I first met Ken when JC (my husband) and I went to the USA in 2014, just one month after JC proposed to me in Melbourne. JC and Ken, though both American, had met in college in Melbourne where they completed their MBA. When JC and I got married in 2015, Ken was one of the groomsmen and an absolute treasure when it came to being the helping hand that JC needed before and throughout our big day. And his speech at our wedding… phenomenal!
So when Ken asked me to help him with his annual personal challenge, I couldn’t say no. Turns out, for the last four years, from the day after the Super Bowl to St Patrick’s Day, Ken would become a vegetarian. And this year is no different! He will eat vegetarian from the 5th of February to the 17th of March and this year will mark the five year anniversary of his tradition.
I had already decided that I wanted to help, but being vegan myself, I had to ask… would Ken be up for doing a vegan challenge this year? To my delight, he said yes! It’s a win win if you ask me. Ken will be able to experience the health benefits of cutting out dairy and eggs as well as the meat he’d already been emitting and he’d be going that extra mile in reducing harm to our four legged friends and the planet, even if only for 40 odd days of the year.
Naturally, I feel a little nervous. I really want him to walk away having felt and seen (in his waistline and on the scales) the benefits of eating a whole foods, plant based diet so that he recommends the lifestyle to others or maybe even decides to adopt it for himself longer term. I remember the first two weeks of being vegan. It was REALLY difficult and the transition could have been a lot smoother had I received the advice that I plan to share with Ken on his journey.
I will help him with recipes, provide weekly coaching to address any questions or concerns he might have and share ideas around meal planning and effective physical training. We will also touch base to monitor his weight and take body measurements. Bring it on!
In our first discussion I asked him a few questions so that I could get to know a little about his experience over the past four years. What better way to embark on a completely new journey than to get an honest snapshot of what things are actually like for him right now.
Hazal: Why did you first decide to do this challenge and why do you do it every year?
Ken: After living overseas for 3 years, I returned to the US and after a few short months I noticed that my diet and physique had changed, and not for the better. A higher calorie, higher fat diet, with regular drinking during the NFL season had contributed to an unhealthy lifestyle. I took it upon myself to challenge what had become my own status quo from a diet, exercise, and drinking standpoint. Having lived with my good friend JC as he went through a truly impressive transition by focusing on a vegetarian diet*, I decided to give it a try myself. Over the past 4 years, I’ve noticed that taking a month or so off from meat had a positive mental as well as physical impact on me. I paid more attention to what I ate and through the conscious thought about excluding meat from my diet, I ate things that were better for me even when unhealthy vegetarian options were available. As a result, it has become an annual exercise for me following the NFL Super Bowl (Buffalo Wings and typical game day food is a weakness of mine).
*JC lost 38 kg in 2 years after deciding to become vegetarian in 2012.
This is great! I’m so glad that Ken has already noticed the benefits of cutting out meat and the positive impact it can have on food choices. To learn more about the benefits of adopting a whole foods, plant based vegan diet, I particularly love the documentary Forks over Knives. If you head on over to their website, you should be able to source the movie very quickly.
Hazal: What have been your go to meals in previous years?
Mushroom & Cheese Quesadillas
Veggie Fried Rice
Tofu & Curry
Pasta and Tomato sauce w/ mushrooms, olives, green peppers
Spaghetti Squash w/ sauce
Peanut Butter with fruit
Salads of all sorts
I usually defer to lots of mushroom and bean dishes as mains since they typically keep me fuller longer. Energy levels and a lurking hunger are generally two of the biggest challenges.
I’m glad Ken brought this up, because this is a very common experience for people who have just adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Even when I think back to my experience, I had taken out all the things I wouldn’t be eating anymore, like the meat, the cheese and the eggs, and hadn’t replaced those missing calories with anything plant based. No wonder I had felt low on energy and hungry all the time, my calorie intake was drastically reduced! I literally had no idea what to eat on a vegan diet and the fact that I already ate many vegan foods (like fruit, vegetables, rice, beans, nuts and seeds) was not part of my awareness.
