6 Month Review

As of today it has been 6 months since I have taken control of my health, no longer trusting in “Big Pharma” or the medical establishment. Along the way to changing my lifestyle I have taken a strong interest in nutrition and have been reading a number of books and many online resources in order to learn about eating, the right way, on the road to health.

When people talk about success as it relates to their diet, weight lost is usually their priority. In my case, weight loss was only one indicator, I wanted to improve my health. I have undergone two blood tests since July, 2011 that further supports going to a plant-based, whole food lifestyle has been beneficial. But following a plant-based diet is more than “just a diet” it’s a complete lifestyle change.

Before making this change, I spent time learning about Dr. John McDougall. You can read about my reasons for make this lifestyle change. The driving force behind it was finally realizing I did not want to live my life downing a handful of medication just to make it through the day. That coupled with my total cholesterol (TC) level, which had increased to 263 since my 2011 physical, change was needed.

While I did give myself a 3 month “transition period” before going on the 12-day program that Dr. McDougall cites in his book, The McDougall Program, it made the move to a plant-based lifestyle easier to accomplish. I don’t believe I could have made an overnight change, especially with so much unhealthy food in the house pantry. Since I enjoy cooking, I’ve had to relearn how to cook some meals, introducing substitutes for commonly used ingredients I no longer favored. For example, I no longer use any oil when I cook (yes, even “heart healthy” olive oil). When I saute vegetables it’s done with water. If I need to use eggs (or a binding agent) in a recipe, I will use flax meal mixed with warm water. Cheese has been replaced with nutritional yeast mixed with other healthy ingredients.

Cooking has been fun the past 6 months, finding new meals to prepare and challenging myself to put together meals that my wife and son will enjoy. That has been very tough, more so with my son than my wife. She has her favorite meal, potato enchiladas, thanks to a recipe originally written by Mary McDougall. While my menu isn’t extensive, much of what I have made is listed under ‘Recipes‘. Many of these recipes are simple and I have ended up modifying most of them. I am always on the lookout for new dishes that have a big taste.

I have yet to “cheat” or “treat” myself during this 6 month period, going meat, dairy and oil free. I am probably 90-95% compliant with the plant-based lifestyle, one vice that still remains, alcohol. It has been very difficult for me to give up beer, while I have been able to cut back to a lower intake, it might not be enough as I will explain later. Even this level of commitment has seen great strides in my overall health, solely by changing my diet.

In addition to the change in eating habits I have started on an exercise regime. Prior to injuring my left knee (March 4), I was walking 4-5 days a week for about 20-30 minutes. Initially I had restarted Tony Horton’s P90 series, but tired with that quickly and decided to work out using our Bowflex Revolution, which up until now had been unused.

While the physical results from lifting weights has been a bit slow to be seen, there are changes happening. I feel much better after lifting weights and seem to carry myself a bit taller. My wife can see and feel some of the results in my upper back and shoulder area. Still the weight lifting is only half of the battle. Once I resolve the knee problem, I will get back into the cardio, which I think is part of the reason I did not make my initial weight goal of 175 pounds by April 21.

The blood tests have been inspiring! I look forward going to have blood drawn and wait anxiously for the results to see just how my numbers are fairing. The initial baseline I started with came from the results of my blood work in conjunction with my physical in July, 2011.

July 26, 2011
Weight: 216 pounds
Chol: 263 mg/dL
Trig: 269 mg/dL
HDLC: 37 mg/dL
Chol/HDLC Ratio: 7.1 H
LDL: 172 mg/dL
Non-HDLC: 225 mg/dL

The most telling number, was the elevated TC of 263 mg/dL, which had only increased over the past 2 years, my doctor said “diet won’t reduce this number to a normal level, we must use medication.” After I started reading about Lovastatin, the side effects began to scare me, but I started taking it regularly. Triglycerides and LDL numbers were also unhealthy and elevated. Overall this blood test provided me a good starting point when I made the dietary changes.

I didn’t “officially” start the program until January 1, 2012, when I took on the 12-day program from Dr. McDougall’s, The McDougall Program. From July until October 29, 2011 I continued to eat a standard American diet (SAD). Sometime in August or September I took myself off the statin due to pains in my legs from the medication, which was a known side effect. I never consulted my doctor for his approval or for an alternate medication. It was the documentary, Forks Over Knives that indoctrinated me to a plant-based lifestyle, thanks in part to a co-worker.

On October 29 I made the decision to not include meat, dairy and oil in my diet. I gave myself a 3 month transition period in order to read Dr. McDougall’s book and learn more about the benefits of this way of eating. Meat was easy to give up, since I did most all of the cooking I just found other dishes (starch based) to create without the meat. If meat was used, it was for my wife and placed on the side.

Dairy, with the exception of cheese was more difficult. I loved cheese! The smell, the flavor, the texture and would use it in many dishes. In my quest to keep cheese in my diet I slowly started using less of it in my recipes. One day I decided to substitute a non-dairy cheese, but it really didn’t add much to the dish and was still high in fat. Since that day I have started making a cheese sauce using nutritional yeast. While it isn’t a slam dunk replacement, it does taste good (and healthy) on many dishes I create.

Oil…yes, even olive oil is not “heart healthy” as so many different sources cite. Read what Dr. McDougall has to say about oil. I was like many people, using oil to saute vegetables, adding to sauces and dividing it for MANY recipes. The oil wasn’t needed, but it took a few months to realize this once I lost my desire to cook with this fat. I found that using water or applesauce to saute, preserved the taste. No longer did I taste the oil I was using. I started leaving oil out of all my recipes and sauces. Honestly, I don’t miss anything about not having this fat in my pantry or my food.

