The Highly Unlikely Vegetarian

This may be a bit of an odd forum for this post, but I also couldn’t think of any better place to put it. So here it is.

Depending on how well you know me, you know that I am a bit of a fitness/nutrition freak. I tend to have a pretty low tolerance for those who don’t take care of and respect their bodies. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll plow through some garbage food faster than you can say “yes I want ice cream with my pecan pie”, however it’s the exception and not the norm. I say all of that to point out that I lead a lifestyle that should theoretically keep me from having any major health conditions, particularly at my age. I eat extremely healthy, I exercise regularly, moderate alcohol consumption, no smoking, etc. There’s just one problem…mother nature has been working against me from the start.

This dates all the way back to me signing up for little league football when I was only about 8 years old. They had some half assed health assessment going on during sign ups that year, and I decided to participate. Part of the health assessment was a finger prick cholesterol test. Needless to say as an 8-year-old I thought nothing of it. Within days my parents had received a call stating that my cholesterol levels had come back as elevated, but since the finger prick test is not 100% accurate, they recommended that I get a full blood work up. Still I thought nothing of it other than I was a little concerned about the large amount of blood they were draining from my body for testing. That test indeed proved that at 8 years old, I had elevated cholesterol levels. It was then that I learned that this is something that runs in my family. Relatives on my mom’s side in particular from aunts, to uncles, to cousins have all dealt with this issue. The doctor recommended that we take a trial run at what was thought to be a cholesterol lowering diet by late 1980’s standards. We did, and after a few months there was no change, and so it was pretty much abandoned.

For the next 25+ years I didn’t think all that much about it. By the time I had graduated high school I had largely adopted my lifestyle of nutrition and exercise. In my head I figured that while my cholesterol may never be considered “low,” it would also not get dangerously high based on my habits, and largely this was true. Whether I was donating blood or whatever, I would generally get a cholesterol test every 5 years or so. As I mentioned, it was never low, but mostly holding steady.

In April of this year I decided to give blood one day at work to benefit the victims of the explosion in West, Texas. Within a few days I received a report in the mail stating that my total cholesterol number was 320 (it didn’t specify LDL/HDL/etc). 320?!? Are you kidding me?? Anything above 240 is considered high. In the past it had come in around 260 or 270, which is obviously still high, but I took comfort in the fact that I led such a healthy lifestyle and had no other contributing health issues to be concerned about. However this hit me hard. Maybe it was the sheer size of the number, maybe it was my age, maybe it was the fact that I now have a kid, or more than likely some combination of those factors. I know it sounds a bit dramatic, but as a person who lost their dad before they even graduated high school, I immediately had fears of doing the same thing to my daughter. In addition to my dad, life expectancy throughout my family tree has not been all that great historically, some of which likely had a connection to high cholesterol. However in the short-term, I was just plain ol’ pissed off. If you Google “how to lower your cholesterol,” that’s literally what I was already doing. So what the hell?! Now what?? Cholesterol lowering medication? Again, if you know me you know that part of me being such a fitness/nutrition freak is that fact that I think as a society we are ridiculously over-medicated. In short, we don’t bother treating the actual causes of our issues, we simply treat the symptoms. The cure for obesity is not surgery or a pill…it’s a getting active, and educating yourself about nutrition maybe a little positive reinforcement and so on. So for me, simply going out a getting a prescription for Lipitor was not the answer.

I began to do some research. I learned that while I had always believed my genetics predetermined that I have high cholesterol, it wasn’t necessarily that simple. Research suggests that the real culprit in people who claim to have “genetically high cholesterol” is the fact that they are actually hypersensitive to dietary cholesterol. Normally, when a healthy person eats foods containing cholesterol, the liver reduces its own cholesterol production to keep blood cholesterol at a healthy level. In cholesterol-sensitive individuals, this internal monitoring mechanism doesn’t operate, so their blood cholesterol level goes up when they eat high-cholesterol foods. It appeared as though I may have a broken regulator.

Now although I was eating a very healthy diet, it was actually fairly high in cholesterol. In an effort to ingest large amounts of protein to support my workouts and goals, I would consume significant amounts of animal protein throughout my day. All animal protein sources contain dietary cholesterol to varying degrees no matter how lean the source. Chicken breasts, seafood, lean pork, and lean red meat all contain cholesterol. So as I analyzed my diet, I realized I was averaging anywhere from 500mg to 600mg of cholesterol intake every day via many small servings of chicken breasts, lean pork, lean red meat, and eggs. Was this the culprit? Tough to say, but at this point I figured, if it ain’t helping, it’s gotta go. It was then that I made a decision that for most of my life I would have said was completely out the question…no more meat (or at least drastically reduced).

