Doctor Gonzalez Tries the Vegan Lifestyle

“Over the years I have advised my patients to increase their plant protein intake and decrease animal protein. This is based on the support of good scientific literature supporting a plant-based diet for sustained improved health. When I ask my patients how many fruits and vegetables they eat a day, the usual response is 2 to 6. When I ask exactly what they eat, though, many overestimate their intake. Some think that the tomato slice in the meat sandwich they had for lunch is a serving of a vegetable or the orange juice they drank is a serving of fruit. Then, when I screen their antioxidant levels with a 2 minute test that does not require a blood draw, the lab result comes back low or very low – which indicates poor fruit and vegetable intake over a period of time. Most people do not eat what I recommend – at least 6 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Whatever weight management program I place a patient on, the programs all have a common theme: to increase fruit and vegetable servings and decrease animal protein. Even my competitive bodybuilding and fitness patients are advised to do this. If done correctly, there is a way to maintain or increase your muscle mass if done correctly.

While studying for my nutritional boards, I decided to go on a totally vegan diet for 3 months. I have always eaten at least 6 to 10 servings of real whole fruit and veggies a day, but I also ate plenty of animal protein as well. At first, doing the vegan diet was difficult. I really love my steak, chicken, eggs, and yogurt. I began this experiment because I wanted to see how my body would react and get some practical experience with finding good non-animal protein sources. I have great gut health, exercise regularly, and am on a highly successful and specific supplement program. The only prescription medication I take is a high dose of vitamin D because of my chronically low levels over the last 20 years.

Since much of my protein intake is from animal protein, I needed to plan my diet carefully. Luckily, I have studied the different vegetarian diets over the years in my nutrition research. I increased the high protein veggies such as broccoli, spinach, and asparagus, and began to use tofu in my diet, which I had not done before. It was interesting to learn that not all tofu is created equal, though. I did learn and found ways to really enjoy tofu in my diet.

Eating out was difficult. My usual choices were no longer an option. I discovered some truly amazing vegetarian dishes at local restaurants. I also discovered that the franchise restaurants generally have poor choices for vegans, and most dishes they do offer contain lots of butter, sugar, and fried food choices. No wonder some of my heaviest patients are vegetarians. I guess chips, ice cream, and buttered popcorn is considered vegetarian! I also researched vegan protein drinks and powders. That was another interesting experience. There are some vegan protein powders that look great on paper in their nutrients. However, not so great on the palate. Some, in fact, were downright horrible. I finally found one that was totally vegan, lactose free, soy free, and gluten free that tastes great. The process of finding protein sources that I liked and the right combination of those proteins took a few weeks. During that time I lost considerable weight, both in body fat and muscle.

The weight loss became noticeable. Friends, family, patients, and staff members all commented on it. I had cut out all my processed sugar intake, which was not so bad, other than cutting out chocolate. I believe wholeheartedly that chocolate is the source of life — well, for me, during a rough day or during the late afternoons of a long day at the clinic anyway. The initial learning process of finding the right protein for myself was a struggle and I got a bit weak, but after some time I began to learn how to increase my protein intake and got stronger and less weak. In the third month of this process, I got to the point where my weight stabilized. I began to exercise more, and at the end of the third month I actually felt strong, lean, and fast. I felt like I was breezing through my runs as if I were towards the end of track season. It was a good feeling.

However, I missed my red meat. I do not mean just the taste. My body needs a small amount of animal protein for me to get through my chosen physical activities, though I did get nice and lean without eating it. Without training hard at all I was still able to do mile runs in under 5:20 minutes and do 5K runs in under 19 minutes. At 50 years old, that isn’t bad. 

Though there were many benefits in doing the true vegan diet, my body was not meant for it. There is a balance, a moderation to things that are individual. Finding the balance for you is an effort that requires a team that consists of you and your doctor. In general, a diet that focuses on a whole plant-based protein is better for you overall. Experimenting with transition from mostly eggs in your breakfast meal to mostly spinach and broccoli with smaller amounts of eggs, or ordering two side dishes of steamed broccoli with your entrée when you eat out, are simple and healthy changes that can go a very long way. Finding simple substitutes such as unsweetened almond milk instead of cow’s milk, learning which plants have a high protein content (did you know broccoli has more protein per gram than red meat?) and applying that knowledge to use in your diet can make a distinct difference in your health. Combining that knowledge with simple and consistent exercise is key in maintaining a healthy weight… That includes chocolate too!