Q & A on my first year as a vegetarian

It has been almost a year since I left meat behind and changed my diet. People often ask me about what my experience has been like: Has it been hard? Did it cause you social stigma? What was hardest to give up? Are you protein deficient?

I thought I would compile my answers to some of the top questions I have gotten at dinner parties, social events and on planes, trains and automobiles as people heard that I had become plant-centric and plant-based.

Plant-based eating is the future. Millennials, rich people and highly educated people have known for a while, but we are on the brink of everyone else finding out now.


Why did you do it?

I did it for health reasons. After my father had a stroke, I started to get serious about my own health. His stroke happened on my 42nd birthday and it was a big deal for me – a shock and a reminder that no one is immortal.

I started looking into health causes of strokes and cardio events. All the evidence I could find was that veganism or vegetarianism reduces all cause mortality by a significant margin. This was brought home to me through the work of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn whose book: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease is very convincing. I highly recommend it.

Since then I discovered the wok of Dr. Michael Gregor, How Not To Die, which is an engaging read demonstrating the healthful power of vegan/plant-based eating.

Are you going to become vegan?

Right now, I am not on the road to becoming completely vegan.  However, I would say that I eat plant-based meals 60% of the time right now, with my only exceptions being eggs, cheese, and oysters!

Have you seen any health benefits?

Yes. Enormous. I have lost 20 lbs. My blood pressure has plummetted. As well, when I actually have a string of vegan days, my blood pressure gets down to 100/60, down from 130/80 when I was eating meat. As well – particularly on vegan days – my resting heart rate has dropped from ~77 to ~60.

But don’t you lack energy?

No, quite the opposite. My energy level is very high and I never get that sick feeling that I used to after eating meat. In fact, I recently bought a bike and have a goal of doing a triathlon this summer. There are many examples of plant-based and plant-centric athletes, such as Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll.

Ok. So you started for health reasons. How about the animals?

To be honest, I was not very aware of the plight of animals on farms when I started my vegetarian adventure. The fact is that many factory farm animals live lives of torture and suffering.

Watching movies like Cowspiracy and listening to Rich Roll’s excellent podcasts has reinforced this for me and brought home the healing power of plant-based (vegan) living. From duck-down coats, to your cosmetics tested on animals, to the coyote fur brimming your parka’s hood — you are being made a participant in the torture and slaughter of innocent sentient beings.

Once I came to this realisation, I couldn’t unthink it.

I am done with meat and I do my very best to avoid products that use animal parts such as skin, fur, feathers and down. Does that mean I am throwing away my leather couches or jacket? No. That would be absurd and disrespectful to the beings who gave their skin to the creation of that furniture or those clothes. Will I ever buy another leather couch or jacket? No.

So before you think I have become an animal rights fanatic or something let me explain.

Through my own lifestyle change, I have discovered that ending my consumption of products that depend on violence towards animals or their bodies and minds has enhanced my awareness of suffering in people too.

We should strive toward a non-violent, cruelty-free and suffering-free society for all sentient beings. That means animals and people.

How about the environment?

Animal husbandry is a greater source of emissions. The pollution doesn’t end there, either. Whether it is the incredible amounts of animal waste that factory farms generate or the methane those animals emit, the animal husbandry industry is a major contributor to climate change and polluter of our lakes, rivers and soil.

Was it hard to give up meat?

Yes, at first, it was. I longed for a burger at first. But after a while, I guess my microbiome changed and my body and mind stopped craving meat. In fact, I recently went to buy olives at the grocery store and found myself in the middle of deli section where the olives are found. I felt sick. The area looked like an abbatoir or a morgue. It smelled like death. I saw body parts all around me. I was repelled and left as fast as I could.

Do that mean you have become a delicate petal?

No. It means that over the course of the last year my body’s microbiome has changed and things that used to smell good to me now smell really gross.

How about cheese and dairy?

Well, I am not vegan. I enjoy cheese and eggs. I don’t like milk – I never have. I have always preferred soy or almond alternatives.  I love cheese in my pasta and on a caesar salad. I do prefer vegenaise to mayo.

On the one hand I recognize that cheese is full of saturated fat, which is bad for me. On the other hand, I don’t eat it massive quantities.

Also, I think (although many will disagree) that cheese and eggs can be ethically sourced. I have visited the farm that produces the eggs that I buy and the chickens look very happy. They run around the barnyard, eat lots of kale and bugs and worms, and run happily toward the farmer when he approaches. They really love him.

How about fish?

Well, I was a pescetarian for the first half of the year, but then I gave up the fish as well. I did this more for ethical reasons than for health ones – fish farming has a strongly negative environmental effect. Also, I found that my taste for flesh has really diminished and I don’t crave fish flesh. I have to admit that I still love oysters!

