I recently answered some questions for an interview regarding vegan athletes for Indyvegans.com, of which I will post the entire interview at the end of this. I always expect one standard line of questioning to come during these interactions, that is, “Where do you get your protein?” or “How do you get all the nutrients you need for your training?” I don’t think these questions are asked as if the interviewer doesn’t believe that getting sufficient nutrients on a vegan diet is possible, but rather because this is still the concern or confusion held by the non-vegan populace. As tired and expected as it is, I don’t ever wary of answering it because it’s the first wall, and a big one too, of perception that gets torn down in the steps to considering veganism.
Over time, I’ve also found my response to these questions morphing over time, whether for a specific audience or because I think one way offers a more convincing approach than another. For awhile, I would just rattle off the normal list of foods that are high protein – legumes, grains, leafy greens, etc. etc., while other times I would talk about eating predominately whole foods, and a “rainbow on my plate”. Then, after developing a number of successful race performances at a high level and a growing list of vegan athletes, I felt inclined to drop the specifics and science all together and just point to my personal bests or link others to a Robert Cheeke video. You just can’t argue with that.
Today, however, I came across another way of approaching the question while reading an article by my favorite vegan dietician Ginny Messina. In the introduction to her “Vegan 101” piece, Ginny says,
“Omnivores have to strive for food choices that reduce their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol and that maximize compounds that might fall short like fiber, folate, antioxidants, and potassium. Vegans need to give a little bit of extra attention to vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin A. And omnivore or vegan, everyone needs to identify good sources of vitamin D, and maybe omega-3 fats.”
I love that instead of responding to the normal wariness of something LACKING in the vegan diet, she turns the conversation around to simply imply that ALL diets lack something and ALL diets thrive in something. She frames it so that no diet, no matter how culturally fringe, isn’t “weird” or “extreme” or “isolated”, but rather contains the same successes and pitfalls of any other way of eating, no matter how culturally accepted it may be. I’ve often seen others struggle to find the magical dietary bullet, such as that ONE way of eating will fix everything (80-10-10, paleo, atkins, high fat vegan, low fat vegan, raw, gluten-free, etc.), and they always, ultimately, run into the same walls as every other magical dietary seeker. The bottom line is, there IS no PERFECT diet. We are adapting beings living in an ever-shifting environmental and cultural climate, that constantly has us considering and responding to our dietary needs, so to imply that veganism is somehow inadequate because it doesn’t contain every last nutrient known to man at optimal levels is biased and short-sighted. The key then, is not to focus so much on seeking the optimal diet, but rather the optimal way of EATING, making sure that whatever restrictions and/or liberations you put on your food choices, that you are seeking out ways to fuel yourself and not create harm to yourself.
Simply put, veganism is lacking in nutrients just as every other diet is lacking in nutrients, and veganism is thriving in nutrients just as every other diet is thriving in nutrients. The task then is to make sure you are eating the proper foods to get the best out of the choices you make. That response is a great way to approach the question of “how do you get your protein” or “how do you get your nutrients”, if only because once you look past the specifics of the questions, they often imply the diet is inherently problematic that takes effort to overcome.
I don’t see it that way.
And following upon that response, I don’t see it that way because I, as a high performing athlete, survive and thrive by my way of eating without bringing undue harm to fellow sentient beings on this earth. And I’m certainly not the only one. Veganism is not, on any equal terms, “lacking” or “restrictive” and although I could rattle off any number of foods that give me the nutrients I need to survive and thrive, I’d rather just point to my sufficient history of 6:30 pace 30 mile runs, my 2:25 marathon performance, my 100+ mile training weeks, my 2 x 3 mile intervals, my 6 x 1 mile repeats. Those are evidence and numbers you simply can’t argue with.
So if you are considering going vegan and have concerns about the effects it might have on your well-being, all I can say is “don’t” (have concerns). Transfer the attention and awareness (or broaden it) that you hold with your current way of eating and apply it to veganism. Then you’ll have nothing to worry about.
So you’ve been vegan for ~15 years now, correct? What led you to become vegan? I’ve been vegan for 16 1/2 years, making the transition back in ’94 during my first year of college when I finally found some personal freedom. I was heavily involved in the hardcore/punk music scene at the time and veganism was the most publicized issue at the time, so I was exposed to all sorts of information relating to the treatment of animals and what we can do about it. I went vegan for ethical reasons and that has always been the foundation for my decision, despite all the other benefits I’ve gained from it. The bottom line is that animals should never be captured, confined, tortured and used for our unnecessary purposes. It’s that simple.
