|I'm a work in progress, but I think the changes are evident in this photo over only 6 months.|
At the beginning of 2010, I had picked smoking back up (after a few years off), was drinking regularly, and was happily immersed in all kinds of culinary tinkering resulting in exceptionally rich handmade foods. Despite regular visits for cardio and/or weights at the gym, I was gaining weight and not very satisfied with my life. On a lark, I signed up for a sprint triathlon and began to make incremental changes in my life. I started a new cycle of being healthy all weekdays and then I'd let loose on the weekends. While I was smoking less and drinking less, I felt worse and worse.
One evening I came home from a hard workout, ate some hummus and veggies, showered, relaxed, had a glass of wine, and promptly vomited. I remember wondering, “What the hell is going on here?” Hangovers became debilitating, and these two aspects of my life (healthy vs. unhealthy) weren’t fitting together. The physical stress of this conflict was evident.
*TMI alert*For a few years prior, I noticed small amounts of blood in my stool after nights out drinking or eating rich food. There were no accompanying red-flag symptoms, so I dismissed it and continued telling myself I’d go to the doctor soon. As time went on, I started passing a bit more blood and became genuinely concerned. I negotiated further with myself, cutting down the alcohol and slashing the cigarettes except for vacations and on very rare occasions. Those few random times resulted in hangovers SO grueling and I got SO wasted SO fast I couldn't believe it. The rich food I used to eat became painful to digest. Every night when I lay down to sleep my stomach hurt – I was constantly painfully bloated and uncomfortable. It seemed like the healthier I became, the fewer my options were, and the less “fun” I could have.
I finally went to a gastroenterologist in January of 2011 and he did a ton of tests and nothing was conclusive. My insurance wouldn't pay the $2500 for a colonoscopy, so I asked him to run everything else he could to make sure I didn't have cancer. Fortunately, I came back cancer and disease-free, and the doctor didn’t have anything to offer me other than more tests and prescription drugs to ease my symptoms. I was frustrated with the medical community and their lack of answers so I began an elimination diet (taking things out of my diet to find what caused the issues). I have all the symptoms of someone with IBS (and have my whole life, it's only gotten worse) and Crohn's disease (for which there is no conclusive test). I began to research what might be causing my problems and discovered the most common issues are dairy, alcohol, caffeine, refined foods (processed breads, foods, etc.), high protein diets, fatty meat, fried food, and chocolate.
It was time for me to be honest with myself. I already knew dairy was a problem for me, and I suspected the alcohol wasn’t helping (since it's a blood thinner). I knew anything rich (cream sauce, fatty food, fatty meat) was a definite problem. I was pretty bummed to say goodbye to cheese and alcohol. I spent most of my adult life drinking two glasses (or more) a night and thinking that was pretty normal. I mean, everyone has a few glasses of wine after work, right? But to be honest, it was more like 3-4 glasses of wine a night. And honestly I didn’t really ever go a day without drinking. By this time, I was beginning to realize that it really, really, really wasn’t normal and I had a sneaking suspicion that I might have an alcohol dependency problem. Adam had gone through phases of non-drinking before so I figured I’d give it a go. I had also signed up for the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon and was starting to be more serious about training. I knew it would be a big change, but I had no idea how significant, or how hard it would be for me.
Out went the dairy, and the alcohol, and the fatty foods, and almost all of the meat. We always ate some vegetarian meals, so we mixed in seafood, fish, and increased our vegetable intake. We played with different grains like quinoa, wheat berries, and millet. It came as no surprise that after a week or two I felt amazing. Gone were the painful bloating, the bleeding and discomfort. I felt light and energized instead of cramping and sluggish. I slept better, I woke up before my alarm and I felt better during and after my increasing workouts. On rare occasions I’d get the urge to “treat myself” to a glass of wine or something on my “avoid” food list, and the punishment would be swift and severe. When you’re no longer drinking on a regular basis, two glasses of wine makes for an all-day hangover. My stomach would hurt, reminding me that those foods were not meant for me, either. Some of us are slow learners.