So we imagine that there needs to be this massive “change”. And in some regards, there does. It depends if you are adopting a plant based diet for your health, or if you are becoming a vegan. One is diet related and the other is a philosophy that comes along with a shift in your belief system, but that also incorporates becoming plant based. Change, in any sense can cause a bit of a shock to the system and in many ways, change, whether “good” or “bad” causes stress. Which is why many people avoid change like the plague. Changes to our diet are no different. The body takes a while to reset, to adapt, to detox, and this can often be an uncomfortable experience. This is probable why many people give up and decide it’s “too hard”. Particularly if there are physical dependencies such as that for caffeine or sugar. There have even been studies that demonstrate the addictive nature of dairy products, as they contain casein, a substance that triggers the brain’s opioid receptors. The same receptors that are engaged when using other addictive substances. Having patience and waiting for your body to detox so you can start seeing and feeling the benefits is very important. Don’t give up, you will see results soon enough. It might take a month, it may take a year. But it will happen.
Another reason why changing our diet can be uncomfortable is due to our emotional connection to food.
You’d be surprised how common it is to “eat” our emotions in order to avoid facing them. Heck, I’ve been there! A binge here and there to give me a sugar high strong enough to numb my upset, sadness or anger. Definitely a thing that I have done! Who hasn’t been there? And what about the emotional connection with food that’s created by happy memories? For me, these memories include family BBQs where we’d eat till we couldn’t move and mum’s amazing baklava, börek and Russian salad, birthday cakes, pigging out with friends after a long day of study or even just snuggling on the couch with my love and eating burgers and chips to try cure our hangovers whilst talking about the crazy night we just had. Food has huge significance in our culture. It’s how we show we care for one another, how we show others we are affluent, how we socialize and bond with one another. Ken is even able to identify the link between watching the Super Bowl and eating buffalo wings. The food we eat really does become part of our identity and hence, can be a very stressful thing to adjust, or look at with a microscope. But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid understanding our connection with it and the real impact it has on our lives, our health, the planet and the animals we choose to eat. Being conscious about what we consume and why is a pathway to happiness, wellbeing and health.
So my first tip for Ken is to explore his connection with food and also have a look at whether his actions line up with his commitment to himself and his health. Ken has been generous enough to share his journey with us all, so I commend him for his vulnerability in this regard.
To ensure that Ken does not suffer from the same lack of energy and ever present hunger that many face when transitioning, I will make sure he eats enough calories from the get go this time. The way we would look at this would be to find out roughly how many calories his body is used to consuming on a daily basis at the moment. We will not be monitoring macro nutrients because as long as you are eating enough calories on a plant based diet, you will reach your daily or weekly needs. This is what I want to ensure Ken does, eat enough calories from a good mixture of plant based foods. This food pyramid from ChooseVeg.com is a great guide for what to eat and in what proportion to eat it on a whole foods, plant based diet.
Aside from making sure we eat enough, another custom that vegans often take on, is getting their blood work done. I think it’s because we are so drummed with the notion that being vegan will be unhealthy for us that we actually end up believing it! I’m a big advocate for getting regular check ups, but I wonder if omnivores get their blood work done as much as vegans do? Vegans often take on the fear and we end up putting ourselves under a microscope thinking that our choice to live a more ethical life could put our health in jeopardy. I had some blood work done with my GP and when I had my naturopath look at the results for me, I asked her, because, well you know, I’m vegan now and most likely about to drop dead, if there was anything I needed to be doing to counter the possibility of my newly adopted lifestyle from doing harm to my body. I’ll never forget what she said. She said “you needn’t worry about your bloods, my vegans often produce better results than my omnis”. I remember feeling shocked by this! How could that be? Everywhere in the media we are told that vegans are malnourished and weak, but in her experience, her vegan clients more often than not showed better blood work! She said something else that I really liked. She said “I don’t see people as vegan, not vegan, vegetarian, not vegetarian etc, I see people as individuals and I see results. If someone’s test reveals they need more iron, we give them what they need to get their iron levels back up. If someone’s test reveals they need more folate, we give them folate. It doesn’t matter if they are vegan or omnivore, if they are lacking in something, they are lacking in something.” Essentially, she was taking the judgement out of the equation and demonstrating that no diet is perfect because that the way our bodies treat, process and utilize the vitamins, minerals and nutrients we consume is all very individual. I loved it! All of a sudden I got that awareness and learning more about this elusive lifestyle was key.
Hazal: What are the foods you’ve missed the most during your challenge in previous years?
Ken: The texture of meat is probably the biggest thing I miss. The oily flavor of beef and pork. Chicken and Turkey were also missed, but I managed to find decent soy substitutes for these that even some friends of mine couldn’t tell the difference between. Beyond that, the thing that was perhaps the most challenging is resetting the habits of choosing foods I typically eat. The “go-to” options when shopping or dining out. I’ve found that I need to be flexible in my palate and giving in to cravings for certain flavors when eating out, reminding myself to “eat to live, not live to eat”.
