Last year the Rigpa Sangha heard the news that Sogyal Rinpoche was entering a three-year retreat. Faced with mounting concerns about his personal behavior and forced to confront a physical illness, Rinpoche stepped down from his leadership role in Rigpa.
My reaction to the news of possible misconduct was one of concern for all involved. The people who questioned Rinpoche’s actions I respect. Their letter was thorough and specific.
After reading the letter and participating in a series of listening sessions, I was conflicted. Rinpoche brought me to a place of understanding and awareness of the dharma. At times, his teachings were transformational and I was personally and, quite literally, transformed by his words and insights. At one retreat in particular, he singled me out in the audience and spoke to me. The words he spoke went into me and made a difference in my practice and education.
After completing the Ngondro and feeling like I was on a clear path, I heard the news of misconduct. There was absolutely no question of my support for those hurt by his actions. While I do not know these people, I offer my support, care, and anything else that helps in the process.
The complicating factor, here, is the role of the teacher and the lessons in Vajrayana. Does one abandon the teacher in the face of such conflict? Are we to simply move on to the next teacher with the idea that one is bad and another is good? I really dug deeply into this question. For example, does knowing that Gandhi was abusive or the Martin Luther King Jr. had extra-marital affairs invalidate their teachings? What difficult questions!
In the midst of all of this I faced my own health crisis and the chance to rebuild my body and mind in a new way. As I went through this very personal, emotional, and physical process, I latched on to an idea. What if I carried Rinpoche to his own good health and well-being. What if I took on the role of student, embracing the idea that everyone deserves support and compassion. What if I, in returning to my own good health, took on the role of taking care of Rinpoche and all those involved in the situation. What if I carried Rinpoche on my back?
In this process I imagined literally taking Rinpoche and all those who have alleged to have been hurt in the process and place them firmly on my shoulders and back. As I worked out, changed what I ate, settled into meditation, I would have each and every person in Rinpoche’s circle carried by me. I would give to Rinpoche all the support I could muster; to all those who were or felt abused I gave my love and compassion and, as a part of my own recovery, they were buoyed by my improving health and wellbeing. That I was the person bringing them along to their own personal happiness.
So, as I rode my bike on one of my training rides, I imagined them all on my back, giving to those who needed my support all the good health I could pass on. Through my physical and mental actions I could change the script as it had been written. I would by force of will and exertion change Rinpoche’s life and trajectory. I would help rewrite the story of abuse and aid in the recovery of all individuals.
This idea, though became a cornerstone of my experience. I was motivated to work out harder, eat correctly, speak correctly, meditate correctly. That somehow through my actions everything that had happened could be made whole.
As I think about it all, I have embraced the practice of Tonglen and made it an essential part of my being. That whatever happens to me in the short or long term, that my giving and taking becomes a core of my being and that, through my actions, I can lead individuals to happiness and the causes of happiness.
OK. So this post deals specifically with how I am losing about 1 pound per week on a plant-based diet. After testing the waters with this diet since November, I’ve figured out what works and what limits weight loss in my body. Hopefully, this information will help someone in need of such a plan.
First and foremost a few pieces of advice: have your blood work checked consistently. For many of us it’s a once a year thing: check it, make adjustments and done. For me, I’ve had blood tests 3 times since November 2017. I am diligent about checking for a few very specific blood markers: lipids (HDL, LDL), overall cholesterol, C-Reactive Protein, Homocystine, Glucose, Triglycerides, and what is called the Common Metabolic Panel. Further, I have done more in depth tests on my lipid levels as a result of my concern for Lipo A, B, and C and how they contribute to plaque buildup in my body. Everyone has specific things they are looking for in their blood work…find a doctor that treats your body wholistically, like a system of interrelated parts, rather than a doctor looking for one or two specific things.
Further, learn as much as you can about your body. I did not investigate what was happening for years and that was a huge mistake. You can come to understand how your body works and what is beneficial and what is not. For example, I now know how to turn on and off the weight loss engine in my body. No joke. I can coax my body to lose weight based almost entirely on what I put into my body.
Exercise is, of course, a factor in weight loss and good health, and, generally speaking, you cannot work out enough to drop lots of weight. Sure it’s possible to work out a ton and lose weight, BUT at some point, if exercise is your only solution, you will stop losing weight. (Please understand I’m speaking from my own experience.)
