Welcome to Spring! It is that time of year where the sunny and warm days draw us back outside and we become naturally more active. You might be thinking of your fitness routine, or of starting one up, in preparation for the upcoming “bathing suit season”. You may have heard it said before that abs start in the kitchen. This expression is meant to highlight how difficult it is to have defined abs, because if there is a layer of fat over the abdominal muscles then no amount of working out will get you where you want to be, and therefore diet is the key. Diet is the key not only to defined abs, but to the overall quality of a fitness routine.
We can spend hours in the gym pushing weights, run several miles per week, take all of the spin classes or hit up a Crossfit gym – but how much weight we lose, energy we have, and how good we feel does begin in the kitchen. There is a common idea that has been around for decades, that we may eat whatever we wish as long as we workout hard enough to burn off the calories. This is a pretty basic idea of how calories in vs. calories out works. And while it may be true for some people if they spend enough hours working out or are blessed with a high metabolic rate, all calories are not created equal.
A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol will lead, sooner or later, to plaque build-ups on arterial walls even if you run a marathon every single day. In fact, the “father” of running for fitness, Jim Fixx, died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52. He was overweight and a heavy smoker who decided to cut the smoking habit and drop the weight by starting to run. After successfully losing weight, he wrote a book that revolutionized the runner’s world and continued to engage in daily running until his death. Despite the cessation of smoking, the loss of weight, and his enviable fitness level, Fixx had severe blockages in his coronary arteries, one almost completely closed off at 95%.
Plenty of speculation exists around how he could have died so young, and everyone seems to agree that it was “in his blood”. There was a strong genetic link in his family for heart disease and heart attacks, his own father dying in his early 40’s. Genetics, however, are only one piece of the puzzle. As the saying goes, genetics load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger. In Jim’s case, rumor has it that he had quite the love affair with fast food and adopted the common ideology that he could eat whatever he wanted, so long as he exercised enough to burn the calories off. It appears this thinking might have been flawed.
Unfortunately, diet and lifestyle is not something you will hear much about in the doctor’s office – although this is making slight improvements as the knowledge surrounding plant-based nutrition and its impact on pre-existing conditions continues to surge. The typical course of action is – do you have a family history, do you smoke/drink, and which type of pill will work best to mask your symptoms? Some doctors have been cautioning patients against red meat and fast food for quite a while now, but most truly don’t know how powerful nutrition is because nutrition is not taught in medical school. They are learning about medicine and procedures, which is how they then treat their patients. If we want to know how diet and lifestyle effects us, we are left to learn that for ourselves.
When it comes to any fitness routine, before you begin it is important to remember this statistic – it is 80% what you eat, and 20% what you do. In other words, to get yourself in shape it is significantly more important to focus on your diet than on your fitness. The best diet for your body, especially when weight loss is a goal as well, is one low in fat and cholesterol, and high in whole grain carbs, antioxidants and phytonutrients. In short – a plant-based diet is the absolute best at fueling our cells. It provides everything we need for an active lifestyle, and none of the things that contribute to heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
We need protein in order to live, as well all know, but when protein was discovered it was largely inflated in significance. It is important, but it is not a nutrient that we need much of and, unless you’re living in a third-world country with no access to food and are suffering from starvation, there is no need to fear a protein deficiency. Protein exists in every single living thing, from the grass under our feet to the leaves over our heads and everything else that moves, breathes or grows in between or below the surface. Every plant, animal and living being contains protein – in fact the living beings that people are eating – namely pigs, cows and chickens – also receive their protein from plants. When it comes to protein and a plant-based diet, as long as you are eating sufficient calories, you are getting sufficient protein.
But what if I’m hitting the weights extra hard at the gym? Loren, I need extra protein for muscle growth!
True! But there is something more to consider here. When you are working out extra hard at the gym you need extra calories to fuel that workout. Calories = energy, and if you burn more energy you need to eat more energy. Do you know what you get more of by eating more food for those extra calories? Protein! The more calories you eat, the more protein you consume. So if you are an athlete or are training extremely hard at the gym, the extra calories you are consuming to fuel your hard work already contain the extra protein that you need. If you’re still not convinced, you can always try a plant-based protein powder as a supplement – just check the label for sugars and toxic ingredients first. If you need guidance, check out Eat Move Rest as they have high plant-based standards and use a good quality protein powder that you might find intriguing. You can click the link, or go look them up on YouTube.
