Plant Powered People
Nutrition, July 29, 2016
This is my Plant Powered People article that was published in the Aus/NZ Trail Magazine. This version was edited by my mate Laurie who has made it a little more readable. Enjoy the read, and I hope it helps you along your plant powered journey.
When Carl Lewis bound his way to nine Olympic gold medals no one would have guessed he was running on fruit salad. Vegetable and fruit based diets are old news in the east but in the west they present a relatively new dietary option. Whether for philosophical reasons or improved health, more and more Kiwi’s are choosing the Gandhi diet to help them enjoy better, more productive lives. As the science rolls in and public perception changes the idea of munching down on a big bowl of rabbit food seems increasingly appealing to many carnivorous salad doubters. Take champion strongman Patrick Baboumian the previously meat powered Persian, who after more than ten years as a vegetarian, demolished a world record by carrying a 550kg yoke over ten metres. No one suspected his favourite food was blueberries.
Many people find it surprising to discover that it is possible to achieve amazing physical endurance and superior muscle strength whilst relying on the humble plant world for nutrition. In my daily work as a physiotherapist and elite sports coach I am often asked for my opinion on the role of diet in relation to health, growth, stamina and recovery. As a lapsed carnivore and occasional steak eater I thought some people may benefit from my personal and relatively recent journey into part-time vegetarianism. What follows is my own story, supported by some of my local plant-powered friends, whose testament support my newly developed diet-style.
My journey towards eating more plants started about two years ago. It was a dark time for me, as any runner who has suffered a significant injury will be able to relate. I had planned to run the Kepler trail with two mates and was looking forward to an epic boy’s trip in the deep South. Then suddenly I tore a meniscus, and my dream was smashed. My surgeon (who was also my running buddy) gravely informed me that I shouldn’t be running for at least six months, and that my running future was looking bleak. Glum was not really the word for how I felt, it was more like bereaved. Not only would I miss the Kepler, but I was banned from running for months on end and faced the real possibility of never running competitively again!
After a period of mourning I became bored with my own miserable behaviour and decided to take a more pro-active approach to my recovery. Also at that time my uncle Murray was battling his own health problems and had begun to delve into the mysterious world of plant-based whole-food eating. Murray had started a blog to encourage his friends and family to consider changing their own diets and lifestyles. One of Murray’s best blog entries really hit home “The cards are stacked firmly against prevention – who wants to be advised to change the lifestyle and eating habits of a lifetime… you may think you could never in a million years cut down or cut out sugar, processed foods - particularly processed meats, dairy products, excess alcohol, fast foods, and replace it with a diet of fresh fruit and vege -particularly green leafy veges, berries, nuts, green tea , and smoothies…” I had to cringe while reading this as I suddenly recalled all of the big breakfasts, steak and chip dinners and other crap I had fed myself over the years. A light-bulb went on. I felt a strong desire to change, and to treat my body with the respect it deserved. How could I possibly complain about my 37 year old body letting me down when I had done so little to fuel it well? Although I couldn’t run I threw myself back into cycling and swimming, and started seeking more information about plant based nutrition. Many of the things Murrey was presenting on his blog seemed to make good sense and even better science. I was intrigued and being naturally inquisitive I started conducting my own personal study.
Around this time I discovered the vegan ultra athlete and author Rich Roll and his plant-based, whole-food approach to eating. His own amazing journey to improved health formed the final incentive in my decision to try and change my diet. Initially I just ate a lot more vegetables and fruit and cut down my meat intake to once a week. I also started eliminating the more processed meats, like sausages and bacon from my diet entirely and replaced my artificial biscuit and chip snacks with nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Over the next 8-10 weeks, with less training than usual, I lost almost 10kg in bodyweight, gained new found energy, had less muscle soreness after exercise, and experienced a newly improved clarity in thinking. This initial experience led me to tweak my eating even further towards a plant based diet, with a reduction in dairy, more nuts and seeds, and trying out some whole food training fuel like dates and bliss-balls in place of the semi-synthetic gels which I was previously using.
