23 days ago, I sat in the back of a cab headed from San Diego Airport to meet a biz friend for golf. I was flying to CA a day ahead of a Tony Hawk Foundation meeting and as usual, I was trying to cram more into the agenda. I asked the cabbie to hit In-N-Out Burger on the way to the course.
As I ate my Double Double Animal Style, which is 100% my favorite burger on the planet, I never imagined that this might be my last one — especially since it was going down with a side order of cab ride.
Fast forward a few hours into my round of golf, and I had officially made the decision to run a plant-based experiment on myself. Two months earlier I would have laughed at the mere suggestion, given I’m a food-nerd and searching out special things to eat is one of my favorite hobbies. On any given day, you could find me dreaming about jamón Ibérico de Bellota — the Celine Dion of Spanish ham. How could I possibly cut her loose?
But cut her loose I did, as I’m now 3+ weeks into a 90-day experiment of dropping all beef, chicken, pork and dairy. Below is what led me here, along with my expectations, framework and what I’ve observed so far.
Spoiler alert, it has not been that difficult and I’ve seen some early benefit. Read on.
How I Arrived Here:
In the last few years, the variety and number of my doctor’s visits have increased along with my amount of activity-related soreness (muscle, joint, lower back, etc.). People tell me this is normal in my late 30s, but it still sucks. I’m still really active and I expect a lot of myself on a consistent basis (workouts, skateboarding, surf, golf, general energy level, etc.), probably no less than when I was in college. I’ve also noticed odd aches and pains in new places and when getting out of bed in the morning, which again seems to be normal. As is the case with so many other things in my life, I’ve been increasingly thinking about ways to reject this normal for the last 12-18 months.
In the last 6 months, specifically, I have also noticed my metabolism changing a bit. I’ve been 172 pounds since I was 20 years old through the spring of this year. That’s when 6-8 pounds just showed up out of nowhere, right around my 39th birthday, with no discernible change in eating habits or activity level. My wife heard me complaining that “someone shrunk my chino shorts” from our closet one day and responded, “No one shrunk your shorts. Check the scale”. Well, damn.
It’s worth noting that I did leave a super-intense full-time job about two years ago, which I thought may have decreased my daily activity, but the sneaky iPhone step tracker said my daily steps and weekly total steps have not changed that much. If anything, the regular walking, transient meeting schedule and more time for chasing kids have actually increased my average number of steps per month. It’s also worth noting that my overall stress level is down, and I have to believe that’s a good thing, but I am curious about the effect.
In short, my general health, internally and externally, has been on my mind this year.
Now, enter the “Game Changers” movie on Netflix that I first heard about from my friend Dan at goPuff in September. Dan is a fellow productivity nerd always looking for ways to unlock the next level of performance and output from each day. I think we’ve bonded partly over our affinity for attempting to live in 6th gear.
He shared with me that the movie is about an elite athlete who gets hurt and in an effort to expedite his recovery ends up learning about a universe of athletes who have dropped animal proteins from their diet strictly for the performance, recovery and health benefits. The movie chronicles many of those athletes, their approach to food and exercise, and makes an argument that the human body is primarily designed for plant intake.
We debated the possibility of there being some merit to going plant-based and, if a person could find a mythical 7th gear, would it be worth dropping so many tasty things from our menus in perpetuity.
After watching the film, I’ll say there are absolutely some baked-in biases and some conclusions that need better science to back them up, but if even 20% of the stated benefits exist, it could be a compelling switch. The sentiment that stuck with me was nothing tastes better than feeling amazing every day.
You can watch on your own to get the full rundown if you like. I also followed that with another movie called “What the Health” on Netflix which had its own angle and bias. I will say the “experts” in that one seemed a little wackier but some of their points were equally compelling.
Over the next month, following my meeting with Dan, the theme just kept coming back to me from random angles and random people so completely unsolicited it was becoming bizarre. I get there is a buzz right now on the heels of this documentary, but I also had people randomly sharing with me that they have been doing this for years. Why are friends and new people I have just met mentioning scheduling our lunch meetings where “they can find better plant-based options?” Why are they telling me this? Why are they choosing this month? So much plant-based gravity right now.
Rewind back to San Diego for a second. When I told my friend Nico about my cab ride double-double on the 6th hole, his response was “Those are so great, but I’ve been plant-based for the last 18 months and I’ll never go back”.
We had 12 more holes to talk through his implementation and his results and it absolutely pushed me over the edge. His description of an energy boost, dropping 30 pounds off his frame and not missing much by way of tastes was compelling.
