After many years fighting obesity and depression, Dr Luke Vano, London-based psychiatry trainee, finally found the solution by taking control of his health.
Life Long Struggle
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a problem with my weight. I’ve always had difficulty saying no to food and have often used eating as a way to cope with stress. Despite being very active for most of life, this “overeating” led to obesity. When I’d had enough of being overweight I would crash diet to get some of the weight off, but invariably this weight would always come back.
Despite this, I was able to reach a healthy weight by the time I entered university to study medicine. As the intensity of my course picked up so did my bad habits. In my penultimate year of university (five years ago), I was at my heaviest, 120kg (nearly 19 stone). When I reflect back, it’s difficult to know what came first, the depression or the obesity. Did I eat because I was sad and anxious, or was I sad and anxious because I was overweight? It’s likely that both factors contributed. It is acknowledged that fatty tissue causes inflammation and many mental health illnesses, including depression, are linked to inflammation. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until I went to see my GP and started anti-depressant medication that I was able to recognise how unwell I really was.
Each night I would wake up multiple times gasping for breath. My girlfriend at the time would have to roll me over when I seemed to be struggling. In the daytime my lack of sleep became apparent; I would often drift off in lectures and if I was working I’d lose concentration after a few minutes. My thinking was slow and everything I did seemed to drain my energy. At this time I was a few months away from starting my final year of medical training. This was the opportunity I had been dreaming about ever since I was a teenager. Over the next year I’d be putting all my knowledge into practice and developing the skills that would allow me to be a doctor. Things needed to change fast.
My diet, which up until this point consisted of takeaways and microwave meals, was the first area I worked on. I was in search of the best diet. One that would have me rapidly shed weight and, of course, lead to rock hard abs. What was this magical diet? I asked doctor google. The answer I found was ‘low carb’. For the next year I would live on oats, milk, eggs, chicken and salad. Whilst this may work for some people, for me, it was absolute torture. After a few weeks I became accustomed to the discomfort of constipation but the constant pangs of hunger were harder to deal with. I kept telling myself that this is how it had to be, this is how I was going to get fit.
The next thing I decided was to start exercising. I would jog up to 4 times a week for around 30–60 minutes. Whilst I was able to stick to my diet for most of the week, I found it difficult to continue to be ‘low carb’ over the weekends. I was still using food as reward and release from the pressures of studying. Despite this, I was able to lose 10kg (one and half stone) over a period of 12 long months.
After years of hard work I’d finally earned my medical degree and would be moving up to Yorkshire for foundation training! This would entail spending two years working in different hospital specialities as a medical and surgical doctor. Exams done, I was determined to lose more weight, but life had other ideas. It was the same old story. The pressure I was under hit new heights. I tried to eat ‘low carb’ as much as possible, but with all the 12 hour shifts and nights I found myself eating whatever was convenient. After finishing a row of shifts I would treat myself with a huge portion of fast food and some booze, often slumped in front of the TV. Luckily I found out that spending 14 hours straight running around a hospital was great for burning calories! My weight stayed the same during my first year of training.
As I grew more confident in my abilities, I was better able to cope with the workload. I cut down on junk food and alcohol. The flat I’d moved into had a gym on site and I started a martial arts class and as a result, I started to lose weight again. After getting down to 105kg (16 and half stone), my weight plateaued. I tried cutting out more calories but my persistent hunger worsened to such a degree that I started having abdominal pains. Had I reached the end of my weight loss journey?
After spending a day searching on YouTube for inspiration, I came across a set of videos about Andrew Flinders Taylor, a man who ate potatoes for a year. I couldn’t believe that this man was still alive! Not only was he alive, he was thriving. By eating until he felt full he was able to lose 117 pounds over the year and felt healthier than ever. I continued to watch in disbelief. It was from this story that I learned about plant-based diets. I was sceptical at first as many of the videos I encountered contained subjective opinions and appeared devoid of any factual evidence.
After hours glued to my chair, I came across Mic the Vegan, a YouTuber who included references to back-up his opinions. It was after reading these papers that I started to question the effectiveness of my own diet.
Did I actually believe that a diet which not only advocated eggs, bacon and oil every morning, but actively prohibited me from eating an abundance of glorious fruit and vegetables would be healthy for me in the long-term? If there was evidence suggesting that a well-plannedplant-based diet prevented chronic disease, including obesity, it would be logical to conclude that this would be the healthiest diet to consume. The question that tipped me over the edge was: If we don’t need to consume animal products to survive, then why should we? I didn’t have an answer for this one and as a result, I became plant-based overnight.
Having made this sudden commitment to change to a plant-based diet, I rushed out to my local express supermarket and bought as much plant-based milk, fruit, vegetables and meat substitutes as I could carry. I made the same meals that I would have had previously, but would replace the animal product with a plant-based alternative. Between meals, I’d blitz up some vitamin-infused smoothies and ensure that I was never hungry. As time moved on I learnt more about nutrition and discovered a diet which was right for me. Below are some I the benefits I have noticed from sticking to this diet for the last two years.
