On Monday 13th January 2020 I started a 30 day challenge. No meat, fish or alcohol for 30 days. Why? To see if I could do it, whether I would feel different and see if I lost any weight. I also wanted a lifelong healthy eating plan that we could stick to.
Why these three?
Friends could understand giving up meat and alcohol but asked me why fish? Well, I have been checking up on a nutritional plant based (not vegan) eating plan for nearly a year. Last year I tried Keto and lost lots of weight (about 5 kilos) but found it very hard to stick to and didn’t really like the food I was eating. Even worse, I have recently found evidence that although it can be very effective short term, Keto is very damaging to health longer term.
Need to choose a plan for life
So here I was, wanting to be as healthy and disease free (especially dementia) as possible, needing to lose more weight (I was technically obese) and hoping to find an eating plan that I could follow for life without feeling deprived and without slipping back into old habits. Enter the plant based nutritional eating suggested by Joel Furhman. His book ‘Eat to live’ had a profound impact on me, but I didn’t know if I could happily stick to it. Would it be like Keto or Paleo…OK for a week or two but feel to me (maybe not others) like a life sentence for any longer?
Vegetarian or vegan or...?
I looked at both of these approaches. I have emotionally always been vegetarian at heart and felt very guilty when I watched Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s comment that none of us should eat meat unless we could kill it ourselves. That had a profound impact. I knew I couldn’t do that. I have difficulty killing a wasp, I certainly would find it distressing to kill an animal or fish. I was just OK with eating meat or fish as long as it was unrecognisable as a living thing! I felt like a fraud…a closet vegetarian. I noticed that vegetarians, especially vegans, followed that life eating plan for one or more of three reasons: It is better for the planet, it is better for sentient creatures or it is better for their health. I guess I am a combination, but think that saving the planet is a very contentious claim with our present agricultural culture.
My start point
I had already lost over 30 kilos through various lifestyle efforts over a 10 year period. I am dairy intolerant, so I haven’t eaten cow products for nearly 20 years…although I do eat sheep or goat Feta or Peccorino cheeses. I have plant based milks and coconut yogurt. I have tried cutting out Gluten for a month and didn’t see much difference although I try to stick to Gluten free or sourdough bread where possible. We had cut sugar to a minimum. I have improved my gut over the past few years by reintroducing a good mix of bacteria from home made Kombucha and Kimchi. This ended 20 years of poor digestion and prescribed medications that eventually failed me. We haven’t eaten take away fast foods for over a decade and never buy processes food. To mimic calorie restriction we both practice intermittent fasting – the easy version! That is leaving 12-16 hours between the final meal of one day and the first meal of the next. We also stop eating at least 3 hours before we go to bed.
Changing from the Macro to the micro view
The fundamental change that this book made to my understanding was the difference between macro and micro nutrients. Protein, fat and carbohydrates were the three macro nutrients that I knew about. Eating was all about fewer carbs, less fat or some different balance of the three. Protein was always good – the more the better especially as we aged. How wrong I was! I suddenly twigged that I was eating far too much protein which was not only being turned into fat but also perhaps doing unseen damage to my internal organs and arteries! I couldn’t see this of course…so out of sight, out of mind. Micronutients and phytonutrients provide the vitamins, minerals and antioxidents that really matter for health and prevention off all diseases whether genetically predisposed or not.
Eating enough of the protective ingredients
Plants are extremely high in all of these protective and health giving substances. Now, to be fair, Keto and Paleo both advise unprocessed food especially plants as part of the eating plan. There is no disagreement about the vital inclusion of these micronutrients.
Calorie restriction for longevity
In all of the known groups where people live to be old and happy without chronic illness, people eat far fewer calories than we do. Calorie restriction sounds miserable – and it is if you use up all of the calories on highly calorific foods. The ‘aha’ for me was that you need to eat TONS of veg to get the best input of micronutrients. Once I had planned a meal around meat or fish (not to mention alcohol) I had no room left for enough veg. Although better than processed food, 5 a day simply wouldn’t get me there.
So, if I was to restrict my calorific intake and eat well…meat, fish and alcohol were the obvious three to cut to have a lower calorie intake combined with a high concentration of nutrients. Long term, there is no need to cut these out completely, but to get started I wanted to see the effect of upping my nutrients and lowering my calories would have an impact and be feasible for ever. Despite better farming methods here than overseas, I also wanted to avoid toxic chemicals – hormones and antibiotics from meat and sprays from shop bought veg. We set out to access 90% of our veg by growing, swapping or buying from local organic growers.
Every diet I have ever followed for a set time has ended with the ‘thank goodness that’s over’ feeling. This has been different. We are convinced that this will be our new lifestyle with the addition of a small amount of fish, meat and alcohol. We have both discussed this and will eventually give up meat entirely but want to get through the frozen meat stock piled in our freezer!
This meat once a week will last for about a year! We will return to red wine at weekends and ‘safe’ fish weekly. Safe means not adding toxic chemicals to our system – all bottom feeding or older fish carry lots of Mercury so Snapper is out and farmed Salmon from our local fish guys will be in. They guarantee that no hormones, antibiotics or artificial colour is used during farming. Some farmed Salmon is full of these and worse than naturally caught fish. Small sardines will also be on the ‘have’ list.
Not surprisingly I lost weight. Only 2 kilos which is far less than I did on Keto or Paleo, but I also feel great and never, ever felt deprived or hungry. I have energy all day and no longer slump mid-afternoon. Most people’s health and weight will benefit from giving up processed or fast food whichever eating they follow; I didn’t need to change that so this is about more than that change.
These are the things I didn’t expect:
Nutrition is not the only thing I am working on by the way. I am also practicing daily exercise, low stress, social connections and a positive attitude. I am more convinced than ever that it is a combination of all of these that will help me stay younger and wiser as I age. In fact I suspect that some of these are even more powerful in protecting our cells as we age than nutrition, and could compensate for some food indiscretions. .. but hey – why not feel as happy and be as good as you can be?