The first card-carrying vegan I ever met was in 2009, and this person was one of my roommates. The original person I knew was nowhere close to being vegan. In fact he was "normal", just like the rest of us. But times change and so do people.
That same year, Xander left Canada for the summer and headed back home to Scotland. And when he came back in the fall, his physique and his diet had radically changed. The Xander that I reunited with was now only eating whole, plant-based foods. And most of it was raw. No meat. No dairy. No eggs. Just plants.
From my conventional perspective, the whole thing felt very alien, and suddenly Xander did, too. He left Canada a familiar friend and had returned, fully transformed into some rare and exotic breed of something that didn't make sense to me.
He wasn't preachy about his new lifestyle, though. He didn't try to force it on me, and he didn't really press to discuss the moral or environmental aspects around the diet... topics of discussion that usually come as standard features of a vegan lifestyle - and also some of the most off-putting to everyone else within earshot*. But there had been a tectonic shift in his diet, and I was a little confused. And completely skeptical.
Unable to wrap my head around how this kind of diet could functionally work at all (where do you get your protein?), combined with the unappealing aspect of how boring and bland a diet like this would be, I responded to Xander's changes the only way I knew how: I started teasing him. It was in a good natured kind of way, but looking back I can say it was a little aggressive, childish, and largely from a place of psychological self-defense. Xander, however, was a good sport about it. I admire how well he was able to stand for his choices, and exercise so much self-discipline in an environment that was not only unsupportive, but culturally at-odds with it.
Meanwhile, here I was eating the only diet I had ever known, the one I was raised on in rural Saskatchewan. For my entire life, I had eaten three conventional meals a day. These were meals that had the appearance of variety, but were functionally based on a sacred, indisputable idea: On the plate, meat was the leader. It was not up for discussion. Everything else was that was there was to support the meat, and usually included dairy and some small amount of vegetables, offered with reluctance. Vegetables were always second-class citizens. Today, this style of feeding yourself is otherwise known as the Standard American Diet, or S.A.D.
This would be the diet I would continue with for another 6 and a half years, one that would contribute to my weight gain, dull my personal motivation, and set me up for increased risk of heart disease, type II diabetes and a whole list of other illnesses. At the tail-end of this stretch in late 2014, I would find myself a beer-loving, sedentary male with a distinct weakness for pizza and Netflix. Frequent indulgence had become the theme of my days, and it was a way of compensating for the fact that I wasn't having a ton of fun in my life. And these quick hits of frequent pleasure came at the expense of declining health and vitality, but it was slow and incremental so I didn't really notice it happening.
There were, of course, plenty of moments in my life that had laughter, but day by day there was this pervasive and growing sense of malaise, irritability, and general dissatisfaction with life and all it had to offer. I was by no means obese, but I was weighing in at about 200 lbs, complete with a bloated waistline, and the daily experience that I was pretty uncomfortable in my skin, most of the time.
Colds started becoming more common, and I would tire easily. I started getting acne and skin issues, too. Increasingly, there were clear signs that my health was not ideal, and when I finally faced up to that, it stung. For most of my life, experiencing good health was quite easy and effortless. As we age, we all lose our ability to quickly bounce back from health issues, but I believe my choices around diet, lifestyle and the avoidance of exercise had set conditions that were accelerating the aging of my body and compromising my immune system. What this also meant, was that fundamentally my ceiling of potential was now a lot lower. Once I fully realized this, I could see that I was at a low point. And because I was unhealthy and unhappy, I was taxing all of my relationships, putting a lot of unfair and unnecessary strain on them. I was on a really shitty trajectory. And then a few months later, my mom died.
After 15 years of battling complications of diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), my mother took her final breath in the early morning hours of May 8th, 2015. Her final five years were particularly heartbreaking, because I watched my Mom lose everything, including her mobility and autonomy. Walking down the grocery aisle suddenly looked a mile long. Eventually, she would completely lose her ability to walk, and lose some of the smaller dignities, like simply sitting up from a rest position. Her body became a cage.
