It’s been well over two years since I made the transition from vegetarian to vegan. Completing The Ridgeway 200, a 200km+ cross country mountain bike race, on a vegetarian diet was motivation to keep exploring ways to support an active lifestyle on a vegetarian diet. However, something was amiss: whilst I performed well during the enduro, and finished just behind the semi-pros, alongside well-seasoned amateurs, I felt there were gains that I wasn’t making as specific foods made me heavy before training.
Nonetheless, I soldiered on and ate as well as I knew how until, just after The Ridgeway, disaster struck: I was stopped dead in my tracks by a knee injury. If I was Wylee Coyotee, my knee injury was, at the time, a piano that had fallen out of the sky and flattened me to a halt. Surrendering to rehabilitation and recovery was depressing; there’s nothing more infuriating than watching your fitness and form slowly disintegrate right before you.
During my time off, instead of slouching and slacking, I devoted time to experimenting with food and finding out what foods where hindering my progress; what foods could help me and elevate my performance. After weeks of following an unstructured elimination diet, and speaking to people in the know, I discovered that dairy was the culprit. Milk and milk-based products were specifically slowing me down, causing discolouration of my skin and other rather symptoms such stomach cramps. Reading further into my condition and the effects of dairy on the digestive system, I realised that many suffered from the same symptoms; however, habit or the sports community’s *obsession* with protein cajoles people into enduring discomfort as opposed to finding a solution.
My research into nutrition also coincided with a renewed interest in eating ethically and the environmental impacts of diary and factory farming. Books such as Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and Al Gore’s The Future confirmed my assumptions about cruelty to animals in diary farming and the environmental impact of rearing livestock for human consumption.
To complement Foer and Gore’s books, I also skimmed through Finding Ultra by Rich Roll, Eat and Run by Scott Jurek and Thrive by Brendan Brazier. Both unique and detailed accounts from bar-setting vegan super-athletes demonstrated how vegan diets not only support training, but also propel anyone to to surpass their goals. Progressing from one book to another allowed me to rest assured, and confirmed that I needn’t worry about dairy, protein and performance. Methodical documentations of what and when they ate, and how complete nutrition was achieved kickstarted my own trails to find a vegan diet that equally served my lifestyle.
Cutting out cheese, eggs and yogurt was the first step and I began supplementing my with diet non-dairy milks and powdered plant-based proteins for post-workout recovery. I immediately felt more energised and made gains, but grew conscious about consuming processed powders. First, they’re expensive and this made them unrealistic solutions to sustainable nutrition and, second, I felt I was missing out on the macronutrients that facilitate efficient protein assimilation. Ultimately, I believe the carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals found in natural vegan protein sources, such peas or nuts, allow better and more efficient protein absorption; therefore, providing we eat enough to support our activities, I believe there’s no real need to consume denatured, processed protein isolates.
With a view to just eating more whole foods, more frequently, I dropped the powders and increased the volume of pulses, grains, nuts and seeds in my diet; despite not consuming much as protein as before, naturally hitting my requirements wasn’t a problem. With protein taken care of, I shifted my focus to ensure that I was eating foods rich in Zinc, B12, lots of green veg and essential amino acids that I wasn’t receiving from meat and dairy. I started to drink raw green smoothies in the morning with Kale, which is now fashionable within quinoa-hipster bloggerati circles, and devoured large sides of raw spinach with supper.
The result of gradual changes to my diet were both positive and negative: I dropped body fat, digestive issues that I previously suffered from had disappeared and my skin cleared. However, at the same time, my knee wasn’t heeling and my physiotherapist suggested another alimentation diet to see if a reaction to any foods were stopping the muscles around my core and legs from firing and stabilising my body. Personally, I couldn’t face another alimentation diet and the thought alone made me want to do a Carrie Mathison and head-butt something flat. Instead, I, day-by-day, listened to my body and tuned into what made feel good or bad. After a fortnight of experimenting, I realised, by way of a eureka-like moment, that *raw* greens were the culprits during day out in London.
Out my of weekday routine, I skipped my green smoothie in the morning and side of spinach with supper and, rather miraculously, my knee pain subsided and I felt stable when walking. In a trail to ratify my hunch, I repeated the experiment again and, quite bizarrely, the knee pain subsided. I was left cluelessly scratching my head, but some investigating led to articles about why raw greens, especially brassicas, are not suitable for everyone as we’ve evolved; grown accustomed to cooked food. Essentially, we’re not cows, with four stomachs to break down grass, and further experimentation with cooked greens resulted in no knee pain. I was back in the game.
