What happened when I tried out three diets for fitness: paleo, vegan, calorie counting. I suffer from extreme optimism and a very forgiving nature, which makes it very easy for me to treat myself to bad foods and laze around, but still consider myself fit and feisty. Added to this, I have a wonderful full length mirror which makes everyone look like a super model.
Come January, though, things were tight in the jeans department, and I was avoiding looking in the mirror. Even more seriously, I felt uncoordinated and lumbering when I was running, and just plain heavy when I was cycling. So, the idea for three diets, one each for Jan/Feb/March was born.
January = Paleo
The idea behind the paleo diet is very simple. We were at our physical peak as humans when we were hunter gatherers and started to decline when we became farmers. Relatively speaking in evolutionary terms, grains, sugar, dairy and legumes are new to our bodies, so if we eliminate them from our diet, we will get closer to our ideal. You can eat meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit. You can’t eat any grains (oats, wheat, barley etc), any dairy and some odd exceptions like peanuts, honey, beans and ordinary potatoes.
This is not a million miles from my normal diet and with grains, sugar and dairy out of the question, I felt I was bound to lose weight. I was also running about three times a week in training for the Marrakech Half Marathon and doing Cor’s core twice a week
My daily diet would be something like this:
- Breakfast: two egg omelette
- Lunch: chicken salad
- Dinner: steak and vegetables
- Snacks: Fruit, nuts, seeds
The first week was really difficult. I was eating a lot of protein but found I was craving grains and beans. Every morning, I woke up with a strong desire for porridge! At night, by 5.30, hunger had set in. My long-suffering flatmates said that I got “hangry” bang on cue. And they were right. I had to eat or I just couldn’t function. It was all worth it though when I lost 5 lbs in that first week.
The next week, I lost absolutely nothing. I felt the same, except that my digestion had also packed up with too much protein, but I had overdone it on the fruit and nuts, especially the nuts.
I re-adjusted for weeks three and four and the weight kept coming off.
In week four, it was the Marrakech Half Marathon. I decided to do it and not carbo-load. In the morning, I had ground almond, egg and banana pancakes. They felt too heavy and oily on my stomach and I wasn’t a happy bunny as I got to the start line. I did my slowest half marathon time ever, and had to walk a lot during the second half. I couldn’t get energised and motivated to push through, and came in just under the cut off at 2.57, which is disgraceful.
But, overall, the weight had come off well and I was down 11 pounds.
February = calorie counting
I have always shied away from calorie counting, as it feels finickity, but the lure of being able to eat anything I wanted albeit in moderation, was a big attraction. I had also decided to take on the Run Until You Drop challenge. The challenge was to run/walk the amount of miles in that day, every day of the month. One on the first, ten on the tenth, twenty on the twentieth… That added up to 406 miles in total.
I allowed myself 1200 calories per day, as recommended for a woman dieting. My first week was complicated as I was working in Beirut, but I basically just watched what I ate and got out and did my miles. That first week I lost a pound, which I was very happy with. My digestion breathed a sigh of relief and went back to normal. I still got a bit hangry though. That was exacerbated by the mileage, which began to get really onerous.
I actually enjoyed the calorie counting element and soon got a feel for roughly how much something would be. Here is a typical lunch – chicken, vegetables and rice:
- 50 g brown rice = 56 kcal
- 51g of broccoli = 18 kcal
- 49g of carrot = 20 kcal
- 77g of courgette = 13 kcal
- 76g of chicken = 90 kcal
- 1 tsp of oil = 40 kcal TOTAL = 237 kcal
I ate five times a day. Three bigger meals and two snacks. I also horded calories so that I could have two squares of dark chocolate before I went to bed.
By the end of week two, the intense amount of miles I was running/walking was beginning to take its toll and I upped the intake to between 1500-1800 kcals per day.
Week three, I ran/walked 76 miles. You would imagine with that kind of effort that you would be able to eat anything you wanted, wouldn’t you? Well, no. Clearly there is a reason why all the major athletes are on a permanent diet, cut out alcohol and have a burger once every four years after the Olympics. I was good for 5 of the 7 days and then Alex came to town and inbetween pounding the pavements (we did a half marathon before breakfast and then another 6 miles after lunch), I kept her company with cake and ice cream. Alex is the healthiest of mortals, a yoga teacher, and a beautiful girl with a fantastic body, but when two people decide to treat themselves, diet goes out the window. That week I did not lose an ounce.
