For Sunni Patel, switching to a plant-based diet started off as an attempt to help manage Crohn’s disease – but it ended up doing so much more for him.
“It’s really allowed me to enjoy my passion again,” says Patel, a clinician-scientist, who’s now qualified as a fitness instructor and shares gut health tips and recipes on his platform, Dish Dash Deets.
“I was a foodie before I was diagnosed. I’d wake up thinking about food and recipes, but I’d lost that and completely abandoned the kitchen for seven years.”
Going plant-based reignited that spark, as Patel, 35, who splits his time between Birmingham and London, got creative with devising new food combos and finding ways to pack his meals with flavour and texture (he was a self-confessed “carnivore” before).
In fact, the fitness fan , who was diagnosed with Crohn’s, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, in 2014, credits making the switch for helping him “rediscover my life”.
Making the switch
Patel explains: “I was feeling extremely down and out about the number of flare-ups I was getting, the amount of pain.
A lot of people associate Crohn’s or gut conditions with just gut [symptoms], but I was also getting lots of mouth ulcers, dry eye, and arthritic pain.
I always knew when I was expecting a flare-up because my knee would swell, and I’d wake up with a crooked hand.”
Patel also struggled with fatigue and skin issues during flare-ups, as well as the condition’s tell-tale digestive problems.
He didn’t set out “to find a cure” but, desperate to try and improve his wellbeing, he started researching the health benefits of plant-based eating (which means a diet deliberately packed with a variety of wholefoods, veg, beans and grains, etc – it’s not just about simply ‘cutting meat’).
Already no stranger to having to think carefully about his meals, because certain foods triggered his symptoms, Patel went for it. “Within about six to eight weeks, my pain around the knee and hand disappeared, and I was getting less mouth ulcers, the dry eye was a lot better, my skin has cleared,” says Patel.
He also started to feel better and brighter in general. “I definitely feel like I have more energy and my mood is better. I don’t think a lot of people realise there’s a link between food and mood.”
A holistic approach
Inspired, Patel started sharing recipes online, on a mission to highlight the benefits of plant-based eating and positive gut health for everyone, not just those living with chronic conditions.
He’s particularly keen to show how a vegan diet and fitness can go hand in hand – and you don’t have to rely on meat, animal products and protein shakes to support those gym efforts.
When it comes to fitness and nutrition, Patel believes it’s about much more than the shake or snack you pack in your gym bag – it’s about your whole lifestyle and everything you eat.
“I have things like slow energy releasing carbs before a workout; oats are amazing. I don’t like to eat during a workout but if I do take something, it’ll be a banana.
After the workout, [I’ll have a meal with] wholegrain carbs, chickpeas, avocado, tahini, etc – so I’m getting a well-rounded meal but still lots of protein. I eat a lot of tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds – there’s so many foods that have protein but also allow me to have that whole nutritional, holistic approach.”
His workouts have shifted too. Gaining a greater sense of control over managing his health means he’s listening to his body more – and playing the long game rather than pushing too hard.
“We’re taught as men that strength is how much you can bench or lift. We forget about form. But I switched things up and started going more for a ‘high rep, lower weight, maximum form’ regime,” he explains.
Rather than pushing hard and aiming for those next-day DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness), he’s now more about finding balance between getting a great workout and making sure it’s sustainable and supporting his overall goals.
“A lot of people think they need to push it to the maximum, but I’ve stopped doing that because I don’t think it was serving me or my recovery,” says Patel, who tends to start with weights/strength and then do high-intensity cardio after. “And I’ve found I’ve actually got a lot more lean muscle that I’ve been able to sustain [by doing it this way], and I’m a lot less exhausted.”
As for whether going plant-based is more complicated, experimenting is part of the fun for Patel. Missing the texture and flavour of meat is something he “understands” – but he’s found plenty of ways to ensure he’s not missing out. “I try and think about how to add textures into my meals, things like mushrooms and soy that will give me that umami flavour.”
This includes recreating his favourite global dishes, with gut-friendly, plant-based twists. “I do Dan Dan Thai style noodles and everybody likes a Nando’s – I have an amazing Piri Piri tofu recipe which I pair with rainbow slaw and sweet potato wedges, and a Lebanese lentil-packed stew, so you’re adding more protein.”
And things don’t need to be complicated. Patel makes his own vegan protein snack balls/bars, just by whizzing ingredients in a processor.
“I put in lots of nuts, seeds and chia seeds – they’re a great source of complete protein. I whack that in a processor with dates to bind it all together, and sometimes add some oat flour. Process that all up and put it in the fridge, then I’ve got energy bars ready to go.”
For more inspiration and to find Sunni Patel’s recipes, visit dishdashdeets.com