As I settled into my new whole food diet I became aware of another, almost secret community of other plant eaters. Having now experienced the benefits of adjusting my own diet I was interested to hear what keep these experienced vegetarians and vegans off the carcass. Lets start with all-star trail runner and intensive care nurse Alastair Franklin who says “I would describe my diet as plant-based; I don’t eat meat, occasionally a little bit of fish and free range eggs, no dairy, minimal processed food, and I try to shop local and organic when possible i.e. Farmer’s market. After changing my diet I noticed major improvements in my athletic performance, I was running faster for longer, feeling stronger, recovering more quickly. One big misconception is that you are missing out, in fact I think the opposite is true, I’ve discovered and continue to discover so many new and yummy foods! It is fun, you feel better for it, and you’ll probably lose some weight! You don’t need to cut out meat completely to make a difference. There’s a good Ted Talk about becoming a week-day vegetarian, with meat on the weekend if you like! If most people adopted this model it would make a huge difference to their health and solve many environmental issues.” Another interesting guy I’ve meet is Chris Borchardt who as a massage therapist, surfer, runner, kayaker, mountain biker and yogi seems to literally glow with health “My diet mostly consists of raw vegetables, nuts, seeds, fresh juices, with a small amount of goat feta and honey and eggs: so I think vegetarian is the best description, and I am a 80-90% raw foody. When people hear you are a vegetarian they say “where do you get your protein from?” or “are you not tired, I would be too tired without eating meat”. I think the opposite of this is true; the reduction in heavy animal protein and the supply of foods containing raw amino-acids(which your body then turns into protein) leaves you feeling light and with an abundance of energy. I believe if we all introduced more plant and whole-foods into our diets that our health and the entire health of the planet would benefit, and is that not what we all want in this lifetime?”. This story wouldn’t be complete without the opinion of a proper hardline vegan, the black belt of the vegetarian community. A half marathon runner and fitness instructor, Julia Trezise-Conroy plays a mean french horn and has her own take on plant based eating, “I would describe my diet and lifestyle as vegan. I replace all animal-based products (i.e. meat, dairy, honey) with plant-based products (i.e. tofu, nut-milk, maple syrup), and I avoid buying products that have a negative impact on animals or the environment (i.e. palm-oil). The more I researched the more I realised that plant-based eating is where it’s at for health and longevity. Health and sports performance were the two biggest factors, but as I became more aware of the environmental concerns and animal rights issues, I adopted more of a vegan approach. The biggest misconception the public has is that you won’t get enough protein. Most people who eat a standard western diet are in fact getting far more protein than they actually need. Like any other macro consumed to excess, surplus protein is stored as fat. Furthermore, protein is found in plenty of plant-based products.”
A recurring theme in the conversations was certainly the question of protein, and I will admit it was a concern for me initially too. Did you know that the average person only needs 60g protein per day and for athletes the recommendation seems to be up to 1.2g/ kg of body weight? Thus a 70kg athlete would need about 90g per day. I have been pleasantly surprised to note the quite high protein content in some vegetarian foods like nuts and seeds (20-23%), chickpeas, beans and lentils (15-18%, raw) and oats and muesli (13%). This is in comparison to canned salmon (22%), chicken breast (18%) and fillet steak ( 35%). Dairy products and eggs can also be a good source of protein with eggs (13%), greek yoghurt (8%) and edam cheese (27%). I’ll be the first to admit that I was amazed to discover the levels of protein in these very common foods. It certainly goes to show how people like Julia can easily thrive without any meat at all. As Rich Roll points out in his book Finding Ultra, “Some of the strongest and most fierce animals in the world are Plant-powered. The elephant, rhino, hippo and gorilla have one thing in common – they all get 100% of their protein from plants.”
Two years on from my annoying running injury, I am now loving a new way of eating. You could call it a “wholefood plant-based diet”, though it really isn’t a branded fad diet but a great way of life, and a flexible way of eating. I have come to relish plant-based natural foods and enjoy a mainly vegetarian diet, though some fish, eggs and a little dairy occasionally sneak in. The amazing thing is that I used to be a double-meat kind of guy, all my favourite meals tended to have at least two types of meat in them, and yet I can truly say that I am eating exactly what I feel like without any sense of missing out. I don’t believe in anything being “not allowed”, and at this point I am still happy to eat meat occasionally, mainly if a friend has cooked a meal, but I honestly don’t crave meat at home or for takeaways. If someone had told me five years ago that I would be choosing a vegetarian burger over an angus beef burger I would have laughed… and then ordered a angus beef burger. The biggest surprise is that I actually love the food I am eating, my weight is low and stable and I feel more energetic and creative than at any other time in my life. Even an ex-double-meat carnivore like me has to admit, these facts are hard to dispute. And did I mention, I’m running again? Yes, my change in nutrition and weight loss allowed me to build up my running again, to the point where I now have minimal ongoing knee symptoms, and have managed to run two marathons, including a sub three hour, which is the best I’ve done since I was in my mid-20’s (and I hope to beat it). As I glide past forty I find myself living a more outward looking, gratitude focussed life to which I largely attribute a very simple change in diet. But don’t take my word for it. I’ve saved the these last lines for Albert Einstein, arguably one of the smartest people in history to have the final say “Nothing will benefit human health or increase the chances for survival on earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet”.
Brad Dixon is a Sports physiotherapist, Coach, and athlete working at Everfit Physio & Coaching. He lives by the beach in sunny Mt. Maunganui with his beautiful wife, two children, and rabbits.
You can purchase my book 'Holistic Human' on the site https://everfit.co.nz/Store/holistic-human-book or on Amazon