What I Left Behind
I recently had an annual physical and received my test results. I want to share them as a point of reference, but first I'll provide some context.
I grew up as a stereotypical nerd. I discovered computers at the age of seven and while other kids played 21 or 3-on-3 at the local park, I hid in my room and hacked away at 8-bit 6502 code to the satisfying click of a Commodore 64 "breadbox" keyboard. I spent entire summers solving adventure games like the Zork and Ultima series while blasting "old school" (hey, it was new then) rap while my parents worked. Health and fitness were not words in my vocabulary.
In high school, I was good at track because it was essentially a solo sport. I ran the quarter mile. I got so nervous on the starting line I thought I was going to puke but then outran the anxiety when the gun went off and finished fast enough to letter. I also ran cross country because my coach suggested it as a way to avoid getting fat in the off-season. I hated it. My teammates gave me a nickname: "Grimace." That's due to the permanent expression on my face when I ran. Despite my diet of nothing but corn chips and 2-liter soda bottles, I stayed relatively thin through high school.
College for me was a flop because I was in a poor mental state and decided to stop going to class. Instead, I stayed up all night surfing the Internet in the computer lab on campus. It turns out that zero attendance is frowned upon (even though I made "A" grades on my exams) so I was dismissed after my first semester. I moved into a low-income neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Florida. Our local food mart was kind enough to break open packs of GPC ("generic") cigarettes and sell them individually (we called them "onesies") and I often would go an entire day with nothing but a bowl of Raman noodles and a handful of cigarettes. When I did have money, I smoked more than two packs of cigarettes in a single day. I remember thinking "living the life" was having a calm moment on the porch when the neighbors weren't screaming and enjoying a smoke.
To make a short story boring, I eventually quit smoking cigarettes. After accepting a job offer, I moved to Atlanta from St. Petersburg in a two-door Honda Civic that held everything I owned (clothes, computer, and a cat named Siva). I stopped at a rest area in Valdosta and thought, "When I finish this pack, I'm quitting." Then it hit me: if I was really going to quit, did I need to finish the pack? I used to joke with people that I was "trying to cut back on quitting." This time, I was serious. I tossed the half-empty pack in the trash and didn't look back. Unfortunately, I replaced moving a cigarette to my mouth with moving a fork to my mouth and the result was, well, see for yourself. This is me after spending about two months dieting.
If you're wondering why I am holding a newspaper, it's because I entered a competition and had to prove the start date. Months later and 65 pounds (30 kg) lighter, I finished the competition in a top bracket after sculpting a lean physique.
It might not be obvious in the picture, but I felt horrible. To shed the last few pounds of fat, I had to drop calories and severely limit my diet. I was weak and cranky. On top of that, my blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides were all high. They improved compared to my former days of endless buffets, but were still not great. I was physically fit but my health was in deficit. The last thing I wanted to become was a muscular corpse, so I got certified as a fitness trainer and specialist in performance nutrition. I began a quest to find a healthy lifestyle that was both enjoyable and maintainable.
Now, 21 years later, I completed the quest. Let's talk numbers.
My blood pressure at its highest was nearly 160 over something-or-other. I don't have the records to verify. I do know my highest recorded in 2014 was 136 / 74. That is considered "high normal" and "prehypertension." There are a lot factors that influence blood pressure and I believe stress was a contributing factor. Through the power of intentional living, focusing on the positive aspects of life and walking in my faith, I managed to release my stress to an all-time low. That discipline served me well this past year. Although I did experience stress, I was equipped to deal with and manage it.
This year,, my blood pressure was an all-time low of 118 / 62. This is considered "ideal."
Cholesterol is one of those topics full of misinformation. People still believe that you can only get high cholesterol by eating cholesterol. Although some people are sensitive to cholesterol in food, you can just as easily raise your cholesterol levels by eating excess carbohydrates that your body then transforms. There is also a notion that high cholesterol is universally bad when in fact we know some people are perfectly healthy despite high cholesterol levels. There are many other "biomarkers" that help predict risk of cardiovascular disease and cholesterol should not be the only focus.
I knew when I shifted my diet to be mostly plant-based that cholesterol might still be a risk. It is tough for vegans not to have incredibly high carbohydrate intake because most of the natural plant-based sources of proteins also have higher carbohydrate and fat content. Ironically, when I went 100% plant-based and eliminated cholesterol from my diet, my cholesterol levels initially went up! I believe that it was regular, intense exercise that helped stabilize and ultimately drive those numbers back down. Here's a graph of my total cholesterol levels over the past several years.
Although I never have been too concerned with the higher overall levels, my "good" cholesterol was a problem for a while. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is important for a variety of biological processes and should be higher than 40 mg/dL. Mine was much lower (in the 20s, considered a major risk for heart disease).
A doctor once advised me to start running in order to raise it. "But doctor," I replied, "I'm training for a marathon and running 80 miles a week. How much more running should I do?" His response was to "prescribe" one glass of red wine per day. It is interesting to me that despite doing the typical things that should raise HDL, it was only after I switched to a plant-based diet that those levels began to rise. My most recent HDL was 63, a level considered to greatly reduce risk of heart disease. During the same period, my "bad" cholesterol also dropped significantly overall.
