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Living in a country where queueing for food is considered a national sport *coughsaltedeggburgercough*, it's understandable why giving up meat may not be so high up on our fitness to-do list. But, if six Ironman triathlon winning medals earned by Dave Scott and seven Olympic gold medals won by sprinter Carl Lewis are anything to go by, we may want to think twice before butchering the meat-free option. These two juggernauts are not the only ones running on plant-based fuel. Scott Jurek, Fiona Oakes, Sally Eastall and Matt Frazier are just to name a few no-meat athletes whose running performances can light the track on fire. Just how do they do it?
Keep Up With Your Protein Intake
Protein is essential for the maintenance of the body and cell repair. Trying to be a runner without consuming enough protein is like constructing a concrete building without cement.
Eggs and milk are the natural choices for protein apart from meat. But, if you're in a hipster mood or already feeling the tension in your neck from all the cholesterol then experts recommend grains, nuts and soy as great alternative protein sources. However, since plant-based food is lower in protein content, runners do need to consume more to meet the protein requirement. Runner needs about 1.2-1.7 grammes protein per kilogramme of body weight which means more quality time at the 'cereal' aisle on our next trip to the grocery stores.
Pro tip: if the prices of granola bars and nuts snack pack make you die a little inside, opt for the store's house brands instead. They usually offer more at a lower price.
Here's the caveat, the amount of food that we need to take to meet the protein requirement would also shoot calorie and fat intake through the roof. For a lot of runners looking to lose weight, that's a horror story told in one sentence. Matt Frazier, Boston Marathon qualifier and author of No Meat Athlete, feels the struggle. His advice? Don't rely on nuts for protein. You can add hemp protein powder which contains up to 50% protein to your smoothies or add beans to the soup instead of going nuts.
Know Your Calories
Could a person who is training for a marathon get enough calories on a meat-free diet? Sure. Could a person who goes for an interval run and endurance training afterwards get enough calories on a vegetarian or vegan diet? As easily as when he's on a meat diet.
Runners on a vegetarian diet shouldn't have a problem meeting the daily calories requirement as long as they don't cut back on carbohydrates consumption, which is the primary source of energy (read: no asking for less rice from the mixed rice auntie/uncle). You can be on a meat diet and still feel weak at the knees running 10 km when you don't have enough carbohydrates to burn in your system.
If you want to be extra sure that you've got enough calories or agar-ation is not your standard measurement system, you can use a calorie calculator to predict how much calories you need. Calculate how much calories your body burns on a rest day and training day so that you'll know the amount of food required to meet the daily intake.
Balance Your Nutrients
Proteins are like the Kardashians of nutrients in the sports world. They are always talked about, and the hype surrounding them has built multi-million dollars empire, but they aren't the only important nutrient for runners (though they are the most marketed). Iron, B12, Zinc, Calcium are just as important to maintain runners' health and performance.
While most of the nutrients can be found in plants, iron and B12 are slightly trickier to obtain from vegetarian or vegan diets. The body more easily digests iron found in meat. If you're on a vegetarian or plant-based diet, you need to take in vitamin C or vitamin A at the same time you're eating iron-containing food to increase the efficiency of iron absorption. But, fret not, it's easier done than said. Yup, you read that right. You simply need to include broccoli, tomatoes or citrus fruit such as lemon in your meal.
As for B12, there's a slim chance that you can get sufficient B12 on a vegetarian or vegan diet. B12 is found predominantly in animal products. But, thanks to modern and well-funded wizardry called science, we now have B12 supplements. No evidence suggests that B12 supplements are of worse quality than natural B12 found in animal products. So, there you have it.
When we think of vegetarian or vegan diet, we think healthy food. We could imagine (or some of us may have seen it ourselves) that a typical lunch order from a person on a strict plant-based diet would be followed by "no dressing, please" or "less oil, less salt". While it's true that many people on a vegan or vegetarian diets are more conscious about what they eat, it's a slippery slope to think that all vegans or vegetarians are therefore healthy. Junk food does exist in all kinds, forms and for all diets. It's still paramount to pick and choose what you eat, even when you go meat-free and now belong to the group of people with a lower chance of heart disease.
Meat or no meat, when it comes to eating for health and wellness, there are only two mantras to stick by. Cover your nutrient bases, eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eat on time, especially post-workout. You need to refuel your body about half an hour after a hard training to ensure that your body can recover well and regenerate for the next training. So, we say ditch the queue for the salted egg burger and go for kale smoothie, anybody?
“While it's true that many people on a vegan or vegetarian diets are more conscious about what they eat, it's a slippery slope to think that all vegans or vegetarians are therefore healthy.”
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