Finding an eating plan that you can stick to and believe in is also a key piece of the puzzle. Whatever you choose, you have to want to wake up, everyday, and eat your way to good health. In my case, after a number of failed attempts and a huge failure with what some call the ‘paleo-diet”, I found a plan that worked for me and fit with what I learned about my body, my blood work, and my health. I did research on the various scientific studies on health and eating.
When it came down to information about eating, I avoid studies that claim to find a single eating plan. Those studies, while important, are sometimes skewed to fit a certain perspective. My advice is to look at the science. In most cases, solid scientific studies are very specific in examining the role of one or two variables. The role of saturated fat from animal protein and its impact on LDL, for example. Most scientific studies are looking for correlations between one thing and another; to take an hypothesis (saturated fat impacts LDL) and reveal whether or not such a correlation exists.
If you dig into the research, you start to find credible studies that point to a specific direction for eating. For example, eating more fruits and vegetables contributes to better outcomes for people who eat those foods. Further, limiting dairy intake also offers positive improvements. As well, regardless of what many in the popular press have said, the science shows, definitively, that saturated fat contributes to many negative outcomes for physical health. In addition, eating simple carbohydrates and sugar contributes to negative outcomes as well. The science on these topics are well-researched and repeated over and over again. I’m not going to get into the various individual choices you can make….I will say that you can find something that works for you based on your own scientific study: your body!
In my case, I went from Paleo to Dr. Stephen Gundry’s eating plan to a plant-based diet. This change happened over the course of years. Why the changes? It’s pretty simple for me: diets filled with animal protein contributed, directly, to an increase in plaque buildup in my arteries and veins. How do I know this? Let’s look at the blood work: before my diet change: HDL: 46, LDL 98, Triglycerides 136, overall cholesterol 176, glucose 130. Those numbers come from the middle of my time on a paleo diet about four years ago. The numbers aren’t terrible are they? For me, they were an indication (that I did not realize at the time) of impending doom….plaque buildup in my coronary arteries. My weight loss, at first was rapid…then it stopped entirely.
Once I left the paleo diet on my doctor’s advice, I switched to even more vegetables, added back in fruit, and limited animal protein to just twice a week: the Gundry plan. On that plan, my numbers dropped to better results: HDL 43, LDL 76, Triglycerides 98, glucose 110, cholesterol 153. Improvement! Almost two years later, however, I had an MI. Weight loss stabilized and ended despite my exercise regimen.
Finally, switching over to a no-oil, plant-based diet based on the ideas of Dr. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, my blood work reached an ideal spot for me: HDL 43, LDL 40, Triglycerides 74, glucose 90, cholesterol 98. Weight loss has been a consistent 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per week.
At the same time, I noticed a very pronounced drop in my blood pressure. I have read, in a number of studies, that high blood pressure can lead to many vascular problems. The research showing a correlation between high BP and stroke is well-established.
The investigators found that vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and significantly lower odds of hypertension (0.37 and 0.57, respectively), when compared to non-vegetarians. Furthermore, the vegan group, as compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians, not only was taking fewer antihypertensive medications but, after adjustment for body mass index, also had lower blood pressure readings. Another sub-study of AHS-2 examined hypertension in a black population and found that the combined vegetarian/vegan group had significantly lower odds of hypertension (0.56) compared to non-vegetarians.
In my case, my BP dropped from 140/78 to a consistent 115/60. In addition, my resting heart rate has dropped from a high of 72 to its current 53. Now, I’m exercising along with eating plants so the correlation between these factors and diet alone are not necessarily indicated in my own study; however, before I began the vegan/plant-based diet, my BP was 140/78 WITH exercise…so, I’m suggesting that the diet is the key.
Right now, I eat pretty much any plant I want with a few exceptions: no white flour, white rice, added sugar, and no oil…at all. I like whole grain cereals and eat whole grains, multigrain breads, and the like. I eat veggies, fruit, and do not have to limit my quantity of those plant-based foods.
As I mentioned earlier, however, I found out that I can stop the weight loss. If I eat more complex carbohydrates than I can reasonably burn through exercise, I stop losing weight. Here’s what happened: I like whole grain cereals with almond milk and fruit ( blueberries, strawberries etc.) Sometimes, because I am hungry, I ate two bowls of these meals a day in addition to all of the other stuff….my weight loss stopped (did not increase, just stopped). Once I removed the bowl of cereal in the late afternoon or evening AND replaced it with veggies or fruit weight loss returned. I discovered, exactly, what makes me lose weight and what does not…it took some trial and error, but it worked!