Okay, before I address how I plan to help Ken reduce the temptation of slipping up based on what he’s missed in the past, it’s confession time… I still love the smell of meat as it’s cooking… and I wouldn’t be the only vegan that feels this way. (Conversely, show me a piece of flesh and my insides churn because all I see is a bloody carcass, pain, suffering and all that’s wrong with the world.) Luckily, I didn’t decide to become vegan because I randomly woke up one day hating the taste and smell of meat! For some people it is that way, but for me, it wasn’t. For many of us, it’s the realization that our senses, our likes and dislikes are no longer more important than the lives of other beings. It’s the acceptance of responsibility. It’s the choice to choose compassion over taste.
So when it comes to Ken’s list of things he misses the most, I’m not at all offended or concerned. I get it! I so get it! My advice for him is to find the flavors he loves in the herbs and spices rack in the supermarket and mimic the flavors as much as possible. There is no shame in that at all. What you like the taste of is what you like the taste of and as long as your taste buds are not the reason you are causing harm to another living being, flavour your meals to mimic whatever taste you like. Go hard. There are vegan alternatives for EVERYTHING nowadays. There is no reason to choose cruelty because of your taste buds. Make sure you check the ingredients, added sodium is no-go.
Speaking of taste buds, and this goes back to giving yourself time to detox and adjust to your new diet, they will change over time as well. Soon, foods you found to be mild will become overpowering. You will become sensitive to salt whereas before you couldn’t get enough. Foods you found bland will take on a whole new flavor. You won’t crave the sugar or fat hits you used to. Food in its natural form will taste better. In turn, you’ll start craving foods that make you feel good rather than heavy or sluggish. You won’t be as attracted to meat, dairy and eggs because your body will become so accustomed and grateful that you have been treating it with kindness. You will have more energy and better digestion. You will give your body the ability to heal itself if you have some preexisting conditions. I really could go on and on but I think you get the picture.
Ken mentioned finding that soy substitutes have helped him along his journey, so we could utilize those this time around as well. To help him with his “go-to” options, the answer is simple. Anything in the fruit and vegetable aisle is a “go-to”. If it grows on a tree or in the ground, it’s a-okay. If I get hungry on a day out, I go buy some raw or dried fruit and/or raw nuts to snack on. I always check the ingredients (if it’s a bag of dried fruit or nuts) before I decide what to get. The only ingredients listed should be the fruit and the nuts that you’re buying. Don’t buy the ones that list sugar or oil or anything else as an ingredient (this is particularly difficult to do in the USA as there is sugar in EVERYTHING!). Your body has no need for it and mother nature knows what she is doing. Trust her. Raw and organic is always best. Oh and by the way, don’t fear the sugars aka carbs in fruit. Your body and your brain thrives off carbs. And well, you’re doing a vegan challenge so carb it uuuuuuup!
Hazal: Are there any foods that cause you discomfort or give you gas?
Ken: Soy for sure. I try to limit my soy intake as it can lead to an uneasy stomach. Digesting a diet of mainly veggies takes a week or two to get used to, but isn’t too bad.
This is another great point. Many new converts will eat copious amounts of tofu in order to keep their protein intake the same after removing meat from their diet. I fell victim to this also. I was eating around 400 g of tofu a day and soon enough, I became constipated and felt bloated and heavy. Which was not the feeling I was promised upon adopting a vegan diet. Then, as I did some research, I slowly realized that I didn’t need as much protein as I thought I did. Or rather, that I had been told I needed. I had dated bodybuilders in the past and spent years in the gym scene. Without realizing, I had been utterly brainwashed by the notion that if I didn’t eat an ‘x’ amount of protein every day, my muscles would just waste away and that all my hard work lifting weights would have been for nothing! I was literally obsessed with protein (friends who knew me in my gym going days can 100% vouch for this) and the crazy thing was, I didn’t know I was obsessed until I became vegan. It took a good year of being vegan to fully trust the vegan community in regards to protein and to discover that all that I had been told about meat had been paid for by the very farmers selling me the meat! At the first vegan festival I volunteered at, Billy Simmonds Skyped in from his home town to talk to the festival goers about veganism and sport. I was that annoying one in the crowd that asked the most common question vegans get “but where do you get your protein?” He told me the same thing I am about to tell you, there is protein in plants and if you eat enough food, you will consume all the protein you need from a plant based diet.And if you would like to supplement your diet with protein powder, the good news is that there are plenty of plant based powders available on the market.
