Matt Frazier started the blog No Meat Athlete in 2009 and has since built a community of vegan and vegetarian athletes along with extensive resources for anyone interested in adopting a more plant-based diet. He has also developed the Marathon Roadmap: The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering your First 26.2. We interviewed him for our initial feature on gluten-free, vegan and high quality diets, but weren’t able to include everything we talked about at the time; this is the full interview (edited for length).
If you’re thinking of trying a vegetarian or vegan diet, Matt has written a wonderful post called The Most Laid-Back Guide to Going Vegetarian You’ll Ever Read. It’s worth checking out.
How did you choose vegetarianism/veganism? What were your reasons then, and have they changed now?
My initial reason for going vegetarian (back in 2009) was really ethical. I just started feeling wrong about eating animals, so I wanted to stop. But I had talked to marathoners and I just thought you couldn’t get enough protein, couldn’t get enough calories, and I hadn’t heard of anyone doing it, so I just thought it was impossible.
I stopped eating cows and pigs, thinking that was a good compromise for me; that was good for a little while but I just wanted to go further. Then I started thinking that going vegetarian might be good for my long term health, so I thought “why not just do it” – if the running doesn’t work out, then so be it. I did that, and right away started running faster: within 6 months of going vegetarian I qualified for the Boston Marathon, which was a 10 minute improvement over my previous best marathon time. So the diet wasn’t in fact limiting me – actually I think it was at least part of the reason I was getting faster. That’s when I really started to think more about the health and the athletic performance aspects, and I started to discover that there were people who were doing this at very high levels – people like Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek. At the time I didn’t really know that veganism was a thing, I just thought that I didn’t need to eat meat, and then I started finding out about how significant veganism is, and thought that I really wanted to go all the way with this.
Do you find that you have to explain that you’re a vegan athlete to other athletes – why or how you do this?
Less now than I used to. It used to be more of a shock, but now people kind of understand. It’s still not the norm by any means but I think it is more acceptable, especially among endurance athletes. You’re starting to see a lot of endurance athletes make this shift so it’s a becoming more accepted and more mainstream thing in those communities.
You talk about how being vegan isn’t for everyone – how would someone figure out if veganism is a good option for them?
It’s a mindset. There are some people who, because of their upbringing or other beliefs that may be unrelated to food, will never decide that it’s possible and will never do it because it’s just too outside their realm of normal. But I don’t know that there are different body types that wouldn’t thrive on a vegan diet. It’s possible.
I think that the people it works for are the people who really want to do it and who have a reason to do it. It’s just like anything else – you can become vegan, think you have no energy and quit two weeks later, then go back to your bad eating habits and tell everyone “oh yeah, I went vegan and it didn’t work – I didn’t have enough energy.” Or you can actually research and figure out what you removed from your diet and need to replace, and you can make it work. Like many other changes, we don’t really make changes unless we want to.
Do you see any kind of recurring mistakes that people constantly repeat when they try veganism or vegetarianism?
The most common one – especially for athletes – is not replacing their calories. If you’re an athlete and you’ve cut all this meat and dairy out of your diet, you’re going to lose a large percentage of those calories; 30 or 40% of your calories are gone, even if you expand the starch or the vegetable on your plate. It’s possible that by switching to more nutrient-dense whole plants over less-nutrient dense animal products you can get by on fewer calories and still get the nutrients you need, but if you simply cut your calories by 30 or 40% you are going to feel a lack of energy for sure.
So what often happens is that people feel hungry all the time, so you have to eat more frequently. Understand that plant foods are less calorically dense than animal foods are, so when you eat them you’re going to feel full with fewer calories than when you were eating meat and dairy, but then your body quickly digests that food because it’s pretty easy to digest. So I’ll eat five or six snacks or meal each day
Are there certain foods that are more dense, to help make up that gap in calories?
First of all, if you eat more often you don’t necessarily have to focus on the more dense foods. Certain foods obviously are, but the issue is that as you get more calorically dense – which does suit many athletes’ needs – you’re also getting away from what’s probably the healthiest long term diet. You see a lot of athletes that rely on oils – oils in their smoothie, oils on their salad – and that works; they’ll get enough calories but I don’t feel that it will help you feel good, no matter what oil you’re using.
I think nuts and seeds are a better source of oils because they’re a whole food. I add nuts and seeds to smoothies. Walnuts, pumpkin seeds (which are also a good iron source), flax seeds, and chia seeds all go in our smoothie before everything else, and you can sprinkle them on your salad too. Hummus has worked for me, and nut butters also work really well for adding calories.
What about longer training days? Are there more portable foods that would work for multiple hours of training?
Yes, and it depends on what your nutrition strategies are. I’m a big fan of dates, the fresh whole dates you can get at Whole Foods or any other health food store. They’re portable in the same way energy gels are portable, and they do the same thing: they’re glucose for the most part, so they get into your bloodstream very quickly, and they pack about the same amount of energy per volume as energy gels – except they’re totally natural and taste good.
But particularly for longer training days where you’re out there for longer than three hours, people often switch to less sugary sources of calories – and I’ve been there too. Often I’ll put hummus in a pita (that’s a great one for me) or almond butter in a pita, with a little extra salt; refried beans in corn tortillas, rolled up or in a sandwich. Boiled potatoes are another good one if you have a way of storing them. They’re a great calorie source for long training, especially if you put a bit of salt on them.
None of it is as convenient as the food that is designed for convenience, but it’s natural, whole, real food.
It seems that it’s much easier to be 98% vegan than 100% vegan when it comes to avoiding food additives potentially containing animal products, such as natural flavours. Where do you fall regarding additives and foods that might contain animal products? How vegan is vegan?
I’m moving further all the time, but I am not yet that type of 100% vegan. I feel like I am 100% vegan only because I don’t deliberately eat cheese, dairy, eggs, or anything like that; about a year ago I didn’t even avoid honey. I was also at a point where if I ordered food at a restaurant and they brought it out wrong (like if it had cheese on top) I wouldn’t send it back. I didn’t think that was good, not just for how I was perceived, but how veganism was perceived. I thought I would rather be a very agreeable, adaptable vegan – someone who’s willing to understand the world and just eat the cheese on the plate, instead of sending it back and refusing to eat something because cheese touched it.
I’ve started to feel less comfortable about this; and I’ve started to feel that veganism is also a form of protest and that it should be visible. It really depends on where you are. I’m moving more along that line, so now I’m more aware of things like natural flavours or alcohol, especially beers. Some beers are refined with isinglass which is made of fish bladders, and it doesn’t really show up in the beer but it’s used in the process. You don’t always know which beers have it – often the brewers don’t even know – because they change the processes. So I’m at a point now where I don’t really go out of my way to find out; if I’m ordering a drink at dinner I don’t go ask if it’s vegan, but once I hear that something isn’t then I’ll no longer order it.
So going back to natural flavours, if I see something that has natural flavours and appears to be vegan, I generally won’t go over the top to figure out exactly what that natural flavour is, but if I feel that it’s one of those foods that’s commonly not vegan even if they look like they are then I’ll tend to avoid it.
That fear of being a stereotypical vegan – the more protest-driven vegan – can really scare a lot of people off from becoming vegan.
That attitude kept me from becoming vegetarian and vegan for longer than I would have otherwise, had I not seen that attitude. I think for some people that attitude is great, and it attracts them because they want to have that identity; for a bunch of other people though, that’s very alienating and turns them off of the whole thing. I think there’s room for different philosophies, and people should just do what feels right to them.
For more great information from Matt or to join his community of vegan and vegetarian athletes, visit his blog at No Meat Athlete.