Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Real Food: How My 7-Day Experiment Stuck

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer
"The body never lies." -Martha Graham

At age twelve I became a vegetarian. It wasn't a rash decision. I knew my convictions surrounding the issue and I got to work researching the topic. Even at this young age, my modus operandi in life was highly developed. But I did it all in silence. I kept to myself because I didn't want to ruffle feathers or upset any of my peers or elders with my decision. I also didn't want to be second-guessed by those who knew nothing about it but what the culture and mainstream media told them was right.

My family finally noticed on Thanksgiving when the turkey was passed around and I refused it. My step-brothers made fun of me and told me it would never stick. A year later, the questions and doubts really started to emerge. Surely it wasn't healthy for an active growing teen to be meat-free? Where would your protein come from? Every season I had to get a sports physical for soccer. Upon admission of the vegetarian factor, the doctor would look at my pale skin, do blood tests and be sure to check for anemia. Each year I passed with flying colors. But maybe this was just my young age and it would eventually catch up with me, right? Twenty-one years later, I'm an endurance athlete, my blood work still checks out and I haven't had a bite of meat since that day in 1993.
One of the books that began my deep dive into vegetarianism two decades ago.
To be honest, not much has changed about my communication style surrounding the topic. I'm a fitness expert and I professionally help people achieve healthier lifestyles, better sports performance, and weight loss--more than 50% of which has to do with diet. But, I still don't like to talk about food and my own choices. I want everyone to go their merry way and be healthy. Only I know it's not that simple.

One of the very first things you learn as Personal Trainer is to NOT discuss nutrition. After all, Personal Trainer does not mean licensed nutritionist or certified dietician. To this point, I've agreed and for the most part abided by this rule (even though I have studied and researched the subject for over a decade--both traditional and "alternative" models of nutrition). But as time passes and our culture gets sicker and sadder every day, I can not separate the two. I can no longer be silent about what I see and feel invading our everyday existence and choices. During my time as a trainer I've also witnessed methods that work, and don't work, well for my clients. I prefer to think long-term, which clearly isn't the American way. What may provide quick results, good looks, or temporary increased performance, isn't necessarily what is good for lifelong health.

In addition, I have had several important intersections in my own life that I feel need to be shared. I plan to live to a ripe old age, traveling the world and doing everything my body is capable of. I want to eat in a way that will let me do that until I'm 100. What I do with my own nutrition doesn't mean it's best for every single person--even though I do believe a lot of poor health and disease in our culture is a product of a specific type of consumption.

What we do with our bodies is intricately linked to how we live our lives. I'm not just interested in how you look or how much energy you have on a Spinning bike, I'm interested in what that means for the rest of your life and your personal potential.

There is a lot of conflicting advice out there on what is good for you. I'm sure the story could be told a million different ways. But, this is my story and my version of success. I know what MY body needs, prefers and thrives on and I'd like to share it with you.

New Year's Eve, stocking up with a green cart
I'm a pretty good eater and I like food. I have many good habits that I've worked on establishing over the years. I've been a vegetarian for 21 years and I cut out fish/seafood about ten years ago. I've been mostly vegan (no animal products like cheese, eggs and butter)--two of three meals in a day, for the last two years. But, I have two downfalls--coffee and sweets.

Starting January 1, 2014 I wanted to go all-in and see what was possible with my nutrition. It was a seven day experiment that was driven mostly by curiosity. For a while, I had been noticing that whenever I ate gluten or refined sugar (duh!) or dairy, I felt very mentally foggy and my energy would rise and fall frequently. I traditionally tend to have pretty consistent high energy, even with the amount of output it requires to run a business and live a very active life.

Tweaking my nutrition regimen is something I've wanted to do for quite some time. But I also understand the law of "exhaustible willpower," wherein you have a finite supply of willpower or restraint on any given day. Use of it in one area of life--be it workouts, work stress or relationships--pulls from whole. When it's gone, it's gone. I knew that the long days of opening/ getting a business going had been using ALL of my willpower. To start this experiment at any earlier date on the calendar would have ensured frustration and failure. The time had finally come and I was ready.