My mom had a ton of resolve, though, and through it all she's left behind a shining example of how a person can stand steadfast in the face of two chronic diseases that are slowly crippling and killing them**. It is no understatement to say that I am deeply proud of my mother and the way she carried herself through the entire ordeal.
And her death played a significant role in influencing me to commit to specific lifestyle changes that, up until that point, I was only flirting with.
In the wake of my mom's passing, I spent quite a bit of time in reflection. My step-father had passed away in 2003, without warning, from heart disease. And my Mom died of complications related to diabetes and MS in 2015. Neither of them made it to 60. In both cases, they were subject to diseases with connections to poor, nutritionally deficient diets and lifestyle choices like smoking, heavy drinking, and being stressed and overworked.
After taking stock of my existing mediocre health, my existing lifestyle choices, and seeing a lot of similarities with my parents lifestyle choices, it's fair to say that I got a bit scared. At the end of 2015 I became convinced that if I didn't make some significant changes, I definitely wasn't going to get any better. But I also felt that I was running the risk of experiencing something far more uncomfortable: my own premature death.
The time had arrived for me to make some real changes.
To course-correct one's health issues, there are a handful of options. The common ones reached for are prescription drugs, surgery, exercise, and diet...and I suspect it's in that order. For whatever reason, my first choice was exercise, and specifically it was long-distance running. I chose the goal of running a marathon in 2016, which I'm set to do in Las Vegas in November of this year. Definitely ambitious, but I knew the goal had to be big or I would lose steam in the training process.
My first three months of training were challenging, and my performance on the treadmill was...cute. At the beginning, five minutes on the treadmill left me exhausted, and I was barely jogging at 5.0 mph. I had lost a lot of ground from my earlier years.
Like many things though, I started to see some real improvements in my abilities because of persistence and time. In the beginning, just showing up to the gym was the victory, and eventually I would consistently get there 3 times a week, and then later 5 times a week.
In the process I hit some encouraging milestones. 20 minutes on the treadmill was now, relatively speaking, a breeze. 5kms became a realistic distance to run, and eventually I could even muster up the occasional 10km. I was generally leaving the gym feeling good about myself and what I could bang out, and I had begun to shed a few pounds of visceral fat. I definitely had some extra bounce in my step now.
And yet, it felt like my overall progress was fairly tepid. After three months of getting to the gym and training, I was still very far away from marathon material. It wasn't looking great.
Only in looking back on it now, I can say that my biggest obstacle to making good progress was actually me. Although my diet had cleaned up a bit from earlier years, it was still a S.A.D diet. At best it was S.A.D Lite. I was still sabotaging myself and diluting my gains with a misaligned diet and an array of negative lifestyle choices outside of the gym. I was also performing a lot of mental gymnastics justifying the junk food, sugar, casual drinks and late nights because I was hitting the treadmill now. I was exercising, so I felt I had at least earned my indulgences.
But I was also doing a lot of reading, and a lot of listening. I was researching various aspects of long distance training, reading about gut flora and the microbiome, and slowly wading my way through modern perspectives on nutrition. Thanks to a close friend***, I was also exposed to a particular ultra-endurance athlete, family man, and online voice of reason and compassion, Rich Roll.
And he was vegan.
Rich's story is highly unique. If you're reading this and interested in learning more about a plant-based lifestyle, he is an essential source of online information and inspiration, in my opinion. Suffice to say that after spending time in his online sphere, my entire paradigm of nutrition was turned upside down. Many conventional dietary practices and guidelines started to look absurd. My personal suspicions about dairy began to feel warranted. And after reading about everything he accomplished athletically, fuelled by a fully plant-based diet, my beliefs on meat consumption being essential for getting adequate protein completely dissolved.
So, after giving it some final, careful deliberation, I had my last taste of meat on April 27th, 2016. I also decided to stop eating eggs and dairy as well. I still have a weakness for pizza though; I've had a few slices of vegetarian 'za a couple of times this year, but overall, it's been an overwhelmingly plant-based experience.
