The Protein Question

The Vegan Files

One of my coworkers, the most friendly, helpful guy you could hope to know (and a computer whiz, to boot), recently mentioned that he is on insulin but is still having difficulty keeping his Type 2 diabetes under control.  I was a bit surprised, as he is tall, exercises (not only goes to the gym but also has a job that keeps him running around our building like a banshee all day) and is not morbidly obese like me.  I related that I’ve had reasonable success at controlling my blood sugar since I went vegan a little more than two years ago.

He seemed busy, but I spent a minute or two explaining about the vegan diet before he had to run off to put out the next fire at work.  Funny thing is that there is no one “vegan diet.”  Every vegan eats differently.  The baseline that most of us have common is that we do not eat animal products.  This includes a ban on meat, fish and seafood, dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.), eggs or honey.

As most Type 2 diabetics know, the finest foods in life are starches.  I knew that even in my carnivore days.  When you have to watch your carbs, it is easy to dream about bread, potatoes, bread, pasta, bread, cereal, bread, bagels, croissants and tortillas.  Did I mention bread?

Most of these beloved starches are vegan (although you always have to watch the ingredients on the labels of commercially prepared products).  But those of us who are both vegan and diabetic are faced with a double challenge.  It is easy for vegans who eat on the run to overdo it on the starches, a disaster if you’re a Type 2 diabetic.

So I’m not surprised that among the most common questions that I’m asked about my vegan diet is how I get my protein.  “You don’t even eat eggs?” my coworker asked me.  I know where he’s coming from.  As I’ve been blessed with naturally low cholesterol, I used to eat a lot of eggs.  If I had a boiled egg (or two) for a snack, at least I didn’t have to add it to the carbohydrate tally for the day on my diabetic diet.  A single egg gives you 6 grams of protein, so egg lovers who go vegan will likely need to search for a replacement source of protein.

Then again, maybe not.

Don’t ask me how much protein you should consume each day.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it’s an individualized thing in that it supposedly depends on your body weight and how much you exercise.  For another, there appears to be little consensus among the medical community regarding how much protein we need.  Lots of folks out there wag their fingers at meat-loving Americans, warning that we’re getting too much protein and that this can cause us to gain unhealthy amounts of weight and even result in kidney disease.  Then there are others who believe that we don’t get enough protein and would, in fact, do better to indulge in more as a replacement for a lot of the refined sugars and starches that Americans are so enamored with.  All in all, however, I believe we’re probably better off dumping the excess carbs and replacing them with vegetables (both the green and orange varieties).

Starch does have its place, however, even for vegan Type 2s.  It’s a matter of achieving balance, which I grant is not the easiest thing when you spend your life running hither and yon.  I am definitely not a good role model in the area of balance, as I seem to have developed a potato fetish on a scale that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  As far as I’m concerned, a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine.  If I don’t have my baked potato, I get positively grumpy.  But you know what?  A baked potato (if it’s not a giant one) tends to have about 90 to 110 calories.  You could do worse.  And starches do fill you up, which can leave you less hungry for the junk food that is forever calling my name.

So I let my coworker know that, while carnivores may have concerns about eating too much protein, vegans (particularly diabetics) have to be concerned about eating too much starch.  Making a point to eat protein at one meal each day is quite sufficient for many of us.  I ticked off a list of some common vegan protein sources:

  • tofu
  • seitan
  • beans and legumes (including hummus)
  • nuts
  • soy milk
  • commercially prepared vegan products

In this last category I include items such as vegan burger patties (Boca burgers, for example) and veggie dogs, vegan “lunch meat” (my favorites are Yves “bologna” and Tofurky’s “oven roasted turkey”) and vegan frozen items (my favorites are Gardein’s “fish,“ “chicken” and “meatballs” and Amy’s bean burritos).  These convenience foods are probably not as healthful as whole foods such as beans and legumes, but they taste great and I never have to worry about a quick protein source to throw in my bag.  A few minutes in the microwave at work and lunch is served!

Of course, protein choices have to be modified to personal preferences.  For example, I happen to detest seitan (sprouted soy), which, at least to me, tastes like dirt.  I rarely drink soy milk, as I prefer almond milk, which has very little protein (but is wonderful in a cup of hot Earl Grey).  I do, however, enjoy tofu and beans, particularly chick peas (which here in California are popularly known as garbanzos).  Everyone has to come up with the mix that works for them.  It’s particularly tough for those transitioning from a meat-eating lifestyle, because many of these products may be totally foreign to them.

