I figured with all the hype surrounding the Netflix launch of The Game Changers to my controversial post last week which got praises and shots from quite a few, intentionally I might add. I decided to put my views into a proper perspective to clear up any confusion and put this topic to rest.
If anyone had ever suggested to me 10 to 20 years ago that I would be vegan or completely plant based I would have laughed it off and put the idea down immediately.
Why? Firstly I loved my meat and dairy and secondly being an endurance athlete but coming from a strength background would have been against everything I was every taught or learned from a nutrition perspective. Muscle mass equalled protein which equated to meat and believe me in my twenties I could easily walk into Scrooges Diner and take on the “Big Challenge”. For those that know it or remember it when they were in Rosebank. It was eat a 1.2kg steak, drink a litre of beer or coke and consume a plate of chips all in under an hour and they gave you a free t-shirt for completing the challenge.
One day I walked in there and my mates set up another challenge for me. Take on a double Scrooges Challenge. I completed the first in 17minutes and the second was done in another 18minutes. Basically 2.4kg of steak, 2 litres of beer or coke, and two plates of chips downed in 45minutes flat. That was “The Fitness Freak” 28 years ago. If anyone ever toyed with idea of plant based, vegan or anything close to it there was absolutely no chance I would have given it a second of a thought. It was completely cast aside as absolutely ridiculous.
My weight lifting years were a lot about strength and muscle mass gain. However at the same time all the heavy lifting, the long hours of working and nutrition eventually took its toll on me.
At age 26 I contracted an illness which knocked me down for months. Not only did it hit me hard, it kept reoccurring year after year. Here I was a strong muscular conditioning expert and yet I could not get out of bed to even make it the bathroom .A high fever that lasted for weeks on end, chronic fatigue, and in a world of hurt. The doctors had absolutely no idea what was going on and I was subject to a daily dose of blood tests, ultra sounds, liver biopsies and possibly anything you can think of. The doctors were completely at a loss. I was left feeling hopeless and frustrated, with nowhere to turn and not knowing how long this would last. I felt like my world as I knew it was coming to an end. Living off pain killers, anti-inflammatories and cortisone just to get through the day and then hoping to fall asleep at night, was what my world had become. I didn’t know if this was the beginning of years of pain and suffering or if something much more serious was about to cut my life short.
The fear of the unknown and the inability to even walk from the bedroom to the kitchen had become the most frightening thing I had ever experienced. It wasn’t so long ago I felt incredibly strong and invincible and now I had been steam rolled by an absolute nightmare.
I couldn’t let this go on. I had come to the sad realization that I had gotten away for years with unhealthy food, work stress, lack of sleep and heavy weights which eventually caused my elastic band to snap. I was only in my 20’s which made it that much more stressful as everyone wants to live a long life but who knew now. I was afraid, very afraid.
My daughter was only a year old at the time and I was worried how would I be able to be healthy and ensure I could care for and provide. I was blessed to have job where my work was supportive of my illness and gave me the time to try to heal however not many are ever in the same position.
I decided to accept my illness. It’s the greatest thing you can do, because without acceptance you cannot move ahead, you just remain trapped in a world of hurt and pain. I started to look for solutions, and doctor after doctor and a ton of research led me to believe that I had diagnosed the cause of my illness. It was a viral infection that I had picked up from my daughter, which in normal cases doesn’t wreak as much havoc as it did with me. However I only had myself to blame I led a less than stellar lifestyle and this was a BIG wake-up call. To make matters worse, this illness wasn’t ever going to disappear. It had triggered an autoimmune response and regardless of most people developing antibodies to keep it at bay, my body decided during certain times to give into to it and I experienced a few more years of big attacks. BUT this was the pinnacle of change in my life. I was NOT going to accept this and I was going to find a way of keeping myself strong and the illness away.
I decided to become an expert of my own body. Nutrition, physiology, anatomy, lifestyle and exercise. I studied, I investigated, I made big changes and I started to become such an expert of the human body with regard to nutrition, exercise, endurance, fitness, health, illness, injury and weight-loss. But that’s not all, I managed to take all of this and turn it into a lifestyle, a blueprint for healthy life and creating longevity.
