Plant-Based is good for the planet & athletic performance
(Approximately 6 min. read)
A year ago, I had the opportunity to speak on a podcast about being vegan. The real reason I went on the show was to raise awareness of EcoAthletes’ involvement at COP26 (which I wrote about, here). I was interviewed by Matt Tullman, half of the Matt & Matt team that comprises the No Meat Athlete Podcast – part of the No Meat Athlete organization. It provides a library of resources for people curious about reducing their animal consumption in a healthy non-preachy way.
I was initially nervous to talk about my diet. I’ve seen how the way we eat is, often unknowingly, a key part of our identity. Just by eating vegan in proximity to people, without any comment on their choices, I’ve seen peoples’ defenses go up. If you’re feeling that way reading this, there are cute puppy pictures and I hope a few reasons to let your guard down, coming up.
My journey to veganism started with becoming a vegetarian out of concern for animals. As I recounted on the podcast, my dad had his first heart attack at just 45 years old. Upon his discharge from the hospital, the doctor recommended he try a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism can be a great stepping stone into a whole-food plant-based diet, which is the most effective way to bring cholesterol and other cardiac markers down into healthy ranges (these dietary changes are often more effective than any available drugs – see How to Not Die by Dr. Greger).
Shortly after, we got a dog. Jack was the cutest little menace of a yellow lab puppy you could imagine. With my dad’s new diet and the puppy, I had two light-bulb thoughts: firstly, “wait, we are eating living things?” and secondly, “there is another option?”
Growing up in the NJ suburbs, I was as disconnected from nature and agriculture as could be: food came from the grocery store, packaged and processed. I finally made the connection that my chicken nuggets and hotdogs used to be living creatures. Creatures with the capacity to love, feel pain, and have a personality, much like Jack. At eleven, I told my parents I would no longer eat meat and stubbornly held my ground.
For the next decade, as I ate vegetarian, I accepted the fact that my athletic performance might suffer so I could stay true to my values. As I got into my teenage years and hockey became a more serious pursuit for me, the pressure to eat meat ramped up. I got grilled about protein (or lack of it) relentlessly. The criticism drove me to educate myself more fully, and resulted in a slow but steady progression towards optimal healthy eating. Years later I became vegan, cutting out dairy milk and cheese.
In the last five years or so, fears of performance loss have been proven to be unsubstantiated. Documentaries like the Game Changers and books like The Plant Based Athlete (written by one of the No Meat Athlete Podcast founders) have debunked Rocky-style “steak and raw egg” thinking. High profile athletes like Alex Morgan, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, and retired NFL linebacker Derrick Morgan cite their vegan diet for faster recovery and injury resistance.
And while we’re on model athletes, a special mention should be made here for Blake Bolden, who now scouts for the LA Kings in the NHL and is the only other active hockey player, male or female, I know of who openly follows a plant based diet.
For starters, the constant worry about protein has never been an issue for me. At 138 lbs, the evidence says I can build muscle best with about 100g of protein-a-day (~1.6/kg). Three meals of 25g each and a daily protein shake can get me there pretty easily. Oats, beans, chickpeas, tofu, and lentils are all go-tos for me. I mix in a lot of walnuts and flaxseed to get my omegas, spinach for my iron, and I take a B-12 supplement. Not a heavy lift at all!
While the Plant Based Athlete helped reassure me that I wasn’t hindering my athletic progress, what has surprised me most about this journey is what I’ve learned about the overarching agricultural system and how much impact our food has on the planet.
Which brings us back to EcoAthletes and the climate emergency. What does diet have to do with it?
A vegan diet is one of the most immediate personal choices we can make to reduce our person carbon footprint. Is that surprising to you? It was to me. Between land-use, the crops required to feed so many cattle, and cow gas (AKA methane) – eating red meat is one of the worst things we can do for the planet.
Many of our emissions are out of our individual control and the vastness of the problem can be paralyzing. We can’t change our local transit system on our own and we usually can’t influence where our power comes from on a day-to-day basis. Although we should definitely be voting for climate-forward candidates who propose these systemic measures, sometimes the bigger picture is out of our hands (Don’t forget to vote this week, America!).
What we can control, immediately and impactfully, are our food choices. By eating lower on the food-chain we can reduce the quantity of resources needed to fuel us. By eating less resource-intensive foods we can reduce deforestation and water use. The climate benefits are really astounding.
I’m not perfect and I really hope I don’t come across as self-congratulating. It took me around 6 years between the intention of moving from vegetarian to vegan before it stuck as a full time habit. I still sneak a bite of my favorite cheeses, brie and gorgonzola, here and there. Every once in a while I even have a pizza (after-all, I am living in Italy). But, and without any judgement, maybe you don’t have to eat meat every meal. Heck, maybe you don’t even have to eat it every day. Maybe you’ll enjoy the taste of your favorites even more when it’s presented as a special treat that you only have once a week. Give it a try. Collectively we can make a difference.
Here is the interview:
I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.