Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Dietary Experiment Has Given Me Unexpected Results

Last week, I began a dietary experiment.  I temporarily gave up meat.  I wasn’t giving up eggs or dairy products, nor was I making a long-term commitment to a vegan diet.  I just wanted to see how easy it would be to eliminate meat from my diet.  I didn’t know if I was doing this for a few days or a week.  So far, it’s been nine days.

I tend to be incremental when it comes to changing my diet.  I’m more about moderation than absolutes.  When I was younger, my diet wasn’t very healthy.  I ate too much sugar and highly processed foods.  I ate too much saturated fat.  I didn’t eat enough whole grains, and I hardly ate any fruits or vegetables.

When I turned 40, I had my first cholesterol test.  While my cholesterol wasn’t considered high, both my total and LDL cholesterol were creeping into the borderline range.  Since then, I’ve been able to improve my cholesterol through a combination of diet and exercise.

Around that time, I read a review of a book called “Eat Drink and Be Healthy – The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating.”  I read the book and found it to be a good overall reference for making good nutritional choices.  It’s a book I still recommend.

Since then I’ve made several improvements to my diet.  I eat less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat.  I’ve all but eliminated trans fats from my diet.  I eat more fruits and vegetables.  This has been a gradual process.  I’ve made an effort to eat more whole grains, but I still eat too much processed food.  It’s a work in progress.

I can be an obsessive record keeper, and I try to use that to my advantage.  When I’m not traveling, I keep track of everything I eat.  I read food labels and look up nutritional info online.  I use a spreadsheet to keep track of total calories, saturated fat, trans fat, total fat, protein and servings of fruit and vegetables.  I’ve found that keeping records not only helps me quantify what I’m eating, but it also keeps me honest.  I might eat a cookie, but I’m less likely to eat that second or third cookie.

As I’ve made changes to my diet, I’ve set various nutritional goals.  One of my goals is to limit saturated fats.  Another is to get enough protein.  I expected a meatless diet to be leaner, but I was worried that I might have trouble getting enough protein.

I don’t remember when I first started tracking how much protein I eat, but I was probably dieting to lose weight.  The U.S. RDA for men 25 and older is 63 grams of protein per day.  That’s a guideline, but individual needs vary.  I weigh less than the average adult male, so I probably don’t need as much.  More importantly, I’m an endurance athlete.  The constant wear and tear of training means I need to get extra protein to repair the damage from training and racing.  Several years ago, I found some research on the protein needs of endurance athletes.  Regrettable, I can no longer remember my source, but I concluded that if I ate 70 grams of protein per day, I could be pretty confident that I was meeting my protein needs.

I expected it to be difficult to get that much protein without eating any meat, but it’s turned out to be surprisingly easy.  So far, I’ve averaged 83 grams.  That a lot!  It helps that I get a lot of protein from dairy products.  It also helps that I keep discovering plant-based sources of protein.

I also expected that without trying I would reduce my intake of saturated fat.  Surprisingly, I haven’t.  Excluding travel days and other days when I didn’t keep complete records, I was previously averaging 14 grams per day of saturated fat.  Since giving up meat, I’ve averaged 16 grams per day.  It’s worth noting that I didn’t eat very much red meat to begin with.  Mostly, I’ve given up chicken, which is fairly lean as meat goes.  It’s also worth noting that I’ve been eating more coconut and guacamole.  Coconuts and avocados are two of the few plants that are high in saturated fats.  I may find, with a larger sample size, that I don’t get as much saturated fat from plants.

While my results have been surprising, I’m encouraged that I’m not having trouble getting enough protein.  For now, the experiment will continue


  1. What vegetarian protein sources have you used to replace meat?

    1. Black beans, smoothies with soy protein, peanut butter and whole grains. I haven't tapped into nuts as a protein source yet, but I know they're a good source. I was surprised to see that a serving of Grape Nuts cereal has 8 grams of protein.

    2. Also, I'm still getting quite a bit of my protein from dairy products.

    3. Beans are good; the darker, the better. Have you tried tempeh? I've read that fermented soy products (miso, tempeh) are a better choice than non-fermented ones (tofu). I love adding marinated, grilled tempeh to salads and sandwiches, and it's usually easy to find in the grocery (sometimes in the dairy section, sometimes in the refrigerated produce cases).