From Vegetarian to…

Towards the end of 2011, I decided that in 2012 I’d go vegetarian. My plan was to give it the full year, and see how I felt about it. Towards the end of the year, I’d adjust the plan as needed for 2013. I’d either move back towards meats, or possibly towards vegan or eating raw, or something in-between like going pescatarian. I’ve cut that evaluation period short, as I’ve decided that being a vegetarian isn’t quite working out for me. As far as which direction I plan to move in now, I’m strongly considering the paleo diet.

On being a vegetarian

My reasons for going vegetarian had nothing to do with the moral issues around eating meat. I’m an animal lover, but I also think that when prepared properly, they can be quite delicious. Quite simply, I wanted to drop fat. I was exercising regularly and fairly intensely, and I thought that modifying my diet to exclude meats would help with burning the fat more quickly.

Being a vegetarian was actually much easier than I had anticipated, and frankly, I had no problems with it. There was an occasional craving for sushi, as I was much more of a seafood eater than a red meat eater, but they generally passed pretty quickly. I subscribed to a couple of different meal planning services, both of which provided vegetarian options. I was never much of a cook, but took the initiative to prepare the vegetarian meals provided by the meal plans. I learned a lot in doing that, and genuinely enjoyed most of the meals that I made. I had initially thought that being a vegetarian would mean eating mostly salads, but was pleasantly surprised at how filling most of the vegetarian dishes turned out to be. We also found some great restaurants in the area that were either vegetarian (such as Green or The Loving Hut (yes, I know… interesting name)), or had appealing menu options for vegetarians, such as The Yard House’s gardein menu. Overall it was definitely a positive experience. It just wasn’t yielding the results that I was expecting.

Expectations vs Reality

I thought that if I continued to exercise but dropped the meats, the fat would virtually melt away. No shortcuts here. I didn’t think that simply going vegetarian would result in any significant change. But with the combination of the classes that I was taking at React Defense Systems (RDS) and a “healthier” diet, I definitely expected to see more of a change. But there really was no noticeable change. No change in either the fat loss or muscle gain.

I should probably talk a little about the classes at RDS. I think that a lot of time, when people talk about going to the gym for an hour, they may get 1/2 of that in actual “gym time”. There’s time spent getting changed, time spent waiting for machines, and probably time spent socializing. Nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s important to realize that an hour long class at RDS is pretty close to an hour of exercising, non-stop. Any given class will potentially burn anywhere from 300 to 500 calories. I had gotten to a point where I was doing at least one class a day, Monday through Friday, and often two back-to-back. And yet, no noticeable fat loss.

Aside from not losing the fat as I was expecting, I also felt like I wasn’t gaining muscle as fast as I had been. Before going vegetarian, I was noticing significant changes in my arms, shoulders, and chest, as well as less radical but still noticeable changes in my legs. I noticed that since 2012 not only was I not building the lean muscle mass as quickly as I had been, but it seemed that I was losing some definition.

Dammit, Jim. I’m a programmer, not a nutritionist

I will preface this next section with the caveat that I may be completely and utterly wrong in what follows. I freely admit to feeling incredibly frustrated at learning how to eat “right”, as it seems that every source I’ve read contradicts at least one other source. To put it into programming parlance, asking “What’s the best diet and exercise regimen to achieve my desired results?” is like asking, “What’s the best programming language to use to build my application?”. The answer is going to vary from source to source, and ultimately boils down to the dreaded, “It depends”.

In my humble non-professional-nutritionist opinion, my vegetarian diet was not providing nearly enough calories to handle the level of intensity at which I was exercising.

As you start to exercise, your body uses glycogen, stored in the liver and muscles, for fuel. The University of Michigan Medical School says that, after about 30 minutes, you switch to burning fat stores for energy. A long moderate aerobic session lightens your fat load and brings you a few steps closer to those skinny jeans. But if the exercise is high-intensity or you are not consuming enough calories, your body will convert protein from muscle fiber into energy. Instead of burning fat, you devour muscle.


The solution

Operating under the assumption that my current diet is not providing enough calories and/or protein, a change is needed. Now, I’m not suggesting that I couldn’t modify my vegetarian diet to bump up the calories and protein. There are definitely ways to do that. The problem is, it’s more work than I really want to put into it. As stated earlier, my motivation for going vegetarian was not for moral reasons, but rather to drop fat, and to do it with a minimal amount of effort (this assumes that one would consider cutting meats out of their diet to be a minimal amount of effort). If the solution here is potentially as simple as “eat cow”, I can do that.

But I don’t want this newfound realization to mean that I’m going to run out to Burger King and order a Double Bacon Whopper with cheese. I believe that there is a “proper” way to introduce meats back into my diet and to achieve the results that I’m looking for. I believe that proper way may be the paleo diet.

I first heard about the paleo diet a few months back. I dismissed it as being just another fad diet, as it sounded like an Atkins clone. But the more I read about it, the more it makes sense and seems to address the issue that I’m facing. Lots of good protein from grass-fed red meats, elimination of processed foods, balanced with vegetables and a few fruits. Not necessarily an easy diet. Might be more difficult than going vegetarian, in fact. While meats are allowed, and in fact a primary food source, it’s not just any meats but meant to be restricted to grass-fed meats. No packaged/processed meats from the local supermarket chain. Eliminating processed foods will be challenging as well. As a vegetarian, I could still eat breads and such. Not so on the paleo diet. In short, not quite so easy that a caveman could do it.

I’m still in the research stage, looking into the diet itself as well as perusing local suppliers of grass-fed beef. I’ll follow up with my findings, as well as whether or not I’ve decided to make the change. But as of now, and unless I uncover something completely unexpected, I’m roughly 80% sure that this is something I’ll be doing in the very near future.