Overall though, the weight came off and I lost 7.7 lbs.
Even better, I succeeded in my challenge and ran/walked the miles for that day, every day of February. The grain carbs definitely helped me in terms of energy. I do not think I would have been able to do it on paleo. The last week was the same mileage as the Marathon Des Sables, although thank goodness I could come home to a hot shower and some soothing foot cream! I was helped because Marrakech is so flat, and the weather was still cool. I found that I ended up doing shifts: 6.6 miles before breakfast, again before lunch, again before dinner, and again after dinner.
March = vegan
Vegan was the diet I was looking forward to the most, especially during paleo month, when I would gaze longingly at my stockpile of brown rice, lentils and beans in the cupboard. I have two friends who are ethical vegans and I have always admired them for their commitment. Also, Scott Jurek, the vegan ultra runner, is a bit of a hero of mine.
But “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, and lea’ us nought but grief and pain, for promis’d joy” to quote Rabbie Burns.
At the beginning of the month, I was travelling, so it was a case of leaving things out rather than pro-actively cooking. At one service station on the road, I felt very glum as I picked at my vegetables until I turned round and saw that there were peacocks in the garden. That week I still lost a pound, although I think that was more to do with my metabolism still being on a high from Run Until You Drop.
The second week, I was really looking forward to getting back on it and then disaster and flu struck. I was in bed on pringles and coke for a few days and then up, moping around the house with no energy but 2 lbs lighter. I consulted Cath, long time vegan, and she said I had to take vitamin B12 for energy. That helped.
A typical day:
- Breakfast: Bread and jam or porridge with seeds and nuts
- Lunch: Rice and vegetable stir fry
- Dinner: Bean tortillas
- Snacks: Bread, nuts, seeds, fruit, black chocolate
My digestion was certainly happy, although all those beans did have a bad effect on my sociability. I wasn’t hungry at all. The problem was that I felt lethargic and swollen up. Eating out was no fun whatsoever. A particularly low point was when I was served a pizza which was basically a base with a scrape of tomato sauce, courgette and chips, with bread. I also felt unhealthy, as I had just come out of a flu jag, and I was not able to do much exercise at all.
By the end of the month, I was heavier than when I started, with a weight gain of five lbs. Very disappointing but I can see where it came from. I found it hard to motivate myself to cook/eat properly all the time and so ended up with the quick fix which was bread (which has no animal products here as it is just flour, oil and water). I also didn’t feel well enough to do my usual amount of exercise.
Here are my conclusions on three diets for fitness: paleo, vegan, calorie counting after the three months – and remember these are purely my own, for my body:
The paleo diet is the most effective for weight loss but I didn’t really like it for running and I would find it undoable long term. A big advantage is that it is really simple as you just cut out food groups and it is good for eating out.
Calorie counting is the most sustainable but it is also really easy to cheat on. If you cheat even a little, you don’t lose weight, so you have to become a bit obsessive. It is good for exercise as you can carb up when you need to.
Vegan could be amazing for weightloss but you have to cut out the grains and watch out on the nuts/avocados etc, or at least cut down on them a lot. You need to be very prepared and eating out was a nightmare in Morocco. In the UK you could find Thai or Indian restaurants so would be fine.
And one big plus? I have had no wish to binge eat whatsoever. I am hoping that that is one part of the three diets for fitness: paleo, vegan, calorie counting that will last!
My latest book – Adventures in Morocco – includes a whole chapter on running the Marathon des Sables and has lots more running tales. It is an Amazon Travel best seller which is fantastic. All my books are on kindle/ereader and in paperback. You can cross Africa with me in Dodging Elephants – beware saddle sores. Learn the full story of my TV show in Morocco to Timbuktu, or travel round Morocco from the imperial cities and the Atlas to the desert and the beach in Adventures in Morocco.
Come and join me (virtually for now) in Morocco through my Instagram I put new pictures up almost every day.
I also have a podcast – Alice in Wanderland. It is on all the major platforms or click here. I talk to Vic every second Thursday about my adventures.