I have to start this post by saying I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not writing about ways to lose weight. I’m also not trying to convert anyone to a vegan lifestyle. I decided to tackle this overwhelming topic because I am often asked how I fuel as a vegan athlete. More specifically, I am asked, “Where do you get your protein?”
Fueling as a vegan athlete is quite simple now, actually, but it came (and still does at times) with a lot of work, education, and effort – all of which has been worth it! I feel better than ever and it has really helped me keep food in perspective. I have learned to respect the nutritional value of food and using food as fuel, not as a means of “getting skinny”.
If I’m going to be honest, the journey to a vegan lifestyle was not always easy. I did not grow up vegan, so let’s face it, I can appreciate a good hamburger, milkshake and french fries (my favorite post marathon meal, back in the day). I became vegan almost 2 years ago. I became what I call “veganish” about 2 ½ years ago. It all started while training for the London marathon. I just wasn’t feeling great despite a pretty healthy diet. I always felt bloated and just sort of tired, and not because I was marathon training. It was different.
When the marathon was behind me, I started to eat all organic. Then I hooked up with a nutritionist. She was great, a vegan herself and tried to convince me to go vegan. Immediately I said, “No, I don’t want to be that extreme and I don’t want to be that girl at a party no one knows how to feed.” Of course, part of this reaction was because I wasn’t educated on the topic yet. I hadn’t completely dismissed it, though, and after meeting with her a few times and doing some research I started with baby steps.
I started by cutting out dairy and chicken and beef. I also started fueling my training runs and races with Vega products, plant-based sports nutrition my nutritionist introduced to me. Over time, I started noticing small changes in the way I felt and I really liked it. I felt clean, not heavy and sleepy after a meal. I also noticed that I felt better after my workouts. My recovery drink seemed to have an almost instant effect – it made me feel like a rockstar! After feeling so good in this short time, I decided to look into becoming vegan. But I wanted to make sure I didn’t risk my health or training. So, I started doing more research on vegan lifestyle and seeking out other vegan athletes.
One of the most helpful books I found in guiding my choices was Brendan Brazier’s book, “Thrive, The vegan nutrition guide to optimal performance in sports and life”. Brendan is a professional triathlete and formulator of Vega. In reading his story, I could identify with his journey. His research made total sense to me. This statement from the book really got my attention: “Great gains can be made in both physical and mental health simply by eating natural whole foods. Excessive stress can have a negative psychological effect and can be responsible for specific food cravings and mental clutter so improving diet is the number one way to reduce overall stress. Eating right can boost your energy.”
From a performance perspective, nutrition has a dramatic effect on recovery. If you are able to recover from a hard workout faster, then you can schedule your tough workouts closer together and therefore train harder and improve faster. So what he learned is, “Foods that are high-quality, nutrient-dense, alkaline-forming, and easily digestible in proper portions can speed up your recovery.” So, the more changes I made to my diet using Brendan’s guide, the better I felt and eventually embraced the lifestyle fully. I also found there are many high-level, elite runners and athletes that are vegan. You might be surprised to learn that these athletes are vegan: Olympian track star Carl Lewis, tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams, ultra runner Scott Jurek, ultrarunner Michael Arnstein, Canadian figure skater Meagan Duhamel and UFC fighter Mac Danzig.
Fueling as a Vegan Athlete
So back to the original question, how do I fuel as a vegan athlete? Well, you can still eat yummy carbs and fat and get your required protein intake but the difference is I’m ingesting high quality carbs, fat, and protein. So, instead of eating white pasta, I eat pseudo-grains such as quinoa pasta (which is 20% protein, high in lysine and a good source of iron and potassium), and amaranth (high in calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus and vitamins A and C. It’s composed of about 17% protein). Pseudo-grains are actually seeds but are commonly referred to as grains that don’t contain gluten, which makes them easily digestible and alkaline-forming. I also eat grains such as millet and brown rice. Millet is one of the most easily digestible grains. It is gluten-free and its digestion creates a slightly alkalizing effect on the body. It’s high in B vitamins, magnesium, and the essential amino acid tryptophan. I use pseudo-grains and grains in stews, casseroles, soups, salads, wraps or served with roasted veggies and marinara on top.
I’m also a big fan of lentils. Lentils are a legume. They are high in protein, fiber, and many vitamins and minerals. I use lentils to make taco meat or meatloaf. In lieu of white or wheat bread I eat sprouted bread or vegan bread. There are lots of really high quality fats, too, such as avocado and nuts. Many people are nervous to eat avocado because of their fat content. But the good news is they are high in good quality, heart healthy fats and as a bonus they increase your metabolism. I eat avocado on just about everything and pretty regularly. I love all kinds of nuts, too. They not only contain healthy fats but they also are a good source of protein. I eat walnuts in my steel cut oats with blueberries and bananas. I make “sour cream” and other “cream” based sauces out of cashews. I also love nuts as a snack. Now obviously I am not recommending eating 10 avocados in a day or an entire bag of nuts in a day, but you shouldn’t be afraid to eat these nutritionally sound foods. They have a lot of health benefits if eaten responsibly.
I also cook with a lot different oils: grape seed oil, coconut oil, flax seed oil and, of course olive oil. I like to switch it up depending on what I am making. Other staples in my house are tahini (a great protein and often used to make dressings), hummus, every variety of beans, peanut butter, almond butter, rice cakes, almond milk, picky bars, Vega bars and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
So, as you can see, there are a ton of options that are good for you and provide you with the high quality nutrients you need to train hard.
The Value of Metabolic Testing
I usually eat about 6-7 times a day. My snacks are anywhere from 200-500 calories. I had metabolic testing and learned I burn close to 2000 calories at rest. So you can understand why I eat so much between the calorie burn with the hard training and the amount of calories I burn at rest. I love to eat, but I have to be truthful, it’s a pain! I feel like I am always eating! I always have to make sure I have some sort of “munchable” with me.
So, for me a vegan lifestyle has worked. I never feel deprived and I feel great! I love experimenting with different recipes. My husband and kids are still getting used to eating vegan for dinner, because I’m the one that cooks for them, but they always try what I make. It helps to have delicious, varied recipes. Some of my favorite websites for vegan recipes are Oh She Glows, One Green Planet, Forks Over Knives, and Vega.
A Healthier Mindset and Lifestyle
As an athlete, the change has made me stronger. My recovery is better and I have more energy for the hard workouts. But, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned through my food journey is whether you are vegan, vegetarian or a carnivore, it’s important to think of food as fuel. It’s also important to think of food in terms of its nutritional value.
Many people make food choices based on low calorie/carb/ or fat but that doesn’t always mean it’s good for you. I try to think of food in terms of the nutrients it’s providing my body to give me the best possible energy, not just for training or racing, but for my overall day to day health.
What are some of your favorite ways to fuel? Have you tried a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!