Additionally motivating was watching how my husband went from a typical American diet in his twenties--he actually used to tease me about being a vegetarian--to two years ago, going completely raw vegan for a full year. He has adapted his daily habits a bit since then, but the positive impact it's had in his life has been a huge inspiration to me. The full story is his to tell but in the year he started eating mostly plants, I watched his severe depression turn into energy, passion and vitality for life. I also witnessed his capabilities as an athlete grow by leaps and bounds in that year. I knew that this connection was no coincidence.

Our dining room on Jan 1st. The kitchen also looked like a jungle.
So, I was curious about cutting out the last few impurities of my own diet to see how I would feel. I wanted to be strict but I also wanted to be realistic enough to succeed. So, I ditched refined sugars completely but kept coffee in the mix (this part just may have kept my marriage intact). Coffee is still a great pleasure of mine, yet I can admit that I have both a chemical and emotional addiction to it.

I knew that how long I performed the experiment was also important. I wanted to make it long enough to feel a difference, as well as cycle through the normal highs and lows of my workout week. Yet, I wanted to make it short enough to be true to the process and have a foreseeable end date. I established a few ground rules going in.

Here are the original "rules" I used:
1. seven consecutive days
2. fruits and veggies only (no limitations on how much) except for...
3. exceptions established ahead of time = rice or quinoa (which don't contain gluten) and one black cup of coffee in the morning

Observations from my week of fruits and veggies (in no particular order):
1. Energy
Even though my energy is normally high, I could tell a difference in the amount of consistent energy I had. I experienced fewer lows within a day. In fact, there were several nights where I was up late reading or working because I had so much energy. This also translated into my workouts (as mentioned in "body metrics" below).
Smoothies galore! I had at least two every day.
2. Phasing In
On day one my stomach wasn't sure what was going on. It felt full but then would very quickly feel REALLY hungry again. The meter it was using to register "full" didn't feel the same due to the higher amount of liquid (smoothies). Also, the types of foods I was eating digest much faster and would literally leave my stomach quicker. By day two and three it was used to the "new normal". 

3. Less Water
Fruits and vegetables contain the most pure form of water.  I forgot that eating more of them meant I would need to drink fewer glasses of water. This is neither a positive nor negative, just an interesting tweak in my behavior of always having a water-bottle in hand.

This is probably the most remarkable part of the week. My brain felt lightening fast. I believe at one point I even asked my husband to start talking faster because his words seemed slow. Not only was I able to intake more information and remember it, I was feeling highly creative. I gained clarity on a few issues I'd been working through as well as developed new business ideas. I really hadn't expected this part of the experiment. I knew I had been feeling foggy but my hunch that it was food related was more than right.
Spinning photo courtesy of lululemon athletica Hyde Park and Simone Jowell
5. Body Metrics
I didn't do the experiment for weight loss but I did see changes in my body. Yes, I lost weight but more importantly, to me anyway, I felt VERY powerful during my workouts. If you've ever had that dominating feeling in a workout where you could run/ride to the moon or lift the Empire State Building, that's what I felt like all week. I work out a lot so the fact that I was able to maintain that feeling was amazing.

My heart rate also stayed lower during my workouts. I first noticed this phenomenon during my typical Sunday long-run, four days into the experiment. It wasn't a short workout (13 miles+) so I had plenty of time to gather data. My heart rate was an average of ten heartbeats lower than normal--at my usual pace. I was completely floored as I really didn't think these diet tweaks would yield such a change.
I discovered an amazing black rice (Lundberg brand).
I knew right away it had to be because my body was experiencing less stress (meaning stress from foods that cause inflammation or irritation to my system). The body doesn't differentiate between types of stress (diet, work, relationships, lack of sleep, exercise) which is the importance of using some kind of biofeedback tool to measure the impact/effectiveness of exercise/lifestyle.

I also felt my body composition changing. Even though I saw a lower number on the scale, I'm personally more concerned with what my body mass is compromised of (muscle vs. fat), not what number it's showing. I could see and feel my muscle increasing and/or fat decreasing. I know it was just seven days but when you know your body well you notice these small changes.

 6. Constant Eating/Cravings
I was constantly eating all week. I didn't count calories or limit myself to certain portions of fruit, veggies or rice. My goal was to eat until I felt satisfied and sustained. I knew that the type of foods I was consuming are less calorie dense yet more nutrient dense. 

My biggest surprise of the week was that I didn't get any of the normal cravings I have for refined sugar. Honestly, this was the part I was most worried about going into the challenge. Could I do it without eating any sweets? But, I found that when I was eating enough "good" calories, my body wasn't concerned with dessert. Shocker.

