By Robert Cheeke, Director of Vegan Strong, VeganStrong.com
In my forty years, including a quarter century as a plant-based athlete, one of the things I am most proud of is a decision I made back in 1995 to stop eating animals. I was only 15 years old, but as a farm kid growing up in Western Oregon, I just didn’t want to cause harm to my animal friends anymore, so I became vegan, not knowing how long it would last. Since I was always athletic, I put the plant-based diet to the test, back when the Internet was brand new, documentaries about this lifestyle hadn’t been made, and books were few and far between. I ended up growing from 120 pounds to 210 pounds, and went from high school long distance runner, and eventually college long distance runner (just for one season), to champion vegan bodybuilder.
This lifestyle, turned fulfilling and rewarding career, has taken me around the globe giving lectures and signing books to diverse audiences from Asia to Australia to Europe and all throughout North America. Becoming a successful plant-based athlete wasn’t always easy though, and I would have to learn to adapt and be patient and allow actions to become habits, which helped create a foundation for success. And my plant-based diet wasn’t always diverse and fulfilling, and there were certainly some adjustment and adaptation periods as I learned what to eat as a teenage plant-based athlete, moving on from chips and salsa and bagels to, well, real food, like fruits, vegetables and legumes. Luckily, we cultivated many foods on our farm, with plentiful fruit trees providing apples, pears, plums, cherries, and more, to a robust garden with corn, squash, peas, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and more, and we even had a walnut orchard, harvesting thousands of pounds of walnuts every year. I ate so many walnuts as a kid, I got canker sores in my mouth, which is common from eating a high volume of walnuts (and other nuts). Real food was right in front of my nose all the time, but I was mostly focused on the foods I wanted to exclude from my diet (animal foods) and didn’t always recognize what was in front of me all along.
My diet evolved dramatically as I transitioned from runner to bodybuilder as well (including a change in my calorie intake and food choices based on their sports performance impact), but those runner-to-bodybuilder nutritional obstacles were overcome, lessons were learned, and new strategies were applied. Once I learned that I could succeed in both health and fitness, not in spite of my plant-based diet, but perhaps because of my plant-based diet, I was eager to share my stories and lessons learned over the decades with anyone who would listen to me.
What I would like to share with you now is one easy and practical step to add more color to your plate, therefore boosting your intake of vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients, helping you perform at your best in whatever areas of health and fitness are important to you.
As a quick Nutrition 101 refresher, dietary cholesterol only comes from animal foods, fiber is only found in plant foods, and plants contain 64 times more antioxidants than animal foods. Adopting a plant-based diet has been shown to produce decreased rates in all causes of mortality. Furthermore, abstaining from animal protein, replacing it with plant protein, has been shown to prevent and even reverse many of our common degenerative diseases. The power of true health and wellness is in your hands, and it begins with what you decide to put on the end of your fork.
Here is one easy step to add more color to your plate (which adds more nutrition to your diet):
Determine what your favorite fruits, vegetables, and legumes are. Those will be the key foods to incorporate into your diet for maximum nutrient intake and absorption. What I have found over the years is that even if we know certain foods are good for us, if we don’t enjoy them, we will find other alternatives (which often happen to be heavily processed or junk foods we have grown accustomed to eating). If you can make a list of your top five favorite foods in each category, it will help you identify what you actually enjoy, and it will encourage you to shop for those particular foods. In turn, that will ensure those foods are incorporated into your daily nutritional intake, taking the place of foods that are far less healthy. Over time, the inclusion of your favorite foods will become routine, and you will not have to rely on willpower to avoid less healthy alternatives, because consuming your favorite foods will become your new normal, as a integral part of your everyday life.
As a native Oregonian, which very likely shaped my food preferences, my list of favorite foods might look like this:
Fruits: Blueberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Cherries, Peaches
Vegetables: Potatoes, Cucumbers, Peas, Green beans, Broccoli
Legumes: Lentils, Pinto beans, Black beans, Garbanzo beans, Soybeans
Here’s how it looks in the real world: If you’ve been told to eat kale for health benefits, but you don’t like kale, you may literally replace kale with cookies or some other processed snack. But if you actually like broccoli, even though it is a different type of vegetable with a different nutritional profile than kale, it is still a better option than cookies for overall health. But maybe you didn’t think of broccoli because you hadn’t made a list of your food preferences before. This approach has many benefits, including the inherent increase in nutrient diversity beyond what has become routine. And by focusing particularly on fruits, vegetables, and legumes, you are sure to add more vibrant colors to your plate, beyond what grains, nuts, and seeds tend to offer, and therefore these particular food groups shine as the foundation of your meal. The base of a meal (legumes or vegetables), sides (vegetables and fruits), snacks (fruit), pre-and post-workout nutrition (legumes, vegetables, and fruits), and even desserts (fruits) are all satisfied by these three primarily classification of foods. Add in grains, nuts, and seeds where they fit as accessory or ancillary foods, and you’ve got a well-rounded, nutrient dense, calorie sufficient, colorful and vibrant plate.
