How to Thrive as a Vegan

In my last post I talked about three basic approaches to nutrition: Eat only plants, eat only animals, eat both. Simple enough – but how to thrive on the extreme ends of the spectrum? In this post we will look at how to optimize health and longevity on the vegan, plant-based end.

TL;DR: Supplement with vitamin B12 and “eat the rainbow”: Make sure to include a variety of different plants in your meals every day to make sure you eat a lot of fiber, anti-oxidants, essential amino acids, vitamins and slow burning carbs and healthy fats. Does it work? Well, it did not for me. I found it too complicated, not optimal for my digestive system, and in my opinion the science is not settled – neither on the healthfulness of plant-based, nor on the harmfulness of animal-based food. But the diet might still work for you!

Enter Dr. Michael Greger

81rvgjuwqllThis is probably the most important author when it comes to the arguments for the healthfulness of a plant-based diet. Greger has built a huge website at http://nutritionfacts.org replete with videos on various interesting topics, also to be found on YouTube along with lectures and interviews. His specialty is discussing studies on nutrition, and the level of detail is astonishing. It is his book “How Not To Die” which convinced me to give the whole food plant based (WFPB) approach a try. There are many other popular vegan authors, but Greger is highly respected among most of them and represents the best and most articulate view on how/why this approach is healthy, which is why I will only talk about his book for this introduction – more about the others in future posts.

The book is divided into two parts: The first lists most chronic diseases – cardiovascular disease, cancer, … – and then basically links them to animal foods through a plethora of studies. The second part discusses how to construct a healthy diet:

  • Minimize processed foods
    “processed” = something good removed / something bad added
  • Eat from a variety of plant “types” (the “daily dozen“) to maximize micro-nutrient intake

You can check out the daily dozen for yourself in more detail. The main insight aside from the well known “fruits, vegetables and whole grains” advice is that in order to optimize nutrition, you need to also eat legumes (beans/lentils/peas), nuts, berries, flax seeds, leafy greens, cruciferous greens … and the list goes on. Supplementing with vitamin B12 is also prescribed.

Did It Work For Me?

In short: No.

I spent many weeks eating almost completely within this framework last year, and I discovered many tasty vegan menus and snacks. I annoyed my family, girlfriend and colleagues with strange dishes and vegetables, all of a sudden eating guacamole or hummus, putting banana slices on whole-wheat bread, eating ten times more vegetables than the others, using almond butter instead of butter, plant milks and soy yogurt instead of dairy, and so forth. I really enjoyed eating those foods and still do so occasionally or partially today.

However, my digestive system was less pleased. Gas and bloating were big issues and ultimately one of two major reasons that over time I got less and less enthusiastic. WFPB advocates claim that this is a typical problem that eventually goes away once you adapt to eating more fiber, but for me that didn’t really turn out to be the case.

The other big reason for abandoning the WFPB was that even though authors like Greger offer a very convincing narrative about the dangers of animal foods and the super-powers of plant-based food, in my opinion the science is not settled at all. Sure, there are many studies that support this view, but there are also many other studies which show the opposite. Vegans will object to that vehemently, arguing that it either isn’t true, or that there are much fewer studies in favor of animal products, or that these are all funded by industry. But having spent a lot of time following these discussions, I do think that there is a lot less certainty about this issue than either side (vegan/carnivore) proclaims. I will discuss specific aspects in future posts.

Can It Work For You?

Absolutely. I don’t think that it’s optimal, and there may be some vegans on YouTube and elsewhere that greatly exaggerate the health benefits of WFPB, but some people clearly thrive on it. Reading How Not To Die certainly will teach you a lot about nutrients, and about what kind of scientific studies are done in the field of nutrition. Giving it a try might introduce you to many options that you hadn’t even considered before. Just keep in mind that the book has an agenda, and that – despite claims to the contrary – it is a biased interpretation of the available science.

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Healthy Human Diet: Plants, Animals or Both?

There are many ways to slice and dice diets which humans can eat. After all, our species is omnivorous. In stark contrast to really specialized animals like cows, spiders and koalas, humans can seemingly survive on almost anything. But is there an optimal nutritional strategy?