It’s also worthwhile to bear in mind that many foods that you already eat contain protein that you might not be aware of.  A packet of instant oatmeal, for example, which I always think of as a starch, typically contains 3 grams of protein.  If you throw two of those in a bowl with some hot water in the morning, you have the same amount of protein as there is in an egg.

The bottom line is that protein is not at all difficult for vegans to come by, particularly with all the commercial products available on supermarket shelves these days.

I just hope that my coworker decides to give it a try.


What to Eat and When: The Biggest Loser Challenge – Week 2

Biggest Loser

After our delightful family brunch on Sunday in Los Angeles, I knew I was not going to have any fun at all when I stepped on the scale on Monday morning.  I consider myself lucky that I only gained 3/5 of a pound.  It was worth it.  If you ever have a chance to visit Mort’s Deli/Bea’s Bakery on Clark Street in Tarzana, you’ll know what I mean.  I’ll tell you one thing, you can’t get a Dr. Brown’s diet cherry soda or an egg cream out here in the middle of the desert.

Since my return from LA, I’ve been trying to improve my eating habits toward the goal of coming up with better numbers on the scale.  In the first week of my company’s Biggest Loser Challenge, employees lost 555 pounds; my own location didn’t contribute much to it.  In fact, only one of our five team members lost any weight at all.

Reducing my intake is an obvious tack, but a more difficult decision is what to eat and even when to eat it.  Growing up, I learned about the famous Food Pyramid.  The bread, cereal, rice and pasta group was at the bottom with 6 to 11 (!) servings per day, then the vegetables and fruits, then the proteins, and finally, “fats and sweets” at the apex (“use sparingly”).

But these days, the word is that carbohydrates are bad, that they raise your blood sugar and cause you to gain weight.  The pendulum has swung.  Six to eleven servings of carbs per day is decidedly out of style.  Diets such as Scarsdale and Pritikin have become popular, featuring lots of protein and banishing those nasty carbs.

It has been interesting seeing how some of my fellow bloggers weigh in (ooo, bad pun) on this issue.  Alex Freeman stands with the go-go protein coterie and urges high intensity exercise.  Steven Waddell, on the other hand, says eat carbs at every meal, think happy thoughts and love yourself unconditionally.  He also says “when in doubt, eat more fat.”  I think I like this guy.  Anyone who is a fan of butter is definitely on my side.

Some of my favorite advice comes from Michael Pollan, whose formula for health is:  “Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much.”  Balm for my near-vegetarian heart, particularly since he is all gung-ho on omega-3 fats and has no objection at all to my enjoyment of fish protein.

Planning seems to be the pivotal factor in making smarter food choices.  If I think “I’m hungry” and grab the first appealing thing I come across in the refrigerator, the cupboard, or (heaven help us) the snack cabinet at work, I will end up stuffing my face with items that Pollan would not consider “food” and that will undoubtedly cause me to gain weight.  But if I have a sandwich, a salad and some fruit ready to go, chances are I will stick with the program.

As if it weren’t hard enough to figure out what to eat, even when to eat is at issue these days.  Some say to eat protein before you exercise; others cite a “protein window” that closes a short time after exercise.  But for sedentary fat cats like myself, I recently read that when you eat does not really make much of a difference.  The “don’t eat at night” rule, I read, is mostly a misguided myth.

That is, until last week, when I read that, in fact, the timing of one’s meals does make a big difference in how satisfied we feel, how efficiently our metabolism runs and ultimately, whether we gain or lose weight.  This school of thought posits that we need fuel to get our bodies going in the morning.  Some say this means protein for breakfast, others say this means eat carbs early in the day.  Breakfast is not really my thing, but I stopped dead in my tracks when I read that the old bugbear about avoiding night eating is actually true.  There are those who recommend that we don’t eat within three hours of going to bed.

Well, this is even more of a problem for me than the breakfast issue.  For me, following this rule can only mean one thing:  Don’t eat dinner at all.  Although I have a proclivity for staying up late, recently I have begun to change my ways by going to bed much earlier and getting enough sleep.  During the week, by the time I get home from work I’m not even awake for another three hours.

So I’ve tried something new.  I talked with my wife and asked that, whatever she wants to prepare for my dinner, she should simply pack up in a plastic container and it will be my breakfast and lunch for the following day.  Yesterday, I had eggplant parmagiana for breakfast and fruit for lunch.  Today, I had a sandwich for breakfast and baked garlic Portobello mushrooms for lunch.  No dinner for me.