Having made a gradual recovery over the summer, I started cycling again and put more demand on my body. The knees were working, I was getting my fitness back and dropping more body fat in the process. Then, as I ramped up distances and circuit training, something bizarre happened: it was July and I felt cold! Again, I was clueless about what what was going on. Was it overtraining? Was I sick? After yet more I reading, I discovered that I wasn’t consuming enough fat. The clean nature of my vegan diet had indirectly resulted in the elimination of saturated fats from my diet and this, coupled with a natural drop in body fat, left me feeling cold and slightly lethargic. To get myself back on track, I added more nuts and nut butters to my smoothies and began cooking with coconut oil and this made all the difference; I felt normal again.
Consistent trail and error has allowed me, for now, to find a diet that supports my lifestyle and activities. The journey to where I am now hasn’t been easy and is far from over; however, it’s interesting, and knowing what works allows me to make continuous tweaks and avoid the wrong foods. The books, investigations and experiments have led to personal conclusions and opinions about approaches to sports nutrition and the vegan diet in general.
Ultimately, food is social glue. What we eat, who we eat with, and when we eat have profound effects on our wellbeing; therefore, whilst I eat as healthily as possible, I disagree with harsh diets that create social exclusion. In particular, raw vegan diets allow little or no options when dining out with friends, require continuous shopping for fresh produce and, judging from the recipes I’ve read and tried, contain abnormally high volumes of fat.
Moreover, Brendan’s recipes in Thrive, outside of his smoothies and energy bars, would only appeal to those who posses little or no appreciation for taste and good food; therefore, I also disagree with his, ‘food as fuel’ philosophy. By nature, we look forward to food and crave different flavours and tastes. Simply switching off our senses in exchange for a strict diet is not, again, a sustainable approach to sports nutrition or veganism as rigidity coupled with the blandness of Thrive meals will seldom result in even the most dedicated people following the plan for significant periods. However, using Brendan’s book as a primer for foods to eat for the majority of time is realistic and possibly the best way to use and adopt sound principles.
Having jumped through personal health hoops, inhaled thousands of recipe blogs and skimmed endless cookbooks, I now maintain a vegan diet that’s balanced for me. Whilst I loath the D word, my diet is not restrictive, doesn’t contain excessive amounts of soy or processed mock meats, is nutritionally rich and - rather importantly - satisfying. My approach is simple: I still eat all the foods that I enjoy; however, I veganise them, make them nutritionally dense, and, where possible, make sensible food preparation choices e.g. baking instead of frying and steaming instead of boiling.
Gaining comfort with the transition has allowed continuous tweaking: my Omega 3, 6 and 9 intake is now more balanced than ever and, yet again, with more due diligence and studiousness, I’ve learned how to optimally use carbs, protein and fats to support exercise and recovery e.g. fruit smoothies are great for post-work out recovery, grain salads and bean stews work well for lunch as do similar meals for dinner.
During training, I try to - whilst struggling to keep up with the pack - eat homemade energy bars on rides over-stretching two hours. Pre-ride, I’ll eat something if I’m hungry or have time, but substantial suppers the night before hold me in good stead. With workouts and rides taking place early in the morning, I often have big smoothies as joint breakfasts and recovery meals, and that’s it: no pedantry. I now just listen to what my body needs whilst acknowledging some rules of thumb.
Again, arriving to a point where sports nutrition is taken care of with ease, without unnatural foods, expensive energy bars and supplements, has only been possible by embarking on a journey full of trail and error. I used to stuff my jersey pockets with bananas and figs on long rides, only to burn through them quickly. It was after re-reading Brendan Brazier’s books, and speaking to select sports nutritionists, that I discovered how to use fats and proteins during training to prevent energy peaks and dips; therefore, my jersey pockets are thankfully lighter, and I leave the house with a medley of energy bars, all homemade, containing a mix of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and whole-grains.
My approaches to both veganism and sports nutrition work for me for me as I enjoy cooking, have grown up with a passion for good food and posses an adventurous palette. Also, transitioning from a vegetarian to vegan diet was probably not as challenging as making the transition from an omnivorous diet; therefore, I can see how many would need to begin slowly, take one step at time and lean on convenience food, such as mock-meats, as a matter of course.
The journey has proved, and continues to do so, that you can thrive off a vegan diet; achieve sporting goals without expensive supplementation, meat and dairy if, like anything else, intent is backed up with commitment and consistency. I always cook double what I need, keep frozen meals ready to go and ensure that I have food to eat after workouts. As devouring the first thing in sight is never a safe bet, vegans are required to engineer their convenience as opposed to having it served to them, which I believe fosters good habits that transcend your approach to eating and nutrition.
Conclusions? The vegan diet works for anybody who wants to make it work for them. From artsy sedentary folk-to-wannabe athletes, everybody has to go through a transition phase involving trail and error, but the results are rewarding. Indeed, staying true to personal ethics and good health whilst pursuing athletic goals and ambitions is possible. Are you about to embark on a similar journey? Are you committed enough? Let me know how it goes, but please, please, please don’t become a preachy know it all. Make your choices; live and let live.
I’m off to bake some falafel x