05 – Experiment: no animal and more plant-based nutrition

The prelude:

In my fourth blog I wrote about the sudden recognition of the issues accompanying my (and almost the entire world population’s) behaviour concerning consumption: dairy, meat and fish – I want, ‘of course’, these products to be 1) tasty, 2) everyday available, and 3) cheap!

Somewhere, sometime, I must have heard that my 3 ‘demands’ are disastrous for the earth and the animals (cattle and poultry breeding), but I never gave it much thought.

Because small farmers cannot provide ‘cheap’ and ‘everyday’ products, they have been and still are being replaced by mega-stables. Such stables consist of genetically identical animals, prodigy of one father selected for ‘good taste’. All thousands of animals are equally ‘tasty’ and at the same time equally susceptible to diseases. Therefore antibiotics! Lots of it, mega-lots of it!

Because I, the consumer, want to go shopping at the most inexpensive supermarket, the suppliers are being pushed to reduce prices. Therefore, focus shifts from quality to quantity. I can also imagine that this accelerated production does not really benefit the welfare of chickens, pigs and cows. Besides that, the production of animal products apparently is so inefficient, requires so much water, takes away so much forest to allow for growth of feed for cattle, emits such a high quantity of greenhouse gases, that I feel ashamed that I have not taken any of this into more thoughtful consideration.

As mentioned in the previous post, after having watched the documentary “what the health”, I started to do some more research and read about the positive effects of plant-based nutrition and the (potentially) harmful health effects of animal-based nutrition. I take it for granted that Kip Andersen now and then runs with favourable scientific results, exaggerates – he appears to be the first one to make me realize that how we treat the earth, the animals and our own health is unsustainable! I like to think that many people support the concept of ‘less animal and more plant-based’, but that only a few really act on it, because people may think it is not easy to accomplish, because it puts you in a place outside the generally accepted lifestyle, and I am sure there are more reasons (or excuses). For me personally, it has been the health effect that made me decide to do the experiment of not consuming any animal-based nutrition but live on a plant-based diet for two weeks. My fiancé fortunately joined me in the experiment.

The experiment: no animal-based nutrition for 2 weeks

And this is how it went. First to the supermarket. It was striking that more than 95% of the food products are animal or animal-based. Having to read all package labels to check for animal-ingredients also gave me a sense of all the stuff that is being added to processed food. Not very healthy, and not very easy to find fully plant-based products. It did not stop us, though. For base-storage we bought:

For breakfast:

oatmeal, (frozen) fruit, chia-seeds, soy/almond-yoghurt and -milk and linseed oil.

For lunch:

wholemeal bread, rice crackers, plant-based margarine, peanut butter, bittersweet chocolate sprinkles, apple spread, jam, chickpeas, tahini, lemon (self-made houmous), avocados.

For dinner:

potatoes, sweet potatoes, wholegrain pastas, wholegrain rice, black beans, kidney beans, marrowfat peas, chickpeas and lentils. Furthermore, lots of vegetables, fresh and some canned (tomato-chunks for instance), onions, garlic, hot peppers, coconut milk, tomato purée, canned and fresh spices (parsley and coriander for instance) and olive oil.

For snacks:

Lot’s of fruit and unsalted nuts to go with soda light, the beer, water or the glass of wine; crisps were purchased as well: they are plant-based but very salty and fat so not very healthy (it is true, you can be an unhealthy vegan, if you wish, living on cola and crisps for instance); bittersweet chocolate.

Next stop at the bio-shop to experience what kind of soy products and other meat-substitutes are available, to bring some bite to the dinner dish like soy-burgers, vegan-sausages and the like. Also available were all kind of vegan sandwich fillings. We realized of course that as is true for all processed food products, besides plant-based nutrition you can take in lots of undesired additives (E-numbers, but also salt, sugar and the like). It probably still trumps processed animal-based products.

At the chemist’s we finally purchased vitamin B12 pills, crucial to one’s nervous system and blood. I had heard and read that this vitamin is produced by bacteria and is still present in animal-based products, but when eating a fully plant-based diet one should supplement it.

With my scientific background and experience in large-scale research studies I knew of course that my experiment was not flawless, to put it mildly. An N-of-one experiment, so to say, cannot be used to demonstrate a scientifically relevant effect; for that you would need great numbers (n stands for number). Moreover, it is essential to not have too many variables, because you would not know which is responsible for the potential effect. In my experiment with an n=2 there were many variables. To name a few, I had switched to my new insulin therapy only a few weeks earlier (see blog 3) and we had relocated from the inland (Austria) to the coast (Germany). The potential effect that the new plant-based diet would have on my blood sugar, my blood pressure, or on the pollen allergy (hay fever) of my fiancé could therefore also be explained by the other variables. Nevertheless, it was foremost a personal experiment, meant to convince just me.

