Ironman race, I went cold turkey. 100% plant based diet - no dairy, animal foods, meat, fish, caffeine, soda, pasta, bread, or candy. Somebody said to me "you're a strict vegan!" I'd heard that term vegan before but didn't even know what that was when I started. I have crohn's and colitis and some food allergies (apple skins, cherries, most other fruit skins, and soy), so I wasn't even sure that I could handle eating vegetables without causing a flare-up of the crohn's.

I wanted to start strict so that it would be easy for me to add things back in to eat later. I figured that would be better than starting more liberally and then becoming strict. In my mind, it would be too easy to cheat if I were to start liberally. I began eating vegetables, fruits, oatmeal, and drinking a lot of water (nothing else except a little Gatorade). I measured all of my food and bought fresh vegetables and fruit (beans being the only exception out of the can). I started counting all my calories to see how much I was eating but also to make sure that I get the right amount of protein and other vitamins. I also take a one a day vitamin to supplement my diet (something I have been doing for 20 years).

As of yesterday (9/27/11), 26 days after going 100% plant based, I've lost 16 pounds (from 201 to 185). I lost 7 pounds in the first 7 days. I haven't weighed 185 in 15 years. I have more energy, feel more relaxed, feel leaner, sleep better, and notice my exercise recovery is better.

30 weeks of intense physical activity - gained 4 pounds.
28 days of a plant based diet with regular exercise - lost 16 pounds.

I'm 100% convinced that diet is 95% of the battle when talking about weight, and exercise is critical to keep the body fit and in shape. They both are critical to long term good health. I have been exercising everyday, either running, swimming, or strength workouts for my legs (I'm running the NYC Marathon in November and the Las Vegas marathon on 12/4, which is being run on the strip at night and is also a rock n roll marathon. Today I heard that they are expecting 35,000-40,000 people to run the race. I'm very surprised that there will be that many runners. It will be awesome to run on the strip at night!)

A vegan diet isn't easy, one has to be 100% dedicated to it. On average, I've been consuming 1,800 - 2,400 calories per day and have also exercised every day since starting (which is why I know I have energy). I'm getting enough protein and other vitamins. It was really hard the first 2 weeks, when I realized that I thought about food a ton, but after that my stomach shrank and I stopped thinking about food so much. It's almost like the food I was eating (candy, milk, cheese, burgers, fries, etc.) was my drug, and it took me a couple of weeks to wean myself off this drug (withdrawal symptoms included). However, after a month, surprisingly, it feels more natural to eat a plant based diet than the foods I was eating. I've had no cholesterol in 4 weeks either.

Some people think I am crazy. Since I've started my diet, people have called me "extreme" or "crazy" and most say "how do you get your protein?" or "you can't get enough protein eating that way". I have gone out to a few business lunches/dinners and it is definitely tough to find things to eat (along with the embarrassment of eating only plant based things", which my coworkers and friends tease me mercilessly about). I went through the same type of comments when I quit drinking alcohol after being diagnosed with Crohn's in 1994 (frequently, I would be out with my friends and people would say, almost with anger, "WHY AREN'T YOU DRINKING?") and also when I told people that I was going to do an Ironman. But at the end of the day, WHO CARES WHAT ANYBODY ELSE THINKS? What matters is your health, and in 26 days I've proven to myself that what I have been eating is MUCH healthier. I can't tell you the number of people that have said "YOU LOOK GREAT!" over the last few weeks (thanks to those of you that have said that!)

I talked to my cardiologist yesterday and told her that I want to reverse my heart disease. She wasn't a believer and put my chances at less than 5%. She's never seen anybody do it, but said "Jim, if anybody can do it, you can". So, we agreed that I may get a test in 6 months to see if I have reversed it. Honestly, I'm not sure that I want to be a vegan for 6 more months, but I'm willing to try to see if I can reverse the disease. Either way, I know I'll be healthy for the next 6 months. I'm scheduled to get my blood work and cholesterol checked next month, will report on that.

Many of my friend have asked me "what do you eat", so here is what I have been eating:
For breakfast, I have 3/4 of a cup of Quaker Oats (in 3/4 cup of water, I don't get the quaker oats premade packages, I get the old fashioned quaker oats), which I make on the stove top (no microwave). I put in bananas, strawberries, and/or blueberries (I change it up everyday). I DO NOT put sugar in (I used to LOVE putting on a ton of brown sugar). I also put 2 large tablespoons of flax seed on top, which gives me great omega 3 and omega 6, which is important since vegans need the fat and protein. I love it and after a few weeks I don't even crave the sugar anymore.

Link to the flax seed I use (you can buy it at Vitamin shoppe too):

Swanson Flax Seed

For lunch, I have a salad with romaine lettuce or spinach, black beans, broccoli (all high in protein), tomatoes, green and red peppers and onions. I put lemon tahini dressing on it (make sure whatever dressing you use is vegan (no dairy)).

For dinner, I have black beans or red kidney beans (I like Goya, and I wash the beans before heating them on the stove top (I don't t boil, rather I just heat them up), peppers (last night I cut up red, orange, and yellow peppers), avocado (although I stopped avocado over the last week as my body hasn't craved the fat as much), onions, and potatoes (boiled). I put salt on of course! I eat until I am full. I also put on alfalfa sprouts, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, corn, kale, cucumbers, or other vegetables. Sometimes I have broccoli and sweet potatoes/yams also.

As a snack, I've been having almonds (measuring them, usually 1/4 cup, to make sure I don't eat too much) or fruit.

I only drink water during the day, eat a lot of bananas as snacks, have pineapple (I buy the fruit and cut it up myself), or other fruits. I have a banana and a little Gatorade before I exercise and sometimes have a bottle of Gatorade as a treat. I've been exercising moderately everyday and I count my calories EVERY DAY. The first 2 weeks were hard (particularly the first week), but once my body got used to it my stomach shrank and I no longer think about food all the time.

If you try, go all in and I believe you will see results. No dairy or processed sugar! You will likely feel tired initially, but fight through it.