Although I have always wanted to be a vegetarian, I didn’t even dare try it until later in life. I have always been active and athletic, and I assumed that vegetarians would not have the energy to exercise as much as I do, or to perform adequately in any kind of athletic endeavor. My mind was changed about this when I met “Jimmy” the tennis pro at a resort I was working at in Mexico. Jimmy was a strict vegetarian, as I could see by his choices at lunchtime. But when he wasn’t at lunch, he was playing tennis for 7 hours a day, and seemed to have energy to spare. Even after playing tennis all day, he could still run circles around the rest of us lethargic meat-eaters. So much for that theory.
That was over ten years ago when I decided to try my first month away from meat. Jimmy convinced me that I could get plenty of protein from non-animal sources and that I would get more than enough energy from a vegetarian diet—and he was right. Not only did I have plenty of energy, but I felt fitter, and cleaner, and even lighter somehow. On a vegetarian diet, the body seems to process foods better: you eat and thirty minutes later you poop. And it’s a nice clean (if there is such a thing,) easy poop. The ease of digestion may be one of the secrets as to why vegetarians have so much energy.
The only problem with the diet is . . . I would miss meat. It is fun for a little while to experiment with different vegetarian dishes. When cooking at home it is quite possible to get creative and come up with some delicious and filling vegetarian meals. But when you go out to a restaurant with friends, it gets depressing. Most restaurants offer just one token vegetarian entrée (if you’re lucky) . And restaurant employees are poor at understanding the needs of vegetarians and offering or allowing acceptable substitutions (I think this is an area of huge opportunity in the restaurant industry that could be corrected with some simple staff training and awareness.)
So while I have continued to take a month off of meat every year (I’m in the middle of one now,) I watch the calendar carefully, yearning for the end of the month to come so I can break my fast with a juicy steak or some delicious fried bacon. Many years, I purposely select February for my yearly fast, simply because the month would end a few days earlier. But even though I am declaring myself a confirmed carnivore, there is a lot that I get out of these monthly tests of will. I think it is good to take at least a month each year and clean out the digestive system with a low fat, high fiber diet. I also think it is an important effort that I make to soften my footprint on the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it is great mental and spiritual exercise to strengthen my willpower.
I think we will be seeing more and more of these kinds of partial vegetarian diets. While we tend to think of vegetarianism in black and white terms (you are either a vegetarian or you are not,) the reality is there are ways for people to reduce their intake of animal meats while still honoring their inner carnivore. Some people define “partial vegetarianism” as a diet that allows some fish and/or chicken while eliminating beef and pork which have the greatest negative consequences for health and planet. But more and more people are talking about “part time vegetarianism” (a.k.a. “flexitarianism”) meaning you don’t have to quit meat “cold turkey,” just eat less of it. Graham Hill of Treehugger introduced the idea of “weekday vegetarianism” at a recent TED conference.
Being a part time vegetarian, by taking a month, a week, or even day off of eating meat might not be as cool as being a full-time, card-carrying, vegan. But if it allows you to improve your health, help save the planet, and exercise your willpower while still occasionally satisfying your craving for meat, this is a pretty good step to take.
References and recommended reading:
Blatner, D. J. (2010). The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life. McGraw-Hill.
Burwash, P. (1997). Total Health: The Next Level. Torchlight Publishing.
Campbell, T. C. (2006). The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health. BenBella Books.
Foer, J. S. (2010). Eating Animals. Back Bay Books.
Robbins, J. (1998). Diet for a New America. HJ Kramer.
Vohs, K. D. & Baumeister, R. F. (2010). Handbook of Self-Regulation, Second Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. Guilford Press.
I pay attention to what I eat and go meatless at least one day per week for that reason, but you might have just given me reason to honor 2 days per week moving forward! I also tried no gluten no dairy for 2 weeks and I did feel lighter, cleaner and more energetic as a result. I find it quite restrictive to do “full-time”, so I’ve adopted a reductionist approach towards gluten and dairy since.
I’ve heard of the idea of “meatless mondays” but it definitely seems if you can take one day off you can probably take a few more. I’m thinking about trying the weekday vegetarian diet for a while after the month is over. Sometimes we don’t realize what our needs are or what our attachments are to certain things unless we take a little time away from it!
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Jeremy! You are such a yogi!