TL;DR: Humans can eat exclusively plants, a mix of plants and animals, or even exclusively animals.

Plants versus animals is one very basic way of categorizing our food. Most people have never thought deeply about this. Most of us know about veganism, which means eating only plants. But is that a healthy long term strategy? What about the opposite, eating only animals (carnivorous) ? Much fewer people have ever considered that as a permanent way of eating. Is that possible, let alone healthy? Or is a combination of plants and animals the best choice? If so, how much of what?

Vegan (100% Plant-Based)

There are, to my knowledge, no human societies who have survived, let alone thrived on a purely plant-based diet for generations. There seem to be many people, even athletes, who thrive on a plant-based diet in our modern times. But it seems like this takes a lot of effort to get right, in particular there are some essential nutrients that need to be supplemented, for example vitamin B12 and DHA (a long chain n-3 fatty acid).

Carnivorous (100% Meat-Based)

There are some societies who are reported to have survived on a nearly 100% animal based diet for generations, like the Maasai (spelling varies) in Africa and the Inuit in the Arctic. But their health is a disputed issue. Advocates for plant-based diets claim that they were in bad health, with poor bone structure and atherosclerosis. Meat proponents claim the opposite. In modern times, there are many case reports of people thriving on a 100% meat based diet. No supplements seem to be necessary, but there is no clear consensus. There are nutrients which are in very low supply on this diet – vitamin C being the example that is most often used. But research suggests that the body demands less of the vitamin when only meat is consumed, and fresh meat does in fact contain small amounts of vitamin C.

The “Balanced” Diet (Plants and Meat)

This is of course what the overwhelming majority on the planet eats. It is also not a very meaningful distinction. Even more so than for the other two approaches, it depends on which plants and which animals we eat, and in which quantities, and how we eat them – do we apply less processing, more processing, cooking/raw, meal timing and so on.

The takeaway message here is that especially in the modern world, all three approaches can be implemented. I think this is important to remember, as most people are at most aware of two of them.

 

 

Protein Calories Don’t Count

A few weeks ago I had an interesting idea which I haven’t seen formulated in any of the books on nutrition and fitness that I’ve read so far (which is about 30+ – yes, I’m kind of obsessive when it comes to this topic):

When you eat a moderate amount of protein it isn’t burned as fuel by the body – it is used to maintain lean body mass.

 It’s kind of obvious when you think about it. Yet all the popular calorie counting apps and websites ignore this fact. They simply treat all protein as a macronutrient with 4 kcal per gram, and count it towards one’s daily caloric intake.

I am currently on what authors Volek and Phinney call a “well formulated low carbohydrate diet” – one of its cornerstones is to eat a moderate amount of protein. I eat around 125 grams of protein each day, regardless of whether I want to lose, maintain or gain weight. Strength training is a factor though – I try to cycle protein intake a bit depending on whether I do strength training or sprints, and compensate by eating a little less protein on rest days. 

One of the interesting implications of this insight (should it be true) is that it would explain how some people claim that they lose weight on LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) even though they don’t eat less calories than they consume. 125 grams of protein amount to about 500 kcal of energy – if it is burned. Assuming that it is not burned, but used as building material instead, we get a caloric deficit of 500 kcal when the app shows caloric balance. This amounts to a deficit of 3,500 kcal per week, which is roughly equivalent to one pound of body fat. 

So next time you read in a forum that someone loses weight on LCHF without restricting calories, remember this hypothesis!

Scientific Facts – Do They Change?

Today I watched an episode of the BBC’s brilliant series “QI” called “Knowledge“. In it Stephen Fry made an astonishing claim:

Things we know – or think we know – will be untrue in a number of years’ time.

Jo Brand added this:

There’s no such thing as a fact.

In my opinion those are very misleading statements. Continue reading

Scientific Research is NOT Bullshit!

I subscribe to Elliott Hulse’s channel for two reasons:

  • because occasionally he has good workout advice and cool videos and
  • he’s often posting some seriously “out there” pseudo-scientific bullshit which I love to comment on.

