“19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body [a]and in your spirit, which are God’s. “–1 Corinthians 6:19-20 New King James Version (NKJV)
Switching to a Plant-Based Diet: My Experience Making the Change
Switching to a plant-based diet is not as hard as you might think. You are not hungry all the time. You do not feel like you are missing out constantly. You do not get weaker. And…the food is actually really good! In this post I discuss my experience making the change from a lifetime of eating meat, dairy, eggs, protein shakes–a “normal” modern American diet– to a plant-based diet. If I made the change successfully, I believe most people can if they desire.
A Typical American
I grew up like most Americans. A meal meant meat. Chicken, pork, fish, meatloaf, hamloaf, hotdogs, hamburgers, steak…oh yeah, and a little bit of that veggie stuff on the side. That was a meal. Breakfast meant eggs and yogurt and bacon or sausage.
Then I decided to “eat healthy.” That meant chicken, eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, turkey burgers, occasionally fish and occasionally a good steak. Don’t forget the protein powder. A little more veggies perhaps…a salad or so. This was my life, sound familiar?
Like most people around me, being into fitness meant slogging down chalky protein powder shakes, eating lean meat, dairy and eggs multiple times a day (gotta get that protein after all). I was a little disturbed when taking a gerontology course (the study of aging) in my bachelor’s program where it was noted that high animal protein intake has in some cases been linked to increased cancer risks, cardiac disease and more rapid aging. Like a good American, I dismissed it. After all, I exercise, right?
The Impetus for Change
In the spring of 2018, at age 40, despite my “healthy” diet, I was starting to get a little concerned about my health. My sex drive was in the gutter (a “normal” part of aging my practitioner told me). My fasting glucose was running at pre-diabetic levels. I was losing muscle and strength, both which with my natural genetics, I never had much to lose to begin with–so this was all the more alarming to me. This despite regular lifting, some cardio and martial arts, and of course, a “healthy” high protein intake.
Then in the fall of 2018, our family received shocking news. My father in law (who was still working full time as a shop foreman doing heavy physical labor) at that time was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer with metastasis to his liver and lungs. Nothing beats death in making a person think more about their life.
Barely one month after diagnosis, we experienced the loss of my father-in-law who was only 57 to his colon cancer (leaving behind grandchildren–my children– he would never see them grow up). I was shocked when just a few months later , this event was followed shortly by the death of a high-school friend at 41 due to a heart attack!! (leaving behind his wife and small children). I recognize that we all die someday, but both of them should have had years left to spend with their families!
In my work as a nurse, I am constantly exposed to seeing the results of persons with disease-racked bodies. Fear, pain, anger, loss of independence, loss of dignity–these are commonly experienced by those with illnesses. While I recognize that aging and death are unavoidable, it also became clear in my work that not everyone ages at the same rate or in the same way.
In nursing school, we were taught that in many cases genetics “load the gun,” but lifestyle “pulls the trigger.” As such, I had taken an interest in health and wellness since my college years. Still, like many people, I fell for the trendy fallacies that are so popular in magazines and marketing to this day.
As I watched my father-in-law, the strongest guy I ever knew–literally– whither away in front of our family’s eyes, I could not help but think of what I had read in my geriatrics studies. My boss suggested I read a book she had read that impacted her life, and so I picked up my own copy of The China Study by Campbell and Campbell (2004). I was shocked by what I learned.
Cancer cell growth, in research by the authors, could be sped up or slowed down based on the percentage of animal protein consumed in lab animals. So what–we’re not lab rats, we’re people? Well, the same findings applied across human populations in the Philippines and China, where genetic variances are small. Therefore cancer rate differences cannot be “blamed” on genetics (Campbell & Campbell, 2004). What was different was not their genetics, instead, research indicated it was their diet.
The Cancer-Diet Connection
In wealthier areas in the Philippines and China, meat could be afforded and consumed in greater amounts while the populations in poorer areas rarely ate meat, relying more on plants. Interestingly, both poor and wealthy persons were exposed to a mold toxin that causes liver cancer, but it was the wealthy class with the high exposure to animal protein where the cancer took hold and killed people at substantially higher rates (Campbell & Campbell, 2004). The book goes on to describe cancer rates and animal product intake across the globe and the trend holds up over and over, in nation after nation.
