Let me fess up right up front. There were two occasions I chose to eat chicken and one occasion where I ate beef during the 12 weeks. All were a conscious choice when I was traveling on two separate business trips, and I was really struggling to get my minimum of 100 grams of protein for the day. That was 3 meals out of over 250. I am confident the results were not affected.
Overall I really enjoyed eating plant-based, no doubt about it. I made pretty much a 180 degree turnaround in my nutrition plan, going from a Ketogenic diet which consisted of high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrate to my plant-based version, which was much lower in fat and protein, and much higher in carbohydrate, which was a huge switch for me. I have been "carb-phobic" ever since my 100 pound plus weight loss. It seemed every time I tried to up my carb levels, my body fat would go up very fast as well. This experiment taught me something about that, more later.
I tracked all my food and macros using MyFitnessPal for the 12 weeks prior to the experiment and during the experiment. Here's the before and during.
12-Weeks Prior To Plant Based Experiment (per day)
12-Weeks During Plant Based Experiment (per day)
If you recall my goal was 100 grams of protein per day, and because of the change in protein source from animal to plant based, I found myself needing more calories to hit that goal. Another thing to note is that my overall consumption of fat went down, primarily because I wasn't eating the fat in animal protein. Besides that I was not consciously lowering my fat. More whole grains and legumes meant fiber went way up, and sugars as well. I did not eat hardly any fruit and did our 28-Day "Sugar Free Me" during the 12 weeks, so the fact sugar went up that much was interesting to me as well.
Before I share my blood test and body comp results, allow me to share some practical considerations as well as how I felt during the experiment.
Overall I spent a LOT more time in the kitchen. It is MUCH quicker to throw chicken on the grill than to figure out what I needed to do to hit my protein goal. Because another "rule" was to not rely on pre-packaged foods, I did a lot of food prep and cooking. Fortunately I love to cook, and as the weeks rolled by my skills improved and I got faster. I really enjoyed making some new dishes, trying some new foods, and getting reacquainted with my old friend whole grains. I am absolutely going to try to keep integrating more legumes, lentils, and even the occasional millet, quinoa and amaranth into my diet, and see how my body tolerates. I am going to experiment next with keeping my fat a little lower, my carbs a little higher, and seeing what happens to my body composition. Can I find a happy place so I can eat more carbs and not layer on the body fat? Time will tell.
And how did I feel? That's where the story turns, at least for me. For about 8 weeks I felt great. I was actually getting through my workouts better, most likely from the increase in carbs. My lifts were still going up, until they weren't. Somewhere between week 7 and 9 I hit a wall. I had been tracking all my lifts; reps, sets and load. All of a sudden weights that had gone up easy were not anymore. I got weaker in my bench press, squat and deadlift. Not a lot, but I just wasn't feeling it. I checked my sleep tracking, and it had not changed. The other thing is my Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which measures systemic stress, has gone down about 4.5%, which is not good, higher HRV scores are better. Again, interesting.
Below are my measurement and body comp results before and after.
So what's my take home here? While I lost weight, that was mostly comprised of lean muscle mass. Not cool. At the age of 51 I have been fighting for every pound of muscle I can gain and/or keep. Would have eating more calories overall helped mitigate that? Perhaps. If anything, this experiment reinforced to me how horrible the scale is for measuring weight loss results. Losing 3 pounds of muscle for every 1 pound of fat loss is nothing but trouble in the long term. It is the perfect illustration of why yo-yo dieting occurs.
And now for my blood test results.
Some more interesting results here. As I would have suspected, my total cholesterol number is down. Most of us might think (and my plant based friends would be first in line) that would be a good thing. Maybe, maybe not. I discussed my results with my doctors office and his PA, and those comments are below.
As a note, both sets of test are considered within "normal ranges". What interests me here is that in spite of eating much less fat and nearly no animal protein, my Triglycerides went up and my lipid ratios went in the wrong direction. The tests also showed that systemic inflammation increased (C-Reactive Protein), and while my Hemoglobin A1c showed my average blood sugars stayed the same over the last 2 or 3 months, my fasting blood glucose on that Friday morning were significantly up. Again, interesting.
