What I Learned Going Plant-Based for a Year: You Can Lose Weight, Have Clear Skin, But Only If You Do it Right
When you go plant-based everyone asks, "How do you feel?" The answer is simple: When you do it right you feel amazing. You get clearer skin, watch the extra pounds drop off, you feel lighter, your face looks less bloated. Overall, you generally feel younger, more energetic, and for me, more athletic than I have in years, maybe even decades. Actually, I probably am fitter now than I was when I ate meat and dairy, which was most of my life.
But those first words are meaningful... When you do it right. I have been plant-based for exactly one year since I started last May 1st. And I have never felt so healthy as I do when I am eating a whole-food plant-based diet long on vegetables, fruits and grains and nuts. I love asparagus, kale, butternut squash, spinach, beans, broccoli, and all types of vegetables, roasted, steamed, salted, plain or in salads, as sides, as snacks, and even with vinegar. I am eating more vegetables in more ways that are more interesting and filling than I ever thought possible.
But. And yet. That is not the full story. The full story is I am also guilty of binging, having sugar cravings, enjoying too many sweets, treats, empty calories and junk food. And this is on me. I don't blame "plant-based" for my transgressions. I blame stress and lack of discipline.
Most days I manage to eat healthily. And then there are the "not so good" days when I eat Cracker Jacks, which surprisingly are vegan since they contain sugar, corn syrup, popcorn, peanuts, molasses, corn, and soybean oils. But eating a bag a day is not healthy. So vegan is not necessarily synonymous with healthy and when I fill up on carbs I feel as "sluggish" as when I used to eat meat and dairy. So it all depends on how you play it. I have learned that in the days when I stick to a whole-food plant-based diet I feel like a rockstar. And when I eat vegan pizza (I love Amy's) or dairy-free ice cream (So Delicious is my go-to) I can whip through a pint in one Netflix sitting. Then, I don't feel so rock-starish.
So here is what I learned adhering to a mostly plant-based diet for the past 12 months with only a few minor cheats for sushi or some cheese (sprinkled on pasta, not a hunk of it the way I once ate Jarlsberg). I am happy skipping meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs. My skin is better (yes even at my mature age I am prone to pimples... delightful) and my jeans fit better and I feel "cleaner" inside and out.
Spoiler Alert. Want to know how this turns out? I love being plant-based and don't expect to return to my old ways of eating. But nobody's perfect, me least of all. I called myself a "veginner" and had fun trying different types of plant-based foods. All roads lead back to one conclusion: How your body feels on a plant-based diet has everything to do with how healthy you are on a plant-based diet. And plant-based does not simply mean no animal products. It means, eating mostly plant-based foods!
Here are the lessons I learned and how to feel healthier and happier by eating mostly plants:
1. Know Your "Why" and Be True to the Reason
Why did I start? To see if I would feel better and be heart healthier. Heart disease runs up down and sideways in my family and everyone over the age of 50 has been on a statin and more for high cholesterol, even when they appear fit, slim and athletic. Not me. I am avoiding cholesterol drugs however I can. I do not want to have to take meds. And when I went plant-based my cholesterol dropped by 35 percent in three weeks. I suspect it's even lower now, and I am happy to stay off the drugs for the rest of my life if it means skipping the cheese.
Honestly, I also did it to lose some weight. Not a ton, but maybe 10 to 12 pounds, Like many of the fittest people I know, throughout the year I "go up and down" and I was up when I started. I confess I don't weigh myself (have not in years) but my clothes fit better and I run faster and my face looks slimmer and I am happier when I feel lighter. Lighter to me is also leaner and fitter. So this approach works for me. And combined with heart health it seems to work. I always tell people: You can cheat on a diet but you can't cheat on your heart. So try to be heart healthy. I have tried intermittent fasting in combination with a plant-based approach to eating and lost weight fast. Which is fun and feels healthy. Do I slip up? Yes. For that, let's go-to point #2...
2. Sugar is the Devil, and I am a Sinner
I have a sweet tooth. Always have. When I don't allow sugar into the equation and stay on course, my body thanks me by feeling better and getting slimmer -- almost overnight. Those are the good days. When I am not so good I eat, in one day, some combination of plant-based ice cream, plant-based energy bars, and plant-based snacks like Cracker Jacks. I can justify this when I'm working out like crazy or training for triathlons, but these days I spend more like 12 hours at my desk. Even a standing desk is not enough of a calorie burner to negate that level of snacking.
