The Challenge

AKA the experiment.

Simple.  90 days with no meat.  People do it all the time.  Just not me.  Maybe not you?  I thought it might be interesting and useful to document the experience and see what the results are.  I expect the results to be positive, but I won’t really know until I try it.  90 days is long enough to see measurable results and a short enough time to see it through if it turns out to be more difficult than anticipated.  Also long enough to change habits if it turns out that the benefits are worth continuing the commitment.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been reading a lot about the health and environmental impact of the so called ‘western diet’. Over a year ago I made an announcement in my house that we would not intentionally purchase any more products containing high fructose corn syrup – a good baby step towards resisting the modern industrial food complex if you are looking for that first step.  After the ban on HFCS, I personally started working on reducing and eliminating refined carbohydrates – sugar, white flour, white rice, white pasta etc.  This one takes a little more work.  For me, sugar is the easiest, flour a little more difficult ( I like bread! ).  Rice had become a staple, but it’s been fun to me at least to experiment with the healthier versions.  I’m all about whole wheat and multi-grain pastas, but they are sometimes a tough sell with the rest of the family.  A discouraging fact I discovered in Michael Pollan’s latest book, “Cooked” is that the whole wheat flour available to most of us today is not even whole wheat flour at all, but essentially ‘reconstituted’ flour.  The industrialization and standardization of the wheat processing industry has made it impossible to get whole flour through normal channels.  The very first step in the production process destroys the integrity of the grain.  Only from small, artisan mills that are actually grinding grain with stone are you going to get genuine whole grain flour.  I’ve not yet ventured into the world of sprouted grain breads, but it’s on the list.  Point is, the more you study, the more you learn, the more aware you become, and the more alarming is the reality of the systems that feed us.  We’ve all heard for years that eating meat the way we do in the west is not sustainable, that it takes X times more resources to raise a pound of beef than a pound of beans, that livestock contribute more to greenhouse gases and global warming than even the automobile and the list goes on, yet we continue to over consume animal products because that’s what the system wants us to do.  Ironically, the system wants us to eat meat at least partially to consume all the excess grain coming out of the great corn belt of the US Midwest.

Having been on a quest to clean up my diet, get leaner, fitter and healthier led me quite naturally to this focus on the food system and also opened my mind to seriously consider the impact of a meat-heavy diet on health.  Athletes need protein, right?  That’s what muscles are made of.  Protein comes from meat, right?

Everybody’s mother told them to “eat your vegetables”.  Good advice, but the context wasn’t quite right.  If you were like me, you thought – that’s fine, but after I eat this giant hunk of meat this slab of highly refined bread and these potatoes, there’s just no room left for that handful of lima beans.  The message needs to be “eat vegetables”.  You can eat a little meat, too if you are OK with it ethically and you can benefit from that, but it’s not necessary.  I think the recent semantic trend toward using the word plant instead of vegetable helps focus this perspective.  “Plant Based Lifestyle” & “Plant Powered” to me send a stronger message than “Vegetarian”

We have become so far removed from the sources of our food that it’s impossible to know for sure where it came from, how it was handled and in the case of animal products, the conditions those animals endured on the way to your plate (or the bag handed to you through your car window).  Even organic doesn’t mean much except that the grain that cow was forced to eat was grown without pesticides and inorganic fertilizers.  Cage free, free range – all narrowly defined by the rules to allow some pretty dour conditions for the shrink wrapped animal behind the label.

I remember thinking just a few weeks ago “I can’t imagine ever being completely vegetarian, let alone vegan.  No way am I completely giving up meat and forget about cheese & eggs, but I know I need to eat more plants and so that’s what I’m going to do”  Start with lunch, then maybe breakfast, then a few meatless dinners every week and see where it leads.  Once that seed had been planted though, it didn’t take long to get serious about going vegetarian so I just started.  A few days into it, I decided I should make this a challenge – to maintain a meat-free diet for 90 days and see what the results were, so here we go.  I am writing this on Day 9 and so far, it’s exciting – so many new ideas to try, so many great foods that we are unaware of in our normal western experience. (How did I ever survive for 50 years without quinoa?) Last night I made cheeseburgers for my wife & daughter, but was more than happy with my Portobello, onion, tomato and avocado burger.  In fact, eating a cheeseburger just didn’t seem like a logical option at all. At this point in the experiment, I certainly don’t feel deprived or restricted. On the contrary, I feel like my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of options.  Helps a little that I’m allowing a glass of red wine with dinner every night…

So what is the goal? What determines a successful outcome at the end of 90 days?  I guess one thing I am really looking for is improved body composition.  And I’m curious to get a feel for what my ‘real’ racing weight should be.  Some say your body reaches a set point and it may be impossible to get lighter than that after a certain age.  One thing I want to do with this challenge is debunk that myth.  I want to see my abs again.  I should be able to do that in 90 days.  At the same time, I don’t want to achieve that through simple starvation – I want to continue to get stronger and build muscle. Seems to me the best way to do this is to eat enough, but eat right.  Also seems to me that super calorie dense animal products are not the correct medium.  Yes I’m still consuming dairy and eggs, but in much smaller quantities than I was a few weeks ago.

For the past two years, I have stayed at about the same weight with some fluctuation in body fat.  Part of the experiment is to see if just shutting off the meat will precipitate a decrease in body fat %.  Also, subjectively, are there any perceived benefits or negatives to the diet change?  Do I feel more tired? More awake?  How is my mental clarity and alertness?  And how do I feel on the bike?  Am I riding faster, am I climbing stronger?  There are really two ultimate and interrelated goals – drop the body fat – get way down to 10% or less and become a world class 50 something amateur mountain goat.

Hey, I’m 51 years old and that’s highly relevant to this experiment as well.  That’s the age when many start worrying about muscle loss and the accelerating effects of aging.  Meanwhile, I’m getting fit and athletic for what is really the 1st time in my life.  I’m adding muscle mass and definition.  I believe that centering my nutrition on plants is going to help.  We will see.

I’m not here to preach and I certainly don’t have all the answers, I’m just here to learn and share my experiences.  I hope you’ll follow along and see where it leads!

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