Sustained Weight Loss
Despite having lost a significant amount of weight prior to becoming plant-based, and reaching a plateau, I noticed a rapid weight loss over the first few months. This was made even more surprising by the fact that I’d entered into a busy hospital rotation and had cut down on exercise as a result of my shift patterns. Six months into a plant-based diet I’d lost a further 10kg. I’ve been plant-based for nearly two years now and over this time I’ve lost a total of 20kg. For once, this weight loss feels healthy. I have got back into exercise and can now run further than ever before.
One of the things I’d always suffered from after a fatty meal was lethargy and drowsiness. I would sit in front of the TV after one of these meals and just veg out. Although I’d always loved reading, I would not even be able to concentrate due to a fogginess clogging up my mind. Since becoming plant-based, I have found that I’m naturally making meals that energise me and I no longer suffer with these lethargic episodes. The place where this has been most noticeable is at work. The daytime tiredness I experienced for years has vanished. As I’ve lost more weight my sleep quality has improved and I wake up in the mornings feeling ready for the day ahead.
I used to only be able to derive pleasure from the unhealthiest of foods. If I wanted to treat myself I would have to go out and buy a gigantic burger meal, which would contain the majority of my daily recommended calories. One of my main concerns before turning plant-based was, how would I manage to stay away from these indulgences? The answer was easier than I had imagined.
The hardest part of starting a plant-based diet is the first three weeks. This is the length of time it takes for your taste buds to be replaced. It has been shown that by cutting down on fatty foods, you become more sensitive to fat itself. For me personally, the longer I stayed away from processed foods the more sensitive my taste buds have become. Now I’m able to detect those subtler tastes. My enjoyment of food has reached a whole new complexity.
Despite all the stresses and strains of the last few years I can honestly say that I’ve recently been happier than ever. For the first time ever I’ve not had to worry about my weight. I’m no longer a slave to the scales or having to calorie count. My relationship with my body has never been better. Through adopting this lifestyle and reaching out to others, I’ve been able to make a great new group of friends. Through discussions with these friends I’ve learnt a lot more about animal welfare and the environment. I’m finally happy to have a diet that allows me to feel more at peace with myself and the world I live in.
My tips for success
Why are you doing this? It’s vital to explore this question. What is it that’s drawing you to a plant-based diet? Think deeply about this question and write down your answer in a computer file or in a notepad. If you start to struggle, then remember why you’re doing this.
Plan your first weeks — something I did not do! Have a think about meals that you really love and make sure you have the ingredients for them at home. If you feel tempted to go for something that is not plant-based, go for one of your prepared comfort meals. The feeling will pass and you will be happy that you persevered.
Focus on non-processed foods. Try to ensure that you are loading yourself up with whole plant foods. These are foods which have not been altered, largely by manufacturing, and will therefore have less additives. Focusing on these foods will allow you to greater experience the benefits of becoming plant-based.
Don’t be hungry. Plant-based foods naturally have a lower calorie density. It’s important to ensure that you’re getting enough fuel to power yourself through the day. The aim of this diet is to improve your energy levels and health. The best way to ensure you are getting enough calories is to know roughly how many calories you need in a day and how many you are getting from food. When starting out, I used the following websites and apps as guides. Once you’ve got the basics you may find that you no longer need to count calories as you learn how to make a healthy meal.
App — MyFitnessPal
Take snacks. One of the benefits of being on a plant-based diet is that it’s often more difficult to go for unhealthy junk food when out and about due to the lack of options (though times are changing). This can be difficult when you first start out if you’re someone who relies on convenience food or snacks when you get peckish. Find a range of plant-based snacks that you like and try to keep a bar of some kind, or portion of fruit for times like this.
Plan your meals out. Luckily plant-based options are everywhere nowadays. That being said you might run into difficulties when in another country or a restaurant that specialises in meat dishes. For the first few weeks, know what you are going to have before you go somewhere. If there are limited options you could eat something before and go for something light, like a side salad or roasted vegetables. When I’ve been to restaurants in foreign countries and found that they have had no plant-based options on their menu, I’ve always been able to make up a basic salad. Google translate is your friend!
Be firm in your beliefs. This goes for any area of your life. If you believe in something then it is important that you stand up for yourself. This does not mean making other people feel bad or trying to force your views on others. It can be hard for some people to see changes in those around them. If you’ve always been overweight or a big drinker then some people might try to dissuade you from continuing to make improvements in your life when you start becoming more healthy. Seeing you improve may force them to think about their own habits. If people around you aren’t respecting a decision you’ve made then tell them why it is important for you to do this. If they continue to be unsupportive and don’t respect your boundaries then evaluate your relationship with this person/people.
Supplements. As long as you have no deficiencies going into a plant-based diet there is no need for you to take supplements in the first few months. Your body will have a large enough reservoir of vitamins and minerals to support you, as long as you are eating regularly. Then, look at the nutritional content of your food in more detail. A reliable source of vitamin B12 is essential as it is not found in plant foods. The easiest way is to take a regular supplement.
Connect with others. There is no need to do this alone. There are plenty of websites and forums where you can connect with others who are on the same journey. Ask them for tips and then give back by helping people who are just starting. If the plant-based diet is something that works for you then why not grab a few books on the subject? Every year there are conferences all over the world where likeminded people can get together. Heading to one of these events can be a great way to meet people, learn from experts and pick up some lovely plant-basedtreats!
Becoming plant-based has been a pleasure and opens your mind to all sorts of possibilities, so enjoy the transformation.
Luke Vano January 2019