Updated on 11.12.10

Some Notes on a Plant-Based Diet

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I made an offhand mention that I had switched to a plant-based diet due to medical concerns. Over the next week, I received a lot of questions about it. Why? What was it like? How was it working? Was it saving us money? Was it having positive health effects?

I considered using some of them in a mailbag, but instead I decided to write a full post about it after I had a month or so to reflect on it and see how it was going.

This past summer, I signed up for an additional term life insurance policy because I didn’t feel like I had enough life insurance to cover the future of three children – the arrival of a third child and the calculations I made afterwards convinced me that if something happened to me, Sarah and our three children would have problems with just my currently-existing policies.

In the process, I had thorough blood work done and it was almost entirely fine. I only had two numbers that were outside the normal range and only one was significantly outside the normal range, so I was easily approved.

However, I personally wanted to know more about those outlying numbers, so I got an appointment with my doctor, who ran a bunch of additional blood tests and a few other tests as well.

After looking at a lot of my numbers, I met with my doctor and a dietician, who basically said that I had several options with regards to my health. If I kept doing everything as I was doing, I would probably have some health concerns later in life. On the other hand, if I made some changes – and they laid out a bunch of options – I would significantly improve my chance of strong health until late in my life.

As I thought about the options, I asked myself whether it was really important to me to eat certain foods. “How many years of good health is it worth for me to give up food X?” I realized that, when I thought of it in that context and in relation to watching my kids grow up and do whatever life has in store for them, I didn’t really have to add too much good health to my life to make it worth some significant dietary changes.

So, for now (I’m doing a six month trial), I’ve chosen to eat a mostly plant-based diet.

What’s the diet like?
Basically, with regards to any food I eat, I ask myself if it contains animals or animal products. If it does, I pass. If it doesn’t, I eat it to my heart’s content.

The one exception to this is that I occasionally eat fish or, rarely, seafood, for the particular fatty acids that come from them.

I’m not paranoid about it. If I accidentally ingest something that has a bit of animal protein in it, I don’t freak out or anything.

In essence, what I’m doing is identical to what Bill Clinton is doing. See this interview:

I also take vitamin supplements and I drink protein shakes for breakfast most days.

It’s actually pretty easy to follow that rule of thumb. I can eat out at most places. There’s a ton of food to prepare at home. There are even some convenience foods that work well with this.

Are you doing this for social/ethical/environmental reasons?
No. I’m doing it for my health.

Such issues are so clouded by people’s perspectives, corporate profits, and so on that I have a hard time believing absolutely in the ethics or environmental benefits of any diet outside of simply growing your own vegetables.

Can you possibly be enjoying it?
Yes, actually.

Because of this, I’ve been forced to try a lot of different foods simply to add variety in my diet and, along the way, I’ve found a lot of things that I enjoy eating.

The biggest trick is to just liberally use spices. Amp up the spices and herbs in things and they become wonderfully tasty and rich.

For example, I found a wonderful barley soup recipe that we’ve had three times in the last month. I absolutely love it – each time, I experiment with it and each time, it’s delicious. It’s filling and savory and fills the house with great aromas.

Another example: I usually have a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack in order to quell my appetite and keep me from being really hungry at lunch or supper. These snacks have become two things – either fruit or a Larabar. What’s a Larabar? Delicious. I would have never found them if I wasn’t exploring new foods.

Are there health benefits? Are you losing weight?
It’s really hard to know what the impact has been on my blood numbers this early. However, I have seen two things.

First, I seem to have a ton of energy at times. I’m sleeping about an hour less and I find myself doing things like cleaning house at 11 PM – something you would have almost never seen me doing that late.

Second, I’ve lost ten pounds in about five weeks without a significant change in exercise level.

Is it saving money?
So far, it seems to be.

First of all, our whole family is eating a lot more vegetables and fruits. The other members of my family aren’t going the whole nine yards, but our amount of meat intake has gone down.

Thus, our diet often centers around whatever vegetables happen to be on deep discount at the grocery store that week. We check the flyers for a few stores, identify the vegetables and fruits on sale, and make meals utilizing them.

One week, we had ginger in a lot of things. Another week, it was zucchini. Whatever is on sale is what we use.

As a result, our average grocery bill per week has gone down about $20, which is certainly worth noting.

In short, I’m happy with it. The first week was the hard part – now that it’s passed, I’m not strongly craving the foods I can’t have.

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  1. Johanna says:

    Rock on, Trent. Keep exploring new foods.

    Larabars are yummy, and they’re good for people with other dietary restrictions too (like my brother, who can’t have gluten, or his friend, who can’t have refined sugar). But they’re not cheap.

