The Ultimate Energy Bar Formula

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Three different bars made using the formula. Do they look like they have beans in them?

Recipes are great.  But formulas are where it’s at.

Recipes allow even brand new cooks to produce something that’s really good, or at least something that doesn’t entirely suck. You can take a recipe that an expert chef created and reproduce in your home exactly the same dish, without the years of training. Score.

The problem with recipes, though, is that it’s easy to rely on them too much, especially if you’re like me and you’re scared to mess with them.  Eventually you find yourself stuck in a box, where you eat the same thing over and over and never venture beyond the safe comfort of your trusty recipes.

This was my problem with smoothies for a long time: I’d find a recipe for one I liked, make it every day for a month, and then get so sick of it that one day I’d simply revolt.

Skip the smoothie. Go to Starbucks. Coffee and a bagel. Not a good start to the day.

Eventually, I stepped back from the “month of smoothies, month of Starbucks” routine. I figured out what the smoothies I liked all had in common, and came up with the Perfect Smoothie Formula. This way I could switch in different ingredients and never run out of smoothie ideas or get sick of the same one over and over.

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Perfect Snacks for Kids Who Play Sports (and How to Convince Them to Eat the Healthy Stuff)

Note: This is a guest post from Danielle Elliot, who writes the blog That Normal Vegan.

Danielle with her cousin Frankie.

When I hang out with my younger cousins, I cringe as Isabella, 11, tells me she ate PopTarts before her soccer game.  Or when Frankie, 10, says he had a burger in the middle of his little league doubleheader.

As any parent knows, it can be challenging to get kids to eat healthy snacks. I once had the nerve to ask my neighbor why he lets his kids eat Oreos at half time.

“Quite frankly, he has to eat something,” he said. “He’ll burn it off anyway.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong, but I get it. He’s tired of begging his kids to eat oranges. I hope you don’t feel as defeated!

I’m not a parent, but I spend enough time with kids to understand the challenges of getting them to eat healthy foods. Isabella and her sister, Olivia, are usually willing to try what I’m having, but Frankie is another story. He seems to exist on chocolate and Captain Crunch. He wouldn’t go anywhere near my vegan birthday cake last year, especially when he heard my mom had added sweet potatoes to the recipe.

One recent afternoon, I mentioned that I wanted to go for a run. “Can I come with you? I run really fast. I can go really far. How far are you running? Like a 5K? I can do a 5K,” he exclaimed, the words spiraling out of his mouth faster than a runaway train. How could I say no?

So, you want to be the best? Then eat this!

Olivia and Frankie soon decided it was time for a snack. They asked for Cheetos; I smeared some peanut butter on sliced bananas. Frankie suddenly lost his appetite.

He tried to tell me it was because he didn’t want to get a stomachache while we were running. That’s when the idea popped into my head. What if I appeal to his love of sports — and winning — to get him to eat; if I go beyond the “it’s good for you” approach and treat him like the athletes he idolizes?

“You know, bananas with peanut butter is a great breakfast before a run,” I explained. “That’s what I eat before my races. The potassium is good for your muscles, so that you don’t cramp up, while the peanut butter adds protein and gives you that little energy kick to keep you going longer than your friends.”

I’d caught his attention. You could see the shift in his eyes, the wheels turning in his head.

He cautiously picked up the banana: “This is actually kind of good. I didn’t think I’d like it, but I do,” he said. “What else is good for soccer? What’s gonna make me stronger? Is that why you eat all this stuff?” he asked.

He’d opened Pandora’s box. Two hours later, we’d gone through the entire pantry and half of the fridge, showing him all the vegetarian foods that might help him hit a baseball a little further. Maybe I was promising too much, but I’m not afraid to resort to desperate measures. He seemed enthralled to hear that food fuels our bodies in the same way gas fuels a car.

We also discussed endurance, and how sugar actually zaps energy. “But I’m always full of energy after sugar,” Frankie contested. “Do you stay full of energy for long?” I asked. “But what about chicken?” he asked. “My mom says I need to eat chicken.” That’s when we talked about how much energy the body wastes in trying to digest meat. I introduced him to all the vegetarian sources of protein.