I had to retrain my brain. The things I had considered rewards were now punishing me, and the cleaner my body became, the more I realized they had always punished me. Alcohol was always hurting me: Slowing down mind and keeping me beneath my potential each day, keeping me tied to an addictive cycle while adding countless useless calories, stripping my body of needed energy and preventing me from having a strong immune system, and increasing my chances of making bad decisions. Sure, some people can have a drink or two here and there and be fine. I’m not one of those people and while I told myself for years (decades even) that I didn’t have an alcohol problem, the further I stepped away from the barstool, the more I realized I had been lying to myself. My entire life immediately snapped into focus. Once-lofty goals became reachable. Getting drawn into personal conflict became easily avoidable. My priorities shifted as I became in control of my emotions and could finally steer my life in a direction I wanted. To me, there is no real benefit that comes from drinking; I feel really good all the time - without repercussions. Drinking is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. It might stop the bleeding for a little bit, but it's an ineffective solution. When I realized I felt really healthy and really alive every day, I didn't need to find another way to make myself feel better.
Rich food was no longer a reward. And that was a bit more insidious of a habit. As a dedicated omnivore and part time at-home chef, I found myself confused about my diet. I began to look at the foods that were causing me issues and realized that they probably weren’t the best choices from a general health standpoint either. Cheese is super high in fat, and who the heck eats just one serving? A serving is the size of a pair of dice. There’s no question about the dietary implications of those delicious fried foods. Fatty meat I could understand as meat’s never been a huge draw for me, and I could see the negatives of the fat and cholesterol. But what about chicken? Fish? Shellfish? Poultry? Buffalo?
I began to be choosier with my food sources. After my own research and watching a handful of documentaries of the Food Inc. genre, I began to understand the importance of buying food that I could believe in. Organic, sustainably-farmed, fair-trade grown, pasture-raised, grass-fed, non-GMO, real and if possible locally grown/raised food. I began to dig deeper as I realized that a lot of labels don’t tell the truth. Cage-free eggs aren’t necessarily pasture-raised. Natural chicken doesn’t mean organic, which, in turn, doesn’t mean cruelty-free. Grass-fed cattle are often “finished” in a feedlot standing piles of their own shit. Buying sustainable seafood is a nightmare and virtually impossible. More and more I began to question what I was putting into my body.
As I dove into half Ironman training, I began to look for more tools to enhance my new healthy body and triathlete lifestyle. I picked up a book I bought and forgot about called Thrive, by endurance athlete Brendan Brazier. In the book, Brazier discusses his philosophy of plant-based eating as a means of energy conservation. Your body only has so much energy available to do a multitude of tasks – physical labor, brain functions, healing, immune system functions, etc… We begin the energy cycle via food we eat and our body breaks that food down into units of energy that we can then use. Breaking food down into useable energy requires energy so it makes sense to eat foods that require the least amount of energy to digest. These foods are high net gain foods that translate into energy and nutrients with minimal effort: Unprocessed, fresh, real, organic plant products: grains, legumes, sprouts, greens, fruits, roots, nuts and seeds.
All the necessary nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are available from well-balanced plant-based diet. ALL of them. Every single essential amino acid. All your protein. All your vitamins and minerals. Essential fats. Fiber. EVERYTHING. All without wreaking havoc on your insides, taxing your energy resources, damaging the environment, paying money to agribusiness, and without taking life to sustain your own. When we realized this, we shifted heavily towards a plant-based diet. I want my physical energy spent strengthening my body and I want to live a life making choices that put my money where my mouth and my mind are.
The end result is phenomenal. My body composition shifted entirely. I feel healthy, light, energetic, and motivated. I know where my food comes from and don’t feel like I’m paying some corporate conglomerate to raise livestock in inhumane and unsanitary conditions, then slaughter them on my behalf. I know that I’m making a difference in the environment by making eco-friendly food choices. I know that my body heals and recovers faster than it ever has, and I almost never get sick. I recovered 100% in 3 days from a half-ironman I recently did. I don't believe in saying, "I'll never eat _____" or "I'll never drink another glass of ______ again", but I can attest to the powerful and positive changes that have occurred as a result of what I do and don’t put in my body. My body feels light, healthy, and energetic, I perform at a higher level physically, and right now I'm watching lifelong dreams rush towards me from the realm of the previously impossible because I have more time and energy to devote to them.