To think that I used to eat 160 g or more of protein a day when all I really needed at the time was 50 g. Obsessed I tell you! Nowadays, protein is the last thing on my mind. So don’t feel the need to pump yourself up with tofu and other soy proteins. Treat them as a treat, something you consume here and there. After all, as a highly processed product, tofu does not exactly fall into the whole foods, plant based category. One meal a week that contains tofu is fine. Though I am sure if you spoke to some of the bodybuilders who feature on Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness, they might have another point of view on tofu! Listen to your body, it will point you in the right direction.
Hazal: What kind of training are you doing at the moment and how many days a week do you train?
Ken: Light cardio. Running and sprints on a stationary bike. Aiming to amp up the regiment a bit more as part of this annual challenge to burn off some of the “beer weight” I’ve put on. I usually train 2-3 days a week, running 2-3 km or biking for 10-20 minutes at a time. Sometimes push-ups and pull-ups are mixed in too.
Ken already has an exercise regime, which is great! For the duration I’m going to suggest he does HIIT, High Intensity Interval Training. The beauty of HIIT is that you can do it in your lounge room, don’t need any equipment and it’s free. I am such an advocate for HIIT as it helped me loose 10 kg over the course of a year. I didn’t change my diet at all (I had been vegan for a year already so just continued to eat what I wanted, when I wanted) but I did notice that consistency was key. In other words, ensuring that I worked out at least three or four days a week, every week. The great news about HIIT is that by design, you only need to work out for 20-30 minutes a day to start seeing results and the benefits it has on your health are awesome. Suits me! No more 1-1.5 hour sessions at the gym five days a week! When I first decided to exercise using HIIT, I did some research and found Fitness Blender, a site run by a gorgeous husband and wife team, who post free workouts. You can even choose what body part to focus on for the day and the type of workout you’d like to do that day. For Ken, I am going to suggest that he clicks on ‘Full-Length Workout Videos’ and select ‘HIIT’ for Training Type, ‘No Equipment’ for Equipment Needed and select a Workout Time between 20 and 30 minutes. He can also choose the Difficulty and for someone who might be new to HIIT, I would suggest starting with 3 with the aim of quickly moving up to Difficulty 5.
Hazal: What would you like to achieve during this year’s challenge?
Ken: This year, more than others, I’ve seen a bigger gain in weight and decline in overall fitness. Getting old and stressing over work definitely works against the goal of having an ideal figure. I’d like to get back down to 175 lbs, currently sitting at 193 lbs. I’d like to get over some of the pain in my knees as well. I’m hoping a shift in diet will have a more profound impact on recovering from intense training, reducing the time I’m sore after working out.
Ken touches on a major factor when it comes to physical health. Stress. I can’t express enough how vital stress management is when it comes to wellbeing. Stress, or more broadly, mindset, is at the crux of almost every imbalance that we could possibly have. Stress is an emotional response to the circumstances in our environment that can lead to depression, anxiety and other physical and psychological responses. Many studies have shown that stress increases our bodies’ levels of cortisol, which in turn impacts our insulin levels in a way that has us feeling hungrier than we really are. And what foods do we crave the most when stressed? Fatty, sugary foods. So the question is, how do we manage our stress levels? It takes a lot of courage to even acknowledge that we may be stressed because vulnerability is often seen as a weakness in society, particularly for men. Please watch this very famous Ted Talk on vulnerability by Brené Brown to understand just what I mean. It takes courage to declare that something in our lives isn’t working for us. Why? Because we are afraid that we may not be able to do better, because we are afraid of looking bad or ruining our perceived reputation, or we are just afraid of change. As mentioned earlier, change causes stress, and why would we want to subject ourselves to unknown stress when at least the type of stress we are feeling at the moment is familiar?
Declaring something as not working means that we have acknowledged it, and once you acknowledge something, it’s very hard not to do something about it. So we pretend, and we say “I’m fine” when really, we are not fine. Is this hitting home for you? Are you slowly drowning because it seems too scary to ask for a helping hand? Quit judging yourself and preempting the response you may or may not get if you share your vulnerability. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved.