The main areas I focused on was of course nutrition, sleep and training. We all mostly train we all eat and sleep so what is meant by this? I had to find the exact nutrition my body required for me, the right amount of sleep to ensure lowered stress levels and recovery and of course ensuring that I understood exactly the kind of training was needed and how much of it to ensure performance and immune system strength but not too much to cause the opposite effect.
I studied in-depth physiology, nutrition, endurance and strength principles. I studied and worked with some of the greatest minds in these fields to ensure that I became the expert I could depend on not just for me but also to be able to guide others. After all nothing is more important than ones health and without it life cannot be lived to its full extent. (Read my blog on the Fork in the Road)
I managed to lean out, 46 kilograms leaner, not by becoming a vegan but by using my knowledge to clean up my eating, training and sleeping. I managed to suppress this re-occurring illness for 9 years. However in 2012 it reared its ugly head just before the last December leg of the BSG triathlon series. I will never forget that day. I had been racing nicely and sitting there ready to snap up a podium step all I needed was a solid finish on the last race. However on the day I was flat and my energy levels were just not there. I thought it was a cold but it was way more than that and the next few days it reared its ugly head. I was very ill and no doctor could figure it out. I was back to the drawing board. What could I change what would get me back in control of my health again. At that stage I consulted with some immunologists who ran a batch of bloods and started cycling me on and off courses of antibiotics and tetracycline to kill what they had discovered. Twenty two courses in total to be honest over many months. At the same time I placed myself on a ketogenic diet and was so serious about it that I made sure to run daily blood tests on myself to ensure I was remaining in a state of ketosis. I figured if this bug thrived on carbs then I was going to give it the opposite. The war was real and after 9 months the illness subsided and I could start training again.
I came back to good health and started competing again at a decent level but every few months I sort of dipped back into illness then came out again with shorter infection periods. It took about 18 months to realise that the keto diet was too inflammatory and with my training volumes and intensity my recovery was not the best and it was weakening my immune system. I decided to go back to a higher carbohydrate date and within a few weeks I felt the benefits again especially on the energy and recovery side. It did not mean I was not fat efficient I just focussed on carbohydrate periodization which worked very well. So here I was with all the correct macronutrients which were definitely working in my favour but I still was not on top of my game where my health was concerned and I knew I could still improve. So I decided to start with a slow process of elimination and see where it took me. The first to go was meat which left me with a wide variety of enjoyable “healthy foods”. Then with more tweaking and research I dropped the chicken leaving me classified as “Lacto-ovo vegetarian”. I felt great if not much better than I had in years, but I still believe that one should never settle for great if you can go way beyond that. I then cut fish, hanging on to just eggs and dairy. I went for ethically sourcing eggs and dairy but its very limited in this country as what you find in the FMCG chain stores is not genuinely free range organic for that matter. Then the big moment came cutting dairy. I was never a big dairy eater but I did enjoy a greek yoghurt now and then. It was a big move for me and I held onto the eggs purely for a source of B12 and an easy source of protein. This process had now taken me to around two years without so much as a cold or any medication. Without actually realising it my immune system was way stronger and it only showed over time. Training adaptations were better and my body fat dropped even more getting time to a weight lighter than my school graduation weight. I was feeling healthier & stronger and my ability to recover was definitely way better than it had been in years. Being an “Ovo-vegetarian” I kept the eggs to a minimum and started to experiment more with plant based proteins. I kept running blood tests to ensure my engine was strong and that I had no deficiencies. Eventually I dropped the eggs and went completely plant based. I was nervous as I wasn’t sure how my iron levels, B12 levels etc would remain sufficient to ensure I could perform at my best and stay healthy. However bloods do not lie (check out my blog Bloods don’t Lie by clicking here) but my levels were stellar. The best they had been in years. Do I need to supplement? Yes I do but I was supplementing even when I was eating meat so the change did not make matters worse in actual fact my iron levels had improved. Did my B12 levels drop? Actually that is the surprising part, I analyzed my bloods from when I was eating animal sourced proteins and to be honest my B12 levels are better now than they were then. Across the board and closer to 50 years of age I feel way better now than I was in my 20’s and 30’s. The best part of all no major lingering illness for years. Was this a “Game Changer” for me. Absolutely.