Blood pressure and cholesterol are both interesting, but the lab result that really got me excited is next.
Triglycerides are a type of fat that circulates in your blood. Eating food raises triglyceride levels. Your body stores triglycerides as fat to reserve energy to burn later. If you constantly consume more calories than you burn, you end up with more triglycerides in your blood. Higher levels increase your risk of heart disease. Conversely, low levels may increase life expectancy and correlate with improved brain function. What are low levels?
"Normal" is anything less than 150mg/dL
"Borderline" is anything between 150 - 200
"High" is anything greater than 200
"Extremely high" is anything greater than 500
Even after losing weight and maintaining a healthy diet that included lean meats and lots of vegetables, my triglycerides regularly measured 300 or higher. I think my highest reading was close to 700 mg/dL! It was very concerning. I was later diagnosed with hypothyroidism and after medication stabilized my thyroid hormone levels, my triglycerides dropped to just under 300. I could blame my thyroid for the extremely high levels before, but now I had work to do.
Lean meat, weight loss, even consistent exercise wouldn't budge the numbers. Only one change made a difference: switching to a plant-based diet. Here's how my triglyceride levels improved over the past few years.
The levels have steadily decreased to my all-time low of 66 mg/dL. Now that's progress!
People often give me a hard time about following a plant-based diet. They use phrases like, "I could never do that." And they're right! With that mindset, it's a non-starter. American culture is very much a meat-based culture. It's also a culture that obsesses over the least likely causes of death (like plane crashes and terrorist attacks) while more than 500,000 (yep, over half a million) die every year from poor diet and lack of nutrition. To put that in perspective, that's over 1,300 people who die every day because they prioritize food over health.
I loved chicken wings and steaks. There's a reason why I enjoy "meat substitutes" so I can eat "hamburgers" and cook "sausage" for breakfast. But just to be clear, as someone who enjoyed his fair share of steak in the day, I'm not suffering. I absolutely love the foods I eat, which is why I've easily maintained a plant-based diet for nearly six (6) years now. A health coach once shared a phrase with me that has been a mantra of mine for a long time:
"Nothing tastes as good as being healthy feels."
What breaks my heart is that many people don't give themselves the choice. They refuse to even try it, so they rob themselves of the opportunity to know how it feels. When I was a health coach, I'd tell my clients that they didn't have to commit to "forever" when making changes to their routine. Cut out dairy for two months. If, at the end of two months, you find you still "can't live" without your milk and cheese, by all means, add it back. At least you know how each option feels and what it does for you. Guest what I found? For every ten (10) people I give this advice to:
3 aren't ready and either refuse to try, or give up before the 8 weeks is up. Their addiction to food outweighs their drive to live healthier. Sometimes they feel guilty and wave studies in front of me that claim your body needs dairy to acquire calcium. Most of the studies are funded by the dairy industry, which may have a teeny tiny bias and motivation to scare people into drinking whey protein shakes mixed with milk. My blood labs are proof you can get all of the calcium you need without touching dairy, and I'm happy to flex my biceps if you need proof you can build muscle without drinking whey protein.
2 will stick with it, not notice any difference, and add dairy back. No harm, no foul!
3 will stick with it and notice major improvements like losing weight, seeing their face lean out and lose its puffiness, and discovering that those sniffles they were always told are related to allergies are in reality due to lactose intolerance and completely go away (it turns out a lot of people are intolerant and don't realize it). Eventually they cave in to social pressure and/or cravings and add dairy back.
2 stick with it, notice the improvements, and quit dairy for good.
I was in the last category. I eliminated dairy and reaped the benefits years before I tried a similar experiment with a plant-based diet. When I chose a vegan approach to nutrition, I didn't think I was giving up meat for life. I was trying an experiment and gave myself a few months. The first few weeks were miserable. I constantly craved chicken wings and country-fried steak and felt like I was swimming through fog. I had headaches all of the time. I started to feel better over the next few weeks. I shoved the cravings aside because I realized I wasn't desiring healthy meats. It wasn't lean beef or chicken breast I'd dream of, but fatty, fried, and processed meats. This made it easy for me to resist.
Then I experienced the changes:
I fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
I recover from workouts faster. I no longer get sore after workouts that used to leave me limping the next day. This made it possible to increase my frequency and intensity of training.
I think more clearly. My focus and energy improved.
My stamina improved. I went from struggling to run 11-minute miles over short distances to easily clocking 9-minute miles over medium distances.
The labs closed the deal for me. I knew my quest was accomplished.
I left behind meat. I left behind high blood pressure. I left behind high cholesterol and triglycerides. I left plenty behind, but I gained so much more. Today I can say I am healthier than I've ever been despite my Parkinson's Disease. I hope that if you are reading this and considering making a change that you are inspired to commit. Give yourself the time you deserve to make those changes and ultimately gift yourself with a real choice.