    Just curious: Whose corporate profits are clouding the ethical and environmental issues for you?

  2. Jesse says:

    Be wary of protein shakes. Many of the big players include toxic levels of various metals. ConsumerReports did quite a study of them a while ago.

  3. Kristin says:

    Hi Trent,
    Can you point us to any good resources about plant based diets? For example, any research you’ve found about the health benefits, or any places with particularly good recipes?

    I hope you’ll be adding plant-based recipes to the ones that you usually post!

    Thanks, and good luck! Sounds like a great change for you.

  4. Gretchen says:

    Google homemade larabars. They are pretty easy- basically just dates and some other things in the food processor then squeezed into a bar shape in Saran Wrap.

  5. Matt says:

    Would love to know what aspects of your blood work were outside normal. I think meat in moderation is better than protein shakes…those things are processed to heck and back and I’m not sure the benefit outweighs the potential risks. Orgainc, local plants and meat have been my personal savior for my health.

  6. valleycat1 says:

    A couple of resources: vegetarian times (you can get a free newsletter online with recipes), plus they have all kinds of other info about vegetarianism & how to transition to that eating style; the Hungry Girl blog; cookbooks: How it All Vegan (& their additional ones) by Barnard & Kramer. Also, an oldie but goodie, The Gradual Vegetarian. Plus a lot of Middle East and Indian dishes are vegetarian.

  7. Janis says:

    I’ve been wondering about the comment you made a while back about switching to a (mostly) plant-based diet for health reasons and am glad that your decision is a pro-active one and that you are in good health.

    As someone who has followed a mostly-vegetarian diet for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that the health benefits are wonderful, but not guaranteed. It is easy to overdo it on eggs, dairy and sweets, as I discovered to my chagrin. A large serving of four-cheese lasagna is not automatically a healthier option that a serving of grilled fish, which is why I eventually began to return some seafood and even some poultry back into my diet. Of course, I’m not saying that you would choose anything other than a moderate and reasonable diet!

    As Gretchen (#4) mentioned, there are a lot of recipes out there for making your own bars economically at home. Maybe your own recipe adaptation will become the subject of a future post?

  8. Wally says:

    I would add the china study by t Colin Campbell as a well researched resource for the health benefits of a vegetarian and vegan diet. From it I would caution about heavy amounts of protein and not worry about getting enough but instead worry about too much.

  9. Courtney says:

    Congratulations on your healthy changes, Trent. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Would you be willing to share the barley soup recipe?

  10. chuck says:

    i also would like trent to post the barley soup recipe!

  11. Andy says:

    Way to go on actually following through with a health goal. I know way too many people who say they’re going to change, and then never make an attempt to.

    However, I’d be interested to know if your family is making the same change you are. One of my friends had vegetarian parents and grew up vegetarian. When he got to college, he discovered that he had a very bad mineral deficiency (iron or protein I would guess, but I’m not 100% sure). I would recommend that if you continue this change in diet, make sure that it either benefits your family too (especially the children, who may need more of a certain food than you might), or that they occasionally eat something different from you.

    I quit eating red meat about 14 years ago, and my family would sometimes cook a tasty vegetable casserole, separate some off, and then add meat to the rest so we could both enjoy our portions without too much hassle. A spaghetti/vegetable mix with separate meatballs is good too. Good luck!

  12. Maria says:

    Congratulations on taking this step! As others have mentioned, protein shakes are over-rated. Veggies HAVE protein! The only thing missing from a full vegan diet is B12 and since you are NOT vegetarian OR vegan (I have to remind even my Mom that I am NEITHER) a multi is the only supplement you should add just in case you miss fish or eggs for a FULL YEAR and run down your B12 stores. For an excellent resource, Eat To Live is a wonderful book.
    For breakfast – try a fruit smoothie (homemade of course) when local blueberries were around, I froze three gallons. I use a cup of those with a banana, a half cup of almond milk, and a tablespoon of ground flaxseed.

  13. Trent- If you’re having a difficult time believing the ethical argument of not eating meat, please watch Earthlings. You can find it FREE at www dot earthlings dot com. Knowledge is power.

  14. Michelle says:

    I moved to a plant-based diet just two weeks ago after toying with it off and on for a few years. I’m having the samee experiences you are with loads more energy and am enjoying using all kinds of spices. Rock on!

  15. K Ann says:

    I haven’t tried Larabars but intend to. Have you found the most cost effective place or way to purchase them? Have you tried making your own? Personal favorite flavor? Thanks for sharing.