Am I telling everyone to go in the plant based direction? Definitely NOT!
What I do need to state is the following. Firstly I think it’s important to figure out what works best for an individual. Nutrition is unique to each person. One needs to make sure whatever they are eating is right for their health, performance and enjoyment. But that does not mean being set in our ways is the best. Sometimes experimentation and change is a good thing to see where it takes you.
Secondly I am not an anti-animal food based activist BUT my biggest gripe is actually the source of the animal based products. It’s a fact that most farmed animals at least where I live are grain fed, antibiotic and protein hormone loaded. This means whatever you are eating from that source is highly inflammatory and increases the risk of disease way more. It’s a fact that research has been done on farmed animal meat and it’s been found to be excessively high in omega 6 inflammatory fats and contains virtually no omega 3, vitamins , minerals nor levels of conjugated linoleic acid which means high cardiovascular and disease risk. So yes big meat eaters when sourced from the normal farming methods are not great at all for your health.
As for endothelial function as shown in The Game Changers when eating animal based products. Plant based foods have shown to have an extremely positive benefit on it and in the lowering of risks such as CVD, Blood Pressure etc. that’s not new to medicine or science maybe to some it was an eye opener and something new. Of course one could still follow a 80/20 clean plant / clean animal derived food source and reap the benefits.
I think the things one needs to consider are fruits and vegetables are providing you with a high level of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals so yes they should be eaten in abundance. Yes animals provide protein as well as other beneficial support such as collagen, omega 3 in decent sourced options but these can be sourced in plants as well and believe me protein can easily be derived from plant based sources.
I hear a lot of people commenting on what is sprayed on the outside of plants is more hazardous than eating farmed meat. But it’s actually pretty easily washed off with certain organic sprays, and there are hard exterior fruit and vegetable options. The problem with animals is there is no washing off what they are fed, in the words of Dr Mark Hayman “You are what the animal you eat, eats” and that is the plain truth, whether dairy or meat the problem is the source.
Following a PAGAN type of diet PaleoVegan (Check out Dr Mark Hayman’s WTF Should I Eat, book) top sourced animal derived foods with a higher amount of plant based foods is absolutely fine as long as you feel it works for you. Remember one thing when it comes to nutrition even if it’s working well it’s still a journey, and constant changes, experimentation, tweaking and modifications to any diet will keep you progressing from strength to strength. So experiment and play with the food see what works best for you.
I run bloods on myself every 3-4 months they are a true reflection of my health as well as how often I am sick, how energetic I am and of course analysing emotional stability and happiness.
I often get asked if plant based works for me and 10yrs ago I would have put a vegan down or laughed at the idea but here I am today haven’t been sick in years, no medication in last 3yrs and at close to 50yrs old feeling the best I have my entire life. I never would have said this would have been my path of nutrition in life but then again I followed what worked well for me, I was never afraid to be controversial, challenge and make the changes. It has certainly been a Game Changer for me..
all the best
Mark Wolff is a certified exercise & sports nutritionist, endurance nutrition and physiology expert with over 20 years experience. An endurance multi-sport athlete with a running, triathlon, mountain biking and weight lifting background, he works extensively with professional and amateur athletes in a variety of sports disciplines as well as those just wanting to change their lifestyles. He firmly believes that a person can only reach their full potential when their health and nutrition is given the proper focus. Mark’s focus on nutrition and physiology is not just on training and racing, but he places major emphasis on recovery, immune system health, emotional stability, stress management and performance. Mark is co-founder of 32Gi, a sports nutrition company, focused mainly on health and endurance nutrition. He is also co-founder of Rapid Recover focused on pneumatic compression equipment to improve circulation for recovery and health