He also described his journey as “a choice not a diet”, which in his words meant, “If you have me over to your house, I’ll eat what you cook, even if it’s meat, but if I have a choice at a meal I’ll choose something different”. He mentioned that 98% of the time he’s vegetarian, the other 2% ends up meat or dairy when life gets in the way of the alternatives. On those occasions, you roll with it, but net net you are still getting the bulk of the benefit from the 98%… and no one wants to slap you for being difficult or evangelical about your dietary ethics.
That resonated with me. I don’t want to be vegan and if once on a blue moon the choices are limited, I will eat what I need to vs. being hungry. This swap can’t be stressful and I don’t need a new food-oriented religion.
Through this framing, I could also justify cheating on Thanksgiving. This got me past the gate of the holiday meals much more easily. If I made the turkey for everyone, I’m having a slice. The fam will all just take the leftovers with them and I’ll wait until Thanksgiving 2020 for my next gobble.
So all that said, if I was going to make the switch, and give up so many things I enjoy for a shot at the mythical 7th gear, it was now time to crystallize my goals.
90-Day Experiment Goals
- An Upshift – Discernible boost in overall energy, mood, recovery time, well-being. Some of this is how well I know myself and some of this could be placebo, but honestly, if I’m not feeling like I’m generally operating on another level at 90 days, it might not be worth the missing ribeyes. I want the ability to go harder, sleep better, be stronger and generally maximize myself. Hard to measure, for sure, but I tend to struggle in the winter when things slow down and the days get darker. I know what that baseline feels like in general.
- Lower Cholesterol, I’ll be checked in January.
- Drop the 6-8 pounds, lower my BMI.
- Maintain lean muscle mass and strength.
- Quicker recovery from activity and sports (I work out 3-4 times a week and skateboard or golf 1-2 times a week).
- Make plant-based eating easy and tasty, vs extra work and bland
The secondary goals are going to be much easier to measure than the primary goals, for sure. I’m also going to be looking for anything else that could change. People have mentioned complexion and/or hair or skin texture can change. It will be interesting to see any surprises that show up.
Per my friend Nico, I’m calling it the “98/2” implementation referring to the % of plant to meat/dairy. I’m dropping all land-based animal protein and dairy. I’m going to be fish-friendly when dining out, but I’m not going to seek it out or cook it at home. To date, a few restaurant meals have had a couple of pieces of sushi and an oyster or two here and there, but even those meals were skewed toward the mostly plant-based options on the menu.
As I mentioned earlier I’m going to have some turkey on Thanksgiving and I’ll probably have a single piece of my Mom-Mom’s recipe braciole (Italian rolled meat) on Christmas. Also, I’m on the west coast 3-5 times per year, and if I end up getting my In-N-Out fix a few times per year, so be it. As I said, this is not a religious choice.
I’m almost looking at “quitting” meat, like quitting smoking. There are plenty of ex-smokers who bet the long game, but will still have a cigarette a couple of times per year when in unique situations — granted that they can be disciplined enough to stay on the wagon the next day.
I was also initially concerned about the learning curve of shopping for groceries and cooking meals with the need to swap key elements of my diet. There would certainly be some work to gain new knowledge around food options and easy wins at home and dining out.
Lastly, due to my workout routine, I am usually pretty focused on protein intake, which for me should be 1.5-2 times the amount that a person who does not work out might need to maintain my body type and size.
I was previously supplementing normal meals with cheese sticks, eggs and a ton of Dannon Triple Zero yogurt. All those things are high in protein and super fast to ingest. I’ll need to replace them with something easy, high protein and not terrible for me on other nutrition axis (sugar, sodium, trans fat etc).
Observations at Week 3
Generally speaking, this has not been that hard and I don’t feel like I’m missing much, even by way of missing certain flavors. Remember, I’m a foodie, so I’m as shocked as anyone that this has not been the primary issue.
Shopping and cooking have not been difficult, and there are lots of resources and swaps available (or Google it). Have you seen the almond milk section of the supermarket recently? There are literally 5 versions of almond milk before you get to the soy milk, oat milk and other derivatives.
I feel like this switch would have been very difficult 10 years ago with a limited number of options that by and large probably didn’t taste very good. Do you remember veggie burgers from 2010? No, you’re happy to forget them, as they were nothing like the Beyond or Impossible Burger of today.
I only remember having two moments of mild craving in roughly all of the last 60+ meatless meals; One was the RevZilla board dinner, when everyone had a steak and I had a lukewarm halibut (so I ordered an ill-timed shellfish tower to supplement). The second was at an event with my wife last weekend when the cocktail hour had a mountain of special cheeses and cured Italian meats…. but I still managed to walk away.
