Burning Runner Extra: The Power Of A Plant-Based Diet

The supermarket takes on a completely different look through the eyes of a vegan.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

One of the key principles in my hopes of making the Burning Runner project a success is, as I’ve mentioned before, not restricting my diet but rather supplanting my previous nutrient-thin diet with a nutrient-dense diet. According to the experts I’ve been talking to, there’s no need to worry about counting calories if the bulk of your diet is the right stuff. Inspired by ultrarunning star Scott Jurek, who has for more than a decade thrived on a vegan diet, I figure if he’s getting what he needs from veganism than I surely will, too. When you typically log 140-mile weeks and win the likes of Badwater and Western States over and over, there’s solid evidence that a meat and dairy-free diet can supply the necessary nutrition to be healthy.

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The author displays some of his newly acquired bounty. Photo: T.J. Murphy.

I’m a vegan newbie so I can’t report on what it’s like long-term, the benefits or the drawbacks. But I can talk about the first week of it. From my reading and talking to others, it’s critical to stay ahead in the game when it comes to planning, shopping and preparing your food. To fail in this endeavor is to leave oneself vulnerable to the minefield of choices at every corner.

I got a good dose of this on Sunday, when I went to a supermarket to buy a week’s worth of food—vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, oils, herbs and spices. My list was both general and specific, needing goods for simple, hearty salads and three recipes I’d pulled from vegan cookbooks.

The supermarket is a vastly different experience through the eyes of a vegan. It was a Vons here in eastern San Diego, an area called Tierrasanta, and I chose it because it was near where I did my Sunday long run. The only truly safe area was produce, but as I toured the aisles in search of ancillary ingredients, I was fairly amazed at what I saw given all the new information I had gathered from books and interviews. I paused and read various labels—it’s true, so much of what’s available to us as consumers is a) processed and b) loaded up with corn syrup.  A diet high in processed foods is a perilous one, because processing means that fiber and vitamins are stripped away. This is one of  “Thrive” author Brendan Brazier’s war cries: Processed foods require more energy to digest than they produce, leaving us in what he calls a negative-energy state. This stresses our energy levels, mood, stress, anxiety, immune system, quality of sleep and susceptibility to disease.

Hence, making sure you have the good stuff at hand at all times is key. I’ve noticed in my first week of being vegan that I feel powered up by each meal and snack—as opposed to some of the negative feelings I was left with before, after something like a combo pizza—but when it comes time to eat again I’d better be near the right food. As I noticed in the supermarket, I’m far too green in this process to be free from cravings. They sprang up left and right while walking through Vons.

Millet paella in progress. Photo: T.J. Murphy

After getting home from the market I had the late afternoon to do my first bit of batch cooking. I made staples like brown rice and stored it for the week ahead. I also worked up my first vegan recipe from “The Complete Vegan Kitchen,” by Jannequin Bennett (which features a terrific foreword written by longtime vegan, and Olympic superstar, Carl Lewis). Millet Paella is the dish, the recipe as written harvesting 6-8 servings that was great for dinner and for Tupperware storage.  As the book reports, millet is a grain with history so deep that it’s known as the “gruel of endurance” in the Old Testament. To make the paella, I first toasted the millet in a large soup pan, putting it aside, and then heated olive oil and saffron threads, followed by garlic, onions, peppers and fennel. I mixed in the millet and three cups of water and cooked it for 15 minutes. Then I added kidney beans, tomatoes and frozen peas.

It’s a splendid dish, and didn’t take much time.  Using part of my Sunday in this way was new territory for me. I don’t ever recall being prepared for a week of work and training with everything I needed for each breakfast, lunch and dinner already squared away. Let me tell you, that is not the way I’ve operated in the past. Scavenging for lunch was a traditional pastime, and while the right energy bars are perfect for snacks and pre- or post-workout fuelings, they are not to be lived by.

I write this with one week of being a true-blue vegan under my belt. It’s been going well and has actually been fun. I feel terrific. Best of all I’m not a slave to morning coffee anymore, and I wake up feeling energized after deep sleeps. A lot of good things seem to be flowing from there.

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T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runner column can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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