Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm


Intersection: NightLife Goes Primal


Goodness. Three years of eating a “flexible vegan” diet are now under the bridge.

I enjoyed them. Being flegan expanded my culinary skills and leaned my body. The prodigious consumption of fresh produce virtually eliminated my seasonal allergies and longstanding arthritis pain in my bunions. I felt virtuous and strong.

Until I tried to get stronger.

Last March, a good friend got me started on bodybuilding. No, not the steroid-laced hoax whose ultimate goal is the perfect(ly grotesque) photo of a musclebound body that can’t perform real work.

I’m talking about real bodybuilding. Pushing, pulling, and lifting bodyweight and iron. Building functional strength that can drive a fence post, buck hay, run for miles, and ride an endurance horse as effortlessly through mile 45 as at the starting line.

For several months, all went well. I ate my usual flegan meals based on whole grains, legumes, and plenty of vegetables. My push-up count climbed. My sprint times fell. By June, I could see the beginnings of six-pack abs…but I could also feel the strain.

Slower recovery times, cottony muscles that performed hard workouts in the morning but wanted to nap by afternoon, and reduced sleep quality all had me looking for answers. I knew nutrition was almost certainly a major factor, but wasn’t I already offering my cells a glorious buffet of healthful, whole foods? What was going wrong?

Intuition, research, and discourse with my bodybuilding friend led me to one of the more obvious solutions: protein. Even the most protein-rich vegan foods, many of which are highly-processed soy products, don’t hold a candle to animal products.

I stopped selling my chickens‘ eggs and started eating them. Two a day. It helped. I kept reading, scouring the library and internet for ideas supported by published, independent, peer-reviewed research rather than the industry-financed, politically-motivated stuff of conventional wisdom.
Patterns emerged. Startling patterns that warred with my existing nutritional construct. Patterns backed by research. Patterns I couldn’t ignore. Protein, it transpired, was the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Whole grains are bad for you. Legumes aren’t much better.
  • Carbohydrate reduction — not calorie reduction — is the key to fat loss and good health.
  • Large quantities of natural dietary fats, including saturated fats, are beneficial.
  • Animal products are important for thriving health.

Scores of articles, chapters, blog posts, and research papers passed under my review as I evaluated these ideas. Meanwhile, I added a daily serving of fish to my diet….and felt better. I took the huge step of eliminating all grains and legumes….and felt much better. Reluctantly, I reintroduced more meats while maintaining my usual, high rate of vegetable consumption…and felt better still.

But what did I eat? How does a person who has relied for calories predominantly on grains and legumes survive without them? By replacing them with natural, healthful fats and proteins, that’s how.

My daily diet shifted from this “flegan” menu:

Pre-workout: Green drink (smoothie made with bananas, pear, grapes, kale, and flaxseed)
Breakfast: More green drink and oatmeal with walnuts, dried fruit, and unsweetened soy milk
Lunch: Spinach salad with chickpeas, mixed raw vegetables, and olive oil vinaigrette
Snack: Natural peanut butter
Dinner: Barley pilaf with artichoke hearts

2,287 calories, 314 grams carbs, 100 grams fat, 74 grams protein

…to this “primal” menu:

Pre-workout: Banana with almond butter
Breakfast: Spinach salad with tuna, olives, sunflower seeds, mixed raw vegetables, and olive oil vinaigrette
Lunch: Hot vegetable curry topped with 2 hard boiled eggs
Snack: Walnuts
Dinner: Gazpacho with avocado and grilled chicken, mango, and jicama salad
Dessert: Blueberries with coconut milk

2,271 calories, 135 grams carbs, 147 grams fat, 137 grams protein

Same number of calories. Half the carbs. One and a half times the fats. Twice the protein. All the produce!

Since that shift, I’ve played around with the carbohydrates a bit and found that I do best on slightly more than your typical “primal” maintainance level, given my penchant for extreme(ish) fitness and extensive physical activity. I’ve leaned out, chiseled that six-pack, built and cut some serious muscle in my limbs and back, and banished the bloating and low-energy that had plagued my flegan self.

So. So long, fleganism. I loved ya, but it’s time to move on.

Needless to say, this shift from “ideal eating” (according to conventional wisdom and the vegan crowd) has caused quite a stir among my acquaintances, particularly those who shared a vegetarian bent. Several people have expressed downright alarm. Many have asked the same questions I did, questions no doubt raised by this post:

What on earth is wrong with whole grains and legumes?
Are you sure fat is healthful?
Animal products? Seriously?
So, you’re doing Atkins now? (Nope!)
What does “primal” mean?

I don’t claim to have all the answers — but I do have some, along with a lot of logic and research to back up my own, anecdotal experience. Instead of trying to regurgitate all of it here, allow me to refer those who are interested to a few resources, just for starters:

Mark’s Daily Apple (Primal nutrition and fitness)
Fitness Spotlight (Low-carb nutrition and fitness)
The Vegetarian Myth (book review by Dr. Michael Eades)
Cholesterol and Health (Fat and cholesterol research)
Food Renegade (Real food & related politics. Home of Fight Back Fridays!)
Good Calories, Bad Calories (Book regarding the science of low-carb eating by Gary Taubes)

Note: Most of the above links will take you to main pages; be sure to click around and read the sites more deeply. I’ll link directly to articles on particular topics in future posts.

And so, my friends, NightLife turns down the primal path. Shall we see where it leads?

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Do You Tofu?

I’m not a big fan of meat substitutes. I figure that if I’m going to eat flegan, I should focus on vegetables and dishes that are easily built around them, rather than on manufacturing feeble substitutes for animal foods.