After taking a break from running (the 13 yr. hiatus you mention in your bio.), what got you back into it?I moved down to Franklin Indiana in the middle of nowhere while I saved money to raise my son. I was heavily into cycling at the time, but with nowhere to commute to I needed a release and wanted to keep up my fitness, so I started running again. I entered a race a month later, won my age group and everything snowballed from there.
Have there been any challenges to being a competitive vegan athlete?Not a one. Some of the guys on the team I run with have made joking comments here and there, but my performances speak for themselves, so there is a respect we all hold between each other. They can see that my decision to live vegan is obviously not holding me back in anyway, nor is there reason to think it would.
Have you met other vegan athletes/could you tell the readers a little about them?I’ve met a lot of vegan athletes through veganfitness.net, from all over the world, but have only met a couple in person. Of the most respected in the running field is ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, but by far the most talented is Jeffrey Eggleston who currently has a shot to make the Olympic Marathon team. There are so many others at the elite/sub-elite level that it’s hard to keep track. Then there are the more well-known athletes such as Robert Cheeke (bodybuilder), Mac Danzig (MMA fighter) and so on.
What advice would you give to people trying to get more active, but are afraid that they can’t do it safely or as competitively with a vegan diet?I’d say there is no cause for concern just as long as you eat a smart diet, which is to say one consisting primarily of whole foods, a diversity of foods (a rainbow on your plate) and leave out excessive sugars and processed foods. This isn’t even advice I would give to vegans only, but to EVERYONE. In a nutshell though, there is no reason you can’t perform physically on a vegan diet…there are PLENTY of us out there proving the possibility of doing so. I run 100 miles a week with strenuous effort 3 times a week, depleting my energy stores, breaking down my muscles and so on, but am able to recover and progress over and over….all without taking the lives of animals or subjecting them to a horrendous existence.
What resources do you use around the Indianapolis area for your eating/training that you’d like to share? (i.e. supplements or superfoods at a health store, trails you enjoy, etc.)
Indianapolis has a huge training resource with the Monon trail, if only because it is usually well marked with 800 and mile markers, so if you want dedicated distance training, you can really use that to gauge your progress. Then there are other beautiful areas such as the Canal Towpath, the Fall Creek trail, the downtown canal, the hills around Butler, Crown Hill Cemetary, etc. etc. Sometimes you have to do a little digging, but there are so many great pockets of areas to do difficult training. Other than the local area, I love getting down to the Hoosier National Forest for trail running…those trails and hills can’t be beat and are great for overall training of strength and cardio.
As far as supplements go, I don’t take them…in pill form anyways. I get all my nutrients from my food. Well, that’s not totally true, just to be safe I take a B12 supplement, because problems from B12 deficiency can really sneak up on you without you realizing it’s happening. Other than that, I’m supplement free.
In junction with the last question, what are your go-to foods/meals while training?Peanut Butter. Hah! No seriously, I love that stuff. Really, I don’t eat any different during dedicated training, compared to just going out and running around. I make sure to get carbs and protein in me soon after a hard workout and I rely heavily on fruits like Bananas and Medjool dates, but other than that I’m just making sure I’m getting greens, protein, carbs, and all the little nutrients that aren’t so readily available in most foods. But yeah, Peanut Butter whenever I can….just cause it goes well with almost everything. 🙂
Lastly, what’s your favorite event to partcipate in? (Type of event, distance, or specific race – or all of the above!)I love 1/2 marathons. Anything long and strenuous is great. Running a marathon fast is an insanely rewarding accomplishment, but sometimes the preparation and frustration really wears on the experience. 1/2 marathons are more enjoyable to me for both the accomplishment and ability to continue on once the race is over. Oh, and a brutal trail race through the woods makes me pretty happy too.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yeah, there is no reason NOT to live vegan and there is certainly no reason to think living vegan will inhibit you in anyway, mentally or physically. There are so many of us out there proving the possibility. Our performances speak for themselves, always with the intent to live in a world where everyone is free, human and non-human animals alike. See you on the streets!
Oh, and check out the following sites –