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On Being a Vegan: the first 100 days

Exercise and proper nutrition have been an important regimen in my life for the last 40 years.  Over the years, I have trained as hard as competitive athletes and I have the knee and shoulder operations to prove it!   Over this time, I pretty much subscribed to the old school theory of high protein and low carbohydrate, low fat diet.  Unfortunately, for much of my younger years, I paid little attention to fat intake as like most athletes, as long as I was getting plenty of protein, I thought I was doing the right thing.  As I went through professional school and hospital residency, I began testing my lipids and always had a high normal level of cholesterol, generally hovering around 200.  My HDL’s were always high so I was pretty content.  When one of my buddies had a heart attack in his early 40’s, I pretty much eliminated red meat in my diet, spare an occasional steak or burger several times a year.  As I got into my fifth decade, my LDL (bad cholesterol) began to climb.  My red meat intake was minimal but I was eating a lot of white meat chicken, turkey (tons of turkey) fish and my usual protein supplements.  I pretty eliminated processed carbs over all this time as well.  When my LDL climbed to 114 my physician suggested I begin taking a statin and I began taking Zocor 40 mg each evening.  This allowed me to maintain my same diet but lowered my total cholesterol and LDL to normal limits.

I have to admit that in the past I pretty much harassed and verbally tortured my vegetarian friends.  I thought they were crazy, after all, our teeth, digestive system and evolution were adapted for carnivorous habits.  They put forth pretty good arguments for eliminating animal products, but my teasing remained incessant; after all, that is how I was brought up.  Lift weights, do cardio and eat protein.

Fast forward to 2009.  I have many friends who are cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons.  Most of them are pretty health conscious as they see the ravages of the toxic food environment we live in first hand.  Everyone of these docs mentioned a book called “The China Study” that is an evidence based text that not only extols the virtues of a vegan diet, but presents scientific proof that this diet can prevent and even reverse numerous diseases.  I really did not want to read it because I did not have any desire to change my diet and exercise regimen.  When I received an iPad as a gift, I needed a book to read on it, so I ordered “The China Study” and read it.  In some ways it is not an easy read as there is so much medical and scientific documentation, it is somewhat like reading a medical journal.  Having said that, it is fascinating!  This text discusses the disgusting state of nutritional affairs in our society.  It underlines that we are getting lazy, fat and sick from the fat and sugar that we eat and the alarming ignorance of nutrition that exists in our country and world.  Reading this book really makes you feel like a slug.  You can almost feel the fat in your arteries as you turn the pages.  We are an obese society and we are producing more obese offspring, all destined to become victims of diseases of affluence.  Diseases of affluence relate to cultural progress.  Underdeveloped societies  subsist largely on non animal foods, thus eat a lot of vegetables and grains.  The title “China Study” follows the life work of internationally known nutritionist Dr. Colin Campbell.  He has followed rural societies in China that subsist primarily on a vegetarian diet and compares them to urban Chinese populations that eat primarily animal based protein.  He shows, over numerous generations and subpopulations, that the rural Chinese that eat mostly vegetables have much lower incidences of heart disease, prostate, colon and breast cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and other common “Western” diseases.  He backs each statement with scientific documentation.  This is important to me as I am as skeptical as they come when it comes to “miracle diets” and claims.  His point is that as societies progress and obtain wealth, they then begin to raise and eat animals and dairy products and this is when the diseases of affluence begin.  He even has corrected the studies for smoking and other societal variables.  People in poorer countries (assuming proper hygiene standards) are generally much healthier than the average American.  The reason is that they don’t eat significant animal protein.  Cardiac bypass surgery, type II diabetes and the increased incidence of many cancers and even Alzheimer’s disease can be directly correlated with societies that eat meat and dairy.

He makes the point that although heredity may play a part in disease, people adapt the diseases of the place they live.  A case in point is that Japanese men have a low incidence of heart disease in their homeland, but Japanese men that moved to Hawaii become clogged and sick.

What is really awakening in the book is the chapters on Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn a cardiothoracic surgeon at The Cleveland Clinic.  His life work consists of studying the effects of a vegetarian diet on hardening of the arteries.  He has shown in vegetarian and control groups of heart attack patients that he could in fact reverse atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries by eliminating animal protein (meat and dairy).  He shows the scans of reversal of plaques in the vegetarian group and the improvement in their lifestyle while numerous patients in the non vegetarian group got worse and some died of their disease.  You cannot read these chapters and not question your current diet.

The China Study also discusses the “toxic food environment” of our society in depth and reading this makes you feel fat and clogged, even if you eat well.  Our children are growing up sloths and processed foods such as fast foods , snacks, pastries and supersized portions are making them sicker than ever and at an earlier age.  We are on a downward spiral in terms of fitness.  Computer games have replaced exercise and even the NFL is employing programs to try to get children to be more active and eat better.

