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Plant Powered

Triathletes, cyclists, and hardcore Ashtangis are among the new crop of athletes proving that a vegan diet can be a winning one.

By Rachel Seligman

When Scott Jurek, 32, of Seattle fuels up for a 50-mile ultramarathon, he reaches for a smoothie made with pears, bananas, apples, spirulina, and avocado. A mighty bowl of pasta, sauced with garlic and olive oil and brimming with fresh veggies, is the night-before-racing favorite of professional cyclist Christine Vardaros, 36, of Mill Valley, California. Triathlete Ruth Heidrich, 71, of Honolulu opts for a salad of greens with papaya, mango, bananas, and berries before setting out for a competition.

One thing you won't find on these athletes' grocery lists is meat, eggs, or dairy products. Jurek, Vardaros, and Heidrich are vegan. And if you think a vegan diet would compromise their physically demanding pursuits, just check out their performances: Jurek holds the course record in the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trail race through rugged terrain. Vardaros is ranked no. 32 in the world in cycling, and Heidrich has won 900 medals in running events.

These folks are taking athleticism to the extreme—and to some ways of thinking, they take their diets there too. Vegans don't eat fish, meat, poultry, or any food that relies on animals to produce it, including dairy products and eggs. Some consider honey taboo as well. They're part of a small but growing group: 2.8 percent of U.S. residents say they are vegetarian, and around half of those are vegan, according to a 2003 Harris Interactive survey sponsored by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group.

One reason for the growing interest in veganism is the evidence that a low-fat, plant-based diet, combined with yoga and meditation, can reverse heart disease and slow down, stop, or perhaps reverse prostate and breast cancers, according to heart health guru Dean Ornish, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

A diet low in fat and cholesterol needs less processing by the body, so it's easier to bounce back from hard workouts or illness, Ornish says.

Great Performances

Kathy McCrary, 41, of Olympia, Washington, who does a two-hour Ashtanga Yoga practice six days a week, says the yogic principle of ahimsa, or nonharming, naturally led her to veganism. "I feel by not contributing to animal agriculture, I'm not harming myself, not harming animals, and not harming the environment," she says.

Instead, she's enjoying a diet rich in satisfying nuts, grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables; her favorite lunch is a hearty African soup made with garbanzo beans, sweet potatoes, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, almond butter, and seasonings. "The nutrient-dense plant-based foods I eat give me incredible energy," McCrary says. "I feel light and strong as I lift my body again and again."

Jurek dropped animal products from his diet after reading Mad Cowboy, by Howard Lyman, the former cattle rancher whose portrayal of factory farming inspired Oprah Winfrey to say she was "stopped cold from eating another hamburger," sparking a lawsuit from the beef industry. Jurek finds that a vegan diet, when coupled with yoga and meditation, helps link his training to his spirituality. "I need to be balanced on all levels, including the nutritional level," he says. "A vegan diet is a very clean and nonviolent way of eating, and I feel it nourishes my physical self, just as asana does."

Heidrich was 47 when she got a diagnosis of breast cancer and enrolled in a research study looking at how low-fat diets affected the disease. She went vegan for the study and, she says, experienced a dramatic recovery a few months later. Her cancer stopped spreading, and her arthritis pains disappeared. She's stayed with the diet for 24 years, and her annual checkups indicate she's in great health.

Whatever their reasons for having tried a vegan diet, these athletes say they stick with it because they feel—and perform—better. After six months without meat, eggs, or dairy, Jurek found he bounced back quicker even as his workouts grew harder and longer; he didn't feel as sore or tired after one of his ultramarathons, he says. Vardaros says she rarely gets sick and outlasts her nonvegan friends in training. Heidrich says she has more energy, which has allowed her to dramatically increase her training. Not long after she committed to veganism, she completed her first Ironman Triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile marathon).

Breaking the Barrier

The old school of thought was that extreme athleticism required extreme amounts of protein—remember the days of raw eggs in orange juice? It's true that someone like Jurek needs plenty of fuel to train. (He runs for one to two hours every day—six to eight hours on weekend days!—and does several weight-training and yoga sessions each week.) When he first became vegan, he wasn't sure if plant-based foods would be enough. But as he won races and felt great, he realized the diet served him well. He eats healthfully, loading up on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, and indulges in some great treats, like his favorite homemade dessert: apple or pear pie made with a pecan-date crust, topped with cashew-date "whipped cream." "I realized my fear about not getting enough nutrition had just been a psychological barrier, and as long as I ate fresh, whole foods, I was fine," Jurek says.

Do More, Eat More

Many of the health-boosting attributes of veganism may be attributed not to the effects of eliminating animal products but rather to the increased intake of fruits and vegetables, says Cynthia Sass, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and an adjunct professor of sports nutrition at the University of South Florida.

"Seventy-five percent of Americans don't meet the recommendation of five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day," she says. "But you rarely meet a vegan who doesn't eat adequate amounts of fruits and veggies."

Of course, athletes do have different nutritional needs from the average person's, but figuring them out is definitely not rocket science. Because you do more as an athlete, you need more: more carbohydrates, more protein, and more water. And that's an easy problem to solve: Eat more and drink more.

Since carbs are the body's preferred energy source, an athlete's diet should include a higher percentage of carbs—about 55 to 60 percent, rather than the 50 percent recommended for nonathletes, according to the ADA.

Protein, which aids in the body's healing and repairs muscle, is essential for those who push themselves physically. A 150-pound nonathlete needs about 54 grams of protein daily, while an endurance athlete weighing the same amount needs 82 to 92 grams. But getting this much protein is no problem on a vegan diet. Half a cup of lentils or tofu gives you 9 or 10 grams of protein; two tablespoons of peanut butter gives you 8 grams. Beans, nuts, and grains are all good sources of protein; even veggies contain small amounts. And though meat is sometimes praised for having a complete spectrum of the amino acids our bodies need, vegans can get all the necessary amino acids if they eat a variety of foods every day, Sass says.

If you're a vegan athlete, you may want to consult a registered dietitian to help you make food choices. With a little preparation, athletes can embrace a vegan diet with great success. "As long as athletes obtain adequate nutrients, they will be healthy and perform well. Those nutrients don't have to come from meat," Sass says.

You do need time, dedication, and planning if you want to go vegan. Just think of nutrition as part of your training for being a healthy, balanced person, as Jurek does. "If I'm going to run hard every day, I have to prepare—mentally, spiritually, and also nutritionally," he says.

Rachel Seligman is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

August 2006

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Reader Comments

CB

Prior to taking on a vegetarian or vegan diet please read, study, plan, and meet with a dietian or nutritionist. Protein, carbs, and fat are only a small part of the equation. Minerals such as iron, calcium, etc can be difficult to get daily requirements following a veg diet. Learning how and what to eat is extremely important. Not learning about this upfront can lead to serious health issues.

My nutritionist also indicates your genetics plays a vital role. Someone from an Asian background versus someone from a European background will have very different nutritional needs.

JM

It is assumed all to frequently is that all bodies are alike. Life is an art of discovering your path, not someone else's, and your body, not someone else's. I believe that there is a degree of variation and that there is no one regimen that fits all.

CJG

@KG Thanks! I'll have to add that book to my list.

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