I love to talk about a variety of topics- mostly mountain biking, adventure travel, and the power of mindset to achieve great things in life. However, there are other topics I tend to stay away from publicly to avoid confrontation and making people feel uncomfortable. There is one thing in particular that is a massive part of my daily life, something I LOVE, a main player in my equation of success as an athlete, a powerful factor in terms of avoiding diseases and cancers, and also something that I believe has changed the way my brain functions. It is my plant-based diet. Also, despite spending as much time traveling as I do at home, I haven’t been sick in 2 years.*If you want the Cliffs Notes version on the why and the resources, scroll to the bottom.
I lived in Boulder, CO for 8 years. The great thing about Boulder is that most people value their health and fitness over anything else. It’s a fantastic community and I’m so thankful I got to spend most of my 20s there while I was figuring out who I was, what I wanted to be, and even what was culturally “acceptable.” Most healthy or alternative foods are popular in Boulder before a lot of the general public starts talking about them. I used to shudder at the word “vegan.” In some ways I still do because of the abrasive connotation, but it’s getting better! It seemed so extreme that people wouldn’t eat meat, dairy or eggs. The political statements behind it seemed hard and exclusive and people berating one another for using honey or wearing leather was so caustic. In fact, being a vegan seemed so crazy, extreme, and political that I avoided it altogether and didn’t even want to hear about it. However, being part of the populace of Boulder, things like almond milk, tempeh, gluten free, brown rice pasta, avoiding processed foods, eating organic, etc were a part of my daily life but the idea of giving up animal products seemed impossible, especially as a professional ultra-endurance athlete. Just like anyone who considers the idea of a plant-based diet, I used to think, “ But WHERE will I get my protein and nutrients!? I’ll be a weakling and my performance will suffer! What will I even eat? I don’t want to eat salad all the time!”
So what wedged me out my mindset? The first thing was when I met Matt (my now husband!). He ate a plant-based diet. I secretly thought it was preposterous and that all the information he told me was propaganda. I found it interesting that where he lived (in Kelowna, BC) was nowhere near the health conscious community of Boulder. He left me to make my own decisions. Almost a year after I met him, I was alone at home. It was 10PM and I decided, “eh, what the hell… I will watch the documentary he told me about.” That documentary (available on Netflix) is called Forks Over Knives. It was what spurred him to make a change and what I heard and saw shook my core values. My biggest fear is getting cancer and my loved ones getting cancer. After seeing T Colin Campbell’s research in the documentary and The China Study, I was amazed that it was backed with a massive amount of peer-reviewed research, you can actually control most cancers with diet alone. You can turn it on and off in a lab. I was also dumbfounded to learn that heart disease is not only preventable, but also reversible with diet alone. It just seems normal for people to die of cancer and heart disease in our culture considering they are the top two killers in North America. I texted a long-time friend who is a PA in the medical world. His nickname has always been “Mr. Science” and he is the most skeptical person I could think of to ask. He replied instantly, now 11:30PM that he changed his diet 6 months ago and his wife and child were also now eating a plant-based diet. I also followed up with my own research (handy that I had my Master’s Degree and a love for research). I also discovered that most doctors do not have any training in nutrition. They are taught how to treat disease with surgery and pharmaceuticals.
That did it. I wanted to change my diet, or at least eat way less meat and dairy. I was afraid and intimidated. It seemed too emotional, too hard to commit to never ever eating another piece of meat or dairy again.What did it mean about me? Furthermore, what would happen to me as an athlete? Would it mess up my recovery; I thought it surely would. What about building or even retaining muscle? What if I became nutrient deficient?
I tend to move very quickly once I have made up my mind about something. However, it was the middle of my race season, so I decided to make incremental changes. I’d only eat animal proteins a few times a week and I’d cut out dairy completely except for a little bit of milk in a cappuccino in the morning. It wasn’t a huge shock because I was mostly eating fish, eggs, and parmesan cheese…but what about baked goods? Another huge change was cutting added oil almost completely out of my diet. I used to dump olive oil on everything thinking it was good for me. Little did I know how many empty, excess calories I was consuming!
The transition was made easier with a supportive partner. Matt listened patiently during the first month where there was the occasional meltdown about how it was too hard (mostly breakfasts; I missed my fried eggs and toast and breakfast burritos). My success was also tied to the fact that I really enjoy cooking and I discovered some incredible cookbooks. Just a few months later, I enjoyed eating my plant-based food better than what I used to eat. When I’d have a “treat” of eating a regular animal-based meal, I’d feel heavy and dissatisfied. The other crazy thing was that I was losing weight. As a cyclist, we are always very concerned with our weight because we have to carry it uphill on our bikes! Strength to weight ratio is paramount, especially in long mountain bike races. I have always been fit and muscular, but I always struggled to maintain a steady weight and my weight would fluctuate by 8 lbs in the course of a year. I tried so many things to lose weight for the race season- no carbs, no alcohol, no sweets, etc and I struggled. Little did I know that all the excess “healthy” olive oil I generously used to sautéed my food and dumped on salads and pastas was the culprit. I dropped 10lbs in one year and have maintained that weight with much smaller fluctuations ever since.
From a performance standpoint, I was stronger than I ever had been. Even though I lost weight, my power numbers increased. My recovery times improved which is one of the most important aspects about stage racing. And most importantly, I felt better. I didn’t realize that I felt bogged down until I lifted the veil. When I stop and look back at the last 3.5 years of my life, a lot of major changes occurred around the time I changed my diet. I certainly had been building up and working hard for years leading up to it and cannot attribute everything amazing to changing how I ate, but I do believe that what you eat affects your mindset. It might sound a bit hippie new-agey, but I believe that the life force in my food directly affects my attitude and energy in the world.
I love that I am giving myself every chance to live a long, healthy life. I don’t worry as much about diseases like I used to. I am constantly looking for new information about nutrition. Part of me was afraid to talk about my diet because what if I was wrong or changed my mind? I love the way I eat and I love cooking plant-based meals for friends that come over. I’m very enthusiastic about it! They always walk away asking for the cookbook or recipes. I enjoy food and flavors more than ever. And I know I’m also making a much smaller footprint on the environment. I spend a lot of time outdoors in the forests, mountains, deserts, and jungles around the world and knowing that my choices are helping the greater good makes me feel like I am contributing to the world in a positive way.
The reason I waited so long to talk about my diet is because I didn’t want to alienate anyone, but I have spent a great deal of time researching nutrition and what works for me. As athletes, our bodies and having them work optimally is paramount!
Along the way, here is the short version of the most important things I have learned.
4. It’ll make you a- better athlete if you eat a well-balanced diet. There are tons of process plant-based foods and junk food. (French fries and oreos are vegan…) Get your calories from whole food plant-based sources.
My FAVORITE cookbooks!!
Want to do your own research? Here are a bunch of resources:
NutritionFacts.org by Dr. Michael Greger
Short list of Doctors who have studied both medicine and nutrition; look them up and all their content!
More people resources: http://www.plantbaseddoctors.org/find
I’m not going to keep my diet a secret anymore. If you’re thinking about adding more plants into your life, I’m here for you as a resource! Contact me any time! There’s a lot of other topics like eating out, travel, family, friends, etc that can affect our choices. Or maybe you have resources for me!