Monthly Archives: September 2013

Veg Origins: Pt. 1 John Robbins

(This is a Re-Post from The Vegan Training Table, during the Vegan Mofo marathon. The theme of vegan origins and influences fits in better here.)

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My appetite and actual food consumption have not quite caught up with food production in the Plant Powered Performance Lab. So I mined the great list of writing prompts the Vegan Mofo HQ devised to help everyone get through the month and picked the most obvious one: My Origins.

Anyone who chooses a vegetarian or vegan diet or lifestyle has instantly begun to swim upstream. Unless you live as a hermit, you immediately face resistance. We are a naturally social critter, and despite the complexity of society, a big part of our psychology is bound up in being accepted by others. Challenge any of those beliefs, even minor ones, and you will feel the resistance from others. How do we make that choice? What changes us? What allows us to continue when we know it upsets others?

First comes the most basic, obvious question:

Why?

The usual answers are well known and sometimes understood, even by omnivores:
Health
Environmental Concerns
Animal Welfare

No surprise there. But this essay isn’t so much about why I believe those are sound enough reasons to swim upstream, but more about how I reached the conclusion to clean my plate of animal products. In my origin myth there are two themes that seem inseparable and somewhat obscured by the mists of hairspray from the Big Hair 1980s. They are John Robbins’ seminal work Diet For a New America and my interest in Eastern philosophy, which often includes a vegetarian lifestyle.

Those who have been around the veg world for any length of time certainly know of John Robbins and his many books, and those lucky enough to hear him speak know what a great ambassador he is. I first heard of John Robbins in a cover story interview in the Sep./Oct issue of Yoga Journal. His book came out a few months later and his name stayed as his message spread. I first read Diet for a New America in 1989. I was immediately changed. I knew that there was no way I could continue as an omnivore. It was one of those genie in the bottle moments. Just like you can’t put the genie back into the proverbial bottle, certain things cannot be unlearned once learned. The realities of an animal based diet were forever engraved in my brain from that one book by that one man. Even when I quit, the experience of that book haunted me. Those three veg themes were so clearly put forward in the book that I found it impossible to rationalize eating meat any longer. (Although I did in fact do that on occasion, always with guilt)

So with a couple of months to prepare myself, I chose New Year’s Day 1990 as the day to become vegetarian. Many would think, and I am sure that many did at the time, “just another New Year’s Resolution, dead by February.” Except that it didn’t die. It lasted 6 1/2 years until June 1996. Why it stopped is another story, and surely the more important one. Later.

For those long time vegetarians who can remember the 1980s, it was a different time back then. There were not as many resources available. There certainly was no internet and the vast sharing we can do now. Definitely no Vegan Mofo! There was the Moosewood Cookbook, which was my bible, Yoga Journal, which had some veg articles, and the now defunct East West magazine that had a macrobiotic perspective. Vegetarian Times was out there somewhere, but I don’t ever remember seeing it. There was no Whole Foods Market, and while not required, most of us shopped at least some of the time in funky little health food stores that had a distinct counter cultural vibe. But despite the paucity of information and isolation, John Robbins and THE BOOK as it came to be known by those who were spiritually minded or into alternative health care, was everywhere. As much as it was possible in such a small world, John Robbins was a celebrity. For me, he was a role model.

There was a serious benefit for me in the fact that this lifestyle was so minor and small. I had to learn to cook. Vegetables. Whole grains. Legumes. The healthy stuff. There wasn’t much processed vegan convenience food then. It was a real DIY mentality. But there was a drawback. I had never even heard the word “vegan”, and the thought of eliminating eggs or dairy never really occurred to me. That part of the message never came through to me reading Robbins’s book. I rationalized very easily that dairy and eggs were acceptable because the animal wasn’t killed. I wasn’t “eating death” as many yogis like to describe it. I did not realize at the time that egg laying hens and dairy cattle live just as brutal a life as any animal destined for slaughter. But just giving up meat seemed so radical at the time, I rationalized that eggs and dairy didn’t matter, especially for my health.

But while I can look back on the choices and rationalizations now with some regret, at the same time I am very proud of myself for even asking the questions. I am even more proud of myself for answering those questions in such a way that I could live with the difficulties and resistance such a lifestyle naturally engenders. The reason John Robbins seemed so radical was simply that very few people ever asked questions about where their food came from.