In terms of exercise, I added in two more days per week of some kind of workout. My goal is to reach between 2700 and 3200 calories burned via exercise over the course of a week. I bought a used Polar Exercise monitor (V800) and use a chest strap to measure my heart rate. This device also has a cadence monitor (that attaches to your shoes) and speedometer (for my bike). Using all of these pieces of data, I am able to track just about all aspects of my exercise plan. I upload the information to the Polar Beat/Flow app and use the Strava app to help understand what the numbers mean.
Very specifically, I exercise for at least 45 minutes every day of the week. So far that plan is working for me. I’m 6’3″ and I need to reach 200 lbs for my ideal weight…that means, for me, another thirty pounds of weight loss. Based on my current schedule, I should be at my ideal weight by around December. Of course, that all assumes I can maintain my current workout schedule and nothing else gets in the way!
As you know, there are so many factors in weight loss and physical health. I’ve been through it all, really. What I found is something that my Buddhist teachers have said to me for year…a piece of information that is key to it all: discipline. The word really sounds pejorative and in fact it’s pretty simple: follow a plan and stick to it regardless of what else is going on in your life. Sticking to a plan is, of course, easier said than done. My motivation comes from the fact that I will, literally, die if I do not stick to my eating and exercise plan. Yea, sure, we all die sometime AND we can ensure, to some extent, that we do not die by our own hands. This lesson I learned late in life, and I am glad I heard the message my body sent me. I hope for you that such a similar, wonderful smack upside the head happens to you.
Below are photos of a recent foray into buckwheat pancakes! Enjoy!
I’ve lost about 50 lbs since November 8th, 2017. On most days, that number simply does not make any sense to me. I don’t FEEL like I’ve lost 50 lbs. My physical activity hasn’t changed a lot and I’m doing pretty much what I did before I lost 50 lbs. That situation, in an of itself, is a fascinating thought. That a significant change in my size has not, necessarily, issued a corresponding change in physicality. I do what I have always done: bike, hike, walk, run, exercise pretty much everyday for pretty much an hour or two given the activity. I’m a little faster, I have better balance, and I feel good after exercise. That’s pretty much where I’m at, in this moment.
I’ve talked in the past about my diet: vegan, no oil. I’ve varied very very little from my plan. While I was traveling in Asia (Thailand, Bhutan, Japan), I made a few small changes. Otherwise, I’ve kept strictly to the plan with ONE major exception: I’ve added back into my diet and occasional avocado and some nuts.
My weight loss continues: I’m down to 237 on my way to 200. I cannot wear clothes I’ve worn for about 20 years and have had to buy a few new things like pants, shorts, and a shirt or two. The thing that has struck me in this process is that I did not know exactly how much weight I had gained. Honestly, I had no clue and envisioned myself about the same size I was 20 years ago. This particular delusion was a good one to destroy….I was certainly not the same physical size and, more importantly, my health had suffered (even though I did not realize it).
That’s where mental clarity comes into the story. As I have lost pounds, I have also lost delusion. I received a sharp wack to the head last Fall. I sometimes imagine myself sitting in zazen, a teacher wandering the room with a bamboo stick in his hands, me sitting quietly and then SMACK across the top of my back, pain stinging into my spine as I cringe at the pain. That smack was exactly what I received and exactly what I needed. I’ve come to find that being shaken to the core of our beings is the only real way to make significant change. Gradual, heart-felt change is a great idea and rarely accomplished…IMHO.
The mental clarity that came with a serious health scare propelled me to change almost everything. Now, I can see the delusion of my own self image. That image of who we are is formed from a variety of delusions in our minds. My particular delusion: I was healthy, working toward a clear set of goals, and that I was generally doing OK was my particular set of delusions. I wasn’t OK mentally or physically. I painfully uncovered the truth of my practice: that my practice reenforced my ego mind in a powerful way. Rather than destroying my ego-mind, my meditation practice had, in fact, reenforced it. My delusion and meditation become one thing controlled by ego.
