Why I am a Plant-Powered Athlete

I don’t understand the love affair that Americans (or other Western countries for that matter) have with meat. In its raw form it is really quite unappealing. It is bloody and smelly and full of e-coli, salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and toxoplasma (to name a few) all from fecal matter that gets into meat during the slaughtering process. All this fecal matter in meat comes with a cost. Campylobacter alone accounts for over 600,000 illnesses per year. As for salmonella, there are over 342,000 salmonella related illnesses per year (mostly from eggs and poultry). As for pork and beef, they are also riddled with various and sundry not so pleasant pathogens. And don’t think organic is that much better. They get poop on them to. The scary thing is this is only a short list of a long list of the contaminants and other not so good stuff found in meat. And people think tofu is scary.

I could go on about that, but apart from the fact that dead animal flesh is so unappealing, I also happen to like live animals. I wouldn’t eat my dog or my horse or my cat. Why would I eat a cow or a chicken or a pig? Weird to think about really, why it is we have these clear demarcations between eating certain animals and not others. Dr. Melanie Joy, a psychologist, actually does a very thought provoking presentation on this very question (just in case you are interested).

But while those are legitimate reasons, they aren’t the main reasons why I eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

When I first started training for IRONMAN triathlons, my diet was all about trying to get enough calories to fuel my 20-30-hour training weeks. Funny thing is, I thought I knew a lot about nutrition (I was an athlete after all, and don’t athletes just know how to eat right?). I thought that because I didn’t eat fast food, fried foods and ate organic chicken that I ate healthy. Little did I know.

For the most part I did well as a triathlete. I won most of the local and regional races and was ranked in the top ten in my age group nationally for Olympic distance races. I finished two IRONMAN triathlons, finishing 3rd in my age group at the Canadian IRONMAN. I was training 20-30 hrs a week, eating huge amounts of food. My body fat got down in the 10-12% range, pretty lean for a female. I had dreams of turning pro.

But, given the right training, enough talent and enough calories, athletes can produce phenomenal results. Think Michael Phelps, his diet was certainly not the healthiest. There are a lot of athletes that eat poorly yet still do well. So, does it really matter? I think so. If they ate better, could they have done even better? I think so. Could their careers last longer, I absolutely think so. Because sooner or later, a poor diet catches up to even the best of athletes. As the adage goes, you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet.

My diet has changed a lot since those good old days. What has also changed is that I am now older--a 59-year-old--working a full-time job with lots of travel. What hasn’t changed is that I am still training hard (although not quite the 20 hr. weeks I used to) and continue to perform at a high level (thank goodness for age-groups). I’ve been on the podium multiple times at the age-group mountain-bike world championships. I am a 2x Xterra (off-road triathlon) age-group world champion. I am the oldest woman to have finished (and won) the Leadwoman competition (see Leadwoman posts). I raced as a pro mountain biker up until the age of 49. I’ve also spent a lot of time reading stacks of nutrition research. In fact, it has become a passion of mine. My job is to give people good and valid information about the best way to eat. When I talk to leaders about nutrition, I have to have a research basis for everything I say. I take that VERY seriously (also because people like the Surgeon General for the army and navy have been in my audience, not to mention other medical and bio-medical PhD types).

I no longer eat dairy, (yes, I still mourn cheese), or eggs, or meat. I thrive on veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. I really limit my intake of processed foods, including oils (contrary to popular belief, olive oil is not a health food). My diet is nutrient rich, and calorie dilute. While some may think this way of eating sounds dull, I actually eat more variety than ever before, and I ENJOY what I eat. I eat until I am full, and don’t worry about restricting portions or counting calories.  I weigh less now than I used to (about 15 pounds) and I don’t gain weight during the winter (like I used to). My cholesterol is almost 50% lower and I no longer take medication for exercise induced asthma (EIA) (I was on three meds for that), my recovery is as good as ever, I rarely get sick (and if I do get sick, it is barely a sniffle) and apart from the occasional sneeze, I no longer suffer from allergies. I attribute much of this to eating smarter.

But all this is anecdotal. A lot of meat-eating older athletes don’t suffer from allergies or asthma and have good recovery and perform at a high level.

No, I originally changed my diet, not for the above reasons, but because of the science. These benefits were just surprising nice side effects. I changed to a whole-foods, plant-based diet because I value my health and wanted to reduce my risk for cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. But as it turns out, (no surprise really), eating to reduce my risk for disease, is also good for athletic performance. It is especially good for maintaining a high level of performance as I age.

In subsequent posts I will get into some of the research on nutrition and why I think eating a whole-foods, plant-strong diet serves me well as an athlete.

Kona, 1988

Kona, 1988