Vegan CrossFitter / Mad Scientist: What a Vegan Athlete Eats

The question “Where do you get your protein?” is OLD SCHOOL! Vegans have been asked this since 1944. The question I now get asked is “So, what exactly do you eat?”

The question “Where do you get your protein?” is OLD SCHOOL! Vegans have been asked this since the word vegan first slipped out of Donald Watson’s mouth in 1944. Nowadays, people seem savvier about nutrition, meaning they know protein is only one nutrient that contributes to a diet as a whole. The question I now get asked is “So, what exactly do you eat?”

Looking back on the nine years I’ve been vegan, I think: What haven’t I eaten, jeez. If it’s vegan, I’ve eaten it. But how I eat now has changed and narrowed dramatically since I downed my first bag of Uncle Eddie’s Vegan Chocolate Chip cookies, and my nutritional journey has been a bit like a mad science experiment.

Two invaluable things have risen to the top after all this time:

  1. With the amount of information out there, I needed to find out for myself what fuels me optimally and makes me feel best.
  2. I learned this pretty early in my journey: I better learn how to cook.

I was raised by women who didn’t cook. My grandmother was a model and a career woman. My mother is a free-spirited artist. Cooking was for chumps! As a young athlete, I wholeheartedly believed the same.

But after I became vegan, I saw food differently. Fresh produce became so beautiful to me I wanted to prepare it myself. I finally got wise to this oddly heart-warming and satisfying pastime of making something my damn self. Why hadn’t I ever been told about this genius concept of cooking before?!

vegan, nutrition

I made small changes to my nutrition as I learned more about food. With each change, I felt better. I explored pseudo grains like quiona and wild rice. I upped my raw food intake. I cut down on sugar and soy products. I learned how to make almond milk. I was, however, a huge fan of soy creamer.

Every morning I had a huge cup of coffee with a ton of soy creamer and agave. It was like hot, melted ice cream. I once vowed if I were stranded on an island I would live on washed-up seaweed as long as I could have my delicious, processed-to-high-hell soy creamer. Mmm.

In May of 2010, at the age of 42, I discovered CrossFit, and I became obsessed with it like many ex-athlete dreamers. I made a big push to resurrect my athletic life. And this has played the most significant role to date in my quest to fine-tune my diet.

An athlete knows recovery is as important as training, but an athlete over 40 discovers recovery might be more important. Fueling myself for recovery as well as performance became key. And figuring out that formula meant I had to kick my experiments up a notch.

When I learned about the paleo diet from my fellow CrossFitters, I had no desire to eat meat again, but I was intrigued by some of the other arguments. What if, even as I vegan, I reexamined my relationship with grains and legumes?

I was already limiting soy. Even when these foods have been a cornerstone of many vegans’ diet, mine included, I wanted to find out for myself if some grains caused me inflammation and sluggishness, if some legumes contributed to digestion issues.

vegan, nutrition

I cut out gluten. And I felt better when I did. In fact, now if I eat a gluten-heavy meal, my husband says I snore the same night! This fascinates me. But it also suggests I might have a mild wheat allergy.

I didn’t cut out brown rice and quinoa all together, but I ate much less. I ate fewer legumes too, and I felt less bogged down digestively. I tracked my food on which recorded exactly how much protein/fat/carbs I was eating and never were my numbers lower than recommended.

During a challenge at my gym, I did the unthinkable and gave up soy creamer. I look back at how I vice-gripped my excuses when deep down I knew the stuff was crap. I did try soy creamer once after, but it felt filmy and gross in my mouth. I never drank it again, and I felt liberated. I hated making excuses for the things that held me back from my best health.

I’ve settled comfortably on a high-raw diet, meaning about 75% of my food is uncooked. I typically eat gluten and sugar free. I usually keep breakfast, lunch and snacks raw, and dinner tends to be cooked. I like to eat all raw during the day because my energy feels highest and most accessible when my digestive system isn’t expending a lot of energy breaking down a heavier or cooked meal. With a high-raw diet, my recovery is on-point! Aches and soreness are minimized. Working out consecutive days is not an issue. Man, I feel good.

Here’s a basic overview of the actual foods I eat:

  • Morning: I eat a big bowl of berries, a banana and a couple spoonfuls of raw almond butter or a handful of soaked, raw almonds.
  • Lunch: I have a huge salad either a kale-avocado salad or a mix green salad with a variety of vegetables and some seeds. Sometimes I have raw crackers with lunch, often homemade. Some days I like raw soup and a salad.
  • Snack: I like fruit as a snack, but often I have coconut water mixed with a raw protein powder by Sun Warrior, which is pea and hemp based. I almost always have this post workout. Sometimes I have a Larabar or I make whole-food smoothies either with fruit & greens or a coconut-based shake.
  • Dinner: Often I eat salad and sweet potatoes and soup. Some days I’ll have rice, some days lentils, but usually I limit these to a couple times a week. I don’t eat much tofu anymore, but I’m not opposed to it every once in a while. I’m a bigger fan of tempeh, which is less processed than tofu, and is also more nutritious and easier to digest. I often try raw entrees for dinner from recipes I’ve made up or found.

Even though my diet is pretty simple now, the creative draw to the kitchen hasn’t left. I now spend more time finding ways to display simple or raw food beautifully.

vegan, nutrition

I don’t always follow my diet plan perfectly. I have lazy days like anyone else or I convince myself that a couple extra days of chocolate can’t hurt or a few slices of sprouted raisin bread will be ok until I’m biting my husband’s head off or I’m snoring all night.

I don’t necessarily want to be so rigid with a plan that doesn’t allow slip-ups, but I also know that slip-ups have consequences. Mostly I feel these consequences in my overall energy and in my workouts. I get sluggish and tired. I’m impatient with my performance. I’m sorer longer.

And while I don’t want to seem overly obsessed about clean eating, I consistently find that I feel much better when I am. I’ve never felt better. The experimenting may not be over, but all my mad science has certainly paid off and brought me to this exact point.

Photographs provided by Danette Rivera.