“Don’t you get hungry at night?” one of my coworkers asked me.  Sometimes, I responded.  But I am slowly learning that feeling hungry tends to be a temporary thing that goes away after a while.  If I’m really that hungry, I eat a piece of fruit.

I am also reading that weight loss can be improved when one evens out the metabolism by eating tiny bits throughout the day.  So I crunch on celery while I’m working at my desk and I usually break for an apple or some strawberries in the afternoon.  I drink two liters of club soda, mineral water or decaffeinated tea during the day.

Is any of this going to make one bit of difference to my weight loss efforts?  I haven’t a clue at this point.  Perhaps I am fooling myself and it is all for naught.  Only the scale will tell.

I will say this, however.  We celebrated one of my coworkers’ birthdays today with banana splits.  I wanted to participate in the festivities and I did not want to feel deprived.  It is said that confession is good for the soul, so here goes:  I skipped the banana and served myself one spoonful of ice cream with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, a tiny dollop of whipped cream and three maraschino cherries.

Not exactly diet foot, but I didn’t do too badly, don’t you think?




You don’t know me.

You may think you do, but you don’t.  You say you want to get to know me?  Fine.  Here are some things you need to do for starters:

  • Be six years old.  Fall in love with Hershey bars, ice cream sandwiches, orange soda.  Anything containing sugar.
  • Be much slower than your little sisters due to weighing three times as much as they do.  Have your father instruct them to run circles around you then knock you down and sit on you.  Have him film this and play the Super 8 movie back for years to come.  Later, tell him that he was mean.  Have him respond that he wanted a funny home movie instead of just boring kid pictures.
  • Be eight years old.  Have parents who force you to step on the bathroom scale.  Watch the look of horror on their faces when they see that you weigh twice as much as you should.  Listen to the vile phrases that come out of their mouths.  Learn to hate your body.
  • Be ten years old.  Overhear your grandparents having a fight with your parents.  Understand that the argument is about you and why you are not “under a doctor’s care” and taking weight reduction drugs.
  • Participate in a school poetry contest on the theme of not wasting food.  Ask your father for help and have him suggest the phrase “get fat like a barrel and roll down the street.”  The next year, have him help you write a poem titled “I Love to Eat, Obviously.”  Be sure his nickname for you is “fat, fat, the water rat.”
  • Wince when your mother yells “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!”  Hide cookies under your bed.  Sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to steal ice cream, donuts, cupcakes.
  • Have kids make fun of your weight on the school bus.  Make sure they come up with clever rhymes for your first name.  Have them ask you whether you will pop if they stick a pin in you.  Cry to your father and listen to him tell you that “sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never harm you.”
  • As a teenager, have a grandfather who asks you why you can’t do somersaults and hang upside down from the swing set like your sisters.  Ask him for a double chocolate ice cream cone from Friendly’s.
  • Have your mother hiss at you about embarrassed she is that you are a boy with “titties.”
  • Go clothes shopping with your father.  Find nothing in your size.  Have him tell you that you need to visit Omar the Tent Maker for a custom made outfit.

Once you have done these things, you may begin to know me a little better.  To really understand me, however, you will also need to struggle with your weight and an obsession with food all your life, then develop diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems in middle age.  Force yourself to ride a stationary bike.  Hate every minute of it.  Have fights with your mother about this, as if you are eight years old again.  Apply for jobs, then watch the disgust register in the employer’s eyes when you show up for the interview.  Don’t get hired.  Notice that your peers don’t sing cruel songs about you on the school bus anymore, they just whisper about you behind your back now.  Pretend you don’t hear them.

And if you truly want to know what it is like to be me, you will boycott Southwest Airlines, Samoa Air and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Why these three?  Because they don’t want the business of fat people.  They are already so successful that they can take a discriminatory stand against us and pass up our money.  To them, we are lepers, untouchables, with whom they do not wish to be associated.

Southwest Airlines, well known for its cheap flights, is also known for requiring fat people to purchase two seats, and more recently, for having kicked a member of the fat community off one of its flights and for claiming that the obese are “too fat to fly.”  Southwest even has a name for us.  We are “customers of size.”  I hate flying, but when I do next buy a plane ticket, I will gladly pay extra to shun Southwest in favor of another airline that is less hateful to the overweight.

As for Samoa Air, their fares vary greatly from passenger to passenger these days.  You see, they have a “pay as you weigh” or “pay by the kilogram” policy.

And then we come to Abercrombie and Fitch.  They have announced that they are taking a stand against obesity by refusing to carry clothes larger than size ten.  Like Southwest Airlines, they apparently don’t need our money.  Plus size women just aren’t cool enough for them.