  16. i-geek says:

    Larabars rock. Kind bars also rock. I regularly eat one or the other as a healthy gluten-free afternoon snack.

    I, like you, had to radically change my diet about 11 months ago, although in my case it was the complete removal of all gluten from my diet to stop my immune system from destroying my intestines (aka celiac disease). At first it seemed daunting, and like you, I had to do the cost/benefit analysis of how much I was willing to sacrifice for good health. It turns out that going gluten-free was totally worth the sacrifices, as I am now in the best health of my adult life. I feel great and I have lots of energy to get in the kitchen and, again like you, experiment with all sorts of new foods. Since I can’t risk ingesting gluten unless i want a flare-up, we did cut back on eating in restaurants (although it is now a much-anticipated and enjoyed treat when we find a place with a safe menu). Instead, we’ve invested in a few new cookbooks and cooking utensils and are learning to make new cuisines and use new techniques. I’m certainly not complaining about the monetary savings from cooking at home more often.

    Best of luck to you as you continue in your new lifestyle!

  17. Amateur says:

    I’ve found protein shakes really hard to stomach after a while, the newer ones use artificial sweeteners that leave a metallic strange aftertaste. Even some protein bars are hard to fully stomach as well, I’m not sure what has changed, my taste or the ingredients of those bars. I would probably say homemade granola energy bars are a much better alternative.

    Years ago I would have been able to stomach 3 meals a day with all of them containing meat, but these days, one meal with meat, and a small amount is good enough. The benefits in energy level are pretty obvious. Good for you, Trent.

  18. Michael says:

    I removed all animal products from my diet in 2006. I too noticed I had considerably more energy pretty quickly. ‘The China Study’ is very highly recommended. It is full of life-changing information, but heavy on facts and figures. For a lighter, but equally enlightening read that eloquently conveys the important health, environmental and ethical benefits of a plant-strong diet, I also highly recommend ‘The Food Revolution’ by John Robbins.

    I’m 30 years old and recently went to the doctor for a basic checkup, as I hadn’t been to the doctor in seven years (since the last time I thought it had been too long since I’d seen a doctor). Although I’ve done virtually no exercise in almost ten years, I was told my body is in excellent shape.

    Cholesterol: 124

    LDL Cholesterol (so-called “bad cholesterol”): 63

  19. Laura says:

    I just wanted to second Kristin’s comment–bring on the recipes!

  20. Sheila says:

    Good for you, Trent!

    @16 i-geek, I, too, have had to go gluten-free plus I don’t eat meat (I’ve had to add in seafood and eggs on the advice of my dr.–health trumped principles), which makes eating in restaurants rather difficult. Went to a chain spaghetti restaurant with friends because 1) I had a coupon and 2) they have gluten-free pasta. After requesting gluten-free pasta, I was kind of floored when the server asked if I get sick. That same question was asked when I went in a second, and it was a different server. It made me wonder if this chain will use the same cooking water for gluten-free pasta as they use for regular pasta if you say it doesn’t make you sick–can’t figure out why else they’d ask that question. I don’t have celiac, so it’s not a life-threatening thing for me, but gluten has contributed to some health problems. Should have said, yes, gluten makes me sick, but it was one (actually two) of those moments when I was so startled, I couldn’t figure out what to say.

  21. Sarah says:

    This is great. It would be wonderful if you could share the frugal aspects of this with us. I still eat meat sparingly, but have become much more interested in a vegetarian-esque diet, and have become familiar with lots of new “health” foods. And yeah, a lot of them are expensive.

    I’m also a runner and need a boost of protein post-workout and am wondering if you have protein shake recipes or if you use the powder, or any tips on cost effective and healthy (ie, no arsenic) ways to make protein shakes.

    I see others mention that fruit/veggies/break HAVE protein, but I remain convinced that I have a real need for something beyond that post long run (for day to day stuff, i agree that I’m probably getting enough protein, though I’m lazy about tracking). Sure, peanut butter toast works, but my stomach favors something liquidy smooth right after exercise.

    Do you buy larabars in bulk? What other foods have you discovered? How about quinioa? Any interest in a frugal veg recipe series? There are tons of great health/vegan blogs out there, but I get annoyed when they thrown in expensive (but very healthy!) ingredients.

    Anyway, best of luck with your health!

  22. Ajtacka says:

    I’d like to repeat the request for recipes! Particularly the barley soup.

    With regards to health: as a life-long vegetarian (ovo-lacto, never knowingly eaten meat), the *only* diet-related health problem I’ve had is a slight B12 deficiency, the rest of my vege family not even that. We don’t regularly take supplements, and all basically eat what we want, same as most other people.

