As a vegan chef and business owner, I get a lot of comments and quizzical looks when I tell people what I do: “I sell vegan desserts and entrees.” Almost always, the first response is, “So, no meat, right?” The rest of the conversation can often be very positive, but sometimes proceeds in a downward spiral, especially if I’m talking to a person who feels the need to defend his love of meat. Kind of like the man I met last week. Here’s a snippet from our conversation:
Him (scrutinizingly): “So you’re Raw Melissa, huh?”
Him: “So, no meat, right?”
Me: “All the products I sell have no animal products in them.”
Him: “So, no meat, right?”
Me: “Yep, no meat.”
Him: “How do you do it?! I would never! I just can’t stand the thought of going without a juicy, rare steak cooked up on the grill and smothered with steak sauce. Doesn’t that sound good to you?” [The spiel is an old one to me.]
Me: “Well, I’m not against people eating meat. I just think we could all use more fresh fruits and veggies.”
Him (aghast): “You’re not against meat eaters? More fruits and veggies?”
This is generally how I get my foot in the door, so to speak. We then talked about the benefits of the vegan/vegetarian diet and how even those who eat a just a small amount of meat seem to experience the same benefits. Needless to say, when he found out I wasn’t ready for a fight, we had a great conversation about health and nutrition.
So what are the benefits to a vegan/vegetarian diet?
In truth, when one eats well, meaning that his or her vegan/vegetarian diet doesn’t consist of fruity O’s and soy bacon, but rather fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains – the results can be dramatic.
A recent review, which compiled data from 87 previous studies on vegetarianism (a meta-analysis), found that those eating plant-based diets experienced lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other life threatening conditions. Obesity was lower and weight gain was less despite whether or not one exercised. On average, the body fat of vegans/vegetarians is 3-20 percent lower than that of meat-eaters and phytochemicals (antioxidants that are responsible for helping the body fight things like cancer and other diseases) are greatly increased.
Performance athletes and the vegan/vegetarian diet
So what of an athlete? Are there benefits of a vegan/vegetarian diet to those who are looking to eat the best possible diet for health, as well as strength and endurance?
Interestingly, one study showed evidence that a vegan/vegetarian diet allows for an increase in calorie burn after meals, meaning that, as one doctor put it, “Plant-based foods are being used more efficiently as fuel for the body…” In other words, nutrients are able to more rapidly enter cells and be converted to heat rather than fat.
Another review of several studies looked at the differences among athletes eating a vegetarian diet as opposed to those eating an omnivorous diet. It found that there wasn’t a significant difference when the meals of each were balanced. In fact the performance levels were very similar. Keep in mind that athletes, whether vegetarians or omnivores, are generally eating whole food diets regardless of whether they eat meat or not, and are not indulging regularly in the Standard American Diet of high fat and sugar that the average person consumes. There were differences, but again, they all related to overall health as mentioned above.
Studies aside, many, many athletes preach the value of a plant-based diet. There are several hundred vegan/vegetarian athletes throughout the world who are at the top of their games. Ruth Heidrich, a runner and triathlete, has won over 900 gold medals in various races and is a six-time Ironman triathlon finisher. She’s been vegan since 1982 when she found out she had cancer. Her diet is what she attributes to her healing saying, “It’s great what your body can do with the right type of nutrition.” Brendan Brazier, a professional triathlete, won the National 50km Ultra Marathon Championships in Canada in 2003 and 2006. He says, “I raced Ironman triathlons professionally for seven years, all on a vegan diet, and I honestly don’t believe I would ever have achieved what I did in this field if it wasn’t for the attention I applied to my nutrition programme.” And who can forget the most famous vegan athlete, Carl Lewis, who won 9 Olympic gold medals? He had this to say about veganism, “I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.”
So how do they do it? Aren’t they hungry? And what about protein? How can you eat a plant-based diet for overall health and continue as an athlete? Stay tuned for Part II where we’ll discuss the specific nutritional needs of the vegan triathlete and Part III where we’ll give you the tools you need to get started, complete with a couple great recipes to keep you fueled and healthy.
Stay Tuned! At the conclusion of our three part series, we will be giving away Melissa’s recently released cookbook, Faves!