It’s amazing to realize how early the Standard American Diet is ingrained in young minds. I take every opportunity I can to teach them about vegetarian and vegan options, but am careful not to leave them thinking their mom doesn’t understand nutrition. It’s a fine line when you’re not the parent.

Quick, healthy snacks for young athletes

Once I had Frankie willing to try nutritious foods, I needed to brush up on childhood nutrition. Research confirmed what I assumed: young athletes thrive on many of the same foods as adults, but the recommended portions and nutrient ratios vary.

Researchers Jennifer Sacheck, Ph.D., and Christina Economos, Ph.D., delved into the topic a few years ago for MLS.com (that’s Major League Soccer).  Here is a list of healthy snacks, based on Sacheck & Economos’s recommendations as well as conversations with several nutritionists. I tested them out on a string of kids lately, and all got the thumbs-up. (I prefer not to count calories, especially when eating with kids, but I’ve included the recommendations here for those that are interested.)

Pre-Activity (~100-300 calories)

  • Whole grain pretzels
  • Half a wheat bagel with jam
  • Fresh fruit
  • 1/2 cup raisins and peanuts
  • Carrot or celery sticks with hummus & pita

Post-Activity (~100-300 calories)

  • Applesauce and string cheese
  • Fruit smoothie with calcium-fortified soy milk
  • Trail mix
  • Apple and peanut butter
  • Half a peanut butter sandwich on a bagel

You can also check out NMA’s fueling guides, just keep these kid-specific guidelines in mind:

  • Balanced kid’s meal: carbohydrates (46-65%), protein (10-30%) and fat (25-30% and not less than 20%). Through balancing it, you should provide 25-31g of fiber.
  • Calcium: 800mg/day (4-8 year olds); 1300mg/day (9-13 year olds). Young athletes need to develop strong bones, but there’s no need to overdue it with too much milk. Good sources include fortified soy milk, beans, tofu, broccoli, kale and almonds.
  • Vitamin D: crucial to calcium absorption. Most kids require a supplement or fortified foods and drinks.
  • Iron: kids tend to be really low on this crucial mineral. Vitamin C helps absorb iron from non-animal sources such as beans, spinach, tofu, lentils and apricots.
  • Zinc: helps with muscle recovery. Get it from beans and whole grains.
  • Focus on whole fruit, not juice.
  • Avoid caffeine and sodium. Children are less capable of thermoregulating, making adequate hydration crucial. Caffeine and sodium mess with hydration.

For more on meal and snack composition and timing, Sacheck and Economos offer informational guides for parents and kids, as well as a scientific breakdown.

Don’t overdo it

If your child isn’t doing more than the USDA’s recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week, he or she doesn’t need extra snacks. Soccer, as with most recreational sports, often doesn’t count as a full 60 minutes of vigorous activity, as so much of it involves standing around. In other words, an hour of soccer practice twice a week does not mean your child needs huge dinners and snacks, no matter how nutritious.

Keep the healthy train rolling

My conversation with Frankie went on for so long, we never did go for that run. But he called last week to see if I still wanted to go. He promised to eat a banana with peanut butter on a whole grain bagel for breakfast if I said yes.

That, as far as I’m concerned, is a miracle. The next time he comes over, I’ll have a stock of new foods ready for taste testing.

Is it okay that I coerce him into eating healthy foods by making grand promises, by saying he’ll be running like the wind and might score more goals? I think so. What do you think?

Danielle Elliot had a perfectly normal childhood in a “normal” suburban family – i.e., lots of carnivores who consider vegans weird. In 2008, while training for her first half marathon, she decided to go vegan, and it’s finally starting to feel normal. Follow her adventures as a vegan traveler, athlete and daughter to super-quirky parents on her blog, That Normal Vegan.

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Chocolate Strawberry Banana Smoothie from BlendHappy

When I met Nick Reese in Austin at SXSW a few weeks ago, I was pretty pumped about that.  Nick is a guy I’ve learned a lot from and look up to for the way he ignores the supposed “limits” and is committed to standing out from the crowd.

So when he told me that his girlfriend, Heather, was starting a new video site about blending and juicing and wanted to make a custom smoothie for No Meat Athlete, I was even more excited.

