Monday, December 12, 2011

The Little Red Book: A Brief Vegan Nutrition Manifesto.

Yes, your diet of pasta is killing you! Well, it's killing you less quickly than a diet of meat and dairy, but more quickly than a more nutrient-packed diet of whole fruits, vegetables and legumes. Athletes need to be especially conscious of what they put into their system because of the demands they make of their bodies. As such, you want everything you put into your system to work for you, not against you. How quickly your body recovers between workouts is closely linked to the nutritional value of your diet. When you eat a balance and healthy diet your body will heal itself more quickly, allowing you to trainer harder more often. When you eat foods low in nutrient value your body is expending valuable energy to digest it while getting little back in return. 

Preferably, a high fiber, high carbohydrate, high protein, alkaline-forming food.

One thing athletes want is a diet that is easy to digest. This typically means eating food with as little processing as possible. While you do not have to completely give up processed foods and eat only a whole plant diet, simply decreasing processed food intake and increasing your nutrient rich whole food intake can greatly increase your energy and performance levels. 

Yes, you can still cook your food. In fact cooking makes many nutrients more absorbable than in the raw state. Rather, what a whole food diet means is you are eating your food as close to nature as possible. No modified corn starch, no processed sugars, no junk. Rather than eating pasta, a highly refined food, try eating beans or spelt, an ancient, less refined and more nutrient-rich form of wheat. These foods are high in carbohydrates to give you fuel for long rides, but are still densely packed with macro and micro nutrients! Personally, I believe lentils and other legumes (chickpeas, split peas and kidney and navy beans) are super foods for endurance athletes and should compose a majority of their three main meals. They have a perfect complex carbohydrate to protein ratio to help build muscle and recover between workouts. Soaking legumes for a few hours and washing them throughly helps increase their absorption, decreases the amount of gas they will produce in your body as well as reducing their needed cook time. I typically put my legumes in a large bowl and soak them in warm water the night before I eat them.

Seeds from sunflowers and pumpkins are also great supplements. Sunflower seeds are 22% protein and offer trace minerals as well as Vitamin E.  Pumpkin seeds are high in protein as well as in iron, an essential nutrient- particularly for athletes. Hemp seeds are also an excellent choice and can be sprinkled on top of anything, added to your favorite sauces or blended in a smoothie. Hemp is sometimes called the "most perfect protein" and for good reason. Containing all 10 essential amino acids, hemp helps boost the immune system and hasten recovery while building muscle!  

You will also want to eat as many greens as you can. Greens have the highest amount of amino acids per ounce, which essentially helps your body digest and utilize protein that will allow it to regenerate your muscles after a long workout. However, be wary. Not all greens are created equal. While greens such as spinach are filled with good nutrients, they have inhibitors that keep your body from accessing their nutrients. As such, foods like kale or collards are far superior. Lightly steaming them will increase the nutrient absorption. 

Pseudo grains such as Quinoa, Buckwheat and wild rice are also excellent to incorporate into your diet. They contain B vitamins, iron, essential amino acids, and are easily digestible. 

You want your food to work for you between meals as well! Try incorporating more fruits into your diet. An apple for instance is a better source of energy than a cup of coffee and offers antioxidants too boot! However, bananas and dates are my go-to food for instant energy. Often, before going for a run or ride I will eat dates and slather on some almond butter (like peanut butter but healthier). Bananas and dates are both high in glucose, a carbohydrate that is rapidly converted to glycogen in the liver providing near instant energy. On longer runs I've actually brought a few dates with me and ate them while running to give me the pick up when I really needed it.

Ultramarthoner and Vegan Scott Jurek eats around 5,000-8,000 calories each day!

Raw and lightly roasted nuts are also great snacks. Nuts are both high in protein and have antioxidants. If you have the inclination, you can soak raw nuts to increase their digestibility.

Not only will all these foods help increase your energy due to their easy digestion and high nutrient value, but they are also high in antioxidants as well as alkaline forming. While the science is still out on this aspect of nutrition, studies suggest that the PH of your body is important. Research is starting to show that an acidic ph can actually harm performance and will increase recovery time (the time needed for your body to heal between workouts). A high Alkaline diet is essentially a diet of leafy greens (kale and collards are my recommendation), legumes (lentils, chickpeas, split peas), pseudo-grains (lentils, buckwheat, quinoa and wild rice) and fruits. Even seemingly acidic foods such as oranges become alkaline forming once digested while toxins such as meat and diary often lower your bodies ph in a negative way, and increasing recovery time needed between workouts. 

The best thing to remember is to do what feels right. These foods are stress-reducing and after giving your body a few weeks to adjust to the new diet you should start to notice an increase in both energy and vitality. Don't stress too much about things like protein. You should get more than enough by eating these foods. Also keep in mind that plant protein is more easily absorbed than meat and dairy proteins, so while meat eaters typically have 20% more protein intake, vegans often have more protein plasma found within their blood. In this case, quality over quantity is what counts! 

That said, calories are essential. And as Scott Jurek said: "And when you're a vegan, to increase your calories as you increase training you need more food. This isn't an elimination diet but an inclusion diet." Vegan athletes don't have to count calories to restrict themselves, but rather to make sure they are getting enough. 

These foods can also help increase your metabolism, helping your body to burn fat more efficiently. Protein, once ingested, instigates the release of a hormone that enables the body to more easily utilize its fat reserves, which in turn will improve endurance and facilitate loss of body fat.

I highly suggest the book Thrive by Brendan Brazier (review coming soon). He is a professional Ironman athlete who has written extensively on nutrition and its connection to athletic performance. I also suggest incorporating these foods into your diet slowly so as to give your body time to adjust to the new routine. 

You may have noticed that at no time did I ever suggest putting meat or dairy into your body. They are not only carcinogens that have been linked to increased levels of life threatening diseases but are also highly acidic once digested and will inhibit your overall ability to perform. 


  1. Thank you for this information, but your non athletic readers want to know: when can we expect your banana-whip/ode-to-Louise post?

    PS: kale over collards 4eva

  2. Well done and great name for the blog!