It took me 6 years after I became a yoga teacher to make the big step – and I still don’t like to refer to myself as a vegetarian, but as a conscious eater. Society as a whole, consumes more meat than we are able to produce, which has led to unethical practices in processing meat for our consumption. I have found this as a wonderful platform when students ask me about “eating meat.” It is not good for our bodies or the planet to eat meat 2-3 times per day. If you can start there, and gradually begin to educate yourself on different beans and grains that will offer your body the protein it needs – you will begin to create a more balanced and healthy diet for yourself.
While I have not eaten meat in two years – I will confess that cheese is my version of a juicy steak. I love it! I do a vegan cleanse four times a year for two weeks – where I give up dairy. More than it being a nice break for m body, it is also a good exercise for my minds’ will to take a break from the block of cheese snack. Over time, I have developed much healthier eating habits and weened myself away from some cravings.
I applaud your month sabbatical from meat, for your body and the planet!
Thanks for another great post!
I love your writing….. so smooooooooth. Must be the beans!
Hope all is well and congrats on the little one.
Great post, Jeremy. I really like what you say about the black-and-white thing: I think so much good could be done, for health, animals, and the environment if people let go of the idea that you need to either be vegetarian or not vegetarian. Be somewhere in the middle!
In your case, why not just be vegetarian at home, omnivore out? If there’s good vegetarian stuff on the menu, eat that, but if not, eat a steak! This is essentially what I do with veganism now (vegan at home, vegetarian out), and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that that’s what works for me right now, after several month-long trials just like you’re doing.
It’s great to see an omnivore helping to get rid of that awful stereotype that vegetarians are weak and/or have no energy. Good luck with whatever you decide and let me know
if I can ever help out with something!
Thanks Matt! I hope others who find my article check out your site which has a wealth of info on vegetarianism for athletes. I like your idea of eating omnivore when I go out except that I would end up eating out every night! 🙂 But the idea of creating some kind of “rules” around a part time vegetarian diet is (I think) exactly the key. I have stayed on a part-time vegetarian diet since I wrote this article a few months back. I’ll be posting an article on it in the next few weeks and sharing the rules that I have been using. I would love your feedback on it so I will let you know when it goes up. Thanks for your tweet today too!
Thanks for calling my attention to this essay. This sentence makes me think that the piece I wrote for the ARDEll WELLNESS REPORT this week might be of some interest: ” On a vegetarian diet, the body seems to process foods better: you eat and thirty minutes later you poop.”
Here is the piece. Enjoy.
ARDELL’S POOPALOT PLANT-BASED ANTI-CONSTIPATION, PRO REAL WELLNESS DIET
Saturday November 5, 2011
Regularity and other qualities associated with healthy bowels and the movement of bowels are neglected topics in the wellness field. I don’t know why but most healthy lifestyle promoters, including even those who favor REAL wellness founded on reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty, fail to get to the bottom of this issue. I, too, have not given the subject the attention it deserves. No more. As a consequence of my new diet orientation, I have many fresh insights on the nature of best pathways to regularity. A plant-based diet in combination with vigorous daily exercise is the cure for constipation, in my opinion and, even better than that, will almost certainly prevent the problem in the first place. I could be mistaken, of course, but hear me out, if you please.
The neglect of well bowel movements as a topic for speakers at National Wellness Conferences and in other health promotion forums seems a bit odd, considering that Americans have made the business of attending to bowels a major industry. We all desire world-class or at least regular and comfortable, even pleasant bowel movements. We all have bowel movements and we are all sensitive to changes in our expenditures along these lines. We also joke about issues and circumstances related to bowels, particularly with regard to olfactory and auditory features associated with such phenomena. Constipation is certainly not uncommon in this country. No fewer than 2.5 million physician visits are constipation related, which costs consumers around $7.5 billion annually. (Note: A recent article by Scott Gavura at the website “Science-Based Medicine” identified and described a range of myths as well as facts about constipation. These references and data are the basis for most of the source material cited in this commentary.)
What constitutes constipation? It seems simple enough: If you can’t go, you must be constipated. Right? Well, it’s more complex than that. Some expect to have a positive experience at least once a day; others more or less than that. Babies have more movements than adults, generally, as parents will attest. Most think of constipation as being movements delayed more than the norm for the individual affected, and/or difficulty in expulsion, perhaps with pain or strain with little gain involved and/or stools that are disagreeable (e.g., too hard, too soft, too putrid, etc.).
Constipation problems can be short-term or chronic. The level of concern increases with subjective states, such as bloating, diarrhea (not all that subjective) and abdominal pain. The medical term for such disagreeable functioning is irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.
Why does constipation occur? Among the major suspects that cause IBS are the following:
* Other medical conditions, including high/low thyroid, diabetes, cancer, and neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis.