But I had a lot of requests…

Perhaps I got a bit carried away with the instructions — when Heather asked what type of smoothie would work best, I mentioned that it should be vegan.  Oh, and that it should have 4-to-1 carb-to-protien ratio, so we could drink it post workout.  And, oh yeah, if you wouldn’t mind, could you use hemp protein too, since I’m not a big fan of soy or rice protein?

Someone with less patience might have told me to f-off, you psycho granola-crunchie.  But Heather didn’t complain a bit.  Instead, she did me one better and threw in some coconut manna and greens powder, two other favorite smoothie ingredients of mine.

Here’s the video Heather put together for us, and the pre/post-workout smoothie she came up with!


Chocolate Strawberry Banana Smoothie Recipe

Here are those ingredients again:
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  • 1 banana
  • 2 handfuls of strawberries
  • 4 tablespoons chocolate hemp protein powder
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal powder
  • 1-2 tablespoons coconut manna
  • 2 cups almond milk
  • 1 scoop greens powder
  • agave nectar, to taste

If you can’t find chocolate hemp powder, you can just throw in some cacao nibs or carob chips.  I do that all the time.  And notice Heather’s smoothie perfectly fits my smoothie formula, so you can create lots of variations on it.

Check out Blend Happy for lots more smoothie and juice recipes.  Heather wants to make it the most entertaining resource on the web for juice and smoothies.  She does reviews too, so if you’re having trouble deciding between, say, a Blendtec (what I use) and a Vitamix (what Heather uses in the video), BlendHappy can help you with that.  (See her Vitamix review, for example.)

Big thanks to Nick and Heather for doing this.

Alrighty, I’m out.  I’ve got a 10-miler planned for this weekend, before Boston in 10 days!  How about you?

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Make Your Own Energy Gel (With Chia Seeds!)

This is a guest post from Tim Woodbury, who writes at MidpackRunner.com.

This post started with a challenge, when Doug from TheHaySay.com fired a shot across my bow.

iStock 000014880463XSmall 300x199At issue: The question of whether we could create an inexpensive, wholesome, homemade energy gel incorporating chia seeds.

Homemade energy gels are particularly difficult to get right, even without the added complexity of having to add chia, the seed that has so famously (thanks, Born to Run) been trusted by both ancient warriors and modern ultrarunners to keep them going. I wasn’t sure it could really be done. But, as always happens with runners, my naturally competitive spirit won out.

Thus, I traded my running shoes for a chef’s hat and set to work destroying the kitchen creating my masterpiece.

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The Perfect Smoothie Formula

The way I see it, you only need to eat healthy twice during the day.  While you’ll certainly eat more than twice a day, just two healthy meals make it pretty hard to screw up the rest of them.

iStock 000003942941XSmallOnce is in the afternoon, when a big salad loaded with greens, other raw vegetables, and nuts will fill you up and give you more veggies than most people eat all day.  And as a bonus, it’ll give you the chance to get even more good stuff, when you dress it with quality oil, lemon juice, and a little sea salt.

The other time is in the morning, when a smoothie made from fruits (and even vegetables) will not only set the tone for the entire day, but act as a vehicle for other superfoods or supplements you want to work into your diet.

That’s it. Just two healthy meals.

Even if you ate whatever you wanted the rest of the day, I’d be willing to bet you wouldn’t get fat, as long as you made sure to drink a smoothie and eat a big salad every single day.

Sure, if you were to eat at McDonald’s for lunch and Outback for dinner the rest of the time, you could probably succeed at packing on a few pounds.  But here’s the thing.

The smoothie and salad act as “anchors” that keep you on track, to remind you just how great it feels to put real, fresh fruits and vegetables in your body.  After you start the day with a smoothie, McDonald’s for lunch doesn’t seem so good anymore.  And when it’s time to start thinking about dinner, the salad does the same.

In this way, those two healthy meals become three or four—which doesn’t leave much time for junk.

Why people suck at making smoothies

Most people are alright when it comes to the salad.  But there’s something about the alchemy of throwing a few fruits, ice, liquid, and whatever else into a blender and ending up with a perfectly smooth and delicious drink that causes lots of people to struggle.

