We all indulge in sweets. Melting vanilla ice cream with maple syrup and crushed walnuts on top. A glass or two of smooth buttery red wine from Bordeaux. A tangy IPA when you get home. Grilled bison burgers. Hot fried chicken with honey on top. Raw salmon and tuna sushi. Flakes of hard aged Parmesan cheese from Piedmont, Italy. Wash it all down with cold organic milk...Hungry yet? We know it's bad for us but it tastes great and makes us happy, so why not indulge? Everybody does it. We even convince ourselves its healthy because its free range or organic. We're omnivores after all.
Everybody also gets cancer. Everyone also gets heart disease. People close to me have died early- very early, from both. I keep up with the health and medical news. For a few years I've been generally trying to reduce my meat consumption- knowing that it promotes cancer and heart disease. While I've cut back, I certainly can't say I feel any healthier. I'm not in better shape. Now I have not one but two little children that depend on me. In the two months after my son's beautiful entry into the world on November 3rd, I stayed up late watching him each night, indulging myself with a nice beer and heaping bowls of ice cream while watching football. Despite being a lifelong runner, I'd only laced up my shoes a handful of times since his birth. New Years was around the corner and I wanted a change.
Maybe its the competitor in me- but I enjoy challenges of willpower (to a point) and taking on vows. To me, a vow must be kept with no compromises unless life itself is on the line. So it was that I decided to embark on another dietary challenge. This one would be different from previous culinary adventures like when I only ate local ingredients from within 100 miles for 30 days (very very hard), giving up alcohol for six months (pretty easy) or when I ate only organic ingredients for a month (medium). This time I'd focus like a laser on a diet that I believe to be entirely healthy. Only plants. No meat, no dairy, no fish, no added oil, no added sugar, no alcohol. This limits me to exclusively grains, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
I began preparing by measuring every pre-challenge health indicator of mine I could. I was not surprised to discover that at 34 year old I wasn't very healthy:
Weight 168 : Goal 155
Resting Heart Rate 70-80 : Goal 60
Height 5’9 : Goal 6’1 (just seeing if you’re reading)
Blood Pressure 118/85 : Goal 110/70
HDL Cholesterol 40 : Goal 60
LDL Cholesterol 141 : Goal 70
Total Cholesterol 199 : Goal 150
Fasting Glucose 96 : Goal 70
Triglycerides 127 : Good enough
Steps/day 6500 : Goal 10,000+
My blood is not healthy- the optimal LDL (bad) cholesterol level is below 100 and I'm about 50% above that in what some call the "pre-heart disease risk zone." I'd seen enough health documentaries to know that many of those numbers would improve if I stuck to my diet. I write to report on my results and experience so far- not to brag about what a dainty little vegan I've become, but to meditate on health and perhaps encourage others to give this a try. After all, my goal is the evaluate this diet after 90 days, see where my health indicators were and decide whether to add things back in.
As of now, I'd plan to add back limited amounts of alcohol, sugar, oil, and maybe some dairy like my old love, Parmesan cheese. I have a feeling that meat, fish and I may have parted ways forever and I may vow never to knowingly let them descend my trachea again. They're just too toxic to human health and their harvest is too harsh on the planet. I am sad about fish, since if there was a way to sustain ably harvest them and ensure that they didn't hold mercury, endocrine disruptors etc, I'd consider fish healthy. I used to catch fish and we'd eat them the same day. Fish tacos were my go to lunch item for years. Alas, bio-accumulation of toxins and heavy metals means that doctors recommend rationing even the innocuous sardine and even if they didn't, so many fish populations are in free fall that I'm not sure our children will see cans of tuna on super market shelves.
"So what do you eat?" people ask me. I joking respond with a straight face, "Dried grass, leaves, bark..." After a chuckle, I'll explain that I usually make a smoothie with my daughter for breakfast. I dump each ingredient onto her high chair and she either puts them in the blender or samples them and then puts the rest in.
Friends ask me to share recipes. I can't because I really hate recipes. I'm a goal oriented person but not necessarily a rule follower. I often resent overbearing authority figures and recipes are just that- rules rules rules. It's like doing homework to me. If I really have to, I'll follow a recipe, but only when the stakes are high. The way I like to cook is based on guidelines, upcoming expiration dates, intuition and experimentation. Meaning that you won't like half of what I might make, but you'll never eat the same exact thing twice. Here's my precise morning smoothie recipe:
One or two handfuls of walnuts. Sometimes a small handful of peanuts, but just a few adds a very strong flavor. Dump in some oats for about a second. One or two organic bananas, this is the base. A handful or two of a frozen fruit like blueberries, blackberries, strawberries or peaches. Don't add more than two or you'll lose the individual flavors. Sometimes wash and throw in a big handful of spinach. Sometimes add something else like pear, apple, or cantelope. Dust in some ground chia/flax seed. Add almond milk or some non-dairy non-sweetened liquid (I hate water smoothies, blah!) until the liquid is near the top of the stuff inside. Blend baby blend.
Things I've tried adding and do not recommend: anything stringy like lemon, clementines, grapefruit or oranges. Nothing too strong like garlic or ginger. Honey (more because it will stick to everything around the blender), kale (too fibrous for my blender).
After four weeks of my diet, here is the report: I've lost about twelve pounds. I don't feel hungry as often as before. My stomach went through a gurgly transition the first week as I shifted from low fiber to basically only fiber. The second week I felt normal energy energetic and normal. Like pre-diet, I eat a lot, perhaps more than I should at dinner, usually a big heaping plate often followed by seconds or dessert. Now dessert is a piece of whole grain bread toasted with honey drizzled on top. I snack on nuts during the day and drink a lot of carbonated water and coffee. I'm really not yearning for what I see others eating around me, just occasionally steadying my hand. We often cook a meal that I can eat half of and the other half includes some meat, dairy or oil- I then can have leftovers for lunch the next day.
By week number three strange things started happening. Really strange. Back when I was in college, my sense of smell diminished greatly. It's hard to put a number on one's sense of smell, but I'd say mine went down by 30-50%. As a child, I picked up on flowers from afar, now I needed to bend down and insert my nose into their petals. My wife would hunt down some tiny rotting piece of fruit in our house while I would say she was crazy (she always found something). I didn't dare believe it at first, but after three weeks of eating plants, my nose felt clearer and I began smelling things a bit more accurately. At the same time, food flavors intensified. Each avocado I ate went from being soft green mush to having their own unique flavor profile that danced on my tongue. Lentil soup went from bland blah to each individual vegetable working together on jazz.
I digress, but while I cannot measure the change or even prove that it's real- this diet has regained my long lost sense of smell and sharpened my sense of taste. That alone is pretty cool. Week four has me feeling positive, energetic and vivacious. I feel like I'm selling something in the way that I describe this transformation. If only the big vegetable lobby would mail me the check.
The other day I got on a treadmill to run a mile during my lunch break. After a quarter mile warmup I set the pace to 6:30, expecting it to be hard. It wasn't too bad, so I did another quarter at that pace. That still wasn't bad so instead of a cool down I cranked it to 5:56 for a quarter. Running had me feeling light and excited. Well, maybe I was just excited about being light. After all, imagine carrying a six pound weigh in each hands for years and then suddenly letting go after four weeks of eating plants. It livens one's step.