Today I didn’t eat any meat. I didn’t yesterday either. Or the day before. Or the day before that.
You didn’t know I was a vegetarian, did you? That’s okay. I didn’t either. But I am. And have been for a while.
In order to put this story in context, let me give you a a little history and explain why what I eat matters.
At 24 years of age, I weighed approximately 235 pounds (I never weighed myself at my heaviest, so the real number is unknown). Ate everything and lots of it.
At 27, I weighed 107 pounds, ate high volume, low calorie foods that didn’t offer much in the way of nutrient density.
At 28, I discovered vegetarian eating and began to regain my health with an approach to food that was forgiving and focused on putting enough of the right ingredients into my body. As a result of increased nutrition and a focus on quality and quantity, my running started to improve as well. I got injured less, and was able to increase my mileage and intensity.
At 29, I was diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease and literally went gluten-free overnight. It became a huge struggle to find gluten-free, vegetarian food and I found myself obsessing over what I could and could not eat. I discarded the vegetarian label so I didn’t feel so repressed, and regained the weight I needed to (and more) since my diagnosis.
After going omnivorous, I didn’t eat a ton of meat. The idea was that I could if I wanted to, and it somehow mentally helped me to deal with the idea of a gluten-free diet. Everything wasn’t off-limits, and it made the transition easier. However, when I started eating meat again, some of the other habits (high-volume, low calorie foods) have reappeared in my diet as well as fake and processed foods in the form of protein bars and artificial sweeteners. Somehow, being a vegetarian meant that I was also more conscious about what I was putting into my body, and without the label, I was embracing a “eat it all as long as it isn’t full of wheat” approach.
As a vegetarian, I ran two marathons, including my PR. The last marathon I raced was my slowest. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also during my more recent omnivorous state. I don’t think meat is the sole cause of my decreasing running times and weight gain, but an overall lack of attention to diet quality certainly is a big part of it. Good food gives us the energy we need to train hard and recover better – and I was neglecting a very crucial part of that formula.
Two weeks ago, I realized that I hadn’t eaten meat since Thanksgiving. Not eating meat certainly wasn’t the deprivation I thought it was anymore. In addition, I am and have always been an ethical vegetarian; I strongly believe that a vegetarian diet is the best option for the future of our planet as well as a worldwide solution to world hunger. If I don’t miss meat, my best running was when I was a vegetarian, and it’s something I believe in, why wouldn’t I simply embrace the label again?
Great question. Critics of a vegetarian diet cite concerns about protein needs, anemia, B12 deficiency, and getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids. However, a well-planned vegetarian diet is supported by the US government as well as several prominent physicians and health organizations. The key is a “well-planned” diet. Just like every other serious athlete, vegetarian athletes need to pay attention to their diet to ensure that they are getting the right nutrients and enough of them. For vegetarian runners, that means paying attention to protein intake, iron and taking a B12 supplement.
It also doesn’t mean a binge fest on junky “vegan” calories. Well-planned means that meat is replaced with nuts, legumes, seeds and greens – and carbohydrate nutrition is consumed most often in the form of vegetables and fruits. Many health-conscious runners already do that – the only difference for me is I’m not eating meat products. Brendan Brazier does it. Scott Jurek does it (and for 100+ miles)!
I’m embracing the label again. I am a vegetarian. A vegetarian runner.
I’m not going to turn into a vegetarian proselytizer – what we eat is personal, and this is what works for me. Judgement has no place here at Salty Running.
And if I want a hamburger (no bun, of course, gluten-free isn’t optional), you better believe that I’ll eat it.
But here’s what I will tell you. It’s been two weeks since I decided to go vegetarian, and I’ve cooked dinner every night since, which I hadn’t done for almost a year. I bought a juicer. Got all of my vitamins and minerals in on one day without a multivitamin. And I feel great. I ran my fastest 20 miles outside of a race ever. I’m happier, healthier, and faster. Apparently, the vegetarian label is working for me.
I’m going to keep it.
What do you think? Is it possible to eat a vegetarian diet that meets the needs of a runner?