How about vitamin b-12 and omega-3?

I have discovered that you can get more than enough of both of these through flax and chia seeds or by supplementing. There is nothing better than overnight oats with lots of chia, hemp and/or ground flaxseed. Fortified almond milk can be a great source of b-12 as well.

How about protein?

Well, I still eat cheese which has protein. As well, I eat a lot of kale, beans and grains, which also have a lot of protein!

Has this been hard, socially?

Ha. No. In fact, I find that there are tons of veggie options at most restaurants. You just sometimes have to get a few appetizers and a salad instead of a main course.

Also, most people I have spoke with tell me that they would like to reduce or eliminate the meat in their diet. The percentage of vegetarians has been growing enormously in the last ten years, particularly among millennials who are the likeliest to be vegetarian of any generation.

I think meat-eating is going to quickly become something that old people, less-educated people and poorer people do, like smoking.

Alex, are you a fanatic now?

No, I am not. I have made a conscientious choice to do something for my health, for the good of animals and to help build a better, cruelty-free world.

Do you judge me for eating meat, Alex?

No, I don’t. You are just making a different life-choice than me.  It’s a choice. We live in a free country. You can do as you please.

It comes down to a simple thing: I don’t want a sentient being to have to die so that I can eat a meal.

New Year’s Resolutions 2017

 

In 2016, my resolutions concerned trying to craft a life amid the enormous amounts of work that I do. We are all storm-tossed as we sail the seas of career, personal goals, and relationships. I made it my aim to be mindful and examine the different elements of my life and try to find myself in them. In that, I feel I met those resolutions. 2016 was a year of growth and self-awareness. A good year.

In terms of health and fitness, I definitely got somewhere. First, I became pescetarian then vegetarian. Then I lost 20 lbs, going from 192 last New Year’s Day to 172 today. I can run and swim now, too.

Here are my resolutions for 2017:

  1. Write a book. I have been thinking about several themes and gathering data for a while now. I am now ready to give shape to these patterns of thought in long form. I haven’t really felt ready until now.
  2. Pray, meditate and be mindful. I will continue along the path that I started on a year ago and try to meditate and pray daily. I have been starting the mindful practice of saying a quick, silent, unobtrusive prayer of gratitude before meals – no one even notices! Prayer, meditation, and mindfulness don’t feel like a chore so much anymore, so I am hopeful for this year.
  3. Build on the basic fitness I have achieved to become an athlete again. Last year, I invested time and became quite good at running and swimming. This year my aim is to learn to cycle effectively and maybe complete a triathlon. Not to compete, just to finish. This will mean getting overall weight down to a lean, muscular, 150 lbs or so.
  4. Find time to build a real life. I work incessantly, but I am feeling that neglecting my personal life has actually been holding me back from achieving the things I want. Right now, relaxation seems to involve mostly just collapsing exhausted in front of Netflix. I need to find time for true rest and leisure – actually spending time doing simple, fun things, maybe even with other people.

So there you have it. Let’s see how it goes.

The Outdoor Pool

On sunny summer days, the water calls
Transparent between blue walls, reflecting the sky
We gather in the change room, often silent
Stripping down with no pretence
There are ladders in the pool
No hierarchy though
Just grace and speed and will
The coolness of the water
Distant splashes around you
Brief bursts of music through your cap
Rhythmic breathing bringing calm and peace
Perpetual movement going nowhere but far
Repetition becoming contemplation
It’s a quiet place
Where you’re together but apart
And it’s ok

Time discipline

One of the comments I often get from people is: “You are the most productive person I know!”

I am grateful for having the stamina to be so productive. However, I am discovering, as I become more mindful and self-aware, that my productivity is not the result of great planning, but of brute force effort and a strong will.

That’s just not an optimal way of being productive because when I examine myself, I find that I am often motivated by:

  • fear
  • guilt
  • duty
  • a desire to please others

The first two are bad. Fear and guilt are just awful motivators.

Of the last two, duty is a good motivator, as is a desire to please others. Wanting to please others, however, is often a case of managing their expectations! I have learned that working with others to understand what it will take to please them

I have learned that working with others to understand what it will take to please them is very important.

I am going to work on ways of managing time discipline. I am going to start by using my calendar more effectively. I have friends who do this well – for example, Mark Stewart, my colleague and good friend at McMaster University, has been a big motivation for me in terms of fitness and health. I recently realised that he is a great at using his calendar for managing time.

I will report back on the Time Discipline Project.

200 day report on my Life Transformation Experiment

I thought that it was time for an update.