I wrote the following to my doctors office upon receiving my results and having them inquire if I had any questions:
"There are a couple. As you know I have been eating plant based for the last 12 weeks and I am going to be integrating animal protein back in. I am interested in your thoughts on the lipid panel. For some context, I felt great for about 8 weeks; my strength continued to increase, workouts benefits from added carbs. But after week 8 I hit a wall. Noticeable decrease in strength; I really struggled with heavy lifting. Body composition, which was stable, started to get worse as measured by our Fit3D scanner - indicated between 2 and 3 pounds of muscle loss during the 12 week period. Calories had actually increased by an average of about 400 a day, because I had to eat more volume to get to my goal of 100 calories of protein.
Back to the lipids. I know the total cholesterol has dropped significantly, but I don't necessarily think that is a good thing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but while the ratios remained relatively the same, the "bad markers" (Trigelycerides and VLDL-C) actually increased, which I find interesting since fat intake DRASTICALLY decreased. I was on a ketogenic diet (measured my breath and blood ketones - the works) before I started this experiment.
I would be interested in any feedback you and/or Dr. Osborne has. Thanks.
Her (Dr. Osborn's PA) response:
"I agree. I was thinking the same thing when I saw your lipid panel because I remembered your plant based diet change. I attribute the increase in your TG and LDL to the increased carbohydrates and higher glycemic index carbs (ie. fruit etc) I believe this is the same reason you had a decrease in strength and muscle mass. Fat is such a huge necessity for our diets because it fuels our brain and muscles. Obviously the goal of our office is for your body to burn fat not sugar (which you were doing previously on ketogenic diet) but now your body has reverted to burning sugar instead of fat. Energy, brain function and strength would be expected to decrease. I will let Dr. Osborn know the results of the experiment too, he will be fascinated to see more proof :)"
Full disclosure here. I go see Dr. Osborne because we are very like minded in how we approach nutrition and exercise. When I went to see him in September I told him about the experiment and asked him his thoughts. We discussed my "rules" and he was on board for the 12-week duration. I think he was just happy it was me and not him. 🙂
The Bottom Line, At Least For Me
In absolutely no way was I disappointed by this experiment. I have even more respect for plant based eaters who are really trying to make it work, who are spending time in the kitchen, and who don't rely on a bunch of vegetarian junk food. It is a LOT of work, no doubt. But just like any other new skill, it gets easier the more you practice.
I really enjoyed experimenting with a wide variety of recipes, veggie combos, and foods that were new to me. No, I really never had eaten millet before. And there are some veggie "burger" recipes out there that are really good. Angela Liddon's "Oh She Glows" cookbooks are a must for any kitchen, plant based or not. Cooking with vegetable broth instead of water is a game changer. And I absolutely love taking black beans from the bag, soaking them overnight, and then slow cooking in my cast iron pot with onion, garlic and a bay leaf. My mouth is watering just writing about it. You will NEVER eat canned beans again once you try it.
So what am I going to do moving forward?
I have already started adding some animal protein back into my diet. A little fish on Sunday was a good start. I have had one meal of pork chop, and a little bit of beef tonight. I ate plant based on the days in between. I am going to stay away from dairy, as I learned to make some really good almond milk, and dairy and I don't get along anyway. I didn't feel so great anytime I ate wheat, so I'll lay low on that one as well. As I said before, I'll keep the fat a bit lower, play with how much carb I eat, and see what happens.
There really is no "one size fits all" plan. We all have different preferences, tolerances, and convictions. I didn't do this little experiment to prove anybody right or wrong, or make anyone happy or mad. I really just wanted to see what would happen if I really stayed committed to eating plant based the best I knew how, so I could better coach the plant based eaters that come to me for help.
My body is my experiment, the gym and kitchen are my laboratories, and as long as I am not dirt napping, the experiment won't end!
Love to hear your thoughts.