Since nearly everyone has a blender (I use a Blendtec myself, I suspect that the reason most people don’t make smoothies consistently is that it’s overwhelming.  There are too many possible ingredients, and too many variables to tweak to get the proportions just right. And if someone should stumble upon a good recipe, they end up making it so often that they get sick of it and never drink it again.

We need a formula

Over the past few years, I’ve had a smoothie almost every single day.  I’ve constantly tweaked it, experimented with new ingredients, and kept track of what worked and what didn’t.

What follows is my version of the smoothie genome project.  It’s a formula you can follow to create nearly endless variations.  And the best part is that the uncertainty has been taken out of it for you.  You’ll need to experiment with different flavor combinations, of course, but the guesswork about proportions has largely been removed.

The recipe below specifies general amounts and types of ingredients (like “2 tablespoons binder”) and then below, you are given a menu of several recommended ingredients of each type from which to choose to make your smoothie.

The Perfect Smoothie Formula

(makes 2 smoothies)

  • 1 soft fruit
  • 2 small handfuls frozen or fresh fruit
  • 2-4 tablespoons protein powder
  • 2 tablespoons binder
  • 1.5 tablespoons oil
  • 1.5 cups liquid
  • 1 tablespoon sweetener (optional, less or more as needed)
  • optional superfoods, greens, and other ingredients
  • 6 ice cubes (omit if soft fruit is frozen)

Select one or more ingredients of each type below and add to blender in specified proportions. Blend until smooth.

Recommended Soft Fruits

  • Banana
  • Avocado

(If you have a high-speed blender that can puree, say, a whole apple or carrot without leaving any chunks behind, then the puree of almost any fruit or vegetable can act as your soft fruit.)

Recommended Frozen or Fresh Fruits

  • Strawberries (you can leave the greens on if you have a powerful blender)
  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Peaches
  • Mango
  • Pineapple

Recommended Protein Powders

  • Hemp
  • Sprouted brown rice (tastes chalkier than hemp, but packs more protein per dollar)
  • Pea
  • Vega Sport (combines all three for complete amino acid profile)
  • Lifetime Life’s Basic’s Plant Protein (an affordable hemp, rice, pea, and chia protein blend)

(Soy and whey are higher-protein, generally cheaper options, but for a variety of reasons I don’t recommend either for long-term use.)

Recommended Binders

  • Ground flaxseed
  • Almond butter or any nut butter
  • Soaked raw almonds (soak for several hours and rinse before using)
  • Rolled oats, whole or ground
  • Udo’s Wholesome Fast Food

Recommended Oils

  • Flaxseed oil
  • Udo’s Blend or other EFA blend
  • Hemp oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Almond, macadamia, or other nut oil

Recommended Liquids (unsweetened)

  • Water (my favorite)
  • Almond milk or other nut milk
  • Hemp milk
  • Brewed tea

Recommended Sweeteners

  • Honey (not technically vegan)
  • Agave nectar (high in fructose, so choose this only before workouts)
  • Stevia (sugar-free natural sweetener, the amount needed will vary by brand)

Optional Superfoods, Greens and Other Ingredients

  • Cacao nibs (1-2 tablespoons)
  • Carob chips (1-2 tablespoons)
  • Ground organic cinnamon (1-2 teaspoons)
  • Chia seeds, whole or ground (1-2 tablespoons)
  • Greens powder (1-2 teaspoons)
  • Whole spinach leaves (1-2 handfuls)
  • Maca powder (1-2 teaspoons)
  • Jalapeno pepper, seeds and stem removed (one small pepper)
  • Ground cayenne pepper (small pinch)
  • Sea salt (pinch)
  • Lemon or lime juice (1 tablespoon)

There’s plenty here to get you started.  But you certainly don’t have to stay within these guidelines if you determine that you want more or less of a certain ingredient, or more than one ingredient from each category. (For example, almond butter and ground flaxseed are both in the “binder” category, but I sometimes include both in my smoothie.)

Also, note that which ingredients you use from one category often dictate how much you need from another.  For example, if you’re using avocado instead of banana as your soft fruit, you’ll need more sweetener than you would with the banana, and you’ll probably want to go light on other fatty ingredients, since avocado provides plenty of good fats.

So be creative, and don’t worry if at first you like more of the sweet ingredients and not so much of the healthier ones. Over time as you eat less and less processed and sugary foods, your tastes will change and you’ll actually crave the healthy stuff.

