My original intention was to write a post on the 5:2 diet and my experiences experimenting with it over the past year.
However, having been inspired and challenged by a number of recent posts (including here & here) and having just completed John Robbins’ book — Healthy at 100, I’ve decided to change course, fully embrace a plant-based/vegan diet for a full 30 days & closely monitor my results.
How did I arrive at this point?
I’ve always been pretty lean (skinny as a kid), active & up until my mid-to-late 20’s struggled to gain weight. Somewhat inevitably however, as I moved through my 30’s & into my 40’s and my overall levels of activity decreased (and my metabolism shifted), I gradually gained weight (roughly 0.5kg/1 lb per year ever year). Not noticeable over a short period but over 20 years it adds up. I think this is a pretty common pattern for men in particular.
In terms of my diet, I’ve been a meat eater all my life apart from short periods of vegetarianism & I have always eaten dairy products. Early on (in the 1980’s) I took on board the nutritional advice of the day, which advocated a switch away from high-fat foods towards low-fat products. (The reality as we now know is that food manufacturers replaced fat with sugar in many of their food products to replace the flavour that fat provided). Consistent with that advice & not having weight gain as a consideration for the first part of my life meant that I developed the long-term habit of consuming a large percent of my daily calories from carbohydrates (often refined).
In the Summer of 2012, I watched a documentary on the BBC titled: Eat, Fast & Live Longer which explored the physical and physiological benefits of fasting. The programme concluded that beyond the weight loss achieved through fasting there were other reported benefits such as reduced levels of IGF‑1 (high levels of IGF‑1 have been associated with certain types of cancer), the switching on of DNA repair genes, reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. Subsequently, I was inspired to explore and experiment in this area.
Over the past 15 months (since early 2013), I’ve been experimenting (on and off) with the 5:2 diet and at times radically lowering my intake of carbohydrates of all types. Over the first 10 months of the programme, (from a starting weight of 83.5 Kg/184 lbs) I dropped approximately 8 kg/18 lbs (BMI was 24.1/now 21.3) and have remained at a weight of approximately 75.5 kg/166 lbs. I now limit my calories to approximately 600 per day 1 time per week.
More importantly, I’ve been able to shift quite a bit of weight from my mid-section (which apparently is the most dangerous area of the body to accumulate & retain fat)). While I am (and have always been) pretty active (I walk/hike quite frequently & lift weights occasionally), the weight-loss around my mid-section only occurred once I began to fast on a regular basis (the theory being that once you strictly limit carbohydrates, then your body will begin to more easily burn your stores of fat for energy).
Beyond the objective benefits that I’ve achieved on the 5:2 diet, I believe that I now have much more control over the foods that I eat. I’ve experienced a significant reduction in food cravings especially as it relates to foods high in sugar & fat. I’ve also learned that feeling hungry is not necessarily the same as needing to eat.
For years, I’ve also bought into the ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ idea. I don’t know whether it is or not. What I do know from my own experience, is that my ability to carry on my daily activities without eating from 7pm until 1pm the following day was not noticeably impacted negatively on the days that I was fasting. In fact, a discovery for many who have undertaken the 5:2 diet is the increased alertness they feel on days when they do fast.
What my experiences over the past year of experimentation have taught me is that there are times when I need to be my own expert. While I have to rely on well-designed and peer-reviewed studies to understand the impact of the food & lifestyle choices that I make today on my health of tomorrow, I can also educate myself widely and experiment in real-time to test out the results I get, with my body, my genes, my environment and my culture.
Why am I doing a vegan diet experiment?
The promise of physical & mental gains:
Some folks who have moved to an all-plant based or vegan diet have spoken about 2 improvements which they’ve experienced almost immediately after switching:
- a significant increase in energy &
- improved mental clarity
Currently, my diet is relatively healthy w/an emphasis on good fats, whole grains, high quality meat and dairy & I’m pretty active — gym 2 or 3 times per week, daily walking and regular hiking & I get plenty of sleep. However, while my energy levels are pretty high & stable throughout the day, and my (good) mood is pretty stable & consistent, I’m also a little frustrated that at times I don’t have more energy. I think there’s something more to be gained here and so I’m intrigued by the possibility of improvements in these 2 areas on a vegan diet.
Desire to remain healthy and active
As I’ve noted to some of my hiking partners whilst out on the hills, I want to remain active long into my ‘retirement’ years. While there are some studies which show that vegetarians or people on a vegan diet live longer lives & are less at risk for certain diseases, as always it’s hard to separate out exactly why that is. The human body is incredibly complex and it is hard if not impossible to single out individual activities or habits as being the cause of good health.