My husband is reading a great book at the moment and one of the things he shared with me from the book about vulnerability is that we have this view that if we are vulnerable we view ourselves as weak but if we observe someone else being vulnerable we view them as courageous. Isn’t it true though?! When you think about it, it’s crazy, right? So what is there to do? First, get honest with yourself and others about your truth. Share what you need, what you have and where the gap is. Share your suffering, your struggles and ask for help. Chances are, you’ve been running on empty for a long time and the people around you will already have an inkling that you are at your wits end. They will no doubt have compassion for you. And if they don’t, then maybe they are not the people you should be going to for support.
Next, Ken’s knee pain… I’m no physio, there are a myriad of reasons why Ken’s knees are sore. So my suggestion would be to get it checked out by a professional, just in case it’s referred pain from a physical imbalance in another area in his body or a past injury that never healed. The cool thing about Fitness Blender is that you can choose low impact workouts or even use variations to ease the pain you might be feeling in a certain area.
In regards to recovery time, I’ve read many, many anecdotes from vegan bodybuilders who claim that following a vegan diet reduces recovery time and muscle soreness, so I’m glad Ken is open to that notion, because HIIT is super effective at creating sore muscles, in the best possible way!
Hazal: Roughly how many calories do you consume in a day?
Ken: Not sure, but will make an effort to count in the weeks leading up to the challenge.
Great! This will be a guide only and the main goal is making sure he eats enough.
Hazal: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your experience so far?
Ken: In the past I’ve leaned heavily on mushrooms and beans as part of the challenge, as well as cheese… yeah, lots of cheese. The cheese typically contributed the vast majority of the fat in my diet during the challenges, so I’ll be looking to cut that back drastically if not completely (still debating the ability to go vegan). Food prep and time has been a part of the challenge that required some coping, so I’m looking for meals that I can make in a crock-pot or baked/made in batches for next day meals. Eggplant has been a food that I’ve been told to try to build dishes around, so that will be fun to experiment with.
Bring on the cheese replacements! A staple in many vegan households is this scrum-didily-umptuous food, Bragg’s Nutritional Yeast! Holy cow, ask not “would you like more yeast with your pasta?” but “would you like more pasta with your yeast?” That’s how good it is! And it’s full of B vitamins, protein and folic acid. Too good! I am definitely NOT the cooking lover in our house, so I totally get Ken’s sentiment about food prep and cooking time. Not to mention his wanting to cook enough for the following day’s meals. Food prepping is a great way to ensure you don’t put yourself in a compromising situation if there aren’t healthy, vegan options around and it also saves time and money. Eggplant, you say? Let the eggplant recipe hunting begin! ChooseVeg.com also has some great meal plans, so head on over for some inspiration, folks! And Ken, you totally got this! And if you slip up, just get back on the wagon, no sweat! It happens to all of us!
Ken’s Baseline Body Measurements
Weight: Currently 193 lbs.
Waist measurement: Size 32 jeans have become a bit tight. I’d like to slim down enough to bring back a few pairs I used to wear regularly.
Inconvenient truth bomb: The scales are not a true indication of progress! Taking body measurements is actually the most honest way to gauge progress. Especially for people who partake in exercises that add muscle to their physique. Building muscle is a great idea for weight loss so definitely don’t shy away from heavy lifting. Ladies, I’m talking to you as well. More muscle mass means an increase in your metabolism which in turn helps burn fat at a faster rate. Where it gets deceiving is, muscle weighs more than fat which means that you could be slimming down but gaining weight. So take measurements. That way you’ll really know what’s what.
Whip out the measuring tape and measure as many circumferences as possible. Make sure you are standing up nice and straight for accuracy and let the measuring tape skim your body without being so tight that it causes your skin to bulge on either side of it.
Chest: the circumference of the widest part of your chest, usually around the nipples.
Biceps: the circumference of the widest part between your shoulder and elbow when flexed.
Shoulders: the circumference of the widest part of your body at shoulder height.
Waist: the circumference of the slimmest part of your torso.
Hips: the circumference of the widest part of your lower torso, usually around your buttocks.
Thighs: standing straight, the circumference of the widest part of your upper thigh.
There you have it ladies and gents! I hope you found this insightful and helpful.
If you are doing a vegan challenge and have any questions that I haven’t addressed as part of Ken’s challenge, please feel free to leave a comment and I will answer it as best I can. Ken and I will touch base weekly to discuss his progress so please follow my blog if you don’t want to miss a beat about how Ken is going and how he’s finding this year’s challenge. I can’t wait to see what unfolds!
Thanks for reading and happy vegging!