Those consuming less animal products and more plant products have lower rates of cancer (Campbell & Campbell, 2004). Not only that, but other health outcomes were greatly affected, such as cardiovascular status, diabetes, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases and others. The author converted to a vegan lifestyle after what he witnessed first hand. I decided to do the same.
A New Lifestyle–Becoming a (Mostly) Vegan
Fearful of losing yet more muscle and weight, I nonetheless chose to adopt the vegan lifestyle for myself. I also continued my research into cancer, disease and lifestyle connections. The more I read and studied, the more plant-based diets became the clear choice for long term health and wellness.
During this time I read another powerful and moving book supporting a plant-slant diet–though not an exclusively vegan diet– which was written by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber (2007). Anticancer: A New Way of Life outlines the author’s own battle with an incurable brain tumor and his ability to far outlive his prognosis. He attributed his lengthened life to his adoption of numerous lifestyle changes, including a diet heavily slanted towards plants. Sadly, he succumbed to his cancer in 2011, but this was nearly 20 years after he had received a 6 month prognosis!!!!
His book can be found here:
There also is a very sad, very powerful documentary on his life’s mission and work titled The C Word.
If I wasn’t going to eat meat, dairy or eggs, what was I going to eat? I felt a little lost. I quickly learned however that there were plenty of high protein plant-based options which were readily available and easy to prepare. While still caring for my father-in-law and simultaneously making the change, not much time was available for food prep.
Canned lentil soups along with veggie-burgers, veggie hotdogs, Ezekiel bread, peanut-butter and fruit spreads on whole grain bread sandwiches, nuts and high plant-based protein pasta made up the majority of my meals during these chaotic days. I found the food surprisingly delicious and actually really filling. I really did not “miss” eating meat quite the way I (and most people) thought I would. After the first few weeks, I dropped the whey protein shake altogether. In the months that followed, I gradually dropped the highly processed vegan-meat substitutes as well.
As time went on I soon fell into a sustainable and easy to maintain routine–even despite working on a Master’s degree and working in a demanding full time job. Following tips found at Bluezones.com and in Dr. Gregor’s book How Not to Die (2015), beans became the cornerstone of my diet. I created most of my meals using high protein whole food plant-based ingredients. Except the smoothies, my meals are made in bulk on the weekend, frozen and rotated throughout the week at work. (Side note: I started supplementing with vitamin B12 after reading Dr. Gregor’s book–a deficiency in this vitamin is possible with plant-based diets and can truly be dangerous. Fortunately, B12 supplements are cheap and readily available).
How Not to Die by Dr. Gregor (2015) is a great book packed with research and evidence supporting plant-based diets (in this case, vegan diets) and can be found here:
Smoothie: hemp seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, oats, nutritional yeast, turmeric, amla powder, canned, rinsed beans, fruit, veggies, and water (yes, the taste for this I will admit is acquired)
- Whole grain pasta dishes heavy with beans in the sauces
- Quinoa and brown rice mixed 50/50 along with veggies, Mediterranean herbs and of course, beans and lentils
- Lentil/ bean based soups with side servings of Ezekiel or other whole grain snacks
Snacks: Fruit, vegan dark chocolate (or if I’m lazy and run out, just regular dark chocolate), dried fruits and nuts
Personal Results of Making the Switch to a Plant-Based Diet–The Positive
For my personal experiences, besides the food tasting great, being relatively quick and easy to prepare, and finding plenty of recipes online, I experienced interesting changes my health. It MUST BE noted though that any person’s personal results involves numerous confounding factors potentially, my case is no different. As such, when only one person is involved, their experience may differ from yours. This is why testimonials are generally poor representations of what to expect. Testimonials are never a substitute for solid research involving sometimes thousands and thousands of subjects to establish consistent patterns!!