John Robbins opened my eyes to the realities of our food choices long before Food Inc., Super Size Me, Forks Over Knives, or Michael Pollan. Even before Dr. Dean Ornish published proof that a veg diet can reverse heart disease, John Robbins showed eating animal foods has serious detriments to our personal, physical health. I’ve always been interested in health and fitness, even though I was not a successful athlete. But I wanted to enjoy my physical self, so Robbins spoke to me. My favorite sports have always been outdoor sports, and at the time surfing was my passion. Surfing brings you into very close contact with the environment, and often, nasty human made pollution. Robbins spoke to me about how our food choices affect the natural world that I love to play in. I grew up always having pets of some kind. Loving animals of certain species while blithely ignoring the suffering of other species no longer made sense because Robbins spoke to me.

But mostly John Robbins showed a beautiful interconnectedness and symmetry where health exists on many planes that all intimately connect to each other. Years later I would encounter this thought again from the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh who created a neologism to express this, interbeing. We are all in the act of being, and we be in a way inter-connected to each other, to other animals, and the larger web of life on earth. Our personal physical, emotional, and spiritual health depends on all those other beings. The health of all those other beings depends on our personal health. John Robbins showed this to me in 1989.

Thank you, John.

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Do You Really Need To Eat That? Pt. 2

The last post explored why the answer to the title question is usually NO. For most people, most of the time, workouts do not need any special snacking or sports products before, during, or after the event. In a society where the vast majority of people who exercise do so to lose or maintain weight, more calories simply aren’t needed, or are even counterproductive. Most people have probably seen news reports of research studies that conclude the exercise does not help weight loss. A lot of exercisers, athletes, and personal trainers were upset with this, but I think a lot people felt their frustrating personal experience validated.

What Is Going On Here?

First, most people overestimate the calories they burn during exercise. Our bodies are quite efficient. Evolving in an environment of food scarcity has ensured that. Based on Allen Lim’s research, I estimate no more than 500 calories an hour for most people. Obviously, there’s a range, where an experienced fit athlete may burn less due to better technique and efficiency compared to a beginner with poor technique. The unfortunate and simple truth is exercise does not burn nearly as many calories as people think.

Second, most people underestimate the amount of calories they consume. Research studies show that people underestimate calories by 30-50%, even professionals! But you don’t need research do determine this. Just look around. Well over 70% of people are not at their ideal weight. Yet these people (most of us) consistently eat more calories than they need, even when they don’t want to!

So Why Do We Get It Wrong?

We let our conscious mind and executive function try to solve problems that our autonomic nervous system already handled. Translation: We OVERTHINK it.

DON’T OVERTHINK IT!

But that’s exactly what the fitness articles encourage us to do: Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, eat a pre workout snack, drink a sports drink while you exercise, be sure to consume calories within 30 minutes of finishing. The assumption here is that exercise is so tricky, your survival instincts are not up to the challenge and that your conscious mind has to step in and “figure it all out” so you won’t collapse.

Think about that for a moment: Do you honestly think we could have survived as a species struggling to gather enough food to eat if we had to think through every calorie? Did our ancestors count their calories with sticks in the sand? Did they count up how many glasses of water they drank that day to know if they were hydrated? Of course not! So why do we think we need to now?

Consider the fabulous precision of the autonomic nervous system: You do not have to consciously think about your heart rate, breathing, or digestion. It is all orchestrated perfectly without any effort on your part. Why should eating and drinking be any different? It isn’t. Our thirst and hunger operate in the same way as our need for oxygen. While we can consciously influence these mechanisms, there is really no need.

So Why Doesn’t Exercise Cause Weight Loss?

Folks have suggested that people simply overcompensate by eating more calories so that they don’t lose, and maybe even gain. It could happen consciously, as in a reward system, like, “I worked out today, so I deserve a treat.” Remember the small number of calories exercise burns. That treat negates the workout.

But I think the unconscious action of the brain is more important. Your brain has already accounted for the calories burned, and simply increases your appetite without any conscious thought. When you sit down to eat, you eat more. If you added in snacks, you could easily create  a surplus. I believe that this happens as seamlessly as responding to decreased oxygen availability at high altitude. If you travel from sea level to the mountains, your brain recognizes that oxygen is harder to come by. You might become consciously aware of this if you try to exercise, or you might not. But the brain immediately speeds up the breathing rate and heart rate to compensate. Not dramatically, you won’t be puffing with a racing heart, but it is measurable.  I believe our thirst and appetite operate the same way.

