Why I chose P90X over Insanity

Although I once thought I would never be interested in a commercial workout program, I’ve decided to start P90X. The weight that I put on last year still remains, and I’m going to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (500 miles), and would really rather not be recognizable as an American by my weight alone. In addition, my running suffered this year due to an injury I sustained last year, so I had an additional motive to get into shape with something other than simply running. The testimonials of Insanity and P90X won me over, and I became eager to learn more.

Initially, I leaned more toward Shaun T.’s Insanity program. The program takes two months, and the results are comparable to P90X‘s, which takes three months. Also, no equipment is required at all for Insanity, while P90X requires dumbbells or resistance bands, and a chin-up bar. Insanity’s workout DVDs are usually shorter than P90X’s, and never go over an hour.

Once my copy of Insanity arrived in the mail, I was quickly discouraged. The program is heavy—very heavy—on plyometrics (fitness code for jumping). Jumping for forty minutes is all well and good, but I had some reservations:

  1. Metatarsalgia. I broke a toe about six months ago in a race. Ever since then, my third metatarsal has been finicky. I took a doctor’s advice to avoid putting weight on it for a few weeks, but the punishing jumps of Insanity seem like a recipe for immediate re-injury.
  2. Downstairs neighbor. I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if I had an overweight neighbor jumping up-and-down above me for the better part of an hour the first thing in the morning.
  3. 117-year-old floorboards.

I decided to look deeper into P90X, and chose to do it instead. What persuaded me?

  1. Greater variety. Plyometrics is but one of twelve different workouts, which run the gamut from strength training to power yoga to karate.
  2. Customizability. Whereas Insanity seemed like a one-size-fits-all-jump-around-with-Shaun approach, P90X not only has great variety of workouts, but three different versions of the entire workout plan as well: a “classic” version, a “doubles” version for elite athletes, and a “lean” version with greater emphasis on cardio. Any phase can be extended up to two weeks if you feel necessary, and yes, you can skip Plyo if you need to.
  3. Emphasis on safety. Tony Horton repeatedly urges the participants to recognize and respect their limits in the interest of safety. Not hearing any such caution from Shaun T; somehow, I get the feeling that Shaun T. isn’t expecting anyone in his program to be much older than he is. Tony Horton, on the other hand, is actually two years older than I am.
  4. Nutrition. Whereas the nutrition plan in Insanity is treated almost as an afterthought, the nutrition plan in P90X is a fully-developed, essential part of the program. It’s made clear that you are not doing P90X if you are not following the nutrition plan. A nice touch is that the plan changes as the program progresses. The first month is a fairly low-carb, Paleo-ish diet, which becomes increasingly carb-ful as the body adjusts to the amount of exercise and begins to build endurance, which sounds great to a runner like me.
  5. Workouts are not longer than Insanity. Although some of the P90X DVDs last 75 minutes, much of the time is spent in explanation and demonstration. Once you learn the exercises in a specific workout, it’s not necessary to do them with the DVD; you can simply refer to your log to do them at your own pace, unlike Insanity.

Yesterday I took the “Fit Test” for P90X, to see just how badly out-of-shape I’d become. The results for most of the tests were disappointing—I can’t do a single pull-up, I can only do ten bicep curls with 10 lbs, etc. But I excelled on the abdominal exercise, bringing my knees to my chest 176 times, when the baseline was just 25. In other words, I’ve got fantastic abs! You just can’t see them!

Tonight, I’m doing the first P90X workout.

The Vegan Diet Experiment Conclusion

I’m ending the vegan diet experiment a week early. The results were disappointing. Not only did I not experience the tremendous energy boost that many vegans rave about, I didn’t lose a single pound!

However, I still believe that healthy vegan diets can be excellent for many people. As I mentioned in my previous post, there is not really any such thing as “The Vegan Diet,” since “vegan” merely describes what is not eaten, rather than what is. And that was the heart of the problem during my experiment. What healthy approach to use?

Brendan Brazier’s “Thrive” plan proved to be extremely intimidating from the first day. Although I had already spent a good week familiarizing myself with its concepts—making everything yourself, sprouting beans, exotic grains and seeds, creating your own flours, etc.—I found that I didn’t have the time or willpower to actually put much of Thrive into practice.

After some weeks, I came across Dr. John McDougall’s “The Starch Solution,” which seemed at first to be the vegan answer for anyone ill-suited to the time demands and exoticism of Thrive. However, The Starch Solution was even worse in the regard that all of these starchy foods involved cooking. While I didn’t completely avoid cooking during the test, asking me to actually cook rice and potatoes often—and without unhealthy fats—is just not going to work.

Another healthy vegan approach which I was familiar with, but wasn’t interested in trying, is the 80/10/10 or raw vegan diet. Although some people do well on it (I love ultrarunner Michael Arnstein’s posts on it at The Fruitarian), others have tried it and had poor results, such as the Raw Brahs. My main reasons for not going there during the trial were:

  1. I ate so many salads last year that I burned out. Three months of salads, fruit, and smoothies did not appeal to me.
  2. Both the Raw Brahs and even Arnstein have reported decreased sexual desire on the raw diet, also not appealing to me.