At this point I feel like I’ve only missed out on 3% of potential eating experiences. Easy. Also I have to believe this will only get easier to stick with when it becomes more of a habit with a house full of options and my taste memory fades.
Beyond these initial observations, I’m going to break this up into three more specific groups: Early results, Things that are easy and Things that are hard.
- Energy feels normal to high for this time of year, but it’s early going I need more time for this study.
- Food comas don’t exist anymore. I have yet to feel anything but light on my feet and alert, even after a complete meal when I ate until I was full.
- I’m not craving anything wacky, including red meat.
- I have lost 6 pounds.
- I have noticed no difference in strength in the gym, but I am hoping for an increase in muscular endurance over time.
Things that are easy:
- Learning what to sub — If you are willing to Google, YouTube, and ask your plant-based friends for their fave swaps and recipes, this is a piece of cake.
- Shopping — My normal Giant has a ton of plant-based swaps and proteined up versions of cereal, almond milk, bagels and bread. They also have a lot of Morningstar (soy) products and Beyond Meat (pea protein) foods. Going to Whole Foods was a whole other animal, including plant-based hot dogs, sausage, chicken (called Chick’n or Qorn), etc. Both venues also had this large and novel section full of these things called fruits and vegetables… I buy more of those now, as well.
- Breakfast — This was the easiest. I swapped milk or yogurt for protein-infused almond-cashew milk, veggie sausage and protein-fortified bagels (Dave’s Killer Bread) or protein boosted granola (Natures Valley).
- Snacks — Ditched the cheese sticks and now am doing granola bars (Nature’s Valley) with protein, peanut butter sandwich or fruit.
- Lunch — I often eat out for lunch. Chicken pita became falafel. Chicken burrito became bean or sofritas burrito and pizza became tomato pie with veggies instead of cheesy pepperoni.
- Dinner out — Lots of choices. Especially easy if it’s Japanese, Asian, Mexican, Italian or Mediterranean and Greek. They were my favorite go-to’s from before.
- B12 — Apparently B12 only comes from animal protein by way of environmental exposure. I’m taking a B12 pill daily. This is the only true supplement. I’m hoping it keeps my coat shiny and my spin-kicks lightning fast.
- Impossible Whoppers – I have not been in a Burger King in a decade, but when I have needed a burger fix recently, the Impossible Whopper is spot on. Hoping to see it show up at In-N-Out. A Chick’n Chick-Fil-A sandwich would also make my day.
Things that are harder:
- Family dinners — Cooking for the wife and kids is harder as I’m not forcing this on everyone. Also a little harder to do a multi-dish meal that replaces the main animal protein with something substantial enough that can carry the vegetable, starch, and salad I’d typically prep for everyone. I’m still figuring it out. Easy win when I did Beyond Meat beef tacos, but the fam was less excited when we had a vegetarian cookout with vegetarian hot dogs. A couple of the kids weren’t buying it, but the other 3 did.
- Cheese – There is cheese in or on so many things and I’m not just getting snagged on the obvious slice of cheddar on something. Mozz, parm and feta still need to go, and I have found myself missing their sprinkles on so many pastas, pitas and salads.
- Impossible / Beyond Burgers – These are delicious plant-based burgers, but they are not “health food”, it seems like there is a lot of other “stuff” in them. I have to resist the urge to do too much of these, just like some of the other processed swaps.
- Cost — I’ve been roughly tracking the increase in expense, and so far it’s not been crazy even on the Beyond Beef products, but we typically bought decent food and lots of fruit and veggies before.
- Sodium — A lot of the swaps have high sodium. Concerned about this.
- Carbs — The magic here is fruit and vegetables increasing, but it’s easy to let your carb or sugar intake skyrocket, if you are not being thoughtful. Less concerning, if one of my secondary goals was not to drop the odd 6-8 lbs.
My inner geek loves searching for the next level of anything and I do feel great right now, I’m just not sure how much of the great is actually new and related to the “98/2”, considering everything else I have going on.
I also know my personality type is that of an enthusiastic nerd vs. a wary skeptic, so I really need to remain stringent on the actual results being worth living cheesesteak-free.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that there are ethical and environmental aspects to the entire animal-based protein conversation. While I absolutely have my personal convictions about things, they were not the primary drivers of this experiment so I have left them out of this post.
Look for me to report back on the 90-day test, around the end of January.
In the meantime, wish me luck and dump a milkshake out for your non-dairy homie.