Plant Power

I’m a bad eater. The docs think one of the (many) reasons I had a stress fracture last Christmas was because I had this thing called “REDs” which is Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome in Sport. It’s a fancy term for something that seems to me to be pretty simple. I didn’t eat enough. Not that I didn’t eat the right things – I was religious about getting in my whole grains, veggies, beans and other protein sources. The problem was that I wasn’t eating enough.

Photo: Kelvin Trautman

Photo: Kelvin Trautman

At first I noticed this in the form of gastro problems. I felt like I wasn’t digesting my food (apparently even if you feel like you’re not digesting it you still can be) and then in bowel discomfort (read – having to stop way too many times on my long run to use the bathroom!).

I didn’t know until much later that these are not only signs of “REDs” – but they’re signs that my body wasn’t getting enough nutrients from food, and so was resorting to “stealing” the nutrients from elsewhere – principally bones and internal organs.

So at Christmas, I started learning to eat better. And not just better, but more. I learned about the power of protein and of carbohydrates to power my body, and I began to understand just how much protein I really need to replenish my body. Yes – even when I’m not doing a whole lot of training!

This has been an eye-opening experience because I’m vegetarian.

People often ask why I’m vegetarian, how long I’ve been vegetarian and how I can do what I’m doing as a vegetarian.

Here it is.

When I was 18 I watched a film on deforestation in the Amazon. I saw how big meat conglomerates were incentivising local communities to tear down tracts of virgin forest, and to replace them with intensively farmed feedlots for beef. I watched as they talked to the local communities – most of whom had learned to live on and with the forest, and were struggling to understand how to farm. They didn’t understand the need to allow the land to lie fallow and to replenish itself and after a couple of years of great beef production, and steady income, they were left with land that could no longer sustain any growth of anything. People who watched their income and livelihoods dry up in front of their eyes as the conglomerates moved on to the next community.

I sat on the local bus on my way home, looking out the window at people preparing dinner for their families and I realised that we were part of the problem. Our demand for these products was part of this unsustainable cycle and that the only way to create change was to start with us.

I’ve been vegetarian since that moment. 30 years this year.

I’m not going to pretend it’s been easy. For 30 years I’ve had people tell me I need to eat meat. I’ve been to dinner more times than I can tell you with people who make vegetarian jokes as if I’m not even there. Or people who make it clear that having a non meat-eater at the table is a complication, like some disease. People who will make a fuss about “oh no what are we going to eat” (like there’s nothing on the menu – only once in 30 years has there not been). And yes – people who have tried to sneak meat into my food (tip of the day – vegetarians can taste the difference!).

But my favourite are the meat eaters who don’t know what I do, and tell me that they’ve taken up triathlon, running or some form of sport and found it’s just not possible to get enough energy to do what they need to do.

But here’s the deal. It is possible to get enough energy, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals from a plant-based diet to get your body to do some crazy things. I’ve done it, and countless others have too – from Olympians to world champions – many of whom are now vegan!

All it takes is some care and attention. I now work with a dietician. Together we plan out what I need to eat. We carefully calculate the amount of beans, vegetables and rice I need at each meal, and I’m diligent in making sure I do it right.

My grand ambition is to be able to be organised enough to become vegan, but until I can work out how to fit the food preparation time into my schedule, and come up with a plan to be able to create portable vegan options, vegetarian it is.

I haven’t eaten meat for 30 years. I don’t miss it, and it hasn’t stopped me from running across 7 deserts on 7 continents in 7 weeks, or 40 marathons in 40 days down 6 of the world’s great rivers on 6 continents.

And you know what? The sacrifice and the tough times are worth it. Because for all of the last 30 years, the planet has thanked me.