    Granted, it is purely anecdotal and others do have issues with a vege diet, but I just wanted to point out that it’s not necessarily “vegetarian = iron/protein/B12/whatever deficiency”, nor “vegetarian = obsessing about food/diet/whatever”.

  23. Kate says:

    I’m echoing the request for the barley soup recipe!

  24. almost there says:

    I thought the china study diet was debunked by the Primal Blueprint diet? Marks daily apple site has all the particulars on it.

  25. imelda says:

    Trent, not only was this a great post, but I want to say GOOD FOR YOU. Do you know how hard it is for most of us to make changes like this, even though we know they’re good for us? Do you know how many diabetics struggle, and often fail, to eat the best food for their bodies?

    You are to be praised not just for changing your diet, but for doing so without some disease hanging over your head. Good on you.

    And the truth is, we ALL know that eating right and exercising will help us live longer. But how many of us seriously do it? You are inspiring.

  26. SwingCheese says:

    Two things: One, whoever suggested “Vegetarian Times” is right on the money. I’m not a vegetarian, nor is my husband, but we are enthusiastic about the recipes in this magazine. I love it!

    And Sarah: I run, too, and I also can’t stomach much of anything in the time frame you have for “replenishing” after a long run. I’ve tried a lot of different bars, etc., and I’ve found the best thing for me is a glass of milk (whole, in my case, as I have a son who drinks whole milk) or a glass of chocolate soy milk. After a 1 hour (or longer) run, when I take the time to drink a glass of milk afterwards, I feel much more energized.

  27. Laura L says:

    I am so glad you have done this for your health. May your family not need the life insurance you bought for a long, long time! My husband and I decided to embrace a vegetarian diet during the summer, and we both are so happy with it. I committed to trying it for a month, and at the end of the month, we both opted to continue indefinitely. Since then we have decided to also eliminate dairy products. We don’t feel deprived, and we both are very happy about what we are doing for our health. If we visit friends and eat with them, we eat whatever is offered. But when we choose our food, we bypass meat and dairy. We make our shakes with almond milk, bananas and whatever fruits are on sale. They are wonderful. I’d like the barley soup recipe too!

  28. Janie Riddle says:

    In 1985, my then 9 year old child was found to have a hollow bone in his right leg. The bone marrow was dissolving inside the bone. The doctor’s never did figure out why. We did surgery
    and it did not improve. We finally went to a nutritionalist who had us do 80 percent raw fruits and vegetables. The leg finally began growing new bone. First the body needed to repair his liver, lungs and heart. His constant skin rash also healed before the body began healing the leg. Wishing you success with this.

  29. Kelly Hembree says:

    Way to go Trent! I would also like you recipe for the Barley Soup too!

  30. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    Great to hear that Trent. I’ve been mostly vegetarian for a few years now and it work great. I focus on healthy, natural foods with a small amount of organic meat thrown in. The basic ingredients cost more but the savings in terms of less meat, no soda and no junk food have more than made up for it. Add in the increased health and better environment and there’s no question in my mind that this is the right diet.

  31. Briana @ GBR says:

    I definitely want to start making some changes in my diet, but I already know plant-based isn’t going to work for me; I’m a carnivore! But, I do love fruits and vegetables, and think I should definitely work harder on increasing those and decreasing my carb intake.

  32. Kai says:

    buying up regular ‘energy’ bars is expensive, and they’re usually meant to be a meal replacement, not a snack. The calories add up, even when they’re ‘good’ ones. You can make your own similar things for much cheaper.
    For those of us who enjoy our meat, it’s quite reasonable to try to keep plants as the main portion, and enjoy meat in smaller quantities, and/or less often. No reason to cut it out.

  33. argus says:

    @31 just become a weekend vegetarian/flexitarian like I did. My diet mostly vegetarian but I do consume meats (mostly poultry and pork), mostly 2-3 times a week and in very small quantities and dairy.
    I consider meat a side dish or flavoring not the main course.
    I have to stress out that most of the produce and meats are locally or home grown and there’s virtually no processed food in our diets.

  34. Dariaclone says:

    Haven’t been on here for awhile, but stopped by recently and saw a lack of enthusiasm for the “once a month” cooking plan. This post seems to sort of explain it. Lots of those recipes are heavy in meat and cheese.

    We actually went on this plan about the same time you did. So far, I think it’s been more expensive for us (because we weren’t eating much meat before, either). So, I look forward to future posts (whether here or on another blog) about the diet, including recipes and frugality tips.

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