Was I going to become a freaking vegetarian?! What kind of tree hugging, granola eating, animal rights activist was I thinking of becoming? So then I shifted my research to vegetarianism, veganism, the side effects of such a lifestyle, and of course how it would effect my workouts/physique/etc. For one thing I learned that there are some pretty damn jacked vegetarians/vegans in this world. I also learned that some research suggests I had spent the last 15 to 20 years putting far too much emphasis on the amount of protein in my diet. I also began to search for things that could naturally help to lower cholesterol. Some studies suggest things such as artichoke extract, turmeric extract and plant sterols can help to lower cholesterol. While other studies suggest that you might as well be taking sugar pills. Given that most of the supplements I came up with were relatively cheap, I figured “why not?”

Fast forward 6 months, and since April 22 I have largely avoided meat. I still eat meat a few times a week if I’m in a social setting or if/when I go to a restaurant, but about 90% of my caloric intake has come from plant sources. My diet has consisted mostly of fruits, vegetables, egg whites (which most vegetarian/vegans don’t eat), nuts/nut butters, and plant-based protein powders. I have also greatly reduced (but not eliminated) my dairy intake for the same reasons as meat…it contains cholesterol. Other than the fact that I sometimes find it difficult to come up with things to cook, I really haven’t missed the extra meat in my diet. To be honest, my diet during the week wasn’t all that exciting anyway. I was mostly eating baked chicken with plain brown rice or vegetables anyway. My lunches may have actually become MORE flavorful with these changes. Oh and there is one other little side effect from these dietary changes. I’ve lost 20 pounds.

*SOAPBOX ALERT* I have tracked everything I have eaten for the last 6 months just as I have always done. Calories, protein, carbs, fat, all of it. While I largely eliminated meat from my diet, I did not change my caloric intake. I continued to take in around 2400 calories a day just as I had done while I was eating all that meat. Obviously my macronutrient intake changed pretty dramatically. I went from eating about 225g of protein, 225g of carbs, and 65g of fat, to taking in about 140g of protein, 300g of carbs, and 70g of fat. So again, my caloric intake and exercise level did not change, but I lost 20 pounds. Feel free to take a look at those numbers again. So many of these “diet plans” have you focus on consuming protein/meat while avoiding carbs, and I just lost 20 pounds while doing the exact opposite. Will this work for everyone? Beats the hell outta me. If I had to make an honest guess I would say it would work for some, but probably not all. The point is, anyone who tries to sell you a “diet” that will work for you is full of crap. Everyone is different and you have to learn what works for YOUR body. How do you go about doing that? Here is some advice I would give:

–Track your food intake. There are numerous apps that make this extremely easy and convenient.
–Be consistent. At least for long enough to notice how your body reacts to variables you are adding/removing.
–Eat whole/clean/fresh foods.

Last but not least, don’t be so quick to just accept a prescription as the answer to a health problem. There is more than likely a source or cause of your given health issue that can be controlled and altered by you. I’m not trying to say that medicine is never the answer, I’m just saying maybe we should exhaust some other resources before we settle for a prescription. Taking a pill everyday is not without long and short-term side effects.

Oh and my cholesterol levels? I mean that is the point of this whole thing right? Well after 6 months of living my new reality, my overall cholesterol went from 320 to 197 (72HDL/115LDL). Yeah…go back and look at those again. Even if I had taken the easy way out and gotten on Lipitor it wouldn’t be that low in 6 months. I was just hoping to get the number down below 300 to see that I was at least making some progress, but I never imagined a 123 point reduction in that time span. It’s borderline unbeliveable.

It probably goes without saying I will be happy to answer any more specific questions about my nutrition, or the supplements I took or whatever else if you’re curious. You only get one body…treat it with some respect.


2 thoughts on “The Highly Unlikely Vegetarian

  1. Whitey,
    This seems a little awkward but you know a guy named Jeff Abadie. I’m Michael, Melissa’s older brother. I had a heart attack May 2012. Since then I have lost some weight, started working out and improved my diet. My cholesterol levels have improved. They are actually a little lower than yours at the time you wrote this. I joined Crossfit Waxahachie the last week of October and have been sore somewhere ever since! We had a get together at my parents today and your name came up when I mentioned I am trying to eat a “Paleo Diet”. Jeff and Melissa told me to check out your blog. You seem to be pretty damn smart on this subject! Any info you care to share would be greatly appreciated. For instance, what to eat to replace the animal protein?? Thanks!!

  2. Hey Michael, what’s up man. Paleo definitely has a lot of good qualities, but it’s also pretty restrictive. I like rice and bread and things like that too much to go Paleo. However I do like that it really encourages people to eat whole, natural foods. As for the proteins, I eat a crap load of egg whites. I’ll boil them up dozens at a time, refrigerate them, and then peel and eat (no yolks) as needed. I’ve also found a plant based protein powder that actually tastes pretty good (it’s called Phood). I’ll drink 3 or 4 of those a week. Other than that I just get small amounts of protein from beans and other foods like that. Hope that helps man. Feel free to ask me anything. And good luck with the crossfit. I know firsthand that crossfit can be a very humbling experience.

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