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How a plant-based diet helped Juan turn his health around

For health, the animals, the planet…there’s a ton of different reasons why people choose to go vegan. For Juan Barbas – a teacher from New York (and serial steak-lover), it was a health decision to get his weight back into the safe zone. And it’s paid off. Big time. He chats to Fullgreen about his experience, newfound love of cooking and why he’ll never go back to putting steak on the menu.

What influenced you to try a plant-based diet?

It was a health decision, but there were other factors as well. I was living in Spain at the time and every year I was gaining more weight. It got to the point where I knew I had to do something. At first, I had no intention of going plant based, but I had a friend who was vegetarian (she’s now vegan as well), and she definitely influenced me. She recommended that I watch the documentary ‘Forks Over Knives’. I did, and it changed my mindset significantly. I’d already started cooking more during the week and began to see the benefits of eating less meat and dairy.

Did you switch to plant-based purely to support weight loss or was there another reason?

It was mainly for weight loss and health, but I became aware of other factors too, like environmental issues and animal welfare. I began to think about how my food choices affected the world around me and although I didn’t become vegan overnight, it certainly planted a seed. My weight loss journey was powered by a plant-based diet rich in wholefoods, but I would occasionally eat fish or cheese, and on rare occasions, even some meat. My weight loss journey began in 2016 but I didn’t become fully vegan until 2018.

Were you a big meat eater previously?

Oh yes! In restaurants, I’d almost always order a steak and in summer, I was constantly grilling up steaks, ribs and burgers. Bacon, sausage, egg, cheese, buffalo wings, Italian combos, Philly cheese steaks – I’d eat it all. Even at home I could guarantee there would be meat in virtually every meal. That’s why I always say, if I could stop consuming meat, anyone can.

Did you find the progressive shift worked best for you?

It felt like a very natural, gradual process and I think that’s because I didn’t plan for it. The combination of honing my veggie cooking skills at home, educating myself on the benefits of a vegan diet and watching the weight come off helped nudge me towards a plant-based lifestyle. And as time went on, I simply didn’t crave meat as much.

At what point did you become fully vegan?

I got back from a month-long vacation in Spain and was feeling sluggish. My running had suffered and I needed something strict to get me back on track. So, I started a 21-day vegan raw food challenge and by the time the programme finished, I was feeling great. I started eating cooked food again but by that time I was so accustomed to cooking plant based anyway, that a couple weeks had passed before the realisation hit that I hadn’t eaten any meat or dairy! I felt lighter, fitter and healthier so I decided to keep it going. It seemed like the perfect time to cut those things out completely.

How do you think a plant-based diet supported your weight loss?

I was committed to eating healthier and losing some weight but every time I’d tried to diet in the past it was mostly unsuccessful, usually because I always felt hungry! When I started eating more plant based, I found that I could eat until I was full without worrying too much about calories. What worked for me was eating clean, unprocessed wholefoods. I avoided vegan cheeses, mock meats and even oil for cooking. This allowed me to eat until I was satisfied and helped me meet my weight loss goals. There is a big difference between a whole food plant-based diet and a vegan diet as far as weight loss and fitness goals are concerned. Once I started consuming more vegan cheeses and meats, and introducing more oil to my diet, some of that weight inevitably came back on. Finding a balance is so important and I now know that if I need to lose some weight, I know how to do it in a healthy way.

Did you notice any other physical benefits once you'd made the switch?

I noticed an improvement in energy levels which helped to improve the work I was putting into my gym and running sessions. It’s hard to describe. I just felt better overall.

What are some of your favorite plant-based meals?

One of my favorite things to eat is a good chickpea curry. I’d never even tried a curry until I became plant based and now I love them all! I’m a fan of Indian and Thai cuisine and I’m a total tofu addict! It’s so versatile – I use it a lot in my cooking.

How do you think following a plant-based diet has changed you?

I am more aware of how my food choices affect me and the world around me. I can honestly say I don’t miss meat at all. I really think anyone can do it, but they have to have an open mind and try it. If there’s one thing I miss, it’s being able to go out to eat and being able to order anything on the menu. Vegan options aren’t always readily available. By nature, I’m very laid back and kind of just go with the flow, so the biggest transition for me is the fact that I’m often the one causing some form of difficulty when choosing where to eat! It’s still something I’m not used to…

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