It’s not just another diet…
As somebody who has carried ‘a little extra weight’ almost all of my adult life, I’m very familiar with diets. Although previously my focus had always been the classic weight loss diet, never the performance-focused lifestyle change that going plant-based is to me. This time, I’m changing my nutrition with a view to getting the whole package of energy, focus and endurance. I’m hoping that the weight loss will come as a welcome extra.
So let’s start with what inspired the change.
I’m into long distance running, and currently I’m in the sort of shape where I’ve plodded my way around several 26.2 mile marathon routes, but I’ve never finished in a time that I was truly proud of. I’m a middle to ‘back of the pack’ kind of runner, but I aspire to be so much faster and stronger.
About 18 months ago I went from omnivore to vegetarian, but that choice was about animal welfare more than anything else. I wasn’t considering my health, I just felt that I no longer wanted to be an animal lover who ate animals.
So I went vegetarian and felt pretty good. Not just good about my moral choices, but also in myself. I had a surprising sense of being physically lighter, which I have attributed to getting my protein from plant sources and cutting out the middleman, which is basically what the animal is. The protein in their flesh comes from the plants that they eat – I just hadn’t considered it from that angle before.
Without getting too sciencey, I think we’ve all heard from various sources that animal protein is more inflammatory to the human body than plant-based protein. And inflammation is something that I really want to avoid as much as possible.
There are a few inflammation-related medical conditions in my family medical history; rheumatoid arthritis, thrombolytic stroke, and my own personal companion, the fun-killing migraines. Now migraine is one of those tricky conditions that are poorly understood, so any family doctor will give you the same dietary advice, mostly to cut out chocolate and cheese. Advice which I used to brush off.
However, at nearly 38 years of age, still experiencing regular migraines, and still carrying inflammation in my body and stubborn stress-weight around my middle, something has to give. So recently I’ve been thinking it might be time to stop brushing off that advice as ‘too generalised’, and actually give it a go for myself.
So I stopped ignoring my gut
This subtitle means two things really. There were the physical gut symptoms that I had been ignoring for a long time, because I loved cheese and didn’t want to admit it was probably not good for me. Then there was my gut instinct. I think to be honest I had known for some time that dairy was causing me inflammation too, and just like when I gave up meat, giving up dairy would bring me an increased feeling of lightness.
But you know, us humans are creatures of habit, and change is hard. Especially when one of the foods you are trying to quit is chemically addictive (cheese is really sneaky), but more on that later…
Back to my big decision. I knew I needed to give the plant-based lifestyle a go, but I also needed a really big shove to do it. So I looked at Instagram accounts of plant-based endurance runners who I admire. I read about Scott Jurek, probably the toughest vegan ultra runner I know of. I watched all the documentaries I could find on Netflix and YouTube, from Heal and Forks Over Knives, to the new kid on the block, The Game Changers.
Finally, somewhere in my mind my stubborn streak relented, and I decided to give eating a clean, wholefood vegan diet a red-hot go.
Things get a little worse before they get better
So here’s what a lot of other blog posts don’t tell you about ditching dairy – it gets hard before it gets easy. Are you ready for a little science? I promise I will be gentle.
In my first week of veganism, after a surprisingly painful inflammation flare up in the middle of the supermarket, I asked Dr. Google (then double checked with my boss, Dr. Pennington), and I learned that cheese is addictive. I was in pain because I was technically in withdrawl.
It turns out that casein, one of the proteins in dairy, contains casomorphins. When this chemical compound is consumed it fits the opiod neuroreceptors in the brain. In short, it is addictive. Now there are various bloggers and vloggers out there who go so far as to compare cheese to street drugs.
While I guess it illustrates their point, I don’t want to say anything nearly as dramatic about it. Sure I had some physical symptoms, mostly pain and inflammation.
Yes I was the grumpiest I’ve ever been in my life in my first week without dairy. But I didn’t get the sweats, hallucinate, or commit any crimes to get ‘just one more fix’. So I’d like to bring a bit of calm reason to this!
Quitting cheese was uncomfortable, but nowhere near as bad as some things that others have compared it to. Of course I’m just one person, and this is just my opinion. Pain is quite subjective, I know. But let’s keep it in perspective. A week of the grumps is far preferable to a lifetime of inflammation-related illness, so I’m happy with my choice.
Well, as far as all the benefits I’m expecting from the promised land of plant-based living, they are yet to really set in for me. Today is day 9 of my plant-based journey, and I can report a little improvement so far. Already I have less GI issues, less brain fog, and I do feel a little bit physically lighter. I was nervous about going to my mid-week training session with my local running group. I was worried I’d become starving hungry mid-run and lose my focus. But I timed my snacks right that day and actually felt pretty good.
I think I’m off to a pretty great start. Much of what I’m hoping for, such as a reduction in headaches, increased energy and weight loss, are a way off on the horizon, or course. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s going to take time for my body to adjust. But I’m feeling confident that I’m on the right track. I think I’ve made a good call for my body, for the dairy cows, and for the planet too.
If you are curious about how my vegan journey unfolds then keep an eye on our social media for my future posts on this. I plan to check in with you and share my findings after a couple more weeks, as by then I should have more health changes to report.
For now I’m off to make a black bean burrito and keep the hunger pangs at bay.