Before getting started, I want to explain the asterisk on the word “Vegan” in the title. In conversation, I normally avoid calling myself or my diet vegan because A.) of the politics associated with the word and B.) I’m not 100% perfect in eating absolutely zero food products derived from animals. With regards to the politics, I’m no extremist and I want to avoid being seen as one. With regards to my vegan imperfections, I’m respectful of the people around me. My wife likes to go on date nights (I’m lucky) and if my meat-free menu selection was cooked with butter or if the wait staff forgot to leave the goat cheese off of my salad, I eat it without tipping over any tables in a fit of rage. Having said that, I estimate that more than 95% of the food I eat is completely plant-based. Not bad for a guy living in a mid-sized city in the Midwest.
How I got here
In short, this started as an experiment. I like to run, and like many runner-types in America, I read Christopher McDougall’s super-entertaining Born to Run. In it, I learned about Scott Jurek and later found out that he had his own book titled Eat and Run. After reading Jurek’s inspiring book, I decided to give the plant-based diet a whirl. Over the years, I’ve tried various diets to see what worked for me and what didn’t. And when I say “tried,” I mean “followed at ~95% rigidity for 3-6 months.” My wife indulges me by figuratively patting me on the head with a reassuring “OK baby.” Again, I’m lucky. So… I started with week one in October 2016. After digging into the topic for a bit, I also discovered Rich Roll, whose excellent podcast and other offerings have kept me going. But that is a tale for another day.
Lesson 1: I rarely missed meat
As I mentioned above, I live in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest of the United States. I was raised on meat and potatoes as was essentially everyone around me. So the first question I get usually when discussing my shift to a plant-based diet is, “How can you live without meat?” In my youth, I was a full-fledged carnivore, so I thoroughly understand this question. I used to muse that if one day because of poor health I had to go without meat, I’d drive off a cliff. I wasn’t serious of course, but I will readily admit that there is a satisfaction that comes with chewing on the texture of meat and the fullness that comes from a hearty meal that includes beef or chicken or salmon or… So, you’re getting the picture, I’m not really a good *Vegan* with a capital V. Now for the interesting part, I have rarely missed meat since making the switch.
Maybe I had enough meat in my 40+ carnivorous years preceding. But once I made the switch, there are very few times that I can remember where I really wanted meat. It was more than a year ago the last time I got the urge of the carnivore. It was a cold January day and my body fat was in the single digits from the plant-based diet and lots of running. I distinctly remember walking out of the grocery store and getting blasted by a cold wind out of the North. I was probably hangry because it was just past lunchtime and I hadn’t eaten yet. Immediately following the arctic blast, I remember angrily thinking, “The only thing that is going to solve this is an entire pot of beef stew.” I did not have the pot of beef stew. I have since found plenty of vegetable stew and other recipes that provide the necessary heartiness to overcome the polar vortexes that we experience in Ohio. While individual tastes and preferences abound, I find that cauliflower in buffalo sauce makes great taco filler, Jackfruit in a barbecue sauce replaces pulled pork or chicken, and adding a few cashews or oyster mushrooms to a breakfast burrito filled with onions and peppers gives me the hearty textures that I want in my food.
Lesson 2: It is difficult to be a foodie in a mid-sized Midwestern city
Quite simply, there aren’t a lot of vegan restaurants or places with distinctly vegan options on the menu in Columbus, Ohio. I have found a couple of places that offer tasty options, but they’re generally a bit young and hip for my tastes. I like to sit down with my wife to catch up on the busy week and we find that we can’t do that very well over the din of Indy music, clinking beer glasses, and blaring TVs. So instead of being a “foodie,” which I’m defining here as one who keeps up with the latest food offerings at many trendy restaurants, I’ve turned into a cook. Recipes abound on the internet, and I got off to a great start by watching a few YouTubers, The Happy Pear being my favorite. I prepare the vast majority of our meals at home and the spill over benefit that I’ve learned is that it makes me happy. I know it sounds a bit woo woo, but I have a real connection with the food that I’m now eating. There is something very uplifting about tucking into a meal that I’ve just prepared.
Lesson 3: I have had no problem with endurance sports
As mentioned previously, I’m both a runner and fond of trying new things, diets included. I had previously tried the Paleo diet. I found it both tasty and effective as a weight-loss tool. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big guy, but I tend to carry 10-15 lbs of extra weight in spite of a fairly active lifestyle. I like to blame my 45-50 hour a week desk job and the occasional adult beverage. I lost all of the extra pooch around my mid-section with the Paleo diet, but I ran into a couple of other problems: 1.) I found that I had trouble sleeping and 2.) I couldn’t run more than 4 miles without my legs locking up. My muscles would just give out. Not really cramping, just more like them saying “Nope, we’re done” and then going out on strike. Since going plant-based, I again lost my mid-section pooch but had no trouble training for, and running four marathons over the course of one year.
I do want to say that in the very beginning of my plant-based adventure I was eating very little carbs and fats. While I could still run and run (~60 miles per week) with my super-trim phsysique, I had a short bout with insomnia and a tired libido. After about a week, I figured out that all I had to do was eat more legumes, nuts, and avocados, which brought back just a little body fat (still in the single digits) and a happy bedroom. In fact, after a year of eating a plant-based diet, my most recent health screening resulted in the best numbers I’ve turned in since I was in my 20s.
Lesson 4: My body’s response to fruit changed significantly for the better
This one is fascinating to me. I don’t know the science behind it, but at this point I don’t care. In years past when I was not at all careful with my diet, I had an interesting sugar spike response to say, eating an apple. It was so noticeable that over time I eventually steered clear of many fruits to avoid the rush and crash. After the first 2-3 months of eating a plant-based diet, I started to notice a significant difference. I can now eat an apple or an orange with absolutely no jitters or crash. These days, I carry two or three pieces of fruit with me per day and I eat them as snacks instead of chips or even nuts. I feel a moderate boost of energy with no side effects. So, I’m sure someone can tell me the science behind it, but I’m now looking at fruit much more favorably these days and I quite enjoy it.
Lesson 5: B12 makes me happy
It’s fairly well documented that people who eat a plant-based diet can become vitamin B12 deficient. Meat eaters get B12 from meat and – while I’m not expert on this – our purified water sources generally prevent us non-meat eaters from getting B12 from “nature.” So, people who eat a plant-based diet essentially need to supplement. Here’s the cool thing: taking a B12 supplement once a week is like a blast of sunshine, a cool breeze, and a group of non-allergenic puppies excitedly running around your feet – all at once. Seriously, this stuff is like happy pills. As with all good things, too much can be problematic. We don’t need a lot of B12 to prevent deficiency (think, teeny-tiny micrograms) so B12 is not your caffeine replacement. This is especially true since recent studies have linked high doses of B12 with increased risks of lung cancer – notably in men who currently or have smoked in the past.
Let’s wrap this thing up in a grape leaf
In conclusion, I’m an imperfect vegan and happily so. My plant-based diet has fueled me through 4 marathons in one year and has provided me with clean-burning inexpensive food that gets me through my work days behind the desk. I have found it easy to maintain a healthy weight even when I take a break from running. What started as the latest in a long line of dietary experiments has turned into a rewarding and highly maintainable lifestyle.