One of the biggest problems is the ignorance of the average person about diet, fat and nutrients.  Many doctors are also contemporarily uniformed as well.  Paying close attention to what we eat can have huge payoffs in terms of health, disease and longevity.  We have been brainwashed by a corporate mentality that milk, orange juice, beef and eggs will make us healthy.  In reality, avocados have much more vitamin C than do oranges, red meat with hormones and artery clogging fat is bad, chicken has more cholesterol than red meat,  and many of the allergies plaguing our children can be traced to dairy products.  I know that many of you are shaking you heads as this sounds like a cult or plot, but money talks and the food industry is interested in profit and not health.  Eliminating sodas and snacks from school vending machines and offering more healthy alternatives is finally beginning to outpace the food industry who again is interested in profit and not health.

It is human nature to say “my uncle smoked and drank and ate red meat all his live and lived to be 90”.  This may be true but is a huge exception and not a rule.  Yes, heredity does play a role, but banking your health on an exception is not a good investment strategy.  Yes, lots of people have had poor diets and habits and lived long, but the final decade of life is important and to spending it in a nursing home is not optimal.  The vast majority of adult health problems are from diseases of affluence.  High blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and many cancers can be traced to gluttony and poor nutrition.  Add alcohol abuse and tobacco and you have an even deadlier prognosis to enjoy your last decade of life.  Go to any hospital and most of the total joint patients are overweight and have destroyed their knees and hips.  Obesity also produces or contributes to high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.  COPD and liver disease in many cases is a direct result of lifestyle choices.  So many of these conditions are preventable, but it takes self control, discipline and nutritional education.

One of my past arguments was against vegetarian diets was that humans evolved teeth that were designed for eating meat.  What I did not take the time to think out was the fact that humans were never designed to live into old age.  Teleologically, our main goals are self maintenance and reproduction.  The fact that humans can reproduce as early as 12 years of age never included old age in the evolutional master plan.  We did not need to live long, biologically we only needed to live long enough to reproduce.  So in effect, diet did not matter as long as you could find enough calories to survive and reproduce.  In nature, many species of animals die immediately after mating.  Due to the fact that compared to a infant calf that can leave the cow at birth and be on all fours in minutes, humans need protection as they mature more slowly, so we did need to hang around long enough to insure nurturing, maturation and safety of our offspring, but evolution sees no need to live 90 years.

I know all of this sounds like fanaticism, but in a way, that is what discipline requires.  Most people simply can’t do it.  Playing a musical instrument or being good at a sport is difficult and that is why the average person doesn’t do it.  Eating healthy is similar.  It requires knowledge, practice and discipline.  I really think that if we all had to go to work naked one day a year we would pay more attention to how we look.  Unfortunately, it is also more expensive to eat healthy, but not prohibitive.  Low income individuals can easier get a Wendy’s triple burger than to go to a grocery store and purchase nutrient filled foods.  Posting caloric content is so very important as many people eat fast food meals that have more fat in a single sandwich than they should get in an entire day.  Obviously, the food industry is resistant to post calories as it may influence profit.

If you observe nature, deer, birds and virtually all other animals spend their entire life foraging.  In the wild, it is not easy to find calories and at one time humans did the same.  You may walk miles to find a fruit, vegetable or insect to eat.  In primal times, corn did not grow in vast fields and herds of cattle in pens did not exist.  It was all we could do to find enough calories to survive and many times we did not and were returned to the earth.  Survival is tough!  Today, we have easy and cheap access to calories and we have way more than we need.  We are hard wired to consume calories but not in the excess that we can and this is why we are fat.  Calories used to be hard to find, now they are easy.  Also, fat is a tremendous energy source with 9 calories per gram.  That is more than double carbohydrates and protein, so teleologically, we are programmed to like fat.  It meant survival at one time, and although necessary for health, if often means death now.

I read the book and it was alarming and eye opening.  Dr. Esselstyn’s son Rip is a retired world class triathlete and now a Texas firefighter.  His book “The Engine 2 Diet” is a much easier read and is more designed for vegan athletes and those who exercise.  You can read this book in a day and it is chocked full of tasty vegan recipes  and exercise routines. This is a better book for the “hip vegan”, but the China Study really gets to the heart of the matter.

So……………..after reading both these books and seeing my cardiology and cardiothoracic buddies trying the vegan diet, I decided to give it a shot for 90 days.  My goal was number one to see if I could lower my cholesterol and LDL to the point where I did not have to take the Zocor.  Number two to see if I had the discipline to eliminate my much beloved animal protein and number three to see if I could maintain my energy level and muscle mass.

I have to tell you, I hate telling people that I am a “vegan” as to many it conotates as a weed and seed eating hippy with a tie dyed shirt and dreadlocks (not that there is anything wrong with that!).  I have no problem using animal products or leather, just on a true vegetarian diet sans the politics of veganism.

 First I eliminated all the animal based products from my house.  Gave my protein powder away, no more skim milk or egg whites, forget the poultry I subsisted on previously, it actually has more cholesterol than red meat.  If you are a vegan, you don’t eat anything with a mother or a face.  That was a bit tough for a sushi addict like myself.  No cheese either and you have to be careful about little things like crackers that may contain animal fat or products.