But, Travis found a great deal on a good grill (our last one took a flying leap off the south deck in a major windstorm), and I’ve discovered that an awful lot of vegan grilling recipes center around tofu. So I bought a package.

Now, I am a tofu virgin. We’ve kissed — I like silken tofu in berry smoothies for a filling snack or dessert — but extra firm, marinated and grilled? Never before.

I chose a Cooking Light recipe, “Grilled Lemon-Basil Tofu Burgers” to test the great white hunk-o-gunk.

I sliced and marinated.

I grilled…a process which took about five times longer than the recipe claimed it would. Did you know that charred asparagus marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, and red onion makes the most delicious vegetarian “fries?”

Here’s the result, on a bun.

To be honest, I think my tofu burger would have been just as tasty without the tofu. I delighted in the dijon and the first basil of season. The yogurt-kalamata dressing was worth mopping up with strips of grilled zucchini. The fresh tomato and garden lettuce were crisp and flavorful.

But the tofu? It was a bit bland. Reasonably filling, I’ll grant you, but bland. And squishy.

I’ve plopped the leftovers on a bed of wild rice blend dressed with leftover marinade for tomorrow’s lunch. I hope it’s not too squishy.

To Market, To Market

It’s that time again.

I’ve completed my April menus and scheduled my monthly shopping trip, during which I’ll spend over an hour schlepping up and down every aisle that contains unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

You’ll recognize me in the checkout line. I’ll be the one with the mountain of bulk foods — raw nuts, dried beans, miscellaneous grains, honey — and half the contents of the produce bins. You’ll see a quart of plain, full-fat yogurt (the reduced fat varieties are full of sugar), several bags of frozen berries, dark coffee beans, balsamic vinegar, sundried tomatoes, and canned chipotles.

The clerk will stare at me in disbelief. “What do you do with all this stuff?”

“I cook.”

Gingerroot…beep…bean sprouts…beep…tahini…beep

The total will be about $200. Two weeks from now, I’ll come back and spend another $70 on fresh produce, and that’ll cover our groceries for the month.

Vegetarianism has a reputation for being expensive. I suppose if you’re accustomed to filling your cart with pork chops and SlimFast, and one day you decide to pick up some fresh tangelos, arugula, strawberries, and broccoli to serve on the side, you might suffer a bit of sticker shock.

Here’s the key to inexpensive flegan eating: Put the other stuff back. If it’s not a whole, plant-based food, your body doesn’t need it. Neither does your wallet.

I’ve always been a frugal shopper, so I grew worried as our garden petered out last October. How could my budget cover enough produce to sustain a flegan diet? However, I was pleased to discover that, sans meat and most dairy, my grocery bill wasn’t hard to stomach after all.

Here are a few other things you can do to keep your reciept reasonable:

1) Cook your own meals. Cooking, like karate or horseback riding, is a skill anyone can learn. Sure, some people are naturals, but anyone can become competent. Time needn’t be an issue. Try a search for meatless, quick & easy recipes at Cooking Light.

2) Eat seasonally. Winter tomatoes and strawberries aren’t worth eating, let alone paying for.

3) Buy in bulk. Dry beans can be cooked and frozen, replacing canned beans. Whole grains are cheaper and more varied by the pound than by the box. Bulk nuts and dried fruits will save you even more over the packaged brands.

3) Finally, if you really want to go whole hog(less), put in a garden and dig yourself a root cellar like the one that’s going in at In the Night Farm.

More on that later.

Going Flegan

“Vegetarian” is an old Indian word for “me don’t hunt good.”

That was the joke in my family for years. I myself told it many times. After all, what in the name of Uncle Jim’s Annual Pig Out Party would possess a person to give up meat, let alone attempt to subsist exclusively on plant matter?

I’ll tell you what: A large garden plot amended with yards and yards of composted horse manure.

We hauled so many zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, yellow squash, strawberries, peas, green beans, turnips, onions, parsnips, kale, mesclun, chard, carrots, radishes, and winter squash out of the garden that there simply wasn’t room on our plates for anything else. I combined years of cooking practice with a touch of internet surfing to come up with surprisingly filling meals from which the meat, though missing, was not missed.

Incapable as I am of doing anything half-heartedly, I took my culinary experiment a step further. I sought flavorful, vegan recipes. Soy milk replaced dairy milk so completely that we now refer to soy milk as “the regular milk” on rare occasions when a carton of dairy milk appears alongside it in the refrigerator.

As my vegetarian and vegan recipe files grew fatter, Travis and I slimmed down. We felt more mentally astute (no mean feat, that) and required less sleep. The seasonal allergies that plagued me from childhood forward ceased to exist.

And so, nine months after In the Night Farm’s 2007 garden burst into production, we continue in what I call a “flegan” lifestyle — closer to vegan than your typical flexitarian, but certainly not strict.

About 95% of what we eat falls into the vegan category — vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, and nuts constitute the bulk of our daily fare. Even so, we use a touch of parmesan or full-fat yogurt now and then. We eat chocolate made with dairy and bread baked with eggs. We even consume some meat.

Being flegan is a convenient way to live. Hosts needn’t worry about providing special meals when we arrive as dinner guests. I don’t mind serving a turkey or leg of lamb for the holidays. Corporate lunch meetings are no cause for concern.

Meanwhile, we enjoy the myriad health benefits of consuming a great deal of plant matter and almost no animal products — and the processed “food” people have two fewer contributors to their cause.