In essence, eat potatoes instead of potato chips or fries. If salads aren’t your thing, how about eating tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and beets that often go on salads? If you love pizza, what about holding the cheese, but using artichokes, bell peppers, olives, mushrooms, and spinach as toppings, still increasing your vegetable (and nutrition) intake? Instead of ice cream, what about frozen fruit like antioxidant-rich, colorful berries? Basically, take any meal, even a bland color like a baked potato, pasta, or oatmeal, and spice it up with splashes of color. Think green (leafy green and cruciferous vegetables), red (berries, tomatoes, bell peppers), orange (citrus, sweet potatoes, carrots), yellow (zucchini, fruits, squash), purple (beets, potatoes, tropical fruits), blue, pink, and any color that makes your plate pop variety of colors and flavors.
So often, when people aspire to add more nutrition to their plate, they are unsure as to what to eat. By identifying the foods you truly enjoy, and recognizing all the different colors, flavors, and textures they provide, you can simply look at your lists of favorite foods and start incorporating more color to your plate. Of course, fruits, vegetables, and legumes are not the only food categories, (they are just the healthiest), but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention walnuts and hazelnuts (which I grew up harvesting) from the nuts category, rice and quinoa from the list of grains, and flax and hempseeds from the seed selection. If a list of five favorites gets a little old after a while, increase that list to your top ten favorites and watch the color on your plate resemble an iconic Oregon rainbow.
Beyond knowing what to eat, based on preferences, it is also helpful to know the calorie density of specific categories of foods to know which ones to consume in large quantities, and which ones to use a little more sparingly based on their calorie to nutrient ratio. A general chart, created by legendary registered dietitian Jeff Novick, to reference for calorie density is the following:
Food Calorie Density Chart
Vegetables = 200 calories per pound
Fruits = 300 calories per pound
Unrefined complex carbohydrates = 500 calories per pound
Legumes = 600 calories per pound
Fatty protein = 1,000 calories per pound
Refined carbohydrates = 1,400 calories per pound
Junk food = 2,300 calories per pound
Nuts/seeds = 2,800 calories per pound
Oil/fat = 4,000 calories per pound
Looking at that list, you can see that legumes like lentils and beans would be a great foundation of a meal, providing approximately 600 calories per pound of whole food nutrition, where as nuts and seeds at the centerpiece of a meal would provide more than 4x the calories for the same serving size, and junk foods and added oils should be avoided or limited as much as possible, due to their calorie to nutrition ratio. Unrefined complex carbohydrates are another excellent foundation of a meal (rice, oats, potatoes), to build around by adding additional color.
How does this apply to athletes? The greater the nutrient to calorie ratio, the more nutrition a given food, beverage, or meal provides, and the more efficient the athlete will be at producing energy, recovering from exercise, building quality muscle, and burning excess fat. That is because of the way the body uses preferred energy (carbohydrates in the form of glucose), how efficiently the body digests whole foods compared to processed foods, how fats are used as fuel rather than stored as fatty tissue when consumed in excess, how antioxidants fight off free radicals, reducing risk of illness, and how anti-inflammatory foods combat Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and aid in the overall recovery process after exercise. To get an idea of the best foods, based on their nutrients per calorie, review Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scorecard. Here’s a summary of the highest-ranking foods based on the following criteria:
ANDI scores are based on thirty-four important nutritional parameters. Foods are ranked on a scale of 1 to 1,000, with the most nutrient-dense cruciferous leafy green vegetables scoring 1,000:
Kale = 1,000
Spinach = 707
Brussels sprouts = 490
Broccoli = 340
Strawberries = 182
Sweet potato = 181
Flax seeds = 103
Tofu = 82
Lentils = 72
Peanut butter = 51
Oatmeal = 36
Shrimp = 36 (highest ranking animal-food product)
Eggs = 31
Chicken breast = 24
Ground beef = 21
French fries = 12
Cheddar Cheese = 11
Olive oil = 10
Corn chips = 7
Cola = 1
Analyzing this modified version of the food chart, showing samples of how some common foods rank, it becomes clear that leafy green vegetables are not only one of the best ways to add more color to your plate, they are the best way to add more nutrition to your plate. Colorful foods such as strawberries, sweet potatoes, and lentils also rank high on the list, and potatoes and legumes make an outstanding base for a meal for which Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and tofu could be added for a complete, nutritious, colorful meal fit for an athlete. Compare your list of favorite foods to the list of calorie dense and nutrient dense foods, and if you discover that some of your favorite foods don’t rank nearly as high in overall nutrition as others, perhaps now is a great time to try something new to expand your palate and enhance the color on your plate. Wishing you all the very best in plant-based health and fitness.