Almost without fail, any time a runner tells me that he or she is really thinking about giving this vegetarian thing a try but is afraid to make the leap, it’s one of three questions that’s holding him or her back:
- Will I have to actually cook?
- Do I have to eat salad all day?
- How am I going to get enough nutrition (especially protein) to support my training?
Let’s handle the first one right now: the answer is yes. You have to cook your own food.
Unless your spouse does all the cooking and he or she is on board with your crazy plan, you’re going to have to learn to cook. (Here “learn” is an overstatement; all you really need to be able to do is follow directions.) It’s simply not possible in most parts of the world to get the variety of healthy vegetarian foods you need from a takeout window or microwaveable meals.
But cooking is fun, and lots of people who have never done it start cooking for this reason and find that they love it. (In a future email, I’ll provide some resources for those of you who think a Dutch oven is what it’s called when…well, you know.)
So that’s out of the way. Let’s look at the next two questions.
Breaking News: Experts Now Say Salad Not the Only Vegetarian Food
We’ll save the serious nutrition and protein talk for later. Right now, I want to show you what a typical day’s diet looks like for a vegetarian endurance runner. Hopefully you’ll find that it’s not as weird/bland/leafy/barky/wheatgrassy as you thought.
Note: Your meals, of course, will vary from day-to-day. This is just one example.
Breakfast: A smoothie.
Frozen or fresh fruit, some protein powder (or yogurt if you prefer), and water or juice. Then whatever else floats your boat (no beef jerky, please). I usually add ground flaxseed, honey or agave nectar, some sort of oil blend, and some greens. It takes about 5 minutes, and it’s a perfect way to jumpstart the day.
I now look at my smoothie as a vehicle to deliver tons of mostly-raw nutrition, so I put tons of stuff in there that may or may not gross you out. But you can see that the one I started with is pretty basic and tastes good even if you’re not used to eating this way.
If you want to take it farther, you’ll find a few “more advanced” smoothies on the Running Fuel page of my site.
Mid-morning snack: A whole-wheat bagel with peanut butter or almond butter.
See? Normal food. Probably not the healthiest thing you can eat, but as a runner, you can use the carbohydrates. And the topping will deliver some protein and fats (good fats if you skip the cream cheese and choose a nut butter instead).
Lunch: Pasta with white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, and zucchini.
What do you know? More stuff that normal people eat!
For me, lunch is almost always leftovers from the night before, since I think if you’re going to cook, you might as well make double so that you can get an extra meal out of it. If leftovers don’t work for you, check out this list of 10 vegetarian lunches you can make at work.
As far as this meal goes, some non-vegetarians are surprised by the idea of putting beans in a pasta dish, but it’s not all that uncommon. In fact, a lot of traditional Italian pasta dishes include beans, as it’s a good, cheap way to bulk up a meal a little bit.
Another good way to increase the protein in your pasta dishes is to use Barilla Plus, the highest-protein pasta I know of. It’s not vegan though, since it’s made with eggs. (This meal is from the Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health cookbook, by the way.)
Afternoon snack: Fresh fruit, a wheat pita with hummus, a handful of nuts, and/or a salad.
When you’re training heavily, you can increase the size and frequency of these snacks. But even during low-mileage weeks, you’ll find that vegetarian meals digest quickly so you’ll probably want to eat something in between them.
Dinner: Sweet potato and chickpea curry over brown rice.
One awesome, surprising benefit of going vegetarian is that the variety in your diet increases tremendously, if you let it. Instead of thinking of it as giving up meat, think of it as adding dozens of foods you’ve never tried before, or at least that you rarely eat.
Have you noticed that it’s very easy to make the same thing over and over when you don’t have to think about it? For example: grilled chicken breast, rice, and a small serving of vegetables.
But once the meat is no longer an option, you’re forced to explore other avenues, and you come to discover that there are a lot of wonderful foods in this world. And the pity is that most people stick to only a few dozen of them, week in and week out.
Case in point: You don’t have to be vegetarian to eat sweet potatoes, but really, how often do you do it? Or even chickpeas? Come to think of it, when’s the last time you made a curry?
Even if you’re not ready to go fully vegetarian, you stand to gain a lot by getting away from your routine and trying new stuff as often as possible. Here’s the recipe for this meal, if you’d like to try it. (Tonight, perhaps?)
See? Real food. No wheatgrass. And only one salad.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to eat as healthy as you can. You should, and as an athlete you especially need to make sure you’re getting everything you need from your food.
What I am saying is while this typical day might represent a shift from the way you might normally eat, it’s not so extreme as a lot of people think. This is wholesome food that you can feel great about eating, plenty substantial enough to support your training, and it’s so good that it’s easy to forget it’s vegetarian.
I want to stress once more that you do not have to be fully vegetarian to eat this way. Trying working in a vegetarian meal, a vegetarian day, or even a week, and see how it goes. Sure, it’ll be different. But so was exercising, once, right?
Give it a try, and let me know what you think. I’ll talk to you soon!
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