I then remembered the claim that inflammation would no longer be promoted when stopping with consumption of animal products but would rather be prevented; many years of basketball, tennis and other sports, have led to a damaged right shoulder, kind of chronically inflamed, with flares when I exercise too hard in the gym. I quit playing basketball and tennis already years ago. In the gym I do my exercises at low intensity, and I do breast and shoulder presses to a minimum. This prompted the idea for a suitable outcome of my personal experiment: what does my shoulder feel like when I start doing push-ups again?

The result:

To come straight out with it, we are still eating plant-based food, approximately 4 months after the 2-weeks’ experiment. Initially afraid to start having craving for certain food products, this did not really happen; instead, I learned to appreciate many new ingredients. When visiting friends or family I will join and eat whatever is being served, so now and then I still eat animal-based nutrition. But in all honesty, I would not in a million years have imagined that I would be writing this: I do neither miss the steak, nor the grilled chicken, the meatball nor the boiled egg – and I reaaaally liked those very much. Apparently, after a few months (2 weeks is actually too short) my body has been deprogrammed, the cells of my body have built in the healthy fatty acids, proteins and all the other plant-derived stuff, my intestinal flora has been reinvented to help digest plant products ….

My recently assessed HbA1c value was 5.7% and my blood pressure has never been so low so I may need to consider to reduce my dose of candesartan (drug to lower blood pressure) – see also blogs 2 and 3). The LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) value was ridiculously low: 2.19 mmol/l (normal range 2.60-3.40) with a value of the combined cholesterol being 4.11 (normal <5.2). The hay fever attacks of my fiancé stayed away for quite some time but came nevertheless – to a lesser extent, she claims; besides that, the constipation that troubled her more often than she likes to admit, disappeared completely. The new intestinal flora apparently knows how to deal with plant-based nutrition!

Push-ups, ranging from 1 to 3 sets of 30 reps give me no trouble at all. At some point I accepted the challenge, after a 4-5 years’ break from the game, to play tennis with my neighbour. After the exercises, the next day, I have a sensation in my shoulder, but the pain is not sharp and seems to be kept in the background.

Tentative conclusion:

Nutrition or nutraceuticals, in my personal opinion, are not to be considered drugs and cannot heal my damaged shoulder. What plant-based dietary products can do, I think, is to prevent inflammation and to increase cell function and susceptibility to drugs. Leaving processed meat-replacement products and snacks out of the equation, your body receives merely healthy components on a plant-based diet: only small amounts of saturated fatty acids (and hard unsaturated fatty acids), no cholesterol (really, no, meaning ZERO!), many fibres, vitamins and minerals. Physically I feel fine and I am confident I get all the required/recommended nutrients. In fact, I am surer now compared to the time when I had meat, fish and dairy in my diet. On top of that I have eased my conscience by consuming less animal and more plant-based products – it is a very good feeling knowing that my current lifestyle does not impact the environment and animal welfare as much compared to a lifestyle including animal-based nutrition.

Writing this blog has had an enormous impact on me, with the accompanying question why it obviously has been so difficult for me to be open to this change of my lifestyle.

I wonder if others, just like me, need some kind of extra push to consider an experiment like the one I just described? It cannot really hurt now, can it?

Please don’t hesitate to post a message in case you would like to receive more tips or ‘pushes’.


 

FURTHER READING

 

Frequently asked question:

Do you get sufficient dietary intake of calcium and proteins when leaving out animal-based products? These kinds of questions are frequently asked when telling people that you are on a fully plant-based diet. The first thing that comes to mind, without saying it out loud, is whether the carnivorous person asking this question, gets sufficient amounts of fibres, vitamins, minerals, and unsaturated fatty acids with his or her diet? But back to calcium and proteins: milk indeed contains calcium, and milk, meat and fist indeed contain proteins – but you can easily obtain calcium and proteins from plant sources WITHOUT the superabundance of saturated fat and cholesterol. There are many books and online publications on plant-based diets. I would be happy to recommend you a wonderful book I read, but unfortunately it has not been translated into English. Miranda Hammer in the US, I found online, has some interesting topics on her website about plant-based diets.

Cholesterol:

There is no need for dietary cholesterol since the liver produces the required amount (building block for cells and hormones). The equilibrium between the level of cholesterol in your blood and what the liver produces can be disturbed, by your lifestyle among others – consuming lots of fatty acids for instance; (poly) unsaturated fatty acids have a rather positive effect on your cholesterol levels.

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