Fortunately, something is being done about Abercrombie and Fitch’s despicable weight discrimination.  Watch this video to learn about the movement to donate Abercrombie clothes to some of the most needy among us, thus making Abercrombie and Fitch the premier clothier of the homeless.  Not only is this a good cause, but it might make the company think about which would be the most detrimental association, plus size women with money or the inhabitants of Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

And if you’ve really gotten to know me now, you’ll tell Abercrombie to go fitch themselves.


The Magnificent Seven

scale 1

So my employer has decided to up the ante on its wellness program by holding an eleven-week weight loss contest this summer.

Now, when I hear the term “weight loss,” I generally run the other way.  Well, maybe not run.  I am far too out of shape for that.  Turn my back and shamble away would be more like it.

I am what the doctors refer to as “morbidly obese,” as well as a couch potato and more than a bit of a food snob.  So a weight loss contest is way out of my league, to say the least.

I think about all the food programs my mother tried to put me on when I was growing up.  “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!” my mother would yell when we returned home from an appointment with the pediatrician, appalled and embarrassed at the numbers that appeared on the scale.  He had handed us a printed diet that included caloric values for foods with strange sounding names like kale and kohlrabi.  The sole item listed under “desserts” was 5-calorie gelatin.

I thought “diet” was merely a variant of the word “die” and that “exercise” was a dirtier word than the things my classmates scratched into the stall walls in the boys’ bathroom.  I wanted nothing to do with physical activity; I wanted to curl up in a corner with a book.  Nevertheless, I would be sent outside with a handball to bat against the garage doors.  Then there was the time with the punching bag and the time with the set of barbells and dumbells and the time my mother browbeat my father into hitting tennis balls with me.

My religious elementary school sent us out to play but really didn’t care whether I ran the baseball diamond or just sat under the apple tree.  Guess which one I did?  Junior high and high school phys ed was pure misery that I’d prefer not to relive by detailed description.  Being forced to assist my father with the yardwork was one of the low points of my life.  I got good at hiding and devised all types of devious methods of sneaking ice cream and cookies.  I blush to admit that at least one of those involved outright stealing.  Sigh.

Perhaps I can convey a bit of the idea of how prominent a role food played in my early life by pointing out that the gift I most begged my parents for at the age of six was a soda machine.

Considering the above, it should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve been massively overweight from toddlerhood until today, as I stand on the brink of senior citizenship.  Now, everyone knows how dangerous extra weight is to one’s health.  Obesity brings on a litany of diseases and drugs, most of which have come a-callin’ and then decided to take up residence like so many houseguests of questionable character who I cannot bear to throw out into the street despite the fact they have long since overstayed their welcomes.

Just take this weight-loss contest as an opportunity and a blessing, I tell myself, while in my heart I convinced that the whole thing is nothing more than an insufferable pain in the ass.

The Human Resources Department is calling the contest “The Biggest Loser,” named after the TV show.  Although we must have weekly weigh-ins like on the show (hopefully without the corny beep-beep-beep sound effects), I am happy to say that there are no five-mile jogs, treadmills or stationary bicycles involved.

Interested employees are to form teams of three to ten.  Success is judged not by the number of pounds lost, but by the percentage of body weight lost.  This means that I will need to lose somewhere between ten and twenty pounds for every pound that some of my already skinny coworkers lose.  Just when I curse the unfairness of it all, I am reminded that it will probably be more difficult for them to lose one pound than it will be for me to lose twenty.  Okay, point taken.

My employer has more than a dozen locations, so there are bound to be a lot of teams.  This means there will be a lot of competition.  I started asking around as to which of my nine team members wish to participate.  Seven of them said yes.  Seven!  Well, six plus me.  The rules say that now we have to come up with a team name.  I vote that we dub ourselves The Magnificent Seven.

I got the group together informally on Friday afternoon and promised them that I would not let them down.  I gave them the rah-rah talk about how we’re already good at teamwork and how this going to be a piece of cake.  Er, a celery stick and a carrot, I mean.  We might have to compete with ten or twenty other teams, but with a little determination, I think we have a very good shot at beating them all.

I still can’t believe I agreed to do this.  The easy way out would have been to just ignore this contest and smile weakly when I walk by coworkers’ desks and hear them regaling each other with stories of their successes.

There is something about being a supervisor, however.  You can’t just say “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.”  You have to be a leader, even (especially) when it’s not too convenient to do so.

And who knows?  Maybe this time I’ll finally keep the weight off and turn my life around.