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Medichecks doctor Emil Hodzovic undertook a month-long plant-based experiment to see how he would cope on the diet as an A&E doctor and a training bodybuilder! He had his blood levels checked before and after with a Medichecks Diet Check UltraVit to see what the difference to his health would be. We chatted to Emil to find out how it went and what, if any, were the biggest surprises.
1. How easy did you find this experiment and was it what you expected?
As a nutritionist and someone who has been embedded within fitness for quite some time, I had a lot of advantages when attempting to go plant-based overnight. I suppose I made it more difficult for myself as I was still dieting during this time (so in a calorie deficit) and I was also determined to keep hitting the same protein intake that I was eating as a meat eater and bodybuilder.
I expected it to be tough and restrictive and I think I was pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of options for food out there and I ended up trying a lot of things that I would never have considered in the past, but will definitely be adding to my diet going forward. I was also eating much larger volumes of food compared to before for the same calories and a lot more vegetables which was great!
2. Many people taking on a plant-based diet worry about how it will affect them socially. How difficult was it eating out and socialising with friends?
It was fine socially to be honest. I got a lot of banter from the guys in the gym but it was all light-hearted! And social media served really well in spreading the word to people who wouldn't have thought about this way of eating otherwise. I got a huge response with countless people interacting and asking questions or commenting on pictures which was exactly what I wanted. There appear to be a lot of people who are thinking about going more plant-based or have been considering it for some time and just needed a push.
In A&E during my NHS work I got a lot of questions but it was largely positive and inquisitive rather than anything negative.
I ate out a fair amount and tried a number of vegan restaurants in a few different cities which was an excellent experience. The food was tasty and varied and it was nice to try vegan food when made by people who knew what they were doing! Options at mainstream chains were more limited and it took a bit of getting used to but I actually didn’t get bored of the food which was good.
3. During this month what were your go-to meals?
I made an effort to try everything from ready meals, to home cooking and eating out, as well as snacks, supplements and treats. A typical day, for example, looked like this:
Breakfast: Coffee and almond milk with pea protein shake and fruit. Followed by scrambled Tofu with spinach and mushrooms (and a load of other vegetables).
Lunch: Some variation of a stew with beans, lentils or chickpeas, chopped tomatoes and spices.
Pre-workout: 2 bananas, BCAAs
Post workout: Pea protein shake, Creatine monohydrate
Evening meal: Either ate out or had Quorn in some form - you can pretty much do anything with Quorn that you can do with meat and it is also a low-calorie protein source. This was also an opportunity for me to try some of the frozen vegan ready meals. Spicy bean burgers were a firm favourite.
Snacks and treats: I made sure to try vegan ice cream, yoghurt, chocolate and sweets during my month as a vegan to ensure that I got the full experience!
During the month, I ate a lot of beans and fruit. Beans are an excellent source of fibre and protein and there are loads of varieties which I've not taken advantage of in the past. I'll definitely be incorporating them into my diet in the future.
4. At the start and finish of your experiment you had a Medichecks Diet Check UltraVit to see how the diet would affect your blood markers. Now that you’ve had the results back of your ‘after’ test, has anything surprised you?
A few markers improved as expected such as my uric acid (a measure of gout risk) and urea (a breakdown product of protein). Both of these are related to meat and protein intake and both were high previously though not causing any symptoms.
My HDL (good) cholesterol was already good and improved further after the month although my bad cholesterol (LDL and non HDL) increased slightly (but were still within the normal range). This shows that even though I was plant-based I wasn't immune to eating 'bad food' and you can certainly gain body fat and eat 'junk food' even without the animal products!
Interestingly both my vitamin B12 and iron stores dropped in the month that I was plant-based. Although they were both well within safe limits this is a well-known concern for people adopting this lifestyle and this does need to be prioritised as it will drop off pretty rapidly if it isn't considered.
I increased my dose of vitamin D supplementation by quite a large amount as well due to my 'pre experiment' levels which weren't as high as I thought they'd be. Although it was only a few weeks of the higher dose, it did start to raise my vitamin D levels to a more optimal range. Along with a few other key markers, vitamin D levels should be checked regularly (every 3-4 months) if you are aiming for optimal health - I learned that you can't assume your levels are optimal even if you are supplementing, without a blood test to confirm.
5. What, if anything, have you learnt from this experiment and will you take anything away with you?
I think there is a huge benefit to eating more plants for health and body composition. There is also a large amount of evidence that this is beneficial for the environment so this is certainly something that I will continue to do. I still don't think that you need to entirely exclude animal products to be optimal from a health point of view but I think eating far less will probably be a move in the right direction for a lot of people. That said, if you need to lose body fat then it is probably easier on a more balanced diet as there are more lean protein sources and you are less likely to run into problems with deficiencies. Ultimately, any improvements in your diet in terms of better quality food choices and fewer calories will probably benefit health overall.
I've also learnt that it is definitely possible to get everything you need from a plant-based diet though it is more difficult, therefore you need to be proactive if you decide to embark on this journey. There are plenty of sources of protein but you need to plan your whole day around hitting your targets. I think the extremely high levels of protein consumed by some bodybuilders and fitness professionals is excessive and unecessary; sticking to the lower end of the recommended range (perhaps 1.6-2.2g per kg) is perfectly adequate for the vast majority of the population. There may even be an argument for aiming for even lower levels if muscle/body composition are not priorities.
Fundamentally, I think everyone can benefit from eating more plants whether they go entirely plant-based or not. And for me this experiment has re-set some old habits. I will now be looking for more vegetable-heavy meals when I’m eating and won't always go straight to meat options. Lastly, I’ve learnt that if I can go plant-based, almost anyone can, and there’s no excuse not to up our fruit and vegetable intake in our day-to-day lives!