Long story short: What do you think about scientific research – is it all bullshit?

 

On The Peaks and Valleys of Weight Loss

Hi folks,

it’s been much too long since my last post. Almost half a year ago I announced that I was about to start a new weight loss experiment (“WLE 3”). Long story short: I quickly lost my motivation. Last year (about 10 months ago) I started weighing about 108kg and lost a lot of weight until January (95kg) and then, after about a month, I reached my lowest weight ever (88kg). 

The question is: Why didn’t I finish the job? My target weight is 80kg, and I was headed towards it. I had also established new eating habits, and I was feeling fine. I think the biggest problem was that in January I started in a new job, and at least in the beginning it was quite stressful. There was also the problem of work lunches. I also wasn’t able to do as much cycling as last year because of the unusually cold and inhospitable weather in Europe this year so far. Another thing: I stopped counting calories.

So I’m now back at 100kg. Looking at what went wrong, I am going to try to reverse the situation – and this time I’ll be mindful of the things that sabotaged my diet. The good thing is that I gained only about 2kg per month. That’s about 14.000 calories, or about 500 calories a day. So theoretically I could reverse the problem until December by eating 1.000 calories less each day (totally realistic, I would still be eating more than during the half year phase before January), or still reach my goal of 80kg by December by eating about 2.000 calories less each day (possible, but not likely and probably not healthy).

So stay tuned for (probably) more frequent updates about my weight loss, but also for more posts on various topics.

Calories In vs. Calories Out

As I’m writing this I’m in week 7/10 of my latest weight loss experiment. Yesterday I decided to enter some of the data that I’ve gathered for the ecperiment so far – mainly calories in and calories out, as logged/measured via FitBit.com, but also my actual weight and body fat percentage as measured daily. The interesting thing for me was how well the actual weight loss so far matches the total caloric deficit. One pound of body fat is typically equated to about 3,500 calories in the weight loss literature. So far I’ve lost about 6 pounds, with a caloric deficit of about 22,000 calories, and as you can see, the numbers add up. Body fat percentage has also been going down, although the data is a bit fuzzy there as I’m only using a simple impedance scale, but still.

This means that at least for me, empirically, the “calories in, calories out” paradigm of weight loss is validated. If you’re new to weight loss and the various theories and books out there, this may seem obvious to you – of course you’ll lose weight if you expend more calories than you consume. The thing is that on top of the caloric balance (or even sometimes instead of it) many authors have proposed that the macronutrient composition of the diet is more important. Macronutrients are, in essence, carbohydrate, fat and protein. Some authors claim that in order to use bodyfat, you have to cut or reduce carbohydrate, while some others will make the same claim about fat. When it comes to protein, some authors will claim that you need to eat a lot more protein than people typically do (e.g. the book “Protein Power” as well as most paleo approaches), while others don’t consider that to be important.

Well, over the previous 6 weeks I have been eating all over the place, so to speak. During some weeks I’ve been eating a lot of protein, even purposefully supplementing with protein shakes. I’ve been eating a lot of “junk food” containing simple sugars and flour (pancakes). I’ve been doing intermittent fasting during some of the weeks. On some days I’ve been eating a lot of fiber – again also supplementing at times – and on other days practically zero. None of that mattered much when it comes to weight loss, and I find that interesting. It doesn’t prove anything scientifically – but it tells me that I don’t need to be obsessive/compulsive about any of the things that I’ve just listed.

These are the two things that seem to matter:

  • Caloric deficit
    Measure your caloric intake to a reasonable degree of precision (stop short of taking your digital food scale to restaurants)
    Consider using a FitBit.com tracker to gauge your caloric expenditure, or use other (free) tools that estimate it – such as websites or smartphone apps
  • Strength Training
    You don’t need to do much. But in order to improve your body composition while you’re losing weight, it’s reasonable to do some strenuous exercise here and there. That means, as the “minimum effective dose” (as Tim Ferriss would say): Some pull-ups, some push-ups, some squats, on a daily basis.

But that’s only my opinion – any comments?