A few months ago I wrote about sustainable eating and why I decided to try to eat less meat overall in my diet. So how exactly has that gone for me, and has eating less meat had any positive or negative impacts on my running?
Note my emphasis here on less. I am not nor could I ever be a full-fledged vegetarian. I enjoy the taste of meat, I enjoy preparing delicious meals using meat, and I do find that meat consumption in moderation helps me stay fueled and injury-free throughout high volumes of training.
We eat meat for usually 5-6 dinners per week; not at lunch unless we’re out, not at breakfast with the rare exception of bacon. Neither Ryan nor I believe in adhering to strict diets, so we’re flexible and adaptable about it. Eating less meat is more about an overall shift in eating habits rather than a strict set of rules.
Beyond avoiding a strict diet, I could never eliminate meat completely for performance reasons just as I could never go Paleo or do Whole30. I would never advocated completely eliminating an entire food group unless in the case of an intolerance/allergy.
As nutritionist and coach Matt Fitzgerald argues, “It’s easy to understand why elite runners eat everything when you look at what happens to runners who are persuaded to eliminate one or more of these food groups. Runners who don’t eat meat are much more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia, while runners who eliminate grains tend to develop chronic fatigue, and runners who eliminate other foods experience still other problems.” Most elite runners (like Molly Huddle, who won both the 5ooom and 10000m at the US Olympic Trials) eat an omnivore diet.
Huddle noted on her own blog: “Barring the few athletes I know with a true food allergy or sensitivity, most of the really good runners do not follow diet fads and have a diet that incorporates: carbohydrates, meat, (especially red meat), wheat, dairy and whatever other foods are common in their cultures. It’s hard enough to quickly rebuild and refuel your muscle fibers and glycogen stores from day to day, so to eliminate a food group if it isn’t completely necessary makes it even more difficult.”
So what Ryan and I have both found in the past few months, is that while there are benefits to eating less meat (both individual health and broader environmental benefits), we both still do need to eat meat for our athletic goals. And, to be honest, because we enjoy it.
And what’s the fun in life if you can’t enjoy a good German brat and beer?
Over the past few months as well, I used MyFitnessPal to track my nutrition. Here’s what I learned how a 2/3 plant-based diet impacted my nutrition:
- I struggle to hit my daily protein requirement. Admittedly, this is because I love carbs. A low-meat diet isn’t inherently low protein; rather, I need to improve in this area of my diet (which is one of my goals for the remainder of the year). Not eating enough protein negatively impacts recovery. I could and should eat more eggs and Greek yogurt, and I know that when I start marathon training in a few weeks I will need to include an egg or two on top of my usual lunch of lentils, some type of potato, seeds, and greens. I can also add plant-based protein powders to my meals or try tempeh (not sure if I’d like the texture or taste, though).
- I eat nearly my daily recommended intake of iron. Granted, this is based on a generic formula accounting height, weight, gender, and activity level – not an individual recommendation from a nutritionist or based on blood work. Iron is essential for healthy red blood cells, oxygen delivery, and preventing fatigue, so I’m happy to see that I’m eating adequate amounts of iron. I certainly don’t feel tired or lethargic on my runs.
- I eat plenty of healthy fat. Nuts and seeds including chia seeds, tahini (sesame seed paste), pumpkin seeds, and peanut butter are regular staples in my diet. On average, 25-30% of my daily calories come from fat, which is ideal for preventing injury.
- I eat a large amount of fiber. As in, usually 30-40 grams of fiber per day – which is quite a lot of fiber. I’m torn on this: on one hand, eating this much fiber is a natural result of eating 7-9 servings of vegetables and fruits a day; on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if too much fiber could cause stomach issues once training starts up.
- Our grocery bill decreased. Meat is expensive – especially high quality meat. Ryan and I purchase very few bagged or boxed items – most of our groceries are fruits, vegetables (including starchy), whole grains and seeds from the bulk bins, and meat. With less meat in our overall diet (Ryan eats vegetarian lunches now also), we spend less per week overall on groceries.
So overall, eating less meat has been beneficial. Both Ryan and I have felt great and enjoyed eating more vegetarian meals at home. It certainly has been a positive experience, one we hope to continue; however, changes in running can change how the body reacts to food and what foods it requires to keep running (literally) strong.
Granted, injury has lowered the mileage and intensity of my running over the past couple months, so I don’t know how my body will fare when I increase my mileage and add in harder workouts. I know my stomach becomes more sensitive during marathon training (which can be easily helped by eating eggs instead of legumes at lunch) and that I crave more meat during training.
While some cravings are indicative of a nutritional deficiency, usually craving meats indicate a need for protein, iron, and vitamin B12 – which are exactly what meat and fish offer. (Disclaimer: I am not a certified nutritionist. This statement comes from research and personal experience.)
Maybe I’ve become more West Coast laidback over the past year, but I’m perfectly okay being flexible in my diet and letting it ebb and flow with the seasons of my training. If I end up eating more meat throughout marathon training, that’s fine – I’m not going to restrict what my body needs (or restrict Ryan’s diet if with his increased mileage he needs more meat).
Environmental reasons are the primary reason we started to eat less meat (and a smaller grocery budget is certainly nice as well), but it’s a fine balancing act of eating sustainably, eating for overall health, eating for athletic performance, and eating for enjoyment.
In conclusion, so far eating less meat has impacted my running in an overall positive manner, but I know too little meat would swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. I have felt energetic and well fueled, although I know also that I still need to make improvements to my nutrition, especially as I begin to run farther and faster.
Meredith and I are teaming up for a recipe challenge, starting with veggie burgers over the next few weeks! There are several nutritional and mental benefits to varying your diet, but I fall into the habit of eating the same few foods all of the time for months so a challenge and accountability helps. Plus, you know I love a good veggie burger.
Do your eating habits change with your training?
How do you adapt your diet to eat for optimal athletic performance?
What foods do you crave when doing high mileage/hard running?