PS – This is an excerpt from my vegetarian guide to your first marathon.

PPS – If you like the formula idea, check out the Ultimate Energy Bar Formula!

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The Chocolate Quinoa Protein Bars that Cured My Pop-Tart Addiction

My name is Christine, and I have a Pop-Tart problem.

Ever since I discovered these accidentally-vegan goodies in the vending machine at law school, I can’t seem to get my dollar in the slot fast enough.  That wouldn’t be a big deal every once in awhile, but the vending machine seems to call out my name every time I’m heading to the gym.  My banana just looks so blah next to the shimmering strawberry-frosty goodness!  And yes—by “goodness,” I’m mean 10% strawberries, 90% flavored corn syrup.

chocolate bars photo 1 300x225Besides packing extra coins for the vending machine, I’ve also started carrying around ibuprofen.  It worked for Matt during his 50-miler, and I count on it for my killer 3:00 headache.  But you know when these headaches started?  Right about the time I started a daily 40-grams of sugar ritual with these damn Pop-Tarts.

I knew I had to break this sugar-rush-crash-medicate cycle, and vowed to make a batch of my Homemade Energy Bars to satisfy that starchy-sweet craving.

Lo and behold, for maybe the first time in NMA-kitchen history, the pantry was out of beans.  Not a legume in sight.  But, times of crisis have a knack of spurring creativity—with a deep pantry rummage I pulled together ingredients for some awesome quinoa energy-protein bars.

With over 7 grams of protein per bar (more if you use nuts!) and about a third of the sugar in Pop-Tarts (from energizing dates and agave nectar instead of corn syrup), the case of the addictive pop-tarts is officially closed.   Enjoy!

Chocolate Quinoa Protein Energy Bars

  • 3/4 cup dry quinoa, or about 2 cups cooked
  • 1/2 cup dates, pitted
  • 3 tablespoons agave nectar
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup protein powder (I used an unsweetened hemp-based version)
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup stir-ins like dry fruit, nuts, shredded coconut, or vegan chocolate chips. (I went for half chocolate chips and half coconut)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray a 8×8 baking dish lightly with baking spray.

Rinse the dry quinoa in cold water, then let sit in a bowl of water for 10 minutes.  In the meantime, bring 1 cup of water to boil.  Drain the quinoa and add to the boiling water.  Cover, and reduce heat to simmer for about 12 minutes.  Let cool enough to handle.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the cooked quinoa, dates, agave nectar, vegetable oil, flaxseed, almond extract, and salt.  Process until relatively smooth (the quinoa is so small it stays slightly lumpy).

In a small bowl, stir together the protein powder, flour, and stir-ins.  Fold this dry mixture into wet mixture with a spatula.  The dough is very thick, like cookie dough, so use the spatula to press into prepared pan evenly.

Bake for about 22-25 minutes, until firm.  Let cool, then slice into a dozen bars.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months.

Nutrition facts (with chocolate chip and coconut option): Calories: 184, Total Fat: 5.4 g, Saturated Fat: 3 g, Cholesterol: 0 g, Sodium: 37 mg,  Potassium: 113 mg, Total Carbs: 29 g, Fiber: 3 g, : Sugars: 16 g, Protein: 7.3 g.

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Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Good Kind’ of Caffeine?

We hear a lot these days about how caffeine boosts endurance and energy levels.  I can’t say for sure if it works that way for me, but I can certainly attest to the fact that mentally, I feel more pumped up for a workout if I’ve consumed caffeine a few minutes prior to exercising.

But are green tea and yerba mate any better than coffee?

iStock 000003325220XSmall 300x199So let’s accept the fact that caffeine improves performance on some level, through targeted (as opposed to habitual) use.  Then does it matter what type of caffeine we consume?  Does it matter whether we get our pre-workout fix from a few cups of coffee or from supposedly “good” caffeine sources like green tea and yerba mate?

From there, it’s not much of a leap to ask the same question about habitual use.  If you’re like me and find it extremely difficult to quit drinking caffeine, then does it matter in what form you get that morning caffeine jolt?