Now I am much more vigilant in terms of what I eat, what I feel, and what I think. I have to analyze just about everything. I cannot let one thought go astray. If I do, I risk the same kinds of delusions I suffered from before. In a very real sense, I have to be brutally honest. Yea, and how do I KNOW I’m being brutally honest? Yep, that’s the trick, isn’t it? How to be honest when ego mind is always, always trying to change what you think to serve your own mental formations…ego reinforces thoughts that serve to recreate ego: Self-centered, selfish concerns and ideas.
How the process works, in my case, goes something like this: I analyze my food intake each day. Am I eating whole grains, vegetables, protein in the correct proportions for me? I measure these questions based on my experience and on a set of information provided by http://www.nutritionstudies.org. Further, I check my diet journal for past success…am I stay on track? For mediation and thoughts, it’s much harder but operates on a similar level: what thoughts are emerging? is there a pattern? What does that pattern tell me about those thoughts? How do those thoughts compare to thoughts I’ve had in the past when I am not consumed with anger, happiness, resentment, or joy?
These approaches may sound a bit too OCD or analytical, but there is a real truth to be learned here: that we often delude ourselves into doing something that is bad for us in some way. My goal, simply put, is to do my best NOT to follow those paths to suffering.
My next post is fully dedicated to food: some recipes I’ve developed that worked great!
Over the pst few weeks (months, actually), I’ve been analyzing my life, where I am, what I’m doing and how I got here. Yes, it’s a common thing to do, especially when you face a health scare, AND my approach has been a bit more introspective.
In my case, I’ve been seeking the origins of my thoughts, ideas, phrases, etc. My search began after listening to a talk by Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye on self/no-self and the whole idea of Anatman or non-self. The heart of buddhist teachings touches on this one point: that what we know as “self” is not at all a self. It is a construction of who we think we are….an ego-formed shield that is a kind of protection of that very fragile ego…the goal, then is to destroy ego and reveal the awareness that resides within our own minds…the buddha nature.
All of that philosophical talk leads me to right here: finding the sources of my thoughts. I started with phrases; those phrases I say day in and day out. When I really started thinking about some of the stock phrases I used, I was so surprised at some of where those came from; of course my family, aunts, uncles, parents say or said things that I incorporated into my language….like that the burners on a stove we call the “eye” of the stove as in “turn off the eye.” Other phrases are equally mundane; I took a whole group of phrases from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and incorporated them into who I was.
The point of all this wondering was to test the idea that we are constructed of layers of self, formed and manufactured by our egos to define who we are. Once I looked into the language of who I was, I found that I was actually a collection of words and phrases assembled over time to form a kind of identity.
As I have listened and read texts from various teachers, I kept hearing that the very language that helps shape our identity is formed and does not, in fact, make who we are…our essence, it is said, is pure, buddha nature. In the Uttaratantra Shastra, Arya Maitreya said,
“Honey is surrounded by a swarm of insects. A skillful person in search of honey employs, upon seeing this, suitable means to fully separate the honey from the host of bees.” (33)
The bees are the thoughts and emotions, the words and phrases, the construct of ego. The honey is the buddha nature, the true nature of who we are, stripped of the trappings of ego and thoughts, the sweet interior that rests inside all of us.
That honey inside is the awareness of all things, the source of compassion, love, and kindness. The awareness that we are all suffering, struggling, feeling bereft of hope and lost in a sea of anguish and delusion.
In one small way, my search has revealed a kind fo truth; that who I think I am is just a collection of words and phrases built up over time. Recognizing this truth, I can let go of attachment to those things and really start to see the true nature that exists.
Like many folks in the world concerned about weight gain as we age, I’ve been on a variety of diets (not a lot, but still) and have lost and gained pounds over the years. My trajectory, however, since I was about 40 was to see a consistent, slow increase in weight in my body. For me it was not in one place, it was all over: legs, chest, back, arms, head, neck, etc. By my mid-40s I’d found a persistent set of pounds hanging on to my midsection. I exercised, dieted, and lost quite a bit of weight over that time.
Yet, my mental health when it came to weight gain and loss was pretty much the same. I felt emotionally drained by the yoyo of my body; I felt out of control of what was happening. I tried to hold onto the idea to accept my body as it was, not as it could be. Simply put, staying in the present and not judging my own physical self.
The thing is, I knew, really knew, that how I physically felt was a reaction to my mental health. I remember a few years ago when I made a conscious choice not to exercise on one particular day; it was windy (when is Albuquerque NOT windy) and I chose not to hop on my bike and ride the bike trail. I said to myself it was OK; I didn’t have to ride. It was windy, the ride would be hard and I could just as easily exercise by walking my dog.
