Why Vegan? Part II

by Brandon Harshe on August 14, 2015

Meat was always a staple of every meal I ate. Chicken, beef, fish, eggs, bacon—you name it and a meal had to have at least one of the above in it. Eggs were always an easy go-to. Chicken and tuna were low in fat. Bacon and steak were heavenly treats. Hamburgers kicked ass, especially at In-N-Out Burger. If a meal did not have some sort of dead animal flesh as an ingredient, that was an unacceptable offense.

Having been introduced to exercising at 11 and weightlifting at 13 by my dad, conventional wisdom said that protein came from meat. The more meat I ate, the more protein I was getting, and the bigger my muscles would get. That was my train of thought for nearly my entire life.

I have gone through three major health improvements in my life. The first I mentioned above when my dad introduced me to fitness. The second improvement came during my fourth semester of chiropractic school in the winter/spring of 2006.

Learning about the anatomy, physiology, neurology, and biochemistry of the body in chiropractic school opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. I discovered the dangers of consuming too many processed foods with an ingredient list of foul chemicals and excito-toxins. I got on board with organic produce and meat whenever possible. I began juicing and making fruit smoothies. I completely altered how I exercised, transitioning from 1-rep max lifts in the gym and some occasional cardio on the treadmill or stationary bike to lower weight, more reps, and a lot out of outdoor running. In six month’s time I went from 210 lbs to 173 lbs, which ended up being a little low for me. I looked like a beanpole with an oversized head. When we visited family in Arizona that following Christmas, everyone thought January was starving me. Eventually, I settled in at 182 and that worked. I focused primarily on body-weight exercises like pushups, pullups, free squats, and isometric movements, along with five days of three to five mile runs a week. There was very little fat on my body and I felt great physically.

It was during this time that I experimented with a raw vegan diet. I only endured for two weeks, but during that time, my body cleansed itself of many, many toxins. But, I missed meat. So while loving raw veganism in theory, and respecting the hell out of vegans in general, it just wasn’t for me.

Fast forward to graduating chiropractic school, struggling through the growing pains of being a struggling, broke chiropractor for two years, lots of moving, lots of kids, and generally a lot of stress and my health and well being was not on par with my expectations for myself. Far from it, actually.

When life started to get a little smoother, I started running and doing bodyweight exercises again. I also jumped onto the Paleo bandwagon. I read the books, the blogs, the recipes, etc., etc. It was great. All the lean, healthy meat I wanted with lots of greens, nuts, seeds, and very little fruit and no carbs (outside of the greens, nuts, seeds, and very little fruit). That’s not restricting at all (heavy sarcasm here). I stayed on the wagon for the most part, often falling off and needing a greasy pepperoni pizza or a bowl of rice to go with my steak and bacon and kale.

In January 2014, I started lifting weights again. I would go a couple times a week, focusing primarily on compound movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, etc. All of this while still riding the Paleo bandwagon, I might add.

When my dad passed away early July 2014, something clicked inside of me. When I was in high school, going to the gym and lifting weights together was how my dad and I bonded. His death brought those memories to the forefront of my mind in a big way. I upped the intensity and focus of my workouts after his death and slowly but surely my strength improved. It was, and still is, my therapy. Throughout this time, I continued on with my Paleo-ish way of eating (I say Paleo-ish because I followed it loosely, enjoying rice and other starchy foods more often than the Paleo diet permits…which is never).

Going through the research and sifting the real science from the bro science, I was doing everything right in order to build muscle and gain strength. I transitioned from more of a powerlifting routine into a bodybuilding routine last October, in the process remembering why I fell in love with lifting weights so much as a teenager. What I did not love was the lack of results I was seeing. I was consuming the necessary protein. I was eating tons of vegetables and very little carbs. I was hitting the cardio. I was going heavy with low reps on my compound movements and lighter with more reps on the single joint movements. I was reminded why I always felt, even as a teenager, that I was a “hardgainer” in the muscle department, always having a difficult time achieving the goals I set for myself in this area of my life.

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Right after #beardbaby was born in February, I decided to experiment with piscatarianism. I was souring on beef and I was sick of chicken. Even eggs, which were a staple of my diet for, basically, my entire life, started getting old. I had already given up dairy for some time; the tiniest bit of milk or cheese always created a huge mucous buildup in my sinuses and the back of my throat, so consuming it simply wasn’t worth it to me. But seafood… Now, that I could eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the process of eating this way, I naturally ate more beans, quinoa, and tofu to get my daily requirement of protein instead of eating fish for every single meal.

Then, a funny thing happened. In the course of sampling a piscatarian diet, I realized one day in early March that I had gone an entire week of eating only vegan. I had already transitioned my post-workout protein shakes from the MRM whey protein to the MRM Veggie Elite protein a couple weeks into my piscatarianism experiment. I also hadn’t had any fish for six to seven days. Definitely no eggs. The craziest part? I didn’t want any of it.