The safest and healthiest sources of protein – the ones that come without saturated fat and dietary cholesterol – are beans, lentils, peas, tofu, soybeans/edamame and tempeh. Plant sources that do contain some saturated fat (avoid for weight loss or if battling heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes) but no dietary cholesterol are seeds and nuts. At least three servings of legumes per day will have you on the right track. Increase for higher activity levels.
Carbohydrates are key for fueling workouts. This may come as a surprise since carbs have been persona non grata for a while now. Just like calories, all carbs are not created equal. Processed, refined carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs. However, whole, unrefined grains are a necessity for optimal health. Glucose is the number one fuel source for all of the cells in our bodies – especially muscle cells. While protein may help muscle growth, glucose is what provides them with fuel to function. The ability for muscles to move, power through a workout, and recover comes from glucose.
When it comes to macros, protein should only make up about 10-15%, whereas carbohydrates should make up about 75%. The remainder should come from healthy fats, although this is something you’ll want to keep very low (no more than 10%) if your goal is weight loss or you are working to reverse heart disease or type 2 diabetes. The best sources for carbohydrates are any unrefined grain – brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, farro, bulgur, etc. Avoid breads as even the whole grain ones are processed and usually have salt and sugar added. If you are going to eat bread, choose Ezekiel Bread, which is the only one that is minimally processed (as close to whole grain as possible), with no added salt or sugar. If you are going to eat pasta, choose whole wheat – but keep this minimal.
This literally means “plant nutrients.” This covers all of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and other beneficial compounds that come from eating fruits and vegetables. These are the things that keep our cells thriving and protect us from the free radicals that cause oxidization and promote inflammation, chronic disease and cancer. Phytonutrients are like a suit of armor for our bodies and without them we are exposed and vulnerable. It is vitally important to eat greens and berries daily. An excellent pairing with greens and berries is ground flax seed, which is a healthy fat (omega-3) that is shown to be highly protective against disease. It is recommended to have two tablespoons of ground flax per day, or four tablespoons for those fighting heart disease.
Citrus is an excellent pairing with leafy greens, as it doubles the absorbability of the calcium in leafy greens. Kale, arugula and romaine lettuce are the best sources of calcium (aside from beans), so a lemon dressing ensures that your body will absorb as much of that calcium as possible. Weight-bearing exercise improves bone density, so calcium intake is an important component of fitness as well. Leafy greens, especially kale, arugula and spinach, also provide powerful protection against cancer and inflammation, as do other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts.
Great antioxidant-rich foods are berries, lemons, walnuts, almonds and greens. Antioxidant is the opposite of pro-oxidant. Oxidant = oxidization, or the process by which our cells become damaged by free radicals in the body. These free radicals are the result of stress, toxins, environmental factors, and processed or animal-based proteins. This is what promotes disease in the body, and antioxidants help protect against these things.
What it Looks Like
Breakfast could be a bowl of oats made with almond milk, ground flax, chia seeds and berries. A great lunch might be a large kale salad topped with wild rice, black beans, blueberries, walnuts, ground flax, some quick-pickled red onions and an oil-free lemon dressing, with some type of fruit for the side. Dinner could be grilled tempeh with a quinoa-broccoli salad and roasted carrots. And for snacks – fruits, edamame, Ezekiel toast, a smoothie made with a frozen banana, some berries and almond milk…the possibilities are endless!
These are the foods that will fuel your body and provide a noticeable boost in energy levels to help you sustain your workouts. If you are not currently plant-based but are interested in giving this a try, I recommend dedicating three weeks to eating entirely plant-based. If you’re not sure where to start, there is a great program called the 21-Day Kickstart by PCRM that might be beneficial. Or, you can start searching plant-based recipes (avoid or modify any that recommend the use of oil – a simple substitution with water for cooking or applesauce for baking will do the trick, as will air frying vs. roasting or deep frying) on Pinterest or Instagram until you feel you have enough to get you started.
Take a little time to do some research first so you can have the resources to prepare yourself for the three-week challenge. Remember that this is a lifestyle change, so be patient with yourself, and expect resistance. Your default settings and habits will try to take over and convince you to give up, so be ready for this and have a plan of action to combat it. If you prepare yourself ahead of time, it will help you stick to your plan.
If you’re not ready to take on a plant-based life, simply eliminating processed foods and oil, and reducing the amount of animal-based foods you are consuming (this includes eggs and dairy), while increasing whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes will still make a big difference. Give it a try! I think you’ll like the results.