Coming Out of the Pantry
Wow, I never realized how hard it would be to tell folks that I have gone vegan. At the end of the day most people I have told say, “Wow Greg, good for you.” In reality I think the hardest part is that I don’t want to be viewed as being weird. Not that I’m a conformist, but I’m not the political representation of ‘vegan’ that the term has come to represent. Maybe I should say, I’m low-fat vegetarian. This would make the exclusion of dairy and eggs more obvious. I didn’t go out and buy birkenstocks and pick up a membership to Green Peace. I did make a conscious decision to improve my health that does have positive economic and environmental impacts for society. These are benefits that I consider mere positive externalities and not a motivators for my new way of life. I have thought it would be hard, but I’m learning that most people don’t care and accept that everyone is on some crazy diet now anyway.
I started down the road that stop eating anything with a mother or a face about four years ago. Let me back up a bit first.
While in college I had developed clearly bad habits of eating on the run. Mostly eating fast food that is, on the run. I was consuming about two gallons of Mt. Dew per day and it didn’t matter. I was young, active and having fun, or so I thought. Once I started working I began to pack on the pounds. I started moonlighting for an organization that had a little office joke about the 200 club. Almost all of their employees were over 200 pounds. At that point I was just starting to cross the 200 mark and bumped up to 38 waist. I started grad school and continued my fast food habit. Realizing I was getting fat, I drastically lowered my soda intake and began going to the gym. This worked for a while but only slowed the rise, never reversing it.
You can do the math, I have been adding a steady ten pounds a year since I finished my MBA. A few plateaus along the way but still a fairly consistent rise. Fast forward ten years and wow, yes, I’m fat. Some friends tell me that I’m not but they are just being nice. Reality is that I was on a path that would lead to a certain heart attack and early death. I never crossed into the 300 club but did get darn close.
As I was climbing the scales I kept trying to learn more about different diets and exercise programs. I tried every fad diet along the way. Atkins, Weight Watchers, etc. Then about four years ago I began reading more about nutrition and health. Some of it deliberate, others by accident. In my readings I started stumbling across vegetarian references and studies. Born to Run makes a case for the vegan diet is a subtle way. Then I read Eating Animals and Omnivores Dilemma and said “yuck, I’m sold. You may send my steak back to the kitchen.” This lead to my first attempt at going vegetarian. Round 1 lasted thirty days. Round 2 was forty-five. I ended up gaining weight and eating horribly during this time. I was still consumed eggs and dairy which opened the doors to pasta and most Italian dishes. Meatless lasagna with five cheeses is still bad for you. The experience taught me to eat better sourced food. I started to buy our milk from a local farm. I began looking at retained water content in my chicken. In all, I was still gaining weight.
By mid-2011 I was working lots of hours as a finance professional trying to climb the career ladder. I had an extremely long commute which meant most mornings breakfast were at McDonalds, Panera Bread, or Sheetz. Lunch would be Pop-Eyes or Red Robin. On good days I was able to take a walk during lunch with a co-worker. High stress only made me crave fat more and usually I’d over eat at lunch knowing I’d be in the office late and skip dinner. Then leaving work starved, I’d hit another fast food joint on the way home.
Data Driven Health
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell your body is deteriorating. Yet, a simple “diet plan” isn’t going to help. You have to decide what is really important in life and what are you after. In the summer of 2011 I began to search for a way to change my lifestyle. With a data driven personality I picked up any gadget I could to help me track my progress. This meant a FitBit which would tell me my activity level. A Withings Wi-Fi scale which captures my body mass stats easily and graphs if for me. A Withings Blood pressure cuff again capturing and graphing my stats. Of course the data all came back that I was overweight, out of shape, and needed more activity. Unknowingly it would be a software program that would really wake me up. Looking to increase my productivity I had installed RescueTime on my computer to help me figure out inefficiencies in my day. When the email pops in and shows 90+ hours logged at your computer in a week it is an eye opener. That is really 90+ hours you sat on your ass while the world turned outside your office walls.
With the data baseline in hand I began making small changes. I began to love my FitBit stats and pushed to make the next benchmark for the day. With clear metrics in hand I forced myself to push away from the keyboard and got outside. It might look a little funny taking walks at a state park in dress slacks and loafers but I was moving.
Keeping life in perspective is a good thing and it needs to be a conscious decision to pay attention to what really matters. There is a story of a GE manager who is training a group of young professionals. They are amused that he doesn’t want to work late and then hang out with them. He tells them that if he would die that night after work, they would likely miss their training the next day, but the following day there would be another trainer to take his place. By contrast his family would miss him for the rest of their lives. He was going home to be with his family since you never know when your last day is coming.
By July of last year I had decided I needed to make a career change that didn’t include such a long commute. My boss had been wonderful in allowing me to telecommute but my data ended up telling me that those were my least active days. It is amazing how many steps you get walking around the office. I stopped eating out and continued to try to be more active. I quickly dropped my first ten pounds with a few habit changes. I had picked up Finding Ultra, a story about a lawyer, turned alcoholic, turned IronMan competitor and it got me thinking about the veggie world again. I then picked up Dr. Bernard’s 21 Day Weight Loss Kickstart and Dr. Esselstyn’s Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease and quickly realized why my first attempt at vegetarian had failed so badly.
I made the switch pretty cold turkey on Black Friday and quickly started to drop the pounds. I’m now closing in on a 20 lb drop in six weeks and am working to be back to my post-grad school weight. In the last six weeks I haven’t eaten any meat, but I have had animal based products on a few occasions. I am finding it very hard to go out to eat for social occasions. I make due and quickly figure out the best option on the menu. At the turn of the New Year I tried to push up my activity level and quickly suffered a set back. Working out made me much more hungry and then I started hitting the ‘bad food’. I’ve recovered quickly and just finished Brendan Brazier’s Thrive which nicely illustrates how to gain the extra fuel you need to be an active vegetarian. I’ll continue to push up my activity level combined with eating a better vegan diet.
Telling Your Friends and Family
So how do you tell people you are now on this diet that society perceives is weird? Dr. Barnard suggest starting with your closest friends and family. I started telling my friends in December and they were all supportive and told me I was nuts. I told my family leading up to the holiday get togethers so they wouldn’t be surprised when I passed on the Hog Ma that is the family tradition. It really isn’t that big of a deal to most people and especially your friends and family. A few will ask the normal barrage of questions about how will you get enough protein, and probe to learn if you are now a hippie. Then they move on and let it go. Don’t try to covert them and tell them that the chicken they are eating only got to live 42 days if it was lucky or other disgusting things you learned in Eating Animals. Reality is that if they don’t accept you as a vegan, they really never accepted you as a meat eater. Just don’t make a big deal about it. Fill your plate with some veggies and enjoy life. If you complain about a lack of humus that no one in their right mind would eat anyway then they will hate you and wonder where your birkenstocks are.
There are many healthy options waiting for dinner in your kitchen pantry. Every day is an adventure and who knows how long this will work for me. Today it seems like it is a real lifestyle change that is sustainable and is proving to yield the results I need to keep me around to see my kids grow. I’m finding this to be crazy simple in form and only need to learn the recipes that will keep me on the right track. There is a bit of a learning curve to learn how to cook again.
Well, now you know. For the at least the time being I’m vegan. I’m not trying to convert you, but if you want to learn how I’ve dropped my blood pressure I’ll share.