Any healthy diet, vegan or not, should eliminate or minimize sugar and omega 6–heavy vegetable oils, and that is certainly the case with these three. The problem is that many of the most appealing tastes go with the loss of sugar and oils. The additional flavors and textures of animal-based foods, do a lot to bring palatability to a healthy diet. At least, that’s my excuse.

Alas, my trial ended up being “The Standard American Diet, Quasi-Vegan Edition” with all too many junk foods, and predictably unspectacular results. And although I allowed myself two “cheat meals” per week, I sometimes had more like three or four cheats. Many vegans would object that I hadn’t given veganism a genuine try. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t give a healthy vegan diet a try.

Not eating meat was the easiest part of the switch. I ate meat only about four times in the duration. Although I’ve never been a firm vegetarian, I have long believed that eating little meat is far more natural and healthier than eating meat three times a day, which was unknown to most people in history, except for hunter-gathers in regions that are covered by snow periodically. (There’s a reason why hunter-gatherers have been far more numerous and successful in the tropics and subtropics.)

The most difficult thing to give up was actually the cream in my morning coffee. My friends joke that I don’t like coffee-flavored coffee, and they’re right. I like cream-flavored coffee, preferably with heavy whipping cream and spices like cinnamon and ginger. In the absence of heavy cream, a generous amount of half-and-half also works well. But I found soy milk in coffee hideous, almond milk pretty bad, and even coconut milk poor. Soy creamer was a bit better, but full of weird ingredients, and the popular “non-dairy creamers” are so full of chemical junk I avoided them altogether. At first I coped by substituting yerba mate for coffee, which I could drink without cream or sugar (but still not enjoy), but towards the end I was often drinking sweet soy lattes and mochas instead.

I really missed cheese. ‘Nuff said.

Although omelets were my most common breakfast last year, doing without eggs was much easier than I expected.

Towards the end of the experiment, I finally became comfortable with soaking and sprouting legumes. I think treating legumes this way (which removes the toxins and anti-nutrients) makes them near-superfoods. I also found the restriction of the diet much easier when eating sprouted legumes towards the end. Although I have never listed beans as one of my favorite foods, there is a fantastic difference between black beans that have been soaked and rinsed repeatedly for a day and sprouted for three more, slow-cooked with onions, garlic, and other spices, versus any prepared in a fast rinse-and-cook manner. I came to really enjoy eating my own slow-cooked, sprouted black beans and hummus made from sprouted chickpeas.

This also makes me question the Paleo diet’s rejection of legumes. Sure, hunter-gatherers don’t usually eat legumes, and many legumes are somewhat toxic without treatment. But properly treated, they become one of the most nutritious foods around, and most human cultures have successfully incorporated them into their diets for centuries. No, human evolution hasn’t changed in that amount of time, but to gut bacteria, it’s been millions of generations, and they can easily process legumes prepared well. Antiquity should not be the primary criterion of suitability.

I’m also canceling my planned Paleo and lacto-ovo experiments. I’m beginning the P90X workout system, and will be following its nutrition plan, though going fairly lightly on the meat.

My conclusion: vegan or not, a diet that doesn’t minimize sugar and omega-6’s is going to be mediocre at best.

Thrive, Paleo, or Other? Planning My Experiment

What’s the best whole-food diet?

A carefully-crafted plant-based diet emphasizing only nutritious, alkalizing, and energizing foods?
The Paleo diet, based on the eating patterns of humankind over the last two million or so years?
An omnivorous diet of whole foods with high-quality meat and dairy?

Which is best? Undoubtedly, that depends on the person. But it is possible to determine which is best for *me*. Next Friday, I’ll begin an experiment which could potentially take up to 39 weeks: a 12-week trial of three quality whole-food diets in turn, each beginning with a 1-week transition period.

Why? First, I need to lose weight. Although I’ve come a long way in the four years since I began running, I’m still overweight, and I want not to be. More than that, I want to be lean. Running lighter is simply more fun! Although these diets aren’t meant specifically for weight loss, I believe that Thrive’s nutritious vegan approach will very likely help me lose weight. Second, I need to find what best fuels my running. Although I’ve been a near-vegetarian for years, after reading sources for athletes that encourage a lot of protein, I began eating far more eggs over the last year. However, my results were mixed, and I want to investigate. Hence, my three-step experiment outlined below.

  • Diet I: Thrive-inspired plant-based whole-food diet

    I’ll largely be following the plan presented by Brendan Brazier in his wonderful book Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life. Thrive is much more strict than most vegans eat (there are lots of junk-food vegans out there). Thrive is concerned with eliminating dietary stressors, acid-forming foods, and non-nutritious foods. Thus, processed carbs, wheat, corn, and many forms of soy are out, as are high omega-6 vegetable oils, refined sugars, and coffee. Did I really say meat, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, cheap vegetable oils, sugar, and coffee? Isn’t that at least 90 percent of the Standard American Diet? It is, and Thrive is almost the antithesis of SAD.