200 days ago, on Ash Wednesday, I started what I thought would be a temporary personal mortification… a Lenten sacrifice. I adopted a pescetarian diet and committed to 30 minutes of daily exercise.

My Numbers, Pre-Pescetarian Life Transformation
Blood Pressure: 130/85
Weight: 192lbs
Resting Heart Rate: ~74

Athletics: I could only run 12 minutes at a maximum speed of 8 km/h. I could not make it up the (very) steep hill next to my house on a bicycle without taking a break.

Here is the 200-day punchline (i.e. my numbers now):

On Animal Product Days (cheese/eggs/fish):
Blood Pressure: 110/65
Weight: 167lbs
Resting Heart Rate: ~63

On Vegan Days (only plants):
Blood Pressure: 100/58
Resting Heart Rate: ~59

Athletics: I can now comfortably run 5km at an average rate of 9-10 kph.  I can comfortably swim 2k (breaststroke) in 55 minutes. I go on regular brisk 90 minute hikes in the woods behind my house in Ancaster.

Surprise Benefit: Acid reflux is gone (except sometimes on animal product days)! I had been taking Zantac regularly – I stopped two weeks ago and have only had heartburn on days when I ate cheese, eggs or seafood.

This experiment will now go from being the Pescetarian Life Transformation Experiment to… The Vegetarian Life Transformation Experiment.

Why vegetarian? I am sufficiently convinced that I am healthier and happier on vegan days. However, I am not yet ready to go vegan – I still love cheese and eggs too much. So it will have to be a vegetarian experiment for now.

I will also try experiments with:

  • Meditation
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Different combinations of cardio and resistance exercises
  • Schedule Planning

Why these experiments? I am finding that the key to happiness and balance is discipline. I am going to experiment with different disciplines around the four things mentioned above.

How do I keep all this going? Excel is my friend – I have a great spreadsheet with a lot of these data. For swimming I use a PoolMateHR from Swimovate, which tracks lengths, speed, force, stroke count and heart rate. For nutrition, MyFitnessPal is super useful – it allows me to fairly easily and accurately track nutrition goals so that i make sure I am getting the macro and micro nutrients I need stay healthy.

I have been thinking of getting a sports watch with HR that can track swimming, running, cycling, etc. but I have done a lot of research and still find even the best products (mostly from Garmin) feel like they are still not quite out of beta.

My goal is to find my healthiest, calmest, most productive, creative and compassionate self.

I wish you peace and health.

I will keep you posted.

 

A key to productivity without anxiety: get one thing done

I am generally very productive. I get things done, I forge forward, and I pursue goals until they are achieved. I recently found a link between my “productivity” and a constant, low-level hum of worry, disquiet or even some anxiety.

Taking a mindful approach to life has made me discover that my approach to productivity has these negative side effects. It is often productivity driven by worry and anxiety. So I have been thinking about how to reverse this, and trying some experiments.

Try to make peace with the goals and tasks in front of me, plan reasonably and then enjoy the process appears to work. I am finding that this allows productivity driven by desire and enjoyment, rather than by panic or guilt!

So, what are some observations from my mindful productivity experience thus far:

  • Be more aware of the impact of my pattern of goal setting and tasks on my life and the life of those around me.
  • Set timelines that don’t include “working on a total project”, but rather a realistic timeline for achieving small parts of a big task.
  • Try to get a few small things done every day, working toward your larger goals.

This way you are aware of the small tasks can micro-plan your day better. You are also aware of the impact on others (deadlines’ impact on other’s work or lives, your availability or lack thereof impact on others, etc.), so you feel better about what you’re doing – less guilt, more getting things done.

It sounds simple, but I am finding a mindful approach to life is really a series of simple changes that lead to more overall well-being.

Being inspired and inspiring

I woke up today feeling inspired.

I had a good night’s sleep after having accomplished a few simple things during the previous day that I had been thinking about. The feeling of sunlight on my arms and face was beautiful as well.

I got to thinking about how I could transmit that feeling of being inspired to others. How to be inspiring? I think it has to do with a few things:

  • Openness. Be open to the day and the experiences it brings. Be open to the ideas of others – don’t feel threatened.
  • Positivity. Look to see the upside of everything you encounter. This means putting openness in action. Generally people come to you with an idea because they have been inspired or maybe they are worried about something. Both inspiration and worry are legitimate! A positive outlook recognizes this.
  • Calm. Maintaining calm inspires others because it gives them a feeling of security and peace. Without those two items, it is very difficult to be productive.

I wish you an open, positive and calm day!

Pleasures of public transit

I am taking public transit as a part of my wellness journey.