Since January was essentially forced into going vegan because of severe intestinal pain shortly after the baby was born, experimenting with veganism was intriguing to me. January and I tend to do most things together, and this was no exception.

But then, another funny thing happened. In early March, I was fluctuating between 208-210 lbs with some extra poundage around the middle. By late March-early April, it was obvious to me, and January, that I had put on some legitimate muscle size. I stepped on the scale around that time and it read 218. My waist hadn’t changed much (maybe a little smaller…slightly, maybe) and I hadn’t eaten any more, calorie- or protein-wise, than I had before. But there it was, staring me right in the face, both the scale and the mirror telling me something was happening.

And at that point, all the funny things started happening.

My sleep was deeper and I needed less of it (which is a good thing when you have six kids).

When I transitioned from two weeks of raw vegan back into my regular way of eating back when I was in chiropractic school, the biggest change I noticed was that I felt lighter on my feet. Incorporating meat back into my diet made me feel a step slower, like my legs were each carrying an extra 40-50 lbs. Once I made the change to veganism in March, I could definitely tell I was lighter on my feet again.

Mentally, it was actually a huge relief to go vegan. Eating a Paleo-ish diet was something that I ingrained into my consciousness for several years, but truth be told, it was a highly restricting way of eating. Paleo proponents can disagree with me ’til the cows come home, but I have studied all the science behind it and actually lived it. For me, it is a huge pain in the ass. Going vegan has been mentally freeing. I feel like I have more choices of food to eat and to be perfectly honest, much healthier choices of food to eat without the stress of ruining that coveted ketosis.

But the biggest change of all, outside of my increasing muscle size, was my strength. I don’t have specific dates for when I actually started going 100% vegan as I didn’t think it would affect my performance in the weight room, but I do know it was the first week of March. Furthermore, I still considered it to be an experiment when I started eating all vegan. I’ve kept an active workout log for the past year and as of the first two weeks of March, my bench press was 250 lbs for two reps, my squats were 245 lbs for five reps, and my deadlift was 345 lbs for one rep. Two weeks ago, I bench pressed 310 lbs once, squatted 315 lbs twice, and deadlifted 400 lbs once. Not my strongest ever, but definitely on my way back there.

It goes without saying that becoming vegan has been the third major health improvement of my life, and quite possibly the most profound. It feels as if adapting to a vegan lifestyle has reset my body chemistry and, dare I say it, restored my youth in certain aspects of my life—namely in strength and muscle growth, the latter of which I haven’t seen this prolifically since I gained 35 lbs of muscle lifting weights when I was 13-14 years old.

One of the knocks on being vegan is that vegans have a hard time getting enough protein. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Protein is in everything—green leafy vegetables, quinoa, legumes, bread. My go-to vegan breakfast is two slices of flax seed Ezekiel toast with crunchy, organic peanut butter. One slice of that particular bread is 5 grams of protein. One serving of peanut butter (2 tbsp) is 8 grams of protein. I get pretty liberal with the peanut butter, so that ends up being 25-30 grams of protein first thing in the morning. Not that hard, right? Another one of my favorites is lentils. ¼ cup of lentils is 12-13 grams of protein. An entire cup of lentils, which for me isn’t hard to put away, is pushing 48-52 grams of protein alone in one meal. I can truly say that I’ve had a much easier time finding protein sources to eat as a vegan than I did during my Paleo days. I’ve even had a few days since going vegan where I’ve inadvertently consumed 250 grams of protein. My normal daily protein intake doesn’t come near that anymore, but I’m still pretty sure I don’t need a protein IV.

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I am coming around to the humanity aspects of being vegan as well, even though vanity is what started me on this journey. I won’t get on a high horse about animal rights here, but my eyes are definitely open to it in a way they never were before. I might be the only man in Texas who has never been hunting and never wanted to go hunting. It has never once interested me. In fact, I used to say I could think of 100 other things off the top of my head I would rather do than go hunting. That and golf, but I digress. Now I wouldn’t go hunting simply because I don’t agree with it ethically, but that’s just me. Again, not on a high horse, just my perspective. I still don’t have any desire to play golf, though. Sorry if that’s offensive to you golfers.

Most importantly, lets be real: if you follow January on Instagram and Facebook, you know that we eat some pretty damn good meals. Vegan food is incredibly tasty. I haven’t once felt deprived of meat or dairy or any other animal products once in five months of being vegan.

I don’t think that will change anytime soon.

I am currently in the midst of a 30 day raw vegan cleanse that has been a very interesting experience, and of which I will write about next month.

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