Brendan Brazier’s take on it

According to Brendan Brazier in his vegan sports nutrition manual Thrive, green tea’s caffeine (technically theophylline) “slowly and steadily releases energy over the course of several hours,” as opposed to the caffeine in coffee that causes jitters.

He goes on to say that theophylline doesn’t stress the adrenal glands, by far the effect that worries me the most about drinking a lot of coffee.  In fact, Brendan writes that theophylline might actually be beneficial to the adrenals, by “restoring hormonal balance.”

As for yerba mate, it’s not entirely clear to me, from either Thrive or Wikipedia, how this South American plant’s caffeine differs from that in coffee.  In fact, it seems that the caffeine is mostly the same as that in coffee, though in a smaller dose.

In addition, green tea and yerba mate are “greens,” making them higher in antioxidants and less acid-forming than coffee.

For all the above reasons, Brendan includes green tea and yerba mate in his natural sports drink, Vega Sport Performance Optimizer, which I drink before most of my hard workouts.

Another side of the story

But there are other opinions out there.  In Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Dangers of America’s #1 Drug, a book  by Stephen Cherniske that I read for motivation in a failed attempt to quit coffee once and for all, the author has a less-forgiving take on the herbal alternatives to coffee.

In the introduction to the book, Cherniske writes:

Most, like…yerba mate…turned out to be nothing more than plant sources of caffeine and other stimulant drugs.  Their mode of action is exactly the same as coffee: stimulation of the central nervous system resulting in adrenal stress.  The fact that these stimulant products are found in health-food stores and claim to be “all-natural” is simply part of the hype that fills the energy market.

Of green tea, he says similar things, mainly that “caffeine is caffiene” and the only real virtue of green tea is that it’s lower in caffeine than coffee.  He even downplays the cancer-fighting effects of green tea, calling it a “weak agent” that probably only benefits those whose diets are low in fruits and vegetables (and that’s none of us, right?).

Who is right?

I have no idea.  Probably not surprisingly to anyone, I’ll go with Brendan Brazier.

No, it’s not because I worship him—although I do think he’s a cool dude. Instead, it’s because he doesn’t have any apparent agenda.  Whereas Caffeine Blues‘s entire reason for existence is to spread the anti-caffeine message, Brendan’s books aim to help people perform in sports and life on a vegan diet.  If Brendan believes that caffeine has a place in the athlete’s diet, it’s his job to communicate that, just as he does.

So the take-home message, as far as I’m concerned, is that green tea is the best source of caffeine, followed by yerba mate (whose stimulating effect comes more from actual caffeine than theophylline.  And much as I wish it weren’t true, coffee appears to be the worst source.

I’d love to hear what you all think about this, particularly if there are any chemists out there.  Is caffeine just caffeine, regardless of the source? Or can we, as athletes, get the performance benefits of caffeine while minimizing the adverse effects if we choose green tea or yerba mate?

And how the hell am I ever going to quit coffee!?

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The Vegetarian Athlete Diet

beans and rice photoIt’s time to put an end to the idea that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet and running well are mutually exclusive.

I became a much stronger runner almost immediately after switching to a vegetarian diet.  But you don’t have to take my word for it: There are plenty of world-class athletes (and not just endurance runners) that don’t eat meat.

Running icon Bart Yasso is a vegetarian.  Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathoners of all time, is vegan.  (He now holds the American record of 165 miles run in 24 hours!)  Brendan Brazier is a vegan pro Ironman triathlete.  Robert Cheeke even makes the vegan diet work for bodybuilding.

The Plant-Based Athlete Diet

A vegetarian diet for endurance athletes is really not all that different from a normal (healthy) diet, with the exception, of course, of the meat.  If you’re switching from eating McDonald’s every day, then sure, it’s going to take some getting used to.  But if you eat lots of nutritious, whole foods as it is, there really aren’t all that many adjustments you need to make to go vegetarian.

You can take it as far as you want, and some vegetarian and vegan athletes tend toward raw and gluten-free diets, citing even greater energy gains.  There are differing degrees of health in even vegetarian diets, and mine still includes a lot of delicious cooked foods that “normal” people eat.

The Philosophy: Healthy but Accessible

There are some fantastic books out there that espouse what I consider to be an “ideal” diet, from the standpoint of athletic performance.  Vegan, high-raw, alkaline.  (See Brendan Brazier’s Thrive, for example.)