Do You Really Need To Eat That?

I believe the answer is most  often NO.

Your brain is unconsciously on it, and will make sure you get the fluids and calories you need. If you let your conscious brain try to step in, it ends up solving the problem twice. Trust your body to know what it needs, and its ability to get it.

DON’T OVERTHINK IT!

There are times to eat during and immediately after exercise, and the conscious mind can help with the planning and logistics, but it shouldn’t take charge. Next time…

Do You Really Need to Eat That?

Allen Lim wrote very succinctly at the beginning of his cookbook for athletes:

“First Ask This> Do You Really Need To Eat That?

If  you’ve ever run out of fuel while exercising and ‘bonked’ or ‘hit the wall,’ then you know how important eating early or often is to performance. . . However, once we take a look at the numbers I think you’ll agree that in many situations we are better served not eating anything when we’re exercising.”  (Feed Zone Portables, p. 4)

Pre and Post workout nutrition is way overstated.

As an endurance athlete who does not eat animal foods I get asked a lot:

  1. What should I eat before I work out?
  2. What should I eat while I work out?
  3. What should I eat after I work out?

The answers I used years ago came from the sports nutrition and supplement industry:

  1. a gel or half a bottle of sports drink
  2. 1-2 gels plus sports drink per hour
  3. a post workout recovery drink

Then I wised up a little and decided that such engineered food wasn’t all that nutritious. So I changed my answer:

  1. same?
  2. same!
  3. a recovery smoothie in the blender with fruit, some spinach and protein powder

A slight improvement, but I still wasn’t at racing weight, and I was going through canisters of powders and potions like they were going out of style, all while searching for this elusive “recovery” that would allow me to train myself into the ground and bounce right back.

So I wised up a little more and realized real food worked better than the engineered stuff and my answer changed again:

  1. whatever the last meal was, breakfast or lunch, ideally 2-3 hours prior
  2. maybe a sport drink, maybe some dates, maybe a rice ball/cake
  3. maybe a recovery smoothie, or some fruit and a meal an hour later

Then I wised up even more and began to question the whole process, with a new answer:

  1. the previous meal
  2. nothing
  3. the next meal, whenever that was

Everything went just fine and I learned that:

The Problem of Pre/Post and During Workout Nutrition is an ILLUSION!

You don’t need to expend any special effort to fuel up before a workout. You do not need to guzzle down 250 calories an hour during exercise, nor do you need some magic concoction after a workout.

Folks, we are a nation that is 70% overweight or obese. We do not need to look for new places and times to take in calories. Yet all the magazines drill into our heads that as soon as we start exercising, suddenly fueling becomes a tricky problem that requires diligent effort to overcome.

NONSENSE.

Most people, most of the time, who are exercising for an hour or so, do not need to eat anything. That’s right: NOTHING! If you are eating a healthy diet of adequate calories, you do not need to suddenly increase that. Your regular meals can suffice. What I see is a weird practice of people trying to limit their portions and calories at meals, then add all those calories back in the form of workout fuel  and pre/post workout snacks. Madness!  Just eat your regular meals and exercise. Your appetite will balance out whatever additional energy expenditure you engage in. Your brain is pretty smart like that, just trust it.

So why don’t people just trust their brain and eat normally?

Because some people do have to make a special effort. These are special people. We want to be like them. They are professional athletes, and they are not like the rest of us.

Professional athletes train multiple times a day for hours at a time. Their energy demands are very high. And it is crucial that they recover from the first workout of the day in time to put in a quality effort for the second (or third) workout. But that does not reflect the reality of a normal person,  with a normal schedule, who exercises for an hour or so.

An average exerciser can store 1000 calories or so of carbohydrate in their muscles. And many thousands of calories of fat. An average exerciser burns no more than 500 calories an hour for aerobic exercise. See the numbers? Until your exercise session goes well over two hours, fueling is not necessary. Post workout fueling would be important if you trained right after waking, but that’s OK, it’s called “breakfast.”

Thanks to the sports nutrition industry and our own insecurity, we think we need far more fuel than we do. For special events, like really long weekend efforts, or races at high intensity, some more fuel is needed. But regular people, on regular days, doing regular exercise, only need regular meals.

Eat, Sleep, Train, Live

Don’t Overthink It