Back to vegetarianism: At age 33, I reverted to my childhood food habits: vegetarian meals, no meat, no eggs and no drinking. Milk, milk products, processed food, refined sugars, oils, salt — these were still part of my diet.
Meditation: When I was 34, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. In those days, I was in the midst of serious turmoil in my personal life. The meditation retreat was super-helpful in reducing my anger and my anxieties. At these meditation retreats, simple vegetarian food is served. Moreover, 'non-killing' (ahimsa in Sanskrit) is one of the precepts that we are encouraged to follow. On the whole, the meditation retreat fortified my resolve to stick to a vegetarian diet.
Hiking: At age 36, I started organizing weekly hikes to explore various parks in the Bay Area, California. These hikes were 8 to 12 miles long. I became fitter and came in touch with many other people who loved physical fitness and spending time in nature.
Salad with yogurt and chutneys: When I was 37 or so, I started eating salads regularly. My salad consisted of lots of veggies, some fruits, grains and beans. I topped my salad with yogurt, tamarind chutney and mint chutney. I felt really good crunching through green leafy vegetables. My teeth felt clean. My breakfast was a cup of orange juice and cereal with milk. The salad eating phase lasted several months.
Lactose intolerant vegans: During these years, I met a couple of Indian women who were vegan due to lactose intolerance. They looked normal to me. Until this time, I had perceived vegans as sickly people who couldn't eat some food items due to medical issues. My vegan friends had not heard of 'plant based diets' or 'Dean Ornish'. They had simply continued their vegetarian food habits (which included oils, salt, refined sugars and processed foods) but without dairy products because they were lactose intolerant. Since I was not lactose intolerant, I wasn't influenced by their dietary choices.
The Sahara Marathon: As I continued to hike, I learnt of other endurance activities like backpacking, marathons, ultra marathons, 100+ mile races and so on. One of the events that caught my attention was the Sahara Marathon which entails covering 156 miles in 6 days in the Sahara Desert. Online accounts of personal experiences convinced me that to finish the Sahara Marathon, one didn't have to be an athlete; preparation and completion was more of an exercise in mental toughness than physical fitness. I even made friends with Huzefa Mehta, a senior from IIT Bombay (he graduated in 1987) who continues to finish such events even after turning 50.
I never registered for the Sahara Marathon. However, thinking about it had a fortuitous side effect! :) My mind was struggling with these questions: 'What's the point of training for the Sahara Marathon? What will I achieve? How will others benefit?' Clearly, I would benefit personally by imposing discipline upon myself, by building mental strength, and I would accure the joy of accomplishing something super-challenging. However, these benefits were not enough to motivate me. I wanted this effort to be helpful to others too. I thought that maybe I could demonstrate that vegetarians could successfully finish such events as well. So I googled for 'vegetarian athletes'. Lo and behold! I was shocked to discover a web page that listed several 'super-athletes' (Olympic champions and World champions in their respective areas) who did not eat meat. A large number of these athletes were vegan!! I used to believe that vegans were sickly people who couldn't consume milk for medical reasons. It was a huge surprise for me to discover these vegan Olympic champions. I dug deeper and read some biographies. Many athletes had stopped eating meat out of compassion for animals. But there were some who had converged to a vegan diet over time for optimal athletic performance. Many athletes reported feeling 'lighter and brighter' throughout the day. On the whole, it was mind-boggling for me to learn that a vegan diet could be so awesome!
A short-term experiment with veganism: The idea of feeling 'lighter and brighter' caught my fancy. I wanted to experience it. By chance, I read a book by model & actress Alicia Silverstone: The Kind Diet (320 pages, 2011). She also gave a wonderful Talk at Google. In her book, Alicia described why meat was bad. Next, she described why milk was bad. And then she described why refined sugars were bad. I thought that maybe most vegans drop refined sugar as well. So I decided to experiment with "no milk products and no refined sugar" diet. I was already vegetarian, so meat wasn't part of my food anyways. I did this experiment for about 2-3 months, with 90% adherence to veganism. In those months, i was also going through a fair amount of stress in my personal life. On the whole, I didn't really feel 'lighter and brighter'. Thus my experiment with veganism came to an end. In fact, with ongoing stress, I actually gravitated towards chocolates for the next several months.