Back to Health During the Pandemic Lockdown

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of 2020 was the stimulus I needed to lose weight, become healthier, and to transform my eating habits once and for all. I had been an unhealthy vegan for 3 years prior. I had high blood pressure (average BP 145/88 mmHg), I was obese (BMI 30.2, 87 kg) and physically unfit. This was despite achieving around 10,000 steps a day with walking my dog.

I am a 46 years old medical doctor. My colleagues had started to challenge me about the healthiness of a ‘vegan’ diet. I frequently indulged in processed foods, including Greggs vegan pastries, chocolates and crisps. I would regularly snack at work, making unhealthy choices such as “chip” Friday, despite being provided with healthy packed lunches by my wife. My clothes were getting tighter, some of my trousers actually split, and work scrub size was large/extra-large. I suffered with gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, requiring regular use of a proton pump inhibitor. It was not until I lost the weight that I realised how obese I had looked in photographs. I now understand I had a food addiction, was metabolically unwell, lacked energy and frankly heading towards an early grave.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the wake up call I needed. I realised my lifestyle choices were putting me at high risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes mellitus and cancer. At the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020 I decided to adopt a whole food plant-based diet and start a more formal self-directed exercise programme. Intense, cardiovascular exercise was difficult to start with, and I was only able to achieve a running time of 12 minute 30 seconds per mile, with frequent stopping. Regarding food, I basically ate what my wife prepared and cooked for me! Porridge oats with soya milk and a tablespoon of flaxseeds for breakfast. Packed lunches at work, such as whole wheat couscous or brown rice with vegetables and beans, a whole wheat pasta salad or wholemeal wraps with humus and salad. At the weekends lunches were often soups with whole grain bread or a large salad with beans. I replaced unhealthy snacks with fruits, vegetables and nuts, I cut out salt and cooking oils and all processed food. Dinners remained the same and included a variety of vegetable curries, Mexican bean chilli with all the added extras, lentil Bolognese and vegan ‘Shepherds pie’. I did not give up my daily treat of dark chocolate though! The reduced opportunity for take away meals and restaurant meals undoubtedly helped.
Fast forward to January 2021. I weigh 72kg and have a BMI of 24.4, my total cholesterol is 4.2 mmol/l (having been 6.5mmol/l as a meat-eater aged 30), my HbA1c is normal at 38mmol/mol and my blood pressure is now 108/70 mmHg. I have abundant energy and continue to exercise regularly with a combination of running and walking with my dog, up to a maximum of 12–13 miles a day. I usually lead the burn bar in Apple Fitness+ group sessions, now able to run a sub-25-minute cross-country 5K, complete an 8-minute mile and recover between exercise sessions quickly. My treadmill speeds are identical to those when I was a normal weight, eating a meat-based diet at age 20. Previously, post-exercise achy muscles and joints took 2–3 days to improve, whereas I now feel I can recover in a matter of hours. I no longer have food cravings, which lasted for around 2 months after transitioning to a whole food plant- based. I am sleeping better and rarely suffer from gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. I can wear medium sized scrubs at work. My colleagues have been more honest about their medical concerns about my previous obesity now I have lost the weight and comment on how healthy and fit I look now. I continue to eat meals of generous portions to fullness three times a day, with no limit on healthy snacks.

I now wonder when my medical school education on nutrition and optimal health took place! The improvement in my health provides me with compelling evidence for the benefits of a plant-fuelled diet and demonstrates the power of treating the cause of ill health rather than just the symptoms. I am determined to continue on my health journey now and beyond the pandemic.

Dr Robert Ayto, 3rd January 2021