Eating that way is great.  But it’s tough.  Lots of strange ingredients, low-temperature cooking, and very little starchy goodness for the pasta lovers among us.  For meat-eaters looking to make a change (without causing their families to rebel), the chasm between this type of diet and their current one is huge.

I’d like to offer an alternative, a diet that is vegetarian (and can easily be made vegan), that’s substantial enough to support endurance training, and that’s delicious and accessible to new vegetarians.

I’ll be the first to admit you can do better nutritionally, but I believe that it’s more important to have a diet you’ll stick to first.  Once you’re used to eating vegetarian or vegan (and training on that diet), that’s when it’s time to consider taking it to the next level.

But Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Ah yes, every vegetarian athlete’s favorite question.

The answer is that protein is in all kinds of foods besides meat, but generally in lower quantities. It takes some effort to make sure you get some protein in every meal, but it’s not that hard.  While it is possible to eat a high-protein vegetarian diet, if your goal is to get the amount of protein recommended by many traditional diets for athletes, though, you’ll have a tough time doing it.

Having heard that many endurance athletes thrive on diets with lower amounts of protein than is traditionally recommended, I took a chance on it, and I’ve never felt better than I do now.  I’ll never go back to those crazy 1-gram-of-protein-per-pound-of-body-weight rules again.

If your vegetarian diet is pizza and potato chips, then you won’t get enough protein.  But if you eat a wide variety of foods and make smart choices to include some protein at every meal and ensure that you’re getting a balanced amino acid profile, chances are you’ll feel better than ever.  (See the vegetarian protein page for some numbers and amino acid information.)

Staple Foods

This list represents some common foods that will help you meet the needs of the vegetarian diet for endurance athletes.  Certainly there are many more foods one could include; the idea here is to list those that can be found in common grocery stores and whose tastes aren’t too foreign.

  • All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw
  • Vegetable sprouts
  • All kinds of fruits, usually raw
  • Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Pasta
  • Whole-wheat bread, pitas, and bagels
  • Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, farro, millet, quinoa, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds
  • Hummus
  • Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
  • Oils: grapeseed, olive, canola, coconut, flaxseed (unheated), hemp (unheated)
  • Agave nectar (as workout fuel, not an all-purpose sweetener)
  • Protein powder (I like this hemp, rice, pea, and chia blend)
  • Soy products (limited): tofu, tempeh
  • Tea and coffee (limited)
  • Cheese (limited, non-vegan)
  • Eggs (limited, non-vegan)

Caloric Breakdown

I don’t count calories, or even carbohydrate-protein-fat ratios, when I eat.  I don’t believe that there’s a need to do this.  But in general, such ratios can be met with a variety of food sources.  In other words, take your favorite endurance diet numbers and make them work without meat.  Endurance diets tend to be high in carbohydrate anyway, making a vegetarian or vegan approach especially well-suited.

Though I don’t count calories closely, I try to eyeball my caloric breakdown and stay fairly close to the proportions laid out by Lance Armstrong’s former coach, Chris Carmichael, in his book Food for Fitness.  Carmichael’s recommendations, though varying based on training period, are roughly:

  • 65% carbohydrate
  • 13% protein
  • 22% fat

If you aim to hit these numbers with a vegetarian diet, you should be just fine.  And you’ll find that it’s not all that hard to do.

How Much Should You Eat?

About as much as it takes to feel comfortably full, but not stuffed.  As endurance athletes, we have the luxury of eating more calories than more sedentary people.  We need more calories, in fact.

If your goal is weight loss, or if you train more or less than I do, your needs will be different than mine.  Figure out what size meals work for you.

Eating Around Workouts

How you eat before, during, and after your workouts is especially important on any diet.  For lots of guidelines and recipes for unprocessed, vegetarian workout foods, see the natural running fuel page.

So there you have it: A workable vegetarian diet for endurance athletes.  Not that much to it, is there?  Vegetarians and vegans, I’m interested to know how this compares to your diet.  Any major differences?

This post is part of a series on how to start eating a vegetarian diet, for new vegetarians or endurance athletes looking to take their performance to the next level.

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