Whole foods – why they matter to me and why they should to you, too!
It has come as a huge surprise to me that I am so interested in nutrition, but the more I find out, the more I want to know. I am listening to podcasts by doctors during my runs, reading journals, medical studies, books and articles, watching documentaries, keeping a notebook and pretty much lapping up any nutrition information statistics and research I can get my hands on and understand with my very basic scientific knowledge. The topics? Whole food, plant-based nutrition. Who would’ve thought it just 2 years ago? And why do I care? We’ll come back to this shortly. Let me paint the picture first.
My vegan nutrition story goes something like this…
Initially, when I became vegan I did so overnight. I didn’t realise I was going vegan when I had my last bit of meat (a Big Mac, of all things) I just knew I was getting married in 3 months and was overweight, so I decided to do a detox and simply eat nothing but fruit and veg for a week to kick start my diet. At that stage, the diet would most likely have been very little fat, very little carbs and very little clue.
But, after doing my ‘detox’ for 6 days, watching Vegucated on a cold, Saturday afternoon, I made the decision never to eat meat again. Still, I didn’t know I would become vegan, but somehow the hard part had already passed and so what would be the point of going back to animal products now? From there on, in those early days, I was pretty radical. I didn’t know much about nutrition really and I didn’t want to be caught out by a rogue animal product and so I cooked all my meals from scratch, alternating only about 5 or so different dishes and that was it. I didn’t really eat much in the way of processed meat substitutes and, as I was still doing it largely for weight-loss, I gave up alcohol completely, too. This meant that from the start of this process to my wedding day almost exactly 3 months later, I lost 31 pounds, or just over 2 stone.
After the wedding when my life returned to normal from a hectic, pre-wedding frenzy, I eased up on myself slightly and this is when some processed and meat substitute products crept in – tofu scrambles, soy-based products, vegan pies and cupcakes, vegan pizza and other tasty, yet ultimately not very healthy foods alongside salads, soups and stir-frys, of course! I can certainly say that vegan isn’t necessarily synonymous with healthy; in Canada you can eat a BK veggie burger, fries and a coke – its vegan, sure, but is it healthy? Nope. Oreos are vegan, as are some donuts, crisps, pizza bases (minus the cheese) chips, some biscuits…you get the idea. Vegan – yes, automatically healthy – no!
In June this year we went on holiday and I didn’t take my running kit with me. We had a week off the map, no internet, no running and I allowed myself to eat what I wanted. This included vegan pizza, pasta and white bread, biscuits and crisps. And I came home from that holiday feeling relaxed, yes, but awful health-wise. It was time to take stock and realise that I just don’t enjoy eating that way anymore. I think it’s good at the time, but the sluggish, bloated feeling afterwards just isn’t worth it to me. I was ready for a change.
Joining the whole foods revolution
After getting back from holiday and feeling a bit rubbish, I decided it was time to clean up my vegan diet. I wanted to feel better – welcome to the whole foods revolution! This is where my whole foods obsession began. I have spent a lot of time listening to, reading and researching opinions from doctors, nutritionists, scientists and athletes and the message is quite clear – getting nutrients from the whole food is the best way to do so, especially on a vegan diet. For me, I think that truly being healthy and being vegan means ultimately eating high quality, plant-based whole foods and this is where my journey has brought me to.
The overwhelming message is that foods which are whole, as close to nature as possible (raw where you can) and varied in colours are best. Foods with a high net gain and foods with a low caloric density are top of the list. Caloric density refers to calories per pound, vegetables have between 60-195 calories/lb whereas oil for example has 4000 calories/lb. So eat your veggies and leave out the oil to feel fuller and more satisfied for fewer calories.
A few of the points of view I have listened to and taken on board have come from the following people. Initially I looked into The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier – this is not a fast results diet but something that focuses on performance for athletes and so, as I’ve done the ‘fast results’ part of my weight-loss, this approach seemed more suited to me and where I am now as I want something for life and to help me get faster and stronger. This was really where my interest in whole foods nutrition began.
From here I listened to Dr Essylstyn from the epic and informative documentary ‘Forks over Knives’ which goes a long way to showing that you can actually reverse the effects of diabetes and heart disease with a plant-based diet. Next I watched the documentary ‘Hungry for Change’ which also focuses on improved health through a whole foods, plant based diet. It is quite a wake up call to hear nutritionists and doctors talk about refined sugars and flours in the same sentence as cocaine, but this comes across time and time again, they are just that bad for us.
I also listened to Sid Garza Hillman who talks about making small changes to eat as close to natural as possible. Add onto this Dr Garth Davies, Dr Joel Furhman and his GBOMBS (eat greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds) Dr T Colin Campbell and The China Study, Dr Michael Greger and the nutritionfacts.org website, the vegan runner and nutritionist Micah Risk, fruitarian ultra marathoner Michael Arnstein, vegan ultra marathoners and endurance athletes Scott Jurek, Rich Roll, Doug Hay and of course, my favourite No Meat Athlete Matt Frazier, who all extol the virtues of a whole food, plant based diet. For health, for endurance, for longevity, for the environment, for everything. So many educated, well respected people passing along the same message. Wanna be healthy? Want to reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer? Want to run faster, stronger and longer? Want to protect the planet, save animals and show compassion? Start with your diet! Even Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, knew this 400 or so years BC when he said “let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” More recently, we are more used to hearing that “we are what we eat” so why, despite the overwhelming evidence, are so many people still eating rubbish and are then surprised when they become fat or ill, looking for medicine to cure them whilst not changing their lifestyle in any significant way?
I have been whole foods for a month now and it is certainly making a huge difference for me. My meals are all whole, non-processed and include the GBOMBS mentioned above, along with an abundance of colours and plenty of water. In just a month I have managed to jump start my weight-loss again from the plateau I had stuck at, I am running stronger and faster with long runs of 13/14/15 miles with longer ones in the coming weeks and weekly mileage of 45 miles+ a week and I am much more toned, less sluggish and generally feeling better. I’m a convert and I’m not looking to go back.
I am now working to better understand the nutrition aspects of fuelling for long runs and races and with a marathon not too far off, I’m hoping to figure this out sooner rather than later! First stop – whole foods nutrition and how I can make this work for me. Attempt one was fuelling using dates and the jury is still out on that one as I got a stitch the first time I ate dates on my run, but I’m not sure if the two are related. I’ll keep trying as I hope I can fuel with whole foods and not have to rely on gels and blocks. Step two might be bananas and three is looking like sweet potato. Something tells me I might have some messy pockets to show for these experiments!
It seems there is always something new to learn in order to be the best vegan and runner I can be and I’ll keep striving for better, but I’m certain whole foods nutrition will now always be a big part of that.