The one choice in that moment was based on feeling like I couldn’t do it. I felt so worn out from the week and work and such that I chose not to ride. The choice, however, was an important one. It spoke to a kind of depression, a willingness to, in a small way, give up and give in. Some folks have argued that it’s OK to slide into that feeling, the feeling of resignation. I’ve read commentary from some very intelligent people arguing that we should just be with the feeling and allow it to crash over us without judgement.
However, I’m here to say that allowing that feeling to wash over me and really take hold was the crux of the problem. I actually let the feeling go, but by the time I had, it was too late. The moment had passed. And that’s the thing….we do live in moments and in those moments are choices and in those choices are the source of what happens to us in our lives.
I’m not sure what propelled me to change my physical life last August, but I decided to go all in. To change eating, exercise, and mediation. To alter my present to affect my future. It is ironic, after my MI, that I not only continued my trajectory but ratcheted it up a notch, moving toward a more radical change. Based on past history, one would think I would give up and give in. I didn’t succumb to the fear, the self-loathing, the absolute pain of experiencing a health crisis. I pushed through.
So, why, in that moment did I not give in? My experience in the hospital was one driving force; I sat in meditation in the emergency and heard the cries of pain, the agony of other patients, and the death of someone inches outside my room. Witnessing the death of someone has the ability to transform one’s life if you can be present in the experience. I think a lot about that patient; a man in his 70s, heart attack passed, breathing stopped, resuscitation failed. I heard those last few moments of his life and stayed with him. I felt, profoundly, a sense of peace.
Secondly, I did not give in because I had found a path that worked for me. I was on that path since August 1st. Nothing was going to stop me now. I knew, quite clearly, that I could alter my course, change my body in ways I had, to that point, only imagined. I guess the best way to describe it is to state, simply, that I knew I could do it…I was in a place in which I could make a change in my life.
My weight loss, my change in diet, and my change in life style gave me the mental clarity, in those moments of all-consuming fear, that I had personal power. The weight loss, the success of my eating plan, the physical changes I had seen improved my emotional and mental outlook. There was/is a correlation between the two. Fundamentally, it was my mind pushing, encouraging, showing me the path or way forward.
Now, when the moments arise, and they always do, in which I say, “I’ll not exercise tonight; I’ll eat that thing I’m not supposed to” I am now able to seize control of that part of my self and say, clearly and compassionately, no.
One of the biggest surprises of the past few months has been the fact that oil is not a necessary ingredient in most prepared foods. My first attempt at no oil food were these Buckwheat pancakes. As you probably know, Buck wheat is a nutritional feast. These whole grains digest slowly and are filling in a way that keeps you full for hours.
When I first tried the no oil pancakes, I added unsweetened apple sauce instead. I read somewhere that apple sauce can act as a binder for the cakes. Then I threw in blueberries, vanilla, and, most recently, oats. The pancakes are a joyful pleasure to make and eat (although my kids say they don’t like them without lots of maple syrup).
I add fruit, maple syrup, and chomp through this lovely breakfast food!
Vegan Buckwheat Pancakes
2/3 cup of buckwheat flour
1/4 cup of oats
2 tbsp apple sauce
About a cup of Almond Milk
Vanilla to taste
Blueberries, chopped apples OR other fruit in the mix if you like.
Directions: Mix in a bowl until thoroughly mixed. All oats are coated in the mixture, looks wet.
Scoop about 1/4 cup and place on griddle or in a pan.
I started this path of plant-based eating last November (and made a concerted effort to change beginning last August). I’m starting my sixth month of this eating plan. Once I figured out what I could eat and how to prepare the food so it tasted like something I wanted to eat, things have gone very smoothly. I can, without much thought, prepare a meal that meets my needs and follows the structure of the eating plan.
My eating plan or diet consists of combining fruit, vegetables, and grains in various combinations. I’ve added a powdered vegan drink to the mix when I need a quick and easy way to get calories. Included here are some of the combinations of food I eat on a daily basis.
Whole Grain Cereals (the ones without added fats)
Salad that includes romaine, mixed greens, squash, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, celery.
