What I Eat

*Disclaimer:  This information is based on my personal experiences as a vegan marathoner and on what I've read and learned along the way. I strive to be as educated as possible about my dietary choices.  Your mileage my vary (ha!  look what I did there.)  I"ll gradually add more links that refer you to sources that back my claims--but for now I'm going to just type what I know.  Consult your doctor or whatever before changing your diet etc etc disclaimer.*

On eating a balanced diet:
As a distance runner you should aim for the 60/30/10 ratio of carbs/proteins/healthy fats.  If you get too few carbs, you will have no energy--low-carb diets are not for runners, at least in my experience.  What with the whole anti-carb culture in the media lately, it took some mental retraining for me to reassure myself that eating carbs was good for me.  

As a runner I've found Nancy Clark's Food Guide for Marathoners especially helpful and easily adaptable to a vegan diet.  My review of the book is here.  I try to abide by her simple definition of eating well to ensure I'm getting enough variety:
1. Eat 3 kinds of foods (kinds: grain, fruit, veg, protein, dairy equivalent) at each meal
2. Eat 2 kinds of foods at each snack
3. Eat evenly throughout the day, not more as the day progresses and ending with a huge dinner.
4. Eat at least 80-90% of your calories from quality foods (she says at least 10-20% can be sweets or whatever).

A couple of running books that I have talk about fruit as if it's the holy grail for runners; one book suggests 10 servings of fruit per day (though the serving sizes in that book were very small).  I drink my share of fruit juice and eat bananas like they're going out of style.  The Nancy Clark book has a really good, really healthy recipe for banana bread that I make fairly regularly as well.

On being a healthy vegan in general:
My "dietary restrictions" go far beyond just not eating meat, dairy, and eggs--I also do my best to avoid genetically engineered foods, any weird chemicals I can't pronounce, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and anything heavily processed.  I try to choose organic wherever possible; whether the "organic" label is empty of meaning or not is another issue, but it's better than nothing at least in my eyes.  I also try to avoid refined flours, opting for whole wheat or whole grain breads and pastas wherever possible.  And if I have the option, I'll choose quinoa pasta over regular whole wheat pasta.  

This means I don't drink pop, don't generally buy prepared foods unless they come from the natural section of the grocery store, and I avoid sweetened things.  I make a couple of exceptions when I'm really in the thick of marathon training:  I'll drink chocolate soymilk (it's great for recovery for some reason..) and I let myself splurge to fulfill my mad salty snack cravings (usually in the form of salt and vinegar potato chips-- my biggest weakness ever).  And I'm more flexible about the refined flours thing sometimes... if I really want a bagel or some crusty Italian bread, I'm diving on.

On Protein:
Protein isn't really that difficult to get as a vegan--not nearly as difficult as people seem to think.  I do often drink a post-run protein shake, and I choose brown rice protein or pea protein rather than soy protein. I try to keep my soy intake low because of various speculations on the hormonal effects of excess soy.  (My stance on soy is that it's probably fine in moderation and people are for the most part exaggerating their concerns, but since I already eat tofu I just choose my protein powder from another source.)  

The ideal post-workout snack or shake will have 4 parts carbs to 1 part protein, to be consumed within 15 minutes of ending your workout.  Then, an hour later, you should eat a more protein-rich meal.

What to know about protein powders:  
  • Your body can only absorb about 25g of protein powder at a time; what this means is if your protein powder has 20ish g of protein and the almond or soymilk you mix it with has 5-6g, you're about at the max your body can absorb.  For this reason, I look for a protein powder that has 15-20g of protein per serving.
  • I don't like artificial sweeteners, so I look for a powder that has no added sweeteners or flavors.  Does this mean it tastes like chalk?  Sure, but it's ok, and I've found a few brands that are less gross than others, and you can doctor it up to make it taste better.
  • Pea or hemp protein are the best choices for muscle recovery because they have branched-chain amino acids in them (like whey protein does).  Since I'm allergic to hemp, I go with pea protein post-workout; I like Source Naturals Pea Protein powder.
  • Brown rice protein, while lacking the branched-chain aminos, is a good soy alternative as well.  I like MLO Brown Rice Protein Powder - it's virtually tasteless and has a high protein content.
  • Get yerself a blender bottle -- it's cheap, and you won't be sorry.  Pour in some almond milk, put in some protein, add some agave and carob powder, throw in car or gym bag.  When you shake it up it gets rid of all the lumps.  This bottle is amazing.
If you don't want to do a protein shake, a protein smoothie is a nice alternative.  I have some big plastic tumblers and a handheld immersion blender, so I just throw in some chunks of pre-peeled and frozen banana, frozen strawberries, juice, and protein powder, blend it up and drink.  Add handfuls of spinach to make it green.  Soon I'll have a section of smoothie recipes, when I get around to updating.