Libido: For me individually: prior to swapping over to a plant-based diet, I was losing strength and had a plummeting sex drive as mentioned above. As mentioned, my medical provider stated this could be expected at age 40. However, after swapping to a plant-based diet, one of the first things that came back and in force was my libido. This change for me did not take long, occurring within literally a few weeks, then it vacillated off and on gaining progressively over the months that followed with an overall definitive increase in frequency and drive.
Fitness/ Strength: Another positive change that occurred was rather than getting weaker on a plant-based diet, I set new personal records at the age of forty in bench press, squat and deadlift–hitting numbers higher than in my 20’s. Maybe it was the program I was following (The Texas Method), however, the point is I definitely did not get weaker and in fact reversed the strength loss I had been experiencing at age 40 PRIOR to going plant-based!!! A quick search of the internet and you will find plenty of very strong vegan and plant-based athletes. Plant-diets that are well planned enhance, not harm fitness levels, as proved by these elite athletes.
Blood work: Another interesting surprise came in the spring of 2019, about 6 months after adopting a plant-based diet. For the past several years my fasting glucose had been progressively rising over 100, hitting 110 in 2018. After switching in the fall of 2019 to a plant-based diet, for the first time in several years, my fasting glucose went down to 93. This reversed a multi-year trend of increasing glucose levels, and in spite of all those horrible “carbs”!
Personal Results of Making the Switch to a Plant-Based Diet–The Negatives
The negatives were few and infrequent, but are as follows:
Most Americans do not eat this way so…so that means at work functions, restaurants, conferences and social gatherings, I frequently found very limited complete meal options. Fortunately, these types of events occur monthly for me or so. When available, I opt for salad and salmon options or vegetarian options (which may include cheese or such). I still easily fall within my goal of 95-100% of my intake coming from plant-based sources when averaged over days and weeks. Also, people may tease or mock you for your choice to eat plant-based diet–not a big deal, just don’t be surprised.
Fitness/ Strength: It is not a hard as you would think to gain weight (if that’s your thing–which for me, it is) on a plant-based diet should that be your desire. Conversely, it is very easy to lose weight. Obviously, if weight gain is your goal, high calorie plant-foods (like nuts/ nut butters) should increase in your daily food choices. So, weight was not such a big deal. However, I did find myself “hitting a wall” so to speak about a year after going plant-based in terms of lifting heavier weights and gaining muscle. This quickly was resolved by supplementing with creatine. Reasons for this are explored in more detail on my plant-based diet research analysis article.
Surprisingly…increased contact lens irritation red eyes…Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? About six months into my plant-based mostly vegan diet I started noticing decreased wearing time with my contacts. My eyes were getting more red, even on days when I was not wearing my contacts. Turns out, Omega 3’s are necessary for lubricating your tears and eyes (Torborg, 2017). Despite eating plenty of plant-based omega 3 sources, it was apparent not enough were being converted into DHA/ EPA by my body. After reading about the connection between low Omega 3 levels and dry eyes, I bought a plant-based (algae sourced) DHA supplement. I was equally surprised to see this quickly resolved the issue.
An example of algae based Omega 3’s is available here:
The switch to a plant-based diet was easier than I ever expected…despite growing up and spending most of my adulthood eating a diet heavy in meat, eggs and dairy. The downsides are small and easily managed. The potential health benefits are amazing, and I have already experienced a few in my first year alone. For a natural compliment to a plant-based diet, check out my blog where I explore the current research and health implications of a non-supplement, natural source of vitamin B12 and other nutrients that run a little lower in plant-based diets…edible insects!
Campbell, T. C., & Campbell, T. M. (2004). The China Study. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books
Greger, M. (2015). How Not to Die. New York, NY: Flatiron Books
Servan-Schreiber, D. (2007). Anticancer: A New Way of Life. France: Editions Robert Laffont
Torborg, L. (2017). Mayo Clinic Q and A: Fish oil supplements and dry eyes. Retrieved from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-q-and-a-fish-oil-supplements-and-dry-eyes/