Salad (same as lunch)
Grains + Beans or lentils
Grains + Veggies
Whole Grain Oatmeal
1 Slice of whole grain bread
Homemade vegan pizza (rarely)
1 cup Berries or 1 Apple/Orange and 1 Banana
1 Apple or Orange
Tofu (grilled or steamed)
Vitamins: B12, B6, Folate, probiotic, C (1000mg)
vinegar-based salad dressing with mustard or other spicy flavored condiment
whole grain pasta (rarely)
VegaOne Drink w/ Almond Milk
32oz/1 liter of water
Soba noodles (rarely)
Unsweetened Almond Milk
32 oz/ 1 liter of water
32oz/1 Liter of Water
I don’t eat everything on this list everyday; these are possibilities!
I don’t eat everything on this list everyday; these are possibilities!
I don’t eat everything on this list everyday; these are possibilities!
I season food with a wide variety of spices including turmeric, cayenne pepper, chili powder, chipotle powder, cumin, a variety of peppers, vinegars including balsamic glazes, and just about every other combination of spice that makes sense. Curry powders and curry pastes are really wonderful ways to flavor food. I’ve experimented with a whole bunch of ideas and they’ve all worked. Just be careful of which spices to combine in which quantities….cumin, for example, is a very strong spice and must be used in limited amounts (1/2 teaspoon). Garlic powder or fresh, chopped garlic combined with onions flavors anything. Those two are staples when I’m sautéing veggies without oil.
When I am out in the world, I gravitate to salads, Japanese soups with soba noodles and veggies, vegan pizza with no cheese, or vegan tacos. I have not had a lot of trouble finding food in the world as long as it’s vegetables and grains that are not cooked in oils. Yes, it does limit what you can eat in some restaurants, and I’m pretty easy going. Truthfully, food is often not the reason to be out in the world anyway.
The simple story is this: this eating plan combined with exercise has netted me weight loss of 40 pounds since August 2017. I loose about 1 – 1.5 pounds per week. I’m doing new blood work this week and will report my current situation as soon as I have the numbers.
My mental health is pretty good. I face a lot of stress (relationships, finances, work, etc) and am able to manage it as best I as I can with exercise, meditation, and my Buddhist practice (although, I have to say that my Buddhist practice is not exactly a stress reliever). I’m measuring everything right now from workouts to eating to blood pressure, to overall health and well-being. I keep a written journal and record my thoughts, ideas, and other silliness in that book. When it comes down to it, I’ve made a significant change to my life and health.
I’m not sure where this path will take me but I am on a journey that I began with an open heart and mind. I guess that’s about all I can ask of myself in these precious few moments left in my life.
I’ve always been an active person; what that term “active” means is simply that I move everyday. My exercise regimen has been up and down over the years. There was a time, back in 2001, that I swore I could ride the Tour de France. I was a cycling beast! I could be Lance Armstrong (without the drugs, but still)! Of course, I could never ride the Tour and was so far from competing that it was (and still is) laughable.
Since the stent was put into place in November 2017, I have increased my workouts and am up to a solid 5 days per week of intense, good feeling exercise. Today, for example, I rode about 20 miles on a beautiful day in Albuquerque. Woot!
The data, presented here, comes from the Polar Flow app. I have always used Polar products to keep track of my heart rate and manage the information of my workouts. Right now, I’m using the Polar V800 and a chest strap to monitor my heart rate. Below is the March 2018 workout chart…as you can see nothing too crazy here.
The various activities I’ve done, including spinning, treadmills, bikes, and walks, are all within what I would consider an easy exercise plan. These activities, combined with my plant-based eating plan, resulted in weight loss of 7.7 pounds since March 1st. I generally count on about 1 lbs per week weight loss. I hit plateaus along the way; for example, just before March 1st I gained 2 pounds and then lost it the following week. If you really pay attention, you can feel the changes…for me, that means wearing clothes I haven’t worn in a couple of years, or noticing that my balance is better and that I can walk up and down stairs with much less struggle.
The biggest changes have been, by far, mental. I feel better about myself and my body in ways that I haven’t felt in years. In fact, I’d have to go back to 2002 and training for the Santa Fe Century to remember such a change….even THEN I did not have the same feeling I have today. I guess that’s the big payoff, really. That feeling of both accomplishment and the continued desire to improve my physical self. Since I’m receiving positive feedback in the form of weight loss, I’ve continued to workout in a way that moves that process along.