What does seem to be true however, is that there are clusters of behaviours that are more common in folks who live longer and healthier lives. And it would seem to me that a number of these behaviours are self-reinforcing, especially as people get older. So, for example living an active lifestyle does tend to increase the likelihood that you’ll take more of an interest in what you put into your body — be that food, alcohol or other types of drugs. In return, eating well does seem to increase the likelihood that you’ll continue to (and be able to) stay active. I’m hopeful that this vegan diet experiment can contribute to helping me make better food choices going forward as well as helping me achieve & maintain high levels of physical activity.
Overcoming ‘The Plateau Effect
Mid-life is a time of great change including coming to terms with one’s mortality and the physical changes taking place. If we let life play out naturally, it would seem that the result for most of us results in some narrowing of choices — be they career choices, an unwillingness to try new things & often a dwindling of our social circle (especially for men). We know what we like to eat, what we enjoy for entertainment and who we like to hang out with. This is for most of us very comfortable and non-challenging/threatening. We are in fact experiencing, in my view what Bob Sullivan & Hugh Thompson describe as The Plateau Effect.
According to this theory, our body and our brain gets used to things (or acclimates) quite quickly. We see this effect quite clearly in the example of drugs we take quite regularly (be they pain killers or alcohol for example). As a general rule, the more frequently we take the drug the higher the dose that is required to achieve the same effect (all other things being equal). Another example is when that new car that gave us so much joy in our first few weeks of ownership slowly loses its appeal as the months and years go by.
Fitness experts will encourage us to add variety and increased challenge to our workouts because without that our body will remain the same (after any initial gains) if not continually pushed by stresses of a different type.
I’m applying this theory in the area of diet — really challenging my body to change (hopefully in a positive way). And my hope would be that the positive impact of these dietary changes would filter out and have some positive knock-on effects across other areas of my life.
Positive knock-on effects
I’m intrigued to discover what positive knock-on effects might occur as a result of eating a vegan diet. For example, how does having increased energy impact my choices of activity? Perhaps it’s a simple as choosing to take a walk instead of flopping down in front of the TV or reaching out to friends and family to meet up/talk by phone rather than communicating only virtually. Or perhaps it helps overcome procrastination just enough so that we make that phone call to a prospective client or you write that piece of marketing copy for your website that you (or in this case me 😉 ) have been avoiding?
In my experience, single actions piggy-back on each other to create a web of activity which eventually change our being or how we show up in the world. As the saying goes ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. If I don’t have the energy to take that step, I’m going nowhere!!
Sustainability of a meat-based diet
I’ve tuned in much more to the debate recently about the sustainability of our global love affair with meat. With increased affluence throughout the world and the subsequent increase in demand for meat, more and more of our land, crops & (our increasingly scarce supplies of) water are being diverted (both directly and indirectly) to the feeding of animals bred for slaughter. It seems to me that to be a part of the solution, eating less meat would be a sensible thing to do.
Aligning my values
As a consumer who takes an interest in animal welfare when buying meat, chicken or fish, I’m frustrated with the time and cost involved in consistently finding those items that have been farmed ethically and killed humanely. While the welfare standards for animals in Europe appear to be higher than those in the US, I still feel that I’m constantly in a battle with food manufacturers to stay one-step ahead of them as they aim to, shall I say, creatively label their products.
And, I’m finding it increasingly hard to square the disconnect between the diligence that I bring to food shopping when buying fresh meat and the lack of that same diligence I apply when eating out where often I have no clear idea of how that animal has been treated from birth to plate.
As I’ve started to engage with this disconnect, I realize that I need to and want to align my values more closely & consistently with who I am today.
Rules of the (vegan diet) game
- I’ll officially begin my 30 day trial on Thursday, June 5th and end it on Saturday, July 5th.
- At this point, I’m going to limit myself to focusing on foods only. (There is a whole vegan lifestyle which focus on the avoidance of animal by-products and more. That will not be a focus of mine during this trial).
- I’ll keep track of the following:
- Energy levels
- Physical activities
- Time to wake/time to sleep
- As relevant, I’ll note things such as mental clarity, new health issues / impact on any current health issues, impact on procrastination / productivity / motivation, challenges / successes and anything else that looks like it might be useful.
I’ll provide (approximately) weekly updates over the coming weeks.
Today is Wednesday, June 4th and I’ve eaten a 95% vegan diet for the past few days. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this experiment & I’m hopeful that my experiences can add some value to both myself & others.
I’d really value any comments that you have to share 🙂