We can all probably relate to feeling tired at work, sluggish in the morning, and lazy on the weekend, at some point in our lives, right? Well, I was feeling that way almost every day.
While I was a normal size, I knew I was starting to gain some weight from my lazy behaviour and terrible, truly awful diet.
I, my friends, was your classic “unhealthy vegan.”
Registered dietitian Whitney Stuart of Whitness Nutrition told me this isn’t that unusual. She has vegan clients come in and act surprised when she says they don’t eat enough vegetables.
“But I’m vegan!” they tell her. Well, you still have to eat vegetables, and whole grains, and fruits, if you want to benefit from your vegan diet.
I was not. And it was showing. My terrible diet coupled with my desk job left me bloated. I had time for exercise over my breaks or on the weekends, but wasn’t actually doing it. I knew that a first step to changing my energy levels would be my diet, so I decided to switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet, which has been touted as one of the healthiest out there.
A whole-food, plant-based diet doesn’t mean vegan, Stuart told me. It just means you should think about plants first in every meal, and make them at least half of your plate. Meat, dairy, eggs, and fish should be secondary to plants. I was content to sticking with my veganism, I just had to fine-tune it to actually benefit from it.
I never meant to lose weight, but I found I went from my post-college weight back down to my college weight (a weight I had been at most of my adult life, and considered comfortable for me.) At the end of six weeks, I’d dropped 4.5kgs, and I have no intentions of going back to my old, processed and sugar filled diet.
Here’s the emotional roller coaster I took cutting out sugar and processed foods:
Before my diet, I was addicted to processed white carbs and fake vegan cheeses. While they're delicious, vegan cheeses are mostly processed and shouldn't be consumed for three meals a day. I liked waking up to (vegan) quesadillas, having grilled cheese at lunch, and mac and cheese at dinner. Other times I'd have fake turkey with fake mayo on white bread.
White refined carbs, like white bread and white pasta, don't let your body know you're full, so you eat a lot more than you need. It also creates spikes and then drops in blood sugar, making you feel crappy later on.
My new diet rules were: no added sugar (natural sugar like apples were ok), no processed foods (think fake meats), and no refined carbs (white pasta, white rice, etc). And focus on veggies, fruits, and nuts -- lots of them.
My new diet goal was to get out of my sluggish 'brain fog.' I didn't want to set exercise goals right away because I didn't want to disappoint myself by not meeting them, and the diet goals were extreme enough on their own that I wanted to take baby steps.
In the beginning, I relied on Vega shakes for lunch while I tried to build up a knowledge of whole-food, plant-based dishes. Protein smoothies, while great for after or before workouts, shouldn't be regularly replaced for meals.
Vega smoothies were fine once and a while, but I didn't want them to be my go-to meal. So I kept digging, trying to find good lunch options. I zeroed in on whole grains, like quinoa, buckwheat, and whole wheat.
It didn't mean I could never have pasta or bread again, it just meant I had to have whole wheat or whole grain versions. I like edamame noodles and 100% buckwheat pasta now, and other grains like quinoa.
I sent a day of my food diary to two registered dietitians for feedback. Stuart told me my daily fat intake was within the optimal range of 20-35%, especially since it was coming from plant-based, cholesterol-free sources, but I was eating too much protein.
Dietitians normally analyse a food diary for three to seven days, not just one. Registered dietitian Tanya Horacek told me that mixing up my fruits, vegetables and grains would help me get the nutrients that I was a tad low in.
At 4 weeks in, I wasn't perfect. But I was a lot better than I used to be, which meant there was nowhere to go but up from here.
Halfway through, I went to Portugal for 12 days. While I found a lot of delicious fruits and nuts being sold in grocery stores and on the streets, I didn't have access to a kitchen for cooking.
Occasionally, I had to break my diet and consume refined carbs, because we didn't have the resources to cook our own whole grains, or other whole-food meals. I made sure I was still getting lots of veggies, though.
It's hard to be perfect on vacation, but I found myself not interested in sorbet or unnecessary white bread, treats I would have normally gone for. I instead started to crave fruits, nuts, and veggies.
Ultimately what I learned was the true meaning of mindful eating. Taking on a whole-food, plant-based diet means you really have to invest attention in what you're putting in your body.
I also discovered how to mindfully stop eating when I got full. This was virtually impossible before, because refined carbs don't have enough fibre to tell your brain you're full.
I'm definitely sticking to my diet moving forward. And I look forward to tinkering with it, finding the best foods to fill any nutritional gaps.
For the first time in years, I'm sleeping great, wide awake in the morning, exercising for fun, and not thinking about my next meal every second of the day.
Scientific research has found many people on whole-food, plant-based diets experience similar results. Plant-based diets also tend to reduce the risk of certain diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
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