Finally, I’ve read recently about Kevin Smith, the director and actor, who suffered a heart attack recently. He jumped on the potato diet planning to lose 50 pounds in a very short time. The diet apparently works and is praised by a number of celebrities in helping them lose massive amount of fat. While those kinds of diets do work, I wonder what the difference is between eating the way I’m eating and the way Kevin Smith is eating. We faced very similar circumstances and I chose a path quite different from his; really trying to remake my body and mind as a means of overcoming the CVD that rages through my body. Hopefully, my choice is a good one….I guess time will tell me exactly what’s up, right?
I’ve become a data fiend. I read all kinds of information about diet and the role diet plays in health. I find any essay, article or scientific report that addresses these questions. As I have mentioned before, the data tends toward the very basic facts of eating: whole grains, veggies, and fruit can make a difference in one’s overall health.
This blog, a mishmash of thoughts on Buddhism, meditation, diet, exercise, and the occasional philosophical perspective, is a report of my journey, plain and simple. As I have made changes to my physical self, I’m reporting the outcomes and the progress.
So, as I have researched, read, and otherwise wondered about my particular diet plan, I am constantly checking what’s out there, the information available, and doing my own investigations on what types of foods I should eat. My primary care physician, a man who looks at my overall health and wellbeing, promoted the Whole30 diet over the plant-based diet I am on. He warned me about increasing insulin and glucose levels in my blood work as representative problems in my approach.
This idea, that whole grains in particular can result in insulin spikes and overall a concern about the glucose levels in my body led me to research this particular topic. Simply put, is there specific, established evidence that whole grains cause insulin spikes and an increase in insulin being produced by my pancreas?
Reading information in the popular press, one can find a huge number of books and articles like Big Fat Surprise, or The Case Against Sugar. Similarly blogs with reports of the danger of eating “carbs” abound from Sustainable Dish to Good Fats Blog. In one case in particular, an author promoted coconut oil as a “healthy” food warning that the American Heart Association’s diet recommendations “might kill you.”
This one phrase struck me, “Why Coconut Won’t Kill You, But Listening to the American Heart Association Might!” An author claiming that a national organization, that bases it’s reputation on extensive scientific research, is going to kill you is provocative. The author cites a blog and an organization founded by author Nina Teicholz for her primary source material.
Nina Teicholz, the author of Big Fat Surprise, suggests that eating high fat foods rich in saturated fats do not contribute to heart disease (a generalization of her work). As I researched the work of this author, I found this review. The chapter by chapter review reveals that Ms. Teicholz relied extensively on works by Gary Taubes. Taubes similarly promotes the “bad carb” idea of eating in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories. The thesis in these books, that eating certain animal proteins and saturated fats are necessary and good for one’s body, is challenged by many, if not most, studies on diet and disease.
The spread of the mantra against eating carbs or that eating fats are a “healthy choice” in a diet is widespread. In my particular case, I followed much of this prescription for years. Low carb, high-ish protein. More specifically, I have eaten, in the past, a high protein diet as a means of losing weight. It worked. I lost weight. I went into ketosis or I ate a specific set of vegetables and meat that met guidelines of low carb, high fat or protein. I ate this diet for years. I exercised. I rode in 100 mile bike races, backpacked across the Rockies, worked out at gyms, walked almost every night. I developed cardiovascular disease. A very real fact.
Was my disease something that developed as a result of animal protein and fats? I don’t know. Chemically my blood work was always good…low cholesterol numbers, slightly elevated glucose, not one doctor recommended anything other than losing the few pounds I carried.
In the six months since my MI, my switch to a plant-based diet resulted in improvement in all of my blood markers. I am testing my blood chemistry about every three months. The first test, in November, revealed Cholesterol 154, LDL 90, HDL 46, Glucose 130. In January, Cholesterol 98, LDL 40, HDL 43, Glucose 100. March 8th, Cholesterol 89, LDL 38, HDL 43, Glucose 60. The changes, as you can see from this brief sample, are significant and sustained.
The data indicate that something important is happening in my blood chemistry. What are the factors that might be affecting these changes? First, diet. I eat plants, whole grains, no oil, meat, or dairy. Completely plant-based. Second, exercise. While I exercised before the MI, I am more consistent with exercise. I added back into my exercise interval training two days a week. I spin, use a treadmill, ride my road bike, and walk each night. I have collected all exercise on a Polar V800 watch and track everything I do, day in and day out. I will upload my exercise plan in my next post. Similarly, I’ve tracked my diet and keep a tally of what I have eaten. I’ll post the spreadsheet of that as well.
