As research increasingly—and overwhelmingly—point to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, even serious athletes are making the switch. And while we’ve long associated meat with necessary protein for success in competitive sports, that myth is gradually being debunked. Matt Frazier, co-author of The No Meat Athlete Cookbook: Whole Food, Plant-Based Recipes to Fuel Your Workouts and the Rest of Your Life, explains why a vegetarian or vegan diet will actually yield better results at the gym, or on whichever playing field or arena you strive to be your best physical self, and how to get there one simple step at a time.
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Books for Better Living (BBL): What are common myths associated with a vegan diet that simply aren’t true—and that don’t, in fact, hinder an athlete?
Matt Frazier: The protein myth is, of course, the big one. It’s really not that hard to get the amount of protein you need from a plant-based diet, even one based entirely on whole foods. Certain sports, such as bodybuilding, might require more than a whole-food, plant-based diet can provide, but in those cases, you can make up the difference by including plant-based protein powders or other supplements in your diet. There are plenty of examples of vegan bodybuilders who get amazing results, as well as Olympic powerlifters, champion UFC fighters, and other strength and speed athletes—not just endurance.
Of course, on the flip side, there’s also a pervasive myth that just “being vegan” means your diet is healthy by default. And that’s not true either. There’s a lot of vegan junk food in grocery stores these days, and while it can be a nice treat now and then, it’s key that your diet is based on whole foods—athlete or otherwise.
BBL: What are some of the best plant-based sources of protein, besides tofu?
Frazier: Beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are some of my favorites, and that’s without even considering protein powders and other more processed options. But I prefer to look at it from a different perspective; all whole, plant-based foods contain some protein, and with a varied diet based on them you’ll get somewhere in the range of 15 percent of your calories from protein, which is perfect for most athletes. The trick is not so much to seek out the high-protein foods, but rather to avoid the processed foods where the protein, fiber, and other good stuff have been removed, such as in sugar, refined flour, and extracted oils. Some of these can be helpful around workouts, but as part of a day-to-day diet, they can get you into trouble.
BBL: How can a vegan diet provide the necessary protein and nutrients (i.e., energy) to fuel the casual and the competitive athlete’s regimen?
Frazier: The endurance-athletic diet I’ve tried to follow since long before I was vegan came at the advice of Chris Carmichael and other nutrition coaches: 65% carbohydrate, 12-15% protein, and the remaining 20-23% fat. It turns out that if you eat a whole-food, plant-based diet that includes some nuts, seeds, and avocados for fat, you’ll get very close to these numbers without even thinking about it. Since the foods in a whole-food vegan diet typically aren’t calorically dense, a lot of people lose weight when they start eating this way. But many athletes don’t want to lose weight, so they’ll need to make an effort to eat often and choose hearty, substantial meals, like the ones you’ll find in The No Meat Athlete Cookbook.
Just about any elite athlete who you talk to that chooses a vegan diet for performance reasons will tell you they recover faster when they eat this way. That’s probably the result of the high nutrient-density of plant-based foods (lots of micronutrients in relatively few calories) and the anti-inflammatory benefits of so many fruits and vegetables, which, unfortunately, are easy to miss when you eat an omnivorous diet and just focus on carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
BBL: Why are animal fats worse for a successful workout or sport?
Frazier: To me, it’s more an issue of opportunity cost. When you choose to get your calories from animal products, especially around a workout, you’re missing out on so many of those wonderful, recovery-promoting anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants that fruits and vegetables provide. It is well-established that high-fat meals impair arterial function in the hours following those meals, and some athletes (like vegan NFL receiver Griff Whalen) believe this hurts athletic performance and recovery.
BBL: What are the first steps to introducing a vegan diet into your life?
Frazier: I’m a big advocate of taking it slow when it comes to just about any change. It’s great when someone tells me they want to go 100% vegan, overnight, and of course, I encourage them to go for it because now and then it works. But if the all-at-once method doesn’t work out, know that there’s a lot of habit-change research suggesting that the best way to change is by taking small steps at a time.
When I first considered going vegetarian (I didn’t even know what a vegan was, yet), I had the same concerns about protein that lots of athletes have. So instead of just going vegetarian or vegan, I first eliminated four-legged animals from my diet. Then once I was comfortable with that, I stopped eating two-legged animals, and finally, after a few weeks, I cut out fish. It took me two more years to remove the eggs and dairy products from my diet and go vegan. I’m not saying you need to take as long as I did, but I found that by treating each new phase as a trial, I was able to gradually learn how to plan meals, go out to eat, ensure proper nutrition, and navigate social situations based around food.
So I’d suggest choosing a small step (like eliminating four-legged animals), then committing to a 7- or 10-day challenge. Once you reach that finish line, evaluate how it’s working and how you’re feeling, and decide if you want to continue. The “small steps” approach helps to limit cravings, and having that finish line in place (even if it’s one you’ll extend) helps to avoid those “I can never have another cheeseburger?” thoughts that are the enemy of habit change.
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