When Carl Lewis bound his way to nine Olympic gold medals during the 1980s and ‘90s, no one would have guessed he was running on fresh fruit salad. Whether for philosophical reasons, environmental concerns, or improved health, more Kiwis are also choosing a plant-powered diet to help them enjoy better and more productive lives.
As the science rolls in and public perception changes, the idea of munching down on a big bowl of plant food seems increasingly appealing to many carnivorous salad doubters.
Many people find it surprising to discover that it is possible to achieve amazing physical endurance and muscle strength whilst relying on the humble plant world for nutrition.
In my daily work as a physiotherapist and endurance 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, I thought some people may benefit from my personal journey into veganism. Changing the way I ate was the first step and the platform from which I started my wellness journey.
It all started about six years ago. It was a dark time for me, as any runner who has suffered a significant injury will be able to attest. I had planned to run the Kepler trail and was looking forward to an epic boys’ trip in the Deep South. Then suddenly I tore a meniscus, and my dream was smashed.
My surgeon (who was also my running buddy) informed me that I shouldn’t be running for at least six months, and that my running future would have to be “managed”. 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 not being able to run to my potential!
After a period of mourning, I became bored with my own miserable behaviour and decided to take a more proactive approach to my recovery. At that time my uncle Murray was battling bowel cancer 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 veges, particularly green leafy veges, berries, nuts, green tea, and smoothies…”
I cringed while reading this as I suddenly recalled all the big breakfasts, steak and chip dinners and other crap I had fed myself over the years.
A lightbulb 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 then 38-year-old body letting me down when I had done so little to fuel it well?
Although I couldn’t run, I threw myself into cycling and swimming and started seeking more information about plant-based nutrition. Many of the things Murray 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 fruit.
Over the next 10 weeks, with less training than usual, I lost 12kg in bodyweight, gained 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 (reduction and then elimination of dairy).
But what about protein?
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 60–70g protein per day and for athletes the recommendation seems to be up to 1.2–1.8g/kg of body weight?
Thus, a 70kg social runner would need about 90g per day. I have been pleasantly surprised to note the quite high protein content in some vegan foods, such as nuts and seeds (20–23 percent), chickpeas, beans and lentils (15–18 percent, raw) and oats and muesli (13 percent). This is in comparison with canned salmon (22 percent), chicken breast (18 percent) and fillet steak (35 percent).
I’ll be the first to admit that I was amazed to discover the levels of protein in these very common foods. 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 percent of their protein from plants.”
Six 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 vegan diet, though a little dairy occasionally sneaks 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 honestly don’t crave meat at home or for takeaways. If someone had told me six years ago that I would be choosing a vegan burger over an Angus beef burger I would have laughed… and then ordered an Angus beef burger.
The biggest surprise
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 must admit that 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 to the point where I now have minimal ongoing knee symptoms, and have managed to run four marathons, including three sub-three-hour efforts, which is the best I’ve done since I was in my mid-20s (and I hope to beat it), and I’ve discovered trail running, which is just beautiful.
As I glide into my mid-forties, I find myself living a more outward-looking, gratitude-focused life, to which I largely attribute a very simple change in diet.
But don’t take my word for it. I’ve saved these last lines for Albert Einstein, arguably one of the smartest people in history to have the final say: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
Brad Dixon is a sports physiotherapist, coach, writer, and wellness evangelist based at EVERFIT Physio & Coaching in Mount Maunganui.
Connect with Brad at www.everfit.co.nz, Facebook (everfitcoach), Strava (EVERFIT), Instagram (@everfitcoach), and You Tube (EverFIT) .