Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Being vegan

I admit it. Not too long ago I thought vegans were weird. Not eating red meat I could understand, but shunning animal products of any kind, including chicken, fish, milk, eggs and cheese? A bit extreme. Then came the day about two years ago, that I received a double dose of bad news about my health. For one, I was well on my way towards developing Type 2 diabetes – a debilitating illness with about the same long-term outlook as certain types of cancer. For another, my blood lipid readings put me at elevated risk for atherosclerosis. How can this be happening to someone who runs or exercises practically every day of the week, I thought. Blood tests don’t lie though: I was flirting with disaster, no matter how healthy I felt. I struggled to decipher the doctor’s red-ink scrawl on the annual check-up report, but the message was crystal clear. Reduce my fasting blood sugar level and total cholesterol as well as LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Or face a cascade of serious and unpleasant health issues sooner or later. Predictably, the doctor’s recommendation (which I reluctantly agreed to) was to start taking simvastatin and metformin.

Looking for alternatives, I soon found and started reading authors such as Colin Campbell (The China Study), Caldwell Esselstyn (Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease) and Neal Barnard (Reversing Diabetes). These three books clearly illustrate the connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. It did not take me long to change my mind about being a vegan. I realized right away that adopting a low-fat, plant-based diet is as powerful as any drug, in the battle against disease. Within a matter of weeks, I started seeing the results in sharply lower total cholesterol and triglyceride readings.

It’s been just over a year for me as a vegan now. I have lost about 17 lbs, my cholesterol readings are much improved and I no longer need medication to lower blood sugar. Better yet, just prior to my Achilles tendon injury in March, I was running my best times ever, including a personal best in the half marathon.

For my second year as vegan, I am going to step it up a notch, by cutting out as much processed foods as I can. More beans, vegetables and fruits. Less pasta, bagels and bread. The goal? To lose some more weight. As my son so helpfully pointed out yesterday, I have been doing core & abdominal exercises for more than a year now, and I still don’t have a six-pack… Isn’t it wonderful how a member of one’s immediate family can be so observant? I’ll just have to put my sweet tooth in my left pocket, pay attention to portion sizes and re-start a food diary. Anything to lose an additional 10 to 15 pesky pounds of fat around the middle. I do have a six-pack, it is just not visible!

Meanwhile, I am running again, finally! Still taking it very easy with long slow warm-ups, (walking half a mile and jogging half a mile) regular calf stretching and foam rolling and very slow runs, sometimes mixed with walking. It feels so good to be out there again!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Quitting my vices

I’ve quit a lot of things over the years. At 30, I was a runner like I am now. Just with more vices. If you knew me than, I was a heavy smoker and drinker who consumed cigarettes (my favorite brand was Camel), alcohol, red meat, dairy products and caffeine practically every day of the week. Now? A tee totaling vegan who drinks white tea and Rooibos. Am I a less interesting person now? I don't think so. Sobriety is not a bad state to be in. Clear-headed, never a hangover or gastritis or worse yet, that lingering remembrance of something that should never have been said or done. Plenty of those in my past, many of which I drag around with me whether I like it or not.
So as somewhat of an 'expert' on quitting various vices, I'd say that kicking the nicotine addiction was by far the toughest. I must have quit and started again 30+ times until it finally took. More or less when I realized that being a runner and a smoker did not really add up to leading a balanced lifestyle... I vaguely recall some pain in my wrists and stomach muscles, but nicotine withdrawal for me was always more of a mental than a physical issue. During nicotine withdrawal I would never feel sick. Just lost. The withdrawal symptoms of quitting caffeine were much worse. Giving up alcohol had no withdrawal symptoms at all. No cravings or the DT’s – wouldn’t that have been a bummer. I might have been a lush but I never quite made it to being a full-blown alcoholic.
But back to my old and now former friend coffee. As children in South Africa, we were introduced to coffee quite early on, certainly by our teens. We started on a fairly weak coffee/chicory blend with lots of full cream (aka ‘whole’) milk and sugar. As the years ticked by the milk got lighter, the coffee darker and the sugar disappeared. My end-stage cup of coffee was a dark French roast with barely a tablespoon of skim milk and one Splenda.
I can’t remember exactly why (I thought my adrenal system was out of whack?) but I quit caffeine 'cold turkey' on a Monday morning a couple of years ago. My average daily intake of caffeine had crept up to approximately 960 mg to 1,280 mg per day (3 to 4 'grande' size Starbucks French Roast.) I used to buy it at the local Starbucks a couple of blocks away, or brewed it (Starbucks brand on a French press) at work/office. A single 7 ounce serving of coffee has anywhere from 80 to 165 milligrams of caffeine, depending on how the coffee is brewed. So I was consuming the equivalent of about 10 to 12 cups of coffee a day.
I started suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms almost immediately: a dull to fairly severe headache all of Monday, almost as if there were pressure inside my head. Of course when I woke up that Monday morning I was already in the early stages of caffeine withdrawal, just like most heavy coffee drinkers are, every morning. Ordinarily I would fix that little problem quickly with another big jolt of caffeine. Just not that time.
By Tuesday, I experienced mild to severe muscle pain which was mostly felt in the large back muscles. By early Tuesday evening I had to take some Advil to try to reduce the severity of the pain. It was uncomfortable to lie down. I was so sick I did not want to speak to anybody, even on the 'phone. I gained some relief, but not much, by repeatedly getting into a hot bath.
Wednesday and Thursday, more of the same, but with the pain seemingly concentrated in my leg muscles. Again, I had to self-medicate with Advil to keep functioning. Overall, I felt very flat & weak, had trouble concentrating, and could not get anything done. I did not sleep well on any of these nights, waking up repeatedly with leg pain/discomfort. I considered calling my doctor but his advice would likely have been to wean myself from caffeine gradually. Too late for that by then.
By the Friday morning the pain finally abated, just a faint headache and some sleepiness. The worst was behind me! I never did lose my appetite but felt rotten in any other sense. That night we went out for dinner and I did not end the meal with my customary cup of coffee. I have not had coffee since.
For a supposedly benign product, caffeine clearly had a major effect on my body's functioning. I know nothing about physiology but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the caffeine penetrated every cell in my body. Thank you, not again.
Running this week: Zero (still recovering from Achilles injury)
4/23: 30 minutes rowing
40 minutes weights
4/24: 20 minutes rowing
40 minutes core
4/25: 30 minutes flexbands
20 minutes rowing
4/26: 40 minutes weights
20 minutes rowing including 2000m in 8:00 minutes
4/27: Rest
4/28: 20 minutes rowing incl. 2000 meters in 8:04
40 minutes core
4/29: 20 minutes rowing
30 minutes flexbands
4/30: 40 minutes weights