Here's a major realization: Sugar doesn't just make me fat it makes me break out. Whether the sugar is from food or beverages like milk (which has lactose) my skin hates it. The inflammation that the sugar causes clogs pores and does not allow for proper circulation. I am one of the lucky adults who seems to never be able to outgrow my acne. I never had a pimple until I got to college -- and then I never had a week without one. That's been for decades. The one exception was when I got talked into taking Acutaine and, for a brief period, my skin got better. But when I went off the powerful drying agent the breakouts returned. Until I went plant-based. Now it's up to me: Eat sugar, get a pimple. Stay off the sugar and my skin needs no cover up to walk outside or get on a Zoom call. It's as simple as that.
Whatever your diet, added sugar is the consistent enemy, whether you eat plant-based or keto, low-carb or low-fat, practice intermittent fasting or follow Noom, WW, or some other plan. On the other hand, fiber, in the form of whole plants, is good for you and can keep your blood sugar in line. Fall in love with fiber.
3. You Can Get Tons of Protein from Plants. Ditch the Dairy, Meat and Chicken!
Protein is always everyone's first concern when they go plant-based. How on earth can I get from plants that I get from meat, dairy, and eggs? The truth is you can get more than you need. A woman who is active needs about 45 to 55 grams a day and that is easily achieved through vegetables, nuts, grains, and legumes.
The first thing I did was assign a story on where to get your protein and I was shocked to learn that peas have as much as milk -- one cup of green peas contains 8 grams of protein and one cup of 1 percent milk has 8 grams of protein. Win a bar bet on that.
Or this: One container of Greek yogurt has 17 grams of protein and 100 grams of soybeans (about half a cup) also has 17 grams of protein.
My usual go-to pre-plant-based was chicken. I ate it daily. Now that I know what goes into the bird (hormones and antibiotics) and I pass. Consider this: 3 ounces of chicken has 24 grams of protein, You can get the same 24 grams of protein in a bowl of lentil soup. Or make a big salad grain bowl of veggies: Add 1 cup of peas, 1 cup of artichoke hearts, 1 cup of asparagus and 1 cup of quinoa and you get 26 grams of protein. To that, I say "Yum." Your tastebuds do change along with your energy level and this is the kind of grain bowl that is rocket fuel for my body and keeps me able to focus and be productive all afternoon long.
Quick calculations told me that I can reach my protein daily totals with plants -- and do it easily. Plus it's the kind of protein that as I digest it, unlike steak or chicken or dairy, it feels cleaner and lighter on your system so I rarely need to rest or sleep after a big lunch. I stay on a higher-energy beam all day and the protein that I eat seems to build sleeker, leaner muscles. A guy who wants to build body mass might consider a protein powder but for me, I have not needed to supplement and I still, bike, run, and swim and stay as strong as ever.
4. Eat Your Veggies First. And Fiber is Not Just for Going to the Bathroom
Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die and How Not to Diet, loves to tell people to front-load their meals. This is real. When I eat a huge roasted cauliflower and then expect to want pasta after it, I am so full from the cauliflower that the pasta no longer holds any interest. If I can fill up on the good stuff I don't need the other stuff, and this is a way of controlling my appetite and cravings. It's much easier to skip the carbelicious part of a meal when I've eating fiber-filled vegetables and fruit.
A word about fiber. Everyone thinks it's about being "regular." If I were fiber I would sue. This is just not the case. Fiber does so many amazing things: Keeps your blood sugar from spiking, keeps your insulin in check, keeps your body from storing excess calories as fat. It also now is found to help lower a woman's risk of breast cancer. Fiber helps move things through the gut slowly, sure, so you get all the good nutrients from food and stay full longer. But to say that it's only for your bathroom habits is just so underselling this wonder nutrient. And fiber is only in plants. Animals contain none. Other than when we eat it. So eat it.
5. Don't Skip the Wine... or the Scotch... or the Quarantini!
This is so obvious. Unwind, relax, de-stress, enjoy your life, and for me, the easiest way to do that and stay plant-based is with wine. For others, it's spirits, or a well-crafted martini (aka quarantini), but plant-based doesn't mean draconian. These days you have to let off stress somehow, by dancing, by exercising, by spending time with your honey, and by Zooming friends and sharing a glass. It seems that as a nation, we are a population of drinkers. I love to know that I am not alone in sipping my way through a cocktail hour on a Zoom call, or at dinner, and I am tasting and loving new rose's and whites, reds and sparkling wines, with the help of my husband who is equally enjoying ordering and trying new bottles by the case. The point? Don't try to be perfect.
Bottom Line: Go plant-based for a while--whether that's a week, a month, or a year. Enjoy trying new recipes (we have hundreds on The Beet) and tastes, and challenge yourself to be healthy. Do your best and enjoy the journey. Stay as healthy as you can and that includes mental health. But don't beat yourself up for the desserts or treats or slip-ups. For me, as a plant-based health-minded person, sugar is off the list, but wine is fine. Cheers!
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