On Fueling a Run:
I eat a banana before most runs, and during runs I like to use Clif Shots or Hammer Gel.  Both are vegan; Clif is mostly organic.  Hammer Gel has amino acids in it while Clif Shots do not.  I'll be posting more about the variety of available vegan gels, energy chews, etc.  You can also try dried fruit, or making your own energy nuggets out of dates (again, more on that as soon as I get the chance).

On special nutrient concerns:
Iron.  If you're training on a vegan diet and feeling low on energy, easily tired, or having other strange symptoms (I developed an irregular heartbeat...it went away, but eesh) you may be low on iron.  The highest risk groups for iron deficiency are vegans/vegetarians, females, and endurance athletes--which means I am in all 3 categories.  It may take some time for your body to deplete its iron stores, and it takes some time to rebuild iron stores as well.  I take a supplement.  You can also try cooking your foods, especially acidic food like tomatoes, in an iron skillet to gain some iron.  When you take a plant-based iron supplement (non-heme iron), pair it with Vitamin C for greatest absorption.  Consuming too much iron can be toxic so be careful and/or consult a nutrition expert or medical professional.  I've been taking HemaPlex, because it includes vitamin C and other nutrients and is easy on my stomach.

Here's something horrifying--the reason endurance athletes are a high risk group for iron deficiency is because each time your feet pound the pavement some of the red blood cells in your feet explode.  Explode.  I'm serious, I'll find the article about this.  

Vitamin B12.  It's apparently easy to become B12 deficient as a vegan.  I'm not sure if I've ever really encountered a problem with B12 deficiency; it's not something I've ever been checked for.  I eat a ton of Red Star nutritional yeast in my day-to-day cooking (it's delicious).  The HemaPlex I take for iron also has high quantities of B vitamins in it, and when there's a choice between fortified or non-fortified nutmilk I always buy the fortified.  I think I'm cool in the B-vitamin category, hopefully.
Omega 3's:  Eat some walnuts and ground flaxseed.  It's good for you.
Calcium:  My calcium knowledge is still a work-in-progress.  Mostly I just try to eat a lot of leafy greens and raw green juice.
Chia seeds are supposed to be good for energy and recovery.  The tribe eats them in Born to Run.  You can make a pudding out of them or add them to oatmeal or whatever.  I'm still experimenting with them.

On Eating Raw
I'm a big believer in the benefits of a raw vegan diet, but as I increased my training I had a more and more difficult time fueling myself on raw foods alone.  I think I just need to learn more and practice in order to do things right.  So for now I try to eat raw fruits and veggies as much as possible, but I also eat cooked foods.  But, raw whole foods is the best way to go.  I have a raw masticating juicer, the Omega 8003, and I try to drink green juice daily (but often fail at keeping fresh produce around for every single day... it's an ongoing effort.)

Brendan Brazier is a superhero raw triathlete and you should check out his books, specifically The Thrive Diet.  In an ideal world I would be eating just as he does.  Once I survive graduate school and have a real paying job, I plan to make more efforts in that direction.

And while I'm on the topic of amazing vegan athletes who I admire, Scott Jurek is another badass vegan athlete (an ultrarunner).

On Getting Enough Calories:
One of my ongoing problems has been making sure I'm eating enough calories to actually fuel my level of marathon training.  Read about my struggles to eat enough in this post over here.  And some ideas for grab-n-go snacks over here.