I am here to tell you that you can’t do a vegan diet based on what you have in your fridge or pantry, forget it or you will be living on carrots and celery.  The biggest surprise was that I was actually eating a much more broad range of foods than I had for years because in the past, I really limited the carbs.  The saving grace of the contemporary vegan diet is the fact that many companies make a wide variety of non animal vegan products.  Many of these are soy based, and there is vegan pizza, vegan spaghetti, vegan chili, vegan pudding and yogurt, vegan ice cream, vegan turkey (Tofurky) and even vegan buffalo “chicken” wings.  All these things taste really great to me, although my wife is more discriminating.  I am lactose intolerant (along with about 70% of the planet) so I have always had a love/hate relationship with dairy.  I am now in love with soy milk and almond milk.  Still get the calcium and vitamins, but without the cholesterol and lactose problems.  By the way, it really helps to have you spouse on the same diet, makes life much easier.  You have to do a little bit more shopping and all cities have whole food stores, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how many mainstream supermarkets carry vegetarian and vegan food choices.  This is partly due to the popularity of a growing movement of vegans including Mike Tyson and Steve Winn of Las Vegas fame.

Dining out can be challenging, but usually it is easy to get salads, baked potatoes, grains, tofu, hummus and vegetables.  I mentioned that I have, since high school, been a protein powder freak.  Gotta have those shakes.  I now do the same, but use soy protein powder.  I think that athletes still need more protein that average couch potatoes but not nearly as much as we have been led to believe. 

Do I crave meat and milk?  That has been the strange thing.  For 59 years I have been eating animal products and at no time over the first 90 days did I crave anything.  That was the biggest surprise for me.  At first it was sort of weird not eating meat, dairy or fish, but my vegan buddies told me that my palate would change and they were correct.  Not only do I not crave meat and dairy, but I actually look forward to multicolored veggies, salads and fruits. Other than a couple of M&M’s I have not eaten any animal products for 100 days.

What about my Cholesterol?  Well, it worked, I dropped my total cholesterol from 173 to 133!  That is pretty impressive.  I am not sure if my cardiologist will stop my Zocor or cut the dose so I still reap the anti inflammatory properties.

So, at 100 days, my goal was to go back to eating at least fish and skim milk, but now that the deadline has passed I really don’t have any pressing intention to deviate from the vegan gig.  Not saying I never will or not saying that I may broaden my diet from time to time in moderation, but I can say that in no circumstance will I go back to living on poultry, skim milk, fish and scant carbohydrates.

How do I feel?  Let me preface by saying that I hate people that try a diet, vitamin or supplement and all of a sudden their whole life has changed.  There is a lot to be said about the placebo effect!  Really, I don’t feel any different.  Since I was always health conscious (thanks dad) I never felt “bad”.  I don’t notice more energy or anything similar, but I don’t notice anything negative.  I feel “cleaner” or “less greasy”, but admittedly a lot of that is mindset.  I don’t ever get that “ate too much feeling” and I have not changed social drinking of occasional wine or beer.  My lactose intolerance is obviously cured.  Without getting too personal, let’s say that vegans probably spend more time in the bathroom than do meat eaters.  Fiber has many advantages including colon health.  My cardio and weight training has not changed and I don’t think I have lost any muscle mass.  One thing……………I have gained 8 lbs., while my wife lost 8 lbs.  I truly think my body holds on to carbohydrate calories with extreme efficiency and my carb intake is certainly up and nuts are little fat bombs and need to me eaten in moderation.  Also during the 90 days of archery season here in Virginia, I cut my workouts in half, partially for time and partially for healing (as I train hard the other 9 months), so I anticipate losing the winter weight soon after the first of the year.  Most vegans lose significant fat in the first 30 days.  This underlines that even good calories in excess will cause weight gain.    My biggest accolade was the dramatic reduction in cholesterol and LDL levels and I am most proud of that.

Many people say life is too short to limit ones diet to such levels but I say it is too short not to.  None of us have a guarantee of longevity, but it makes sense that by limiting heart disease and numerous cancers and other diseases like diabetes we will have a better chance.  The studies supporting vegan diets reducing plaques that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease are also very attractive.  Some people simply love food as a passion, hobby and past time.  While that is great, many of them are way out of shape.  In reality, keeping fit and trim is very simple; eat less and move more.  Seems so simple, but look around, the average person simply lacks the discipline.

In conclusion, now at 100 vegan days, I have enjoyed the change, don’t crave what I used to eat and I have less joint pain than in the past but not sure if that is directly related.  I love the lower cholesterol and LDL and for now will stay on track.  Again, I may broaden my choices to fish and egg whites in the future, that is what former president Clinton does, an extended vegan diet.  They say that if you get your cholesterol under 150 and your LDL under 70 you will be “heart attack proof”.  Time will tell.

Suggested Readings:

The China Study

T. Colin Campbell


The Engine 2 Diet

Rip Esselstyn

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