* Medications or recreational drugs.
* Poor food choices.
In the essay noted above by Mr. Gavura in “Science-Based Medicine,” the following myths are identified:
Constipation is all about colonic dysfunction. The myth is that all problems with constipation can be traced to the colon. In this thinking, the colon is suspected of harboring terrorists (toxins). With the exception of the loonies who peddle faith-based alternative/complementary medicine, the medical community looks on this idea as bunk. Unfortunately, many holistic healer types focus homeopathic remedies or other modalities on assorted irrigations of or detoxifications for the colon. There is little to no evidence that colon treatments are sound in theory or effective in practice.
Go every day or you’ll feel down in the dump. This myth is that If you don’t have a bowel movement every ____ (times vary – every day, two days, etc.), a bad moon will be on the rise, so to speak. The latter means those scary toxins will gather for a colon party, followed soon enough by bad outcomes (e.g., allergies, disease and/or death).
Constipation is a modern invention. This myth links constipation with everything from the increased pace of life or change to stress, pollution, jet travel and so on. Constipation is not new – it is referenced in historical accounts and classical literature.
Other myths. There is an ideal frequency level for everyone, the colon should be flushed, laxatives or other purgatives should be taken, x amount of water should be drunk and fiber cereals or supplements are essential for movements to die for, so to speak. All of these are either false or not supported by convincing evidence.
So, what is true?
Well, for starters, exercise really does contribute to good outcomes, literally and otherwise. This should be no surprise to anyone. Exercise helps in everything good, if done properly, sufficiently, often enough and in proportion to calories consumed. Of course, like everything else, exercise is not a panacea. Nothing is, save death, which takes care of everything, eternally – the ultimate fix for whatever ails you.
Some products (e.g., milk of magnesia, probiotics such as yogurt) work some of the time for some “constipants” (I made up that word); few if any quality studies have been done on this topic. Guess bowel movements in general and inability to have them often enough is not very sexy. Who knew?
As you might recall from my latest essay, I have for several months adhered more or less to a plant-based diet. Constipation has rarely been a problem for me but since making the switch from meats, cheeses, seafood and oils to all the good stuff (grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts), I have performed in this regard at world class levels. If there were a Poopolympics, I’d be going for the gold in London in 2012. My wife and I refer to these periods in somewhat irreverent euphemisms, such as asking each other (before heading out to the pool at 6:30 AM nearly every morning) have you been with Jesus, or simply have you had a calling, a spiritual experience, been saved or born again?
We both began the diet as flexitarians about our plant-based eating, but the more we enjoyed it, the less we flexed. We very much enjoy following the regimen recommended in The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and his physician son, Thomas M. Campbell II.
The findings of the research known as The China Study indicate that our medical system is sustained by diseases of affluence caused by awful lifestyles, particularly profound offenses against a healthful diet. Besides too little exercise, Americans are experiencing more cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes (and other conditions) because they eat so much animal protein, especially casein found in milk. The normal diet stimulates the growth of cancer cells, whereas plant protein inhibits such cell growth. Animal protein clogs arteries whereas a plant-based diet prevents and, in some cases, reverses heart disease. The standard American diet (SAD) leads to obesity; a low-fat, plant-based diet combined with vigorous daily exercise prevents or eliminates this problem. SAD promotes both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; a high-fiber, plant-based diet protects against both. And yes, one of the claims for the plant-based diet, based upon evidence presented in The China Study, is that plant-based dining alleviates constipation.
Personally, I think the plant-based diet should be renamed the Poopalot Diet—and I’m willing to give up my claim to the name. Maybe a snappy new name will contribute to the spread of the benefits discovered in regions where plant diets were the norm.
Of course more studies are needed and there is some exaggeration or at least exuberant enthusiasm about plant-based eating by those who follow and get positive results from the approach. All the same, I do suspect that the Poopalot Diet is the wave of the future and will soon be seen as a foundation for wellness lifestyle for the best possible quality of life.
Rather than declaring that the Poopalot Diet will eliminate the scourge of constipation for nearly everyone forevermore or otherwise getting all carried away, I will end this essay in a lyrical fashion. Here are slightly modified words to my favorite Broadway musical, “Camelot,” a hit during the halcyon days of my college years in the 60’s.
The Poopalot Diet Song
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
By then you’ve had so many callings.
With the diet Poopalot.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
Each evening, from December to December,
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the movements you remember
Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Where once it never rained till after sundown,
By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown…
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known