Commentary: The Great Vegan Experiment of 2014

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, January 1. I had my 40th birthday celebration all planned out. On February 11, 2014, I was going to do something big. The only thing that defined “big” — and fell within my physical and financial constraints — was jumping out of a plane, something I’ve wanted to do for 10 years as a way to conquer a big fear of falling.

But when I told my husband about my idea last October, he nixed the idea a half-second after I got the world “skydiving” out of my mouth. He actually used the word “forbid.” I begged and pleaded and used my puppy-dog eyes, but he had dug in his heels. So much for this elaborate way to usher in my fifth decade of life.

I didn’t have a Plan B. I was certain skydiving was going to happen, and I couldn’t think of anything else that would be as cool as jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet. But after the stern disapproval from my husband, I had to think of something that would make my 40th birthday memorable.

I’m not an extreme sports person. I don’t ski or snowboard. I don’t fully understand the excitement of NASCAR, and I’m never going to participate in a triathlon. Skydiving was about as extreme as I was willing to go. I was out of options, so I decided to turn the level of extreme down a few notches. After much consideration, I figured the best way to turn 40 was to make some major changes in my life.

And that’s when I decided to try the vegan diet.

For the uninitiated, a vegan diet goes a major step beyond being a vegetarian. In addition to removing meat from the diet, vegans take out all foods that come from animals. This includes milk, eggs, cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, yogurt, ice cream and so much more. Most processed foods, even if they do not contain dairy, contain animal by-products that act as preservatives, so vegans have to be very careful about what they buy at the supermarket.

Most vegans pick this diet for health reasons, because they are lactose intolerant or allergic to some animal product. Others do it for ethical reasons as a protest against the cruel ways animals are slaughtered for our consumption. And others do it for health reasons, to remove foods that are doing harm to their bodies and shortening their life spans. I’m part of that third group.

I have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, both genetically passed down to me. I know this because I exercise almost 10 times more than the average human, have a very moderate lifestyle and do not eat lots of junk food. I take medicine for both conditions, and the pills help greatly. But I want to see if a radical change in diet will get my numbers even lower. For the first time in at least 10 years, my total cholesterol (LDL plus HDL) is under 200, which I give singular credit to a breakfast of oatmeal at least five days a week. Though it’s great that my total cholesterol is in the 190s, I want it to get as low as 170 if possible. Taking eggs completely out of my diet will help, as will removing the temptation to consume ice cream while watching “Scandal.”

I know the big question you are asking: “What about the protein?” Athletes need protein in their diet. Lots of it. As a Masters swimmer, I need loads of protein to rebuild tired muscles and repair my body in time for the next workout. That will be the major problem facing me as I make this transition to a vegan diet.

One solution is non-milk-based protein powder. I already put soy protein in my oatmeal every morning, but that contains milk. The alternative should take care of about 25 grams of protein. I’ll also eat plenty of beans and nuts (especially almonds). I’ve also come to grips with the fact that I’ll probably have to rediscover a taste for peanut butter, a major protein source. Just a spoonful or so every day will mean a lot.

I am also hoping this diet will improve my swimming performance. I have been doing very well in the pool, competing in the Olympic Trials in 2012 at 38 years old, and swimming my fastest 100-meter breast in Masters competition this past summer. I feel fit, but maybe this new diet will get my weight lower so I can feel lighter in the water. Many of the books I have read promise renewed energy, so I hope that will translate to better workouts in the pool and at the gym.

I have already started the transition to a vegan lifestyle. After Thanksgiving, I started actively choosing other food options for certain meals, such as not cooking beef to put in spaghetti sauce or putting vegetables in my eggs instead of cheese and sausage. And when I have gone to restaurants, I have actively chosen, at the very least, from vegetarian options. Starting today, I have cut meat from my diet and will work toward a completely vegan lifestyle by the time my birthday arrives. I’ll stick with it for at least two months, and if I find things aren’t feeling good, I’ll scale back and add a few dairy products back into my diet, or maybe sneak a can of tuna into my pasta salad.

This will be a daring experiment. Fun, but daring. I know there are very few successful vegan athletes, which doesn’t make me believe the words “vegan” and “athlete” often go together. The only swimmer of note I could find who lived as a vegan was Australian Murray Rose, who won six Olympic medals in 1956 and 1960. Currently, Natalie Coughlin gets as close to the vegan lifestyle as anyone, though she does drink milk and has meat products occasionally. Rebecca Soni has said in interviews that she wished she had tried the vegan diet during the years before the 2012 Olympics. If she comes back to the sport, I wonder if she’ll give it a try.

When I told my husband about this plan, he scoffed. He will never turn away from meat, especially beef, and he’ll throw a tantrum if I forget the ice cream at the grocery store. Like most I’ve told about this experiment, he didn’t think I could thrive as a swimmer and get the same amount of protein each day that I found in meat. In the past few weeks, though, he’s become very supportive of my decision and has said he’ll eat some of my meals. He might inhale my vegan chili, but I doubt he’ll allow me to put vegan pizza on his plate. My sister-in-law gave me a massive recipe book for vegetarian meals, but many of them can be vegan simply by substituting oil for butter or just getting rid of the cheese. I can’t wait to start tearing through that.

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, this is probably the most ambitious goal I’ve had in many years. It’s not as pulse-pounding as jumping out of a plane, but my heart will be happy I made this choice.

Jeff Commings is a Masters world record holder and the host of “The Morning Swim Show” on SwimmingWorld.TV.

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