7. Training Solutions
My favorite from the Portables book--sweet potato cakes.
In the midst of the experiment I realized I needed to improve the food I use during training. I wanted more real food. If you are an endurance athlete, you know that eating in the midst of long workouts is needed/common. I've found a lot of good organic brands like Honey Stinger that use real ingredients but I had also just been introduced to a book called, Feed Zone Portables by a company called Skratch Labs. This book contains recipes for "75 portable foods that taste great, are digested quickly and help you perform at your best." Not all of the recipes are vegan but many are gluten-free and can be easily modified. I will share some of these recipes/variations in an upcoming blog. (Locally in Cincinnati we have a new company, TriCycle Portables, that's been launched to supply these types of foods and I think it's an awesome concept.)

8. Celebration 
On day eight I wanted a reward for how well (flawlessly by the way) I'd done with the experiment. I'm not a big fan of using food as a reward but in this case it seemed fitting. I had my eye on my favorite candy, peanut butter cups, to top off the week. I already had a sense that I would continue with my new routine. I felt so good, was seeing progress in my workouts and thinking better. I couldn't imagine returning to my previous, albeit relatively good state. My husband was out of town the day I celebrated. I sat in my bedroom alone that night, ate three peanut cups, felt like complete crap and fell asleep. I'm glad I did it because it helped solidify my sense of how this type of eating was not doing me any good.

"If you are eating healthfully, the idea of 'I can never eat [blank] again' 
is poison to your long-term goals."
-Matt Frazier, No Meat Athlete

I prefer to think of what I'm now doing--over a month later--as a plant-based diet instead of a diet with a specific label like "vegan" or "vegetarian". Labels are for other people anyway and this is about doing what's best for me. I want a diet filled with certain things instead of void of certain items. I'm thinking of all I want to eat instead of what I'm cutting out. And I don't plan to be absolutist about it. I know myself too well and musts or shoulds won't be mentally sustainable for me.

My new guideline, developed not just from this week experiment but from years of research, is           I want 85% of my nutrition to come from plants. If I have a piece of cake or eat a burrito during the week, that's okay. If I want to occasionally have cheese or eat an ice cream sandwich, that's okay but it's not the norm. I want to fill my body with things that make me feel more alive, not less.
Trader Joe's brand mango slices were great between meals.
What's included in the vegan powder, Vega, I use in my smoothies.
My Vitamix has certainly taken a healthy beating but you don't need any fancy blender to get started. I will be sharing more smoothie ideas and recipes in a future blog.
"The best way to predict your future is to create it." Abraham Lincoln

Some people may read this blog and think, "Well that's not normal and it sounds like a lot of work." And they may be right. But I'd like to ask, when did it become normal to eat items (that can't really be called food) that are processed to oblivion and that don't require any effort on the part of the consumer? When did it become okay to sit back and let the people making this so-called food tell you what to eat? And, as a culture, when did we get so disconnected from our bodies that we can't even distinguish the things that are limiting us and causing us ill?

Personally, I want to take my life back in this way. I want to connect with my food in a positive manner that yields more energy and vitality in my limited time on this earth. I want to feel good and give more of that good feeling away to others. I want to promote a food system that is sustainable to our planet and to other species. I also believe that our culture is capable of more than the system we have now.
If you want to start your own journey or want to know more, these are some resources I've enjoyed or found helpful. There are many examples of plant-based athletes performing at the top of their field (Scott Jurek, Rich Roll and Tim Van Orden listed below as just a few) which has also helped me realize what's possible as someone who values daily movement.

1. Forks Over Knives movie (This can be found on Netflix. Their website is also helpful for getting started on nutrition change).
2. The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study Every Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health by T. Colin Campbell, PhD (Warning: This is not light reading but you will be changed by it.)
3. No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self by Matt Frazier & Matthew Ruscigno, M.P.H, R.D.
4. Thrive Fitness: The Vegan-Based Training Program for Maximum Strength, Health and Fitness by Brendan Brazier
5. Eat & Run: My Unlikely Story to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek
6. Tim Van Orden and his project, Running Raw
7. Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men and Discovering Myself by Rich Roll
8. The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight and Saving the Planet by Alicia Silverstone