After the July physical my doctor had provided me with a referral for another blood test in 3 months. Instead of going in for the test at the end of October, I decided to hold off through Thanksgiving and went for a blood test on December 20. Knowing my blood results wouldn’t be any better since taking myself off the statin, I figured a few months of “McDougalling” would provide me with a sense of accomplishment for changing my diet.

After further reading and research I had a sense my blood results would be improved. After only 31 days I received a copy of my results, as seen below (here was my post on those results):

December 20, 2011
Weight 193 pounds
Chol: 199 mg/dL
Trig: 210 mg/dL
HDLC: 37 mg/dL
Chol/HDLC Ratio: 5.4 H
LDL: 120 mg/dL
Non-HDLC: 162 mg/dL

In addition to being 17 pounds lighter, weighing in at 199 pounds, I had dropped 64 points on my total cholesterol! I was amazed and pleased with what I had accomplished in such a short time. All this and I was not 100% compliant yet! All my blood numbers were improving, this proved to me that I was on the road to a healthy lifestyle. Why would I want to give up all the progress I had made, after years of damaging my healthy?

I made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas without any problems. Pounds of turkey and slabs of hams later I found myself content to pass on all the holiday favorites and stand pat, feeling good about my decision, in changing the way I eat. Many people still didn’t comprehend my reasoning, but when citing numbers, like cholesterol level and weight loss, they were impressed with what I had accomplished. Yet, many would respond the same way, “There is no way I could give up all that food.” It’s called determination and will power. The longer I went without eating SAD food, the less I yearned for meat and dairy.

In January I had a nice group of recipes and actually started the 12-day program with my wife, her best friend and my aunt. Figuring there were strength in numbers, we could support each other. I had already committed to doing all the cooking for 12 days. It didn’t take but one day and we lost my wife’s best friend. She made it through a few meals, but ended up resorting to cooking with oil and using meat an dairy for her husband.

My wife and aunt were better, both cheated during the 12 days, but both saw improvements and felt better. I told my in-laws we would take them to dinner one evening and boy, was that a mistake! They chose Applebee’s, let me just say, what a terrible restaurant! Thankfully I skipped eating any dinner, but my wife chowed down on a steak. Still outside of that slip up, she was still seeing progress. While her weight didn’t come off as quickly as mine did, she saw a decrease and was feeling better.

As for my progress towards my weight goal, it slowed but I was still seeing about a 1  pound weight loss a week. I stuck to a very simple menu of foods my wife enjoyed to eat.

Another outcome of the January appointment with my doctor was the indication my Vitamin D level was “deficient” (his opinion). Without coming into his office prepared, I failed to read up on Vitamin D and could only take his word as being right, which in my opinion was wrong. He prescribed 50,000 IU/weekly to bring my deficient level of 23 up to a “normal” level. Further reading (here and here) and discussion led me to conclude I would be better off NOT taking this supplement, rather getting my Vitamin D from the sun. The doctor wanted another blood test in 3 months to see if the supplement would be beneficial. This would also allow me to check my other levels I had been monitoring since changing my diet.

Much like my prior blood test, I waited anxiously for the results, knowing my TC level would be improved. Thankfully the Vitamin D supplement increased my 25(OH)D level to 34 (11 point increased). More notably, as you can see below my TC dropped another 24 points! Blood work numbers continued to show improvement with one exception.

March 26, 2012
Weight 183 pounds
Chol: 175 mg/dL
Trig: 208 mg/dL
HDLC: 34 mg/dL
Chol/HDLC Ratio: 5.1 H
LDL: 99 mg/dL
Non-HDLC: 141 mg/dL

The only number that continues to frustrate me, Triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood, which the body uses as energy. Unfortunately there was only a 2 point drop between January and March and well off the “normal” level cited by the medical establishment. Depending on where I get information from diets high in carbohydrates can increase triglyceride levels, as well as alcohol. Currently my diet has me eating about 67% carbohydrates, mainly starches such as potatoes and sweet potatoes.

A stronger case can be made for the alcohol. While I cut back my beer drinking to my days off from work (2 days a week), I still consume a 6-pack over 3 days, which equates to less than a beer day. In my opinion that is “limiting” my alcohol intake, but is it enough? Time and another blood test will tell…hopefully While I don’t have another blood test scheduled, I am considering a physical exam in July.

Goals for the next 6 months are wide ranging. I still plan on achieving my weight goal of 175 pounds, as well as dropping my TC to 150 mg/dL or less. I am hoping to take T. Colin Campbell’s online nutrition course through eCornell in order to learn more about nutrition for my personal use.

Recently I just talked about an event called Tough Mudder. If my knee isn’t serious damaged or injured, I have 5 months (starting May 1) to get into better shape to compete in this 11 mile obstacle course. That would be a big accomplishment and something that would provide me the spark I need to take my health to the next level and give me a real sense of accomplishment.

While McDougalling does not require calorie counting, I have been tracking my diet and fitness using a program called FitDay. This allows me some idea as to how I am eating, including RDA of vitamins and nutrients. Since I started tracking my food, it’s interesting to see I am close to what Dr. McDougall calls for. The most telling numbers, my daily diet includes 9% fat, while carbs make up 63% and protein comes in at 14%. On the average I consume 1619 calories a day. This number is probably on the low side for someone my height (72″) and weight (181 pounds). The great thing is, I am rarely hungry and if I am it’s because I missed a meal.

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