    What’s left? Nearly all vegetables, all fresh or frozen fruits, most nuts and seeds, plus more exotic fare like sea vegetables, ancient grains and pseudo-grains. Special attention is given to the balance of Omega 3, 6, and 9 fats, and reducing inflammation. Strict as it is, Thrive is still less restrictive than some other diets like Timothy Ferris’s slow-carb diet which eschews all fruits and grains.

    However, its restrictions do concern me; sustainability is key for any long-term strategy, so I’m going to allow myself two mild “cheats” per week. These are not going to be a license to eat a pint of ice cream or a half chicken. These will be reasonable cheats, like a sushi lunch). And I’m not a fanatic—I won’t sweat it if I eat a wrap with mayo that might have a couple of grams of egg in it, or have something sweetened with honey instead of agave nectar. Beside the “vegan cheats,” I’ll also allow myself a few optional “Thrive cheats”–foods that, though vegan, fall outside of the Thrive world (white rice, some nachos, etc.)

    In spite of my premeditated cheating, I am really looking forward to this exciting approach to eating. Who can resist a recipe called “Wild Rice Yam Pancakes”?

  • Diet II: Paleo

    After I’ve given the Thrive diet a 12-week test, I’ll probably begin a test of the Paleo diet, Loren Cordain’s modern-day adaptation of humanity’s pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet. Paleo consists of meat, eggs (in moderation), vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds only). The condition is that if Thrive should feel so perfect that I can’t imagine eating any other way, screw it—I’ve found what’s right for me. However, if I’m still interested, Paleo is up next. Again, I’ll be emphasizing whole-foods, and will strive to eat the best, closest-to-wild meat, fish, and eggs possible during this time. Looking at Cordain’s recipes, they seem rather, um, mundane compared to Thrive’s, so I’ll likely continue my vegan meals as before, but will incorporate at least one animal-based meal a day, whether eggs or meat. I know some of you are wondering how could anyone have LESS that that, but for me, that will be a dramatic change.

    Note: I will not hesitate to end the experiment early if I feel a dramatic loss of energy, or any other strongly negative effects.

  • Diet III: Whole foods with dairy: omnivore or lacto-vegetarian

    Assuming I still haven’t been won over by Thrive or Paleo, I’ll try a third alternative, incorporating high-quality grass-fed dairy, and possibly eggs and meat, contingent on my experience of Paleo. Again, I might cut the experiment short based on my experience.

UPDATE, May 12, 2013
How did it go? Read about it.

Eight reasons to lose weight slowly

  1. Better metabolism: Slow weight loss, if done well, doesn’t send starvation signals to the brain, slowing metabolism. Many fast weight-loss plans do, and after a few weeks of rapid weight loss, metabolism often slows down dramatically.
  2. Habit-forming: In losing slowly, you have time to let the changes you are making become habits. And when your new patterns of eating and exercising become habit, you can sustain them after you reach your target weight.
  3. Saves money, part 1: Clothes: Slow weight loss gives you more time before you have to buy new clothes.
  4. Saves money, part 2: Food: Slow weight loss usually pays for itself in simply buying less food or eating out less, even if the plan has a fee or cost involved.
  5. Less disruptive: Fast weight-loss plans generally work with a dramatic change in eating or lifestyle. Whether that’s the balance of macronutrients (low-carb, low-fat, high-protein, etc.), amount of calories (severe restriction, intermittent fasting, modified fasts, etc.) supplements, or a sudden increase in exercise, you generally need to make a sharp change to your eating or lifestyle for it to work. Slow weight loss can be much less disruptive.
  6. Enjoyability: Slow weight loss is usually more enjoyable, because there are a greater variety of foods available.

    The dramatic restrictions that fast weight-loss plans mandate are usually unpleasant, and require you to read an entire book to persuade you that you will enjoy them if you just *stick with it.* Without the brainwashing (persuasion), few people would ever want to embark upon the changes involved in most get-thin-quick schemes.

  7. Flexibility: The gentler changes of slower weight-loss approaches usually makes them easier to adapt to your lifestyle, such as eating out on weekends, etc. Fast plans often create awkward situations: (Sorry, I can’t go with you to that place, I’m not allowed to have carbs/fats/food!)
  8. Long-term sustainability: This is the kicker. Can you keep the weight off after losing it? Fast weight-loss methods usually aren’t sustainable for the long term. After the shock phase and main weight-loss phase, they usually have a “maintenance” phase that continues the diet in a milder form which is still usually difficult. Most people will abandon it and soon begin regaining.

    A slow method is usually more sustainable almost by definition; you have to sustain it longer to reach your target, and can continue maintaining your desired weight afterwards by staying on the plan or slightly modifying it.