Overall, it is my thesis that a low carb, high protein diet including saturated fat got me to this place. Getting me out of the trap, I switched to a plant-based diet with the hypothesis that such a diet will transform my blood chemistry and, possibly, reverse my heart disease. So far, the data indicate, but do not prove, that a plant-based diet can help transform blood chemistry. My next post will provide the details.
I waited for about 30 minutes for my cardiologist to arrive. Poked and prodded by a nurse prior to his visit, I sat through a litany of questions about my health, diet, exercise, and general well being. Sitting behind a desk and furiously typing into a computer, Denise asked again, “wait, you are not eating any meat?” Yes, I responded. “And no dairy?” Right. She typed more information into the system. “Your scores are above the number that is the highest score…something must be wrong.” We went through the questions on diet again. She entered the information. Silence. “Huh,” she said, “I’ve never really seen anything like this.”
After testing my blood pressure, weight, and height, she entered more data into the system and instructed me to “wait for the doctor.” New blood work had arrived and the numbers showed more improvement and revealed what folks could see, the transformation of my body. I had a load of questions for my interventionist cardiologist. Honestly I did not expect to get much traction with these questions; I was pretty sure what was going to happen…the 5 minute consultation. That’s what WOULD have happened had I not been prepared to stop the doctor in his very brief analysis of my progress.
Sometimes, being prepared before you enter the doctor’s office is the most important step in taking control of your health. What I’ve found is that doctors, nurses, and most other health care professionals care about fixing you and then moving on to the next topic. Once you are in maintenance mode, taking care of yourself, they are much less interested in your health. So, when you have an appointment, do all of the research you can and ask as many questions as you can reasonably fit into the visit.
So, when the doctor walked in, with an assistant who took notes the entire time, it was meant to be very brief. How are you? Any symptoms? Want to get a stress test? If not then see you in 6 months…..that’s when I said, “I have a few questions.” Once I started my litany of interrogative statements, the doctor was dismissive. “You are on a vegan diet? Doesn’t matter.” “Okay, Dr. X, but my blood work? Can you explain the differences simply based on the drug therapy?” “Doesn’t matter. Just keep losing weight.” “Okay, what about the threat of Lipoprotein A? I’m testing for that in a month?” “Why? It doesn’t matter.” “Okay, but what about Niacin as a means of controlling the spread of Lipo(A) if the numbers are elevated?” “Just stay on a statin. That takes care of everything.” “But, Dr. X, the data shows…..” “Not important. Now, let’s listen to your heart.”
This brief summary of back and forth is the gist of what happened. Don’t get me wrong, he is a good interventionist doctor and fixed a serious problem I experienced. And, he was not interested, at all, in what I’m doing. Now, the money question, “Drs. Esselstyn and Ornish have shown in their studies that heart disease reversal is possible with this diet. What are your thoughts?” I got him. That question slowed him down a step. “Yes, there is some data supporting that idea, but the mechanism for plaque buildup is already in place in you and changing that would require changing your blood chemistry. Not likely in your case. You have a particular set of genetics that is working against you. If you have symptoms, give me a call. See you in six months.”
Did you read that? Changing my blood chemistry is exactly what this diet does. Altering the very structure of how my body develops plaque and reversing the process is why I began this journey in the first place. My doctor was not interested, at all, in what is changing in my body. If he was, he would see the dramatic changes happening internally. The most recent one? The drop in glucose and insulin levels. All on a plant-based diet. All including whole grain carbs. Not one ounce of meat, dairy, or fat that doesn’t come from plants. No olive oil. No oils at all.
Here’s the shocking truth; if you follow, strictly, a plant-based diet, it is possible you can see similar results. I’m my own test case. I am a study of one. My diet may not extend to the vast majority of humanity. Truth is, all I hear is how “radical” my diet is. At work, at school, at home, every single place I go, everything I read says what I am doing is virtually impossible. In my search for a clinical cardiologist, of the three I have talked to, they all said to me, “you are in the top 1% of patients” or “wow, that’s remarkable you have been able to keep that up” in addressing my heart disease. What? How can I be in the 1% of anything? Is that really true?
That’s the story for today. I still face many hurdles in my health. I still have to lose weight, still have to exercise, still have to stay focused and involved in my health. As for the folks who say it’s impossible, I’m saying: watch me.