Living the plant-based life - a PT's experience
Updated: Nov 28, 2019
I’ve just completed a month living on a plant-based diet. No meat, fish, eggs or dairy of any kind. Why have I done it? Because I was getting an increasingly large number of clients and members of the gym asking me my thoughts on Veganism, and plant based diets. Some wanted to know what all the fuss was about, some wanted to know if it was superior for fat loss or muscle gain. Others wanted to know if plant based diets are superior for optimal health and wellbeing. Documentaries such as ‘The Game Changers’, ‘Knives over Forks’ and ‘Cowspiracy’ have further turned people’s attention to plant based eating.
I, as many of my clients do, understand the ethical debate and the sustainability issues of global cattle farming practices and was keen to see whether a plant-based diet could sustain adequate protein intake and nutrients for avid gym-goers. I decided the only way I could truly advise others was to live it… embrace it…and see what happened!
I went cold turkey, pardon the pun. I went fully plant based overnight. I had my bloods done the day before I started. I wanted a clear set of markers that I could compare at the end of the months experiment. I kept my total calorie intake (approx. 3300 a day) and exercise output the same, as it would be through a ‘normal’ month.
So, what happened?
‘You’re doing what?!’ said the wife. That was Laura basically saying ‘you eat 6 eggs for breakfast, a tin of tuna as a light snack, you never get bored of chicken and a 32oz Tomahawk is not a food challenge, it’s an aperitif! How the hell are you going to give all that up for a week let alone a month?’
Going plant based in a family home of 4 is hard. Fact. The kids won’t eat it so that means extra meal prep from the word go. Anyone with young kids knows that ham and cheese sandwiches/rolls/wraps are diet staples, Laura ate her normal diet through the day but ate my plant-based meals on an evening with me (sometimes). I did get the kids to eat falafel which was a success.
What did I learn?
Tofu - this stuff requires marinating (a lot) to give it taste. I did like it in a stir-fry and I even baked it a few times to make a firm crunchy tofu that I could serve with a sweet potato and veg and enjoy it.
Tempeh- sounds like ‘temper’, which it made me have in a bad way. You need to steam this stuff first to take away the bitter taste. I didn’t do this (the first time) and it tasted like mouldy mushrooms with a hint of sweaty sock. It’s full of protein and loaded with gut healthy bacteria. I did have another go with it and it tasted good... Honestly, I’d eat it again.
Other evening meals that were a success; Quorn mince chili (the vegan one) and Linda McCartney meatballs. (Laura even prefers these now to the meat version!)
Without doubt, the best meal was black bean chili. We use a slow cooker 3x a week in our house to help with the mad rush of evenings after work and school. Black beans are perfect in it, good protein, fibre, taste, and takes on seasoning and flavor well. One problem is that you have to soak them overnight before you can cook with them. More prep time and organisation needed.
A lot of us are eating plant-based breakfasts already! Porridge oats soaked in almond or coconut milk overnight, chia seeds, blueberries or raspberries and a shot of Vegan protein. Tastes good, all nutrition boxes ticked. Nuff said. Not much change from my usual. Vegan pancakes were easy and tasted good. I really missed eggs though. I had dreams of eating an omelette.
Lunches required no more prep than usual. I made a lot of Buddha bowls comprising of a combination of red lentils, falafel, avocado, tomatoes, peppers, olives, black beans, spinach, grated carrot. I really enjoyed these and they made a refreshing change. I tried some Vegan cheese…once… It was disgusting.
I found that in order to hit my daily protein requirements. (I usually have 170-180g a day) I needed to buy a Vegan Pea and Quinoa flour protein powder and I had up to 3 shakes a day. I ate loads of fruit, nuts, gluten free bagels with nut butters, alpro soy yogurt and I found some good vegan protein bars. I found I needed to put a lot more thought into snacks than I ever would on my normal diet.
Hitting your Macros
Within a few days of eating plant based and logging on MyFitnessPal, it was obvious my carb intake was up by about 100g a day. This was due to the fact that there aren’t many ‘pure’ plant based protein sources available. Lentils, black beans, falafel, chickpeas and tofu are all regarded as protein rich plant based foods, but they all contain plenty of carbs too. This would make it a lot harder if you were trying to stay in a calorie deficit for fat loss on a plant based diet and trying to keep your protein intake up.
Fibre and a good clear out
Many of us fail to eat enough fibre. It helps to eliminate stools and toxins from your body, which means your colon is working efficiently. If you are constipated this could mean your fibre intake is too low. If you typically eat foods low in fibre, they take longer to digest, lead to irregular bowel movements, loose stools and can also cause stomach pain.Fibre also helps you feel fuller for longer, can improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and can assist in preventing some diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer. One big positive of eating plant based is that you’re almost guaranteed to increase your fibre intake due to the quality of the carbs you’d eat. My daily fibre intake went up from approx. 45g a day to sometimes near 70g. I could really feel this, I mean literally. I have no doubt it did my insides some good, a thorough clear out and I felt ‘cleaner’ inside within a week of eating plant based.
