Burning Runner: Surviving On A Vegan Diet

Week 7: Since switching to plant-based fuel sources, T.J. has never felt better.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

As the word has gone out that I’ve combined training for a half marathon with adopting a vegan diet (no meat, poultry, fish or dairy products) I’ve been asked a lot of questions about what it’s like and how am I surviving it.

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I’m coming up on four weeks since I made the leap. What’s it like? I love it. It’s without a doubt a clean, super-nutritious diet–and with a little bit of work, it’s very satisfying, I’ve never felt better, never had so much energy, never slept as well, and the weight continues to drip away. This week’s weigh-in shows I’ve lost another pound (started at 187 in mid-July, weighed in at 176-even this past Thursday).

I’ve replaced the meat and dairy products with plant-based choices: whole grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, tofu, seeds and nuts. Additionally, I’ve replaced coffee and cream with green tea and rice milk. My beverage of choice is water.

As I’ve mentioned before, my inspiration for going this direction was Scott Jurek, the American ultra-running star who has adhered to a vegan diet for many years while picking up seven victories at the Western States 100 (not to mention a myriad of other ultra victories and course records). I was thrilled to see on his website that he plans to run the Los Angeles Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, on October 24, which I’ll be running too.

It was reading an article on Jurek in the New York Times this past May that spurred me into thinking that going vegan would certainly not leave me devoid of any necessary nutrients. If Jurek can train and race the way he does (140 miles per week, if not more) and stay in a state of supreme health, than someone like me, who’s mileage at best will top out at half of what Jurek does, can certainly get what he needs from a vegan diet. In the Times story, Mark Bittman reported on the essence of the ultra star’s diet:

“He focuses on three main meals. Breakfast is key: it might be a 1,000-calorie smoothie, with oil, almonds, bananas, blueberries, salt, vanilla, dried coconut, a few dates and maybe brown rice protein powder. Unless he is doing a long run, which for him is seven hours, or about 50 miles, he eats after his first workout. Lunch and dinner are huge salads, whole grains, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and usually beans of some sort or a tempeh-tofu combination.”

Jurek made the point how the wonderful simplicity of choosing a vegan diet is that—particularly when combined with an exercise program—there’s no restricting how much you eat. “The whole issue,” he told Bittman, “is exactly that: getting enough calories. The first thing to worry about isn’t so much what you eat, but how much you eat. You have to take the time to sit at the table and make sure your calorie count is high enough. And when you’re a vegan, to increase your calories as you increase training you need more food. This isn’t an elimination diet but an inclusion diet.”

For my part, I like how simple it is. I’ve also discovered there’s gobs of support and information for someone who wants to make the jump to being vegan.

The main questions I’m getting can be pegged to one of two categories: 1) How can you live without (fill in the blank: cheese, hamburger, milk, etc)? and 2) Are you afraid you’re missing out on (fill in the blank: protein, iron, vitamins, calcium, Vitamin D)?

As to the first question, it was the information I gathered from Dr. Neal Barnard, President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, that helped me understand that food cravings and addictions (to sugar, cheese, chocolate) have a chemical basis, and if you commit to a period of time (in his book, “Breaking the Food Seduction,” he offers a 3-week program) you can free yourself from the cravings that keep you coming back for more and more of things that pile on empty calories, drain your energy and raise your risk of disease. In my case, four weeks of following a vegan diet and I have absolutely no cravings for any of the things I left behind.

As to the second question, my personal research shows that a plant-based diet is supported by quality sources, like the Harvard School of Public Health. In Harvard’s “Healthy Eating Pyramid” the foundation layer is “Daily Exercise and Weight Control.” The next layer is vegetables and fruits, healthy fats, healthy oils and whole grains. In the three smaller layers near the top of the pyramid, dairy is written in this way: “Dairy (1-2 servings a day) or Vitamin D/calcium supplements.” In the “Use Sparingly” category, Harvard includes red meat, butter, refined grains, sugary drinks, sweets, potatoes and salt.

Whether someone is interested in going vegan or not, we all want a healthier diet. One of the more disturbing things you’ll find these days in reading deeply about food policy in the United States is the pressure applied by the enormous resources of the agricultural lobbies.

For example, keep in mind that more than 1 in 4 Americans are obese, having a BMI index of 30 or higher, and consider this disturbing bit of reporting from Dr. Barnard’s book:

“At a ‘Cheese Forum’ held December 5, 2000, Dick Cooper, the Vice President of Cheese Marketing for Dairy Management, Inc., showed slide after slide documenting the escalating cheese consumption in the U.S. (Cheese consumption in the U.S. doubled from 15 pounds per person per year in 1975 to 30 pounds per year in 1999. That works out to 14,400 milligrams of cholesterol per year and 4.5 kilos of fat for every single person in America), and proudly credited the industry’s marketing schemes. One slide asked the question, ‘What do we want our marketing program to do?’ and then gave the answer: ‘trigger the cheese craving.’ He then detailed the industry’s plans for pushing cheese in grocery chains, food services and fast food restaurants. He concluded with a cartoon to trap children as they reached the bottom. The caption had one spider saying to another, ‘If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.’”

Or consider The Ethical Nag blogger Carolyn Thomas’s recent report on various instances of industry pushback in the face of new dietary guidelines that would encourage Americans to eat less refined sugar, less sodium and focus more on plant-based sources of food.

“This year, the powerful lobby group called The Sugar Association, for example, is calling any official government recommendation to reduce daily sugar consumption “impractical, unrealistic, and not grounded in the body of evidence.”

And this:

“The Committee’s suggested new recommendation to reduce salt intake, for example, is backed by the Institute of Medicine’s findings that 100,000 North American deaths could be prevented annually through a population-wide reduction in sodium consumption. But that fact drew this dramatic argument from lobbyists at the Salt Institute, which to nobody’s surprise, insists that reducing salt intake is a very bad idea, especially for people who make money selling salt. The Salt Institute’s objection to the new lower sodium consumption guidelines? ‘No modern society consumes so little salt.’”

Thomas also has a terrific piece of advice for anyone wanting to look into what various experts, organizations and agencies advocate for a healthy diet: “Consider the source.”

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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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