The impacts of a whole-food plant-based diet on my life have been substantial. My energy levels have risen significantly, and I can access that energy throughout the entire day. I started sleeping better. Lifelong issues with nasal congestion and post-nasal drip began to fade away. My skin began to clear up. My mind started to feel sharper. And I really started to lose weight. To date, I've now lost a total of four inches off my waistline, three of which occurred within the first four months of going plant-based, combined with marathon training.
Shifting my diet to a plant-based approach undeniably sparked a watershed effect on my physical well-being. But it has also improved my mental health, as well. These days I feel that my ability to focus and listen to others has become so much stronger. I'm not always waiting for my turn to speak anymore, and my former desire to interrupt and interject has become less frequent. I feel kinder. I have more patience, and my anxiety issues are at an all-time low.
It's been very easy for me to get excited about these recent mental changes, because strong relationships with my friends, family and peers are important to me. In fact, I consider them essential. Now, I'm bringing so much more to the table for everyone in my life. Of course, I'm still making mistakes and falling back on my old habits, but I catch myself, and it happens far less often.
And all of this is really just scratching the surface. The improvements and changes in my life, to date, are profound, and I largely believe these improvements stem from my decision to shift and commit to a dedicated plant-based diet.
The design of my diet is vegan, but I certainly can't or won't claim vegan status - I've had a few slip-ups along the way - but my goal is to take it to a 100% plant-based diet, with zero exceptions. As my local environment in Riversdale develops and the options for plant-based meals at vendors increases, it will become easier to make well-aligned choices. Right now, here in Saskatchewan, there is a real vacuum. Because of this missing infrastructure, extending myself some grace when I inevitably slip up feels...acceptable. For now. For those of you with plant-oriented diets who might be travelling or visiting Saskatchewan in the future, I've drawn a map of our province, to help you navigate our food and beverage landscape while you're here.
There are not a ton of options. There are places in Riversdale like Odd Couple and Leydas Café that can hook you up with a solid dish or two, but the overall landscape is pretty barren. If you've been spoiled by that fancy west coast scene, I suggest you brace for a rough landing when you get here.
Now since you've read this far (nice one) let me address something specific. My intention in writing this is not to badger or guilt you into thinking you need to change. Making any changes (or not) is entirely up to you. I am simply offering up my experience for consideration. If sharing this helps anyone make any positive changes in their own life, then I've succeeded.
For me, going plant-based has felt appropriate and timely, and the results I've experienced are real and significant. I plan to continue with it, indefinitely. Another exciting part of this whole approach is that the improvements in my health and well-being represent only one slice of a much larger pie of benefits of a plant-based diet and lifestyle.
Reducing and eliminating meat and dairy consumption really shrinks my environmental footprint, and doing so feels so much more in-line with my values. Every day, I continue to see more evidence that my old S.A.D. diet, one with high amounts of meat protein, dairy consumption, sugar and processed foods, has really bad math behind it. I don't like what I see when I lift the veil and look at the inputs, outputs, and outcomes for human and planetary health. A S.A.D. diet looks very resource and energy inefficient to provide to the public, problematic for our general health and well-being, and excessively violent.
But lets back it up a bit, because those are topics best left for future posts. In my experience, running a plant-based diet has been awesome, and it wasn't as difficult to adopt and stick to as I expected it might be.
A year ago, I would have run out of breath just running to the end of my block. And that's a reality that I really don't miss, at all.
Instead, things have changed markedly for the better, and in a couple of months, I'll be attempting my first marathon in Las Vegas, running The Strip at night. Wish me luck!
Images are from 2012, 2015, and 2016, respectively.
* One of my favourite jokes about vegans: "How do you find a vegan at a party.....Don't worry, they'll tell you."
** My mom and I and had a tremendous amount of help across all of the years that she was sick; we couldn't have done it alone. Her and I were very fortunate to have had ever-present long-term support from our family, our friends, and all of the professionals and nursing staff across all of the years.
*** I've actually had help and been influenced by quite a few people over the years, including my better and prettier half, Greer. A cute, artsy, and talented vegetarian (now plant-based) gal who, for some reason, was able to see past my countless flaws and decided I was worth spending a lot of time with. She continues to be a remarkable influence on my life to this day.