I have definitely felt the benefit from an increased fibre intake and the variety and quality of some of the plant based meals I’ve eaten. I will definitely continue to include red lentils; falafel, black beans and the occasional quorn mince chili in my weekly meal prep. I did feel mentally sharper and more alert. Hard for me to scientifically prove if this was solely down to eating plant based, but I hadn’t changed any other variables. I would put this down to an improved micro biome gut balance by making my blood more alkaline from having no real acidic food sources; this in turn can increase neurotransmitter pathways making me feel like I experienced a higher level of cognitive function. Disease cells require an acidic environment to proliferate and an alkaline body has been proven to have a more robust immune system.
I’m not saying we must eat only plant-based foods to achieve a more alkaline body but it definitely helps to include more plant-based foods into your diet.
I’ve felt no detrimental changes in energy and athletic performance when exercising. However, I can’t tell you if that would be the same after 6 months or a year of eating plant based.
Food is to be enjoyed
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy some of the plant-based meals I ate, but I missed the taste of eggs, chicken, beef and fish. If the options are there and they provide me with health benefits and taste good – I’m going to eat them until the time comes when I believe it’s either nutritionally, ethically or environmentally wrong to do so.
Too much sodium
If I ever ate some of the meat substitute products like meat free chicken nuggets or sausages I found that I was consistently just swapping cholesterol for sodium. What’s the lesser of two evils? I felt like I needed to sometimes eat some of the meat substitutes, as there’s only so much Tofu I can get through in a week, just to mix up tastes and textures. I needed to eat the entire pack of meat free chicken nuggets to get my protein in, but ended up consuming well over my days sodium requirements in one meal.
Vitamin B12 is hugely important in the formation of red blood cells and DNA. We need it. For most of us we get our B12 from animal products, fish eggs and dairy, it’s much harder to get from eating plant based. I needed to buy some nutritional yeast and consume fortified plant based milks and even then I struggled to get enough B12 on a daily basis.
Dietary iron is found in two forms, heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which is present mainly in meat, poultry and fish, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, which accounts for the majority of the iron found in plant based foods is less well absorbed. More than 95% of ‘useable’ iron in the human body is in the form of heme. We need both for optimal health, as too much consumption of heme iron from meat can be carcinogenic.
Plant proteins are less bio-available than animal proteins; they do not contain the same array of essential amino acids (meaning we need to get them from our diets). Most plant proteins are deficient in leucine- this is essential for stimulating protein synthesis. You can eat enough plant-based proteins to make up for these deficiencies, but you will need more total protein and an extremely well planned out diet to do so. I had to consume up to 3 Vegan protein shakes a day to hit my requirements. Do we NEED animal protein? NO. Is animal protein a superior source of essential amino acids? YES.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation – higher rates of heart disease in red meat eaters aren’t surprising. One reason is that these studies rarely differentiate between processed and non-processed meat. Meat eaters also tend to eat more calories, which can lead to weight gain, which could lead to increased heart disease risks. The problem lies with total calorie intake not because animal protein is inflammatory.
I believe the ‘flexitarian’ approach otherwise known as ’eat everything in moderation’ is the key to optimal health. Don’t be influenced by plant-based preachers, TV or social media propaganda or unfounded claims.
My blood results after 30 days of living a plant-based diet did show some positive changes. My HDL’s – the good cholesterol- were up. I have reduced my total cholesterol from 4.1 to 3.6. My HbA1c (Insulin and diabetic markers) have reduced from 30 to 26. Optimal range for a male of my age is 20-42. This shows that my average blood sugar levels were down over the last month, which is definitely a good thing! My Iron levels had stayed roughly the same. I do take a daily liquid iron supplement as previous blood test had shown I wasn’t absorbing enough from diet alone. So this makes it hard to tell whether the plant-based diet had any impact on it.
My LDL’s were a bit high, a minor threat to my cardiovascular health, but a threat non-the less. Eating more fibre has helped my LDL’s. But, every time you eat, bile gets released to assist with the digestion of fat, to make bile you need cholesterol to allow you to excrete it in your poo. Our liver and intestines make about 80% of the total cholesterol we need but we need about 20% from food. Ergo, you need some cholesterol in your diet. Through my entire month on plant based I ate zero cholesterol. I need some animal produce to get some cholesterol in.
I will and have already, continued to eat more plant-based foods in my daily and weekly diet. I’ve enjoyed more variety, tastes and textures. The increased fibre intake has been a big plus and I’ve realized that I can have more meat free days or combination of meat and plant based meals in a day and not cause any detriment to my exercise performance at the gym. I respect anyone who follows a plant-based life based on his or her personal ethical beliefs or desire to be healthier. The current global food system is no doubt damaging our environment. There’s an argument for and against plant-based being better or worse for the environment than a meat eaters diet – but I’ll leave that for another blog.
I believe I can optimize my health further by eating more plant based foods and simply cut down my meat intake frequency. I love eggs, chicken, beef, turkey and fish and I’ll continue to eat them all – in the right amounts. I’ll have my bloods checked again in another 6 months and see if I’m right!