I am on a trip to Ottawa today, which meant an early morning wake-up at 4am to catch the early train. I took the GO Train at Aldershot Station with the other bleary-eyed riders to Union Station in Toronto. Then VIA Rail from Union to Ottawa.

I meditated for 10 minutes on the train and felt the fatigue from only sleeping 5 hours dimish. I understand that meditating reduces blood cortisol levels, but somehow I feel more awake after meditating, especially when tired. Odd.

In Hamiton, I have been taking public transit as much as possible. I have taken the bus to McMaster since I returned from my research leave. This is for three reasons:

  • Stress reduction. It reduces my stress levels significantly. Even if my bus ride is only 15 minutes, I can still do some light reading or just look out the window. Very peaceful when compared with driving.
  • Earth-friendly. It is environmentally much more sustainable. I have only filled up the gas tank in my SUV once in the last two weeks, instead of twice.
  • Cost savings. My parking spot at McMaster costs about $1200 (not including gas and wear), whereas transit will cost only about $800. I spend about $150 in gas to drive to Ottawa (not including wear), whereas I can get a return ticket for about $120-$150 if I take advantage of the Tuesday deals.

Personal discovery: Nutrition is a practice and requires planning

Proper nutrition is a practice, I am finding. And not necessarily one where the path is obvious. I am discovering that for me, proper nutrition requires a little research and planning coupled with mindful cooking and eating.

After paying the $50 or so annual membership to unlock the hidden features of myfitnesspal, I have been surprised to find out that what I thought – through rough estimation and intuition, mostly – to be a healthy diet, is lacking in certain areas.

So I started tinkering with myfitnesspal to see what a balanced, healthy day within my calorie limit might look like.

Along the way, I learned some interesting truths and realised some replacements might be in order. Go ahead and laugh at me if these were common knowledge to you:

  • Peanut butter is rich in micro-nutrients, but almond butter seems to have more.
  • Cereals are very deceptive in terms of nutritional content. Amazingly, spoon-size shredded wheat seems to be a winner, with high nutrients and low sugar. Kashi Go Lean Crunch is good too, but has a lot of sugar (and is a lot more expensive).
  • Chips, regardless of how expensive, organic, non-GMO or other attractive, virtuous labelling are truly empty calories.
  • Strawberries are very high in potassium
  • Kale, spinach, swiss chard and collard greens are very high in calcium
  • Beans and lentils are must-eats for iron, potassium, calcium and protein
  • Potatoes are kind of a wonder food: very high in potassium!
  • Bananas are very helpful, as are most fruits
  • Dates are nutrient-rich
  • Avocados are rich in potassium and other nutrients, but very high in fat.

My takeaways:

  • I will add almond butter to my pantry, and when I have two toasts, I may make one with peanut butter and the other with almond butter.
  • Time to cut chips and other “empty calories” out. Eat only what contributes to day.
  • Spoon-size shredded wheat appears to be a great breakfast cereal, when loaded with fruit and berries and eaten with oat milk.
  • Green leafy vegetables like kale and swiss chard need to be a bigger part of my life, as do potatoes
  • Bananas and dates are in. As are avocados, in limited quantities.

Since I have gotten serious about fitness and wellness, I am going to be more systematic about nutrition. Let’s see how this goes.

Remember, I am talking about research and observations for myself here. I am not making any recommendations to anyone except myself. Go do your own research, experiment and find out what works for you.

Harley Davidson motorcycles are awful

I rarely complain about the behaviour of others. My attitude is usually live and let live, knowing that everyone is carrying their own burden and that I probably do a lot of things that annoy people of which I am not aware.

There is one thing that I thought I would mention: the horrible, flatulent noise of Harley Davidson motorcycles and sports cars that have loud “sport-tuned” exhaust systems.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cars. I am a huge Formula 1 fan and I enjoy going to the Honda Indy almost every year. I also think motorcycles are cool and a fun, economical, environmentally-sustainable way to get around.

My problem is that Harleys and sports cars are tuned to annoy. They are tuned to make a spectacle of the driver and disturb the peace. I live on a beautiful driving and cycling road in Ancaster, Ontario, which means that lots of cyclists and motorists use the road. Hearing the horrible sound of a Harley or a sports coupé with sport-tuned exhaust is a great way of ruining a moment or breaking a train of thought.

Finally, to those who think these noisy vehicles are cool, I have to tell you that you’re part of the past not the future. To me, loud vehicles read “the past” or “dated” or “old guy” or maybe even “insecure.” They are also incredibly disrespectful of homeowners, shopkeepers and pedestrians.

My advice to these people: impress folks by spending a lot of money on a really beautiful Cervélo bicycle and learn to ride it well or an electric sports car or motorcycle.

Then you’ll be part of the future, not a noisy, irritating relic from the past.