If you are athletic, you might think the thought of going vegan is absurd. Trevor Ellestad, an herbalist and food specialist at Vega, a line of food products and supplements started by former vegan Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, is here to tell us why that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It all comes down to just giving it a shot and observing your body’s response,” says Ellestad. “Begin with small changes and see how an increase in plant-based foods affects your performance, your energy, and your general well-being.” While being aware of the common vegan dietary deficiencies is imperative — and we’ll get into those — Ellestad explains exactly why going vegan (at least until 6 p.m.!) is a great idea.
What are the environmental impacts that make veganism a better alternative?
Science has validated that livestock production is one of the most significant contributors to some of the most harmful environmental problems that we face. This includes the emission of greenhouse gases through the raising of livestock, and thus the resulting effect on climate change, as well as deforestation, overuse of freshwater, and just the sheer quantity of food that is required to create animals that are large enough and grow fast enough for our growing population.
I think it’s important to remember that even if we’re plant-based, it doesn’t mean that what we eat isn’t having an environmental impact. Eating locally, growing our own food and avoiding questionable chemicals, packaging, and practices are also really important.
What are some misconceptions about going vegan that drive you crazy?
There is scientific evidence that plant-based diets can lead to a reduction in obesity, as well as risk of cancer and heart disease, but giving up meat and dairy doesn’t mean you have a healthy well-balanced diet. Vegan foods can just as easily be high in sugar, fat, and salt with little fiber or essential vitamins and minerals. It’s great to be passionate about what you eat, but if whole body health is your goal then eating plant-based doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail-free card to eat potato chips every night. I believe that creating a dietary foundation that is centered on whole foods and minimally processed ingredients is more important to a person’s health than merely making eliminations.
What are some things people should watch out for so they don’t consume unnecessary calories etc.?
Be on the lookout for foods that are minimally processed and contain ingredients that you recognize. Build a diet that is centered on whole foods. I don’t like looking at an ingredient label and struggling to recognize the majority of ingredients on it except for sugar. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t dig into a bag of vegan-friendly candy once in a while, but seeing real foods on an ingredient label gives you a pretty good idea right off the bat that what you are eating is a real food.
Rather than focusing on counting calories or macros, look at the nutrient density of the food you are consuming. Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s nutrient dense. Nutrient dense foods are whole, plant-based foods that have been minimally processed — like whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables and fruits. You’re getting the most nutrition per bite, and conveniently, they’re plant-based!
What are some deficiencies common among men who go vegan that they should be looking out for?
Protein, calcium, and vitamin B12 are common topics of discussion around vegan deficiencies. Luckily we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the cornucopia of nutrition that is available through plants. A cup of lentils alone contains 18 grams of protein and 1 cup of cooked spinach contains 25% of the daily requirements of calcium for an average person. Depending on our age, weight, or personal fitness goals we are going to have different nutritional needs, but in my own experience as a highly active 200 pound male, fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds cover the core nutritional needs of my body.
Vitamin B12 is one thing to be particularly aware of when eating a strict vegan diet, as B12 isn’t found as easily in plant-based foods. Luckily, nowadays it’s found in fortified non-dairy milks and cereals, plant-based nutritional shakes and vitamins, as well as nutritional yeast. Maca, a nutritionally dense food from South America is another one of my favorite sources of B12. Again, it comes back to balance. Vegan or not, most of us have to be aware of the variety of foods we’re eating, and supplement where necessary.
You mentioned that you’re very active. What do you say to men who are very athletic and for that reason say they can’t forgo meat?
Most people, especially when feeling any serious resistance to making change, are going to make more lasting change if they take baby steps. Also don’t get caught up with labels, educate yourself, and look for role models. If you’re worried about losing strength and weight, monitor your diet a little closer until you feel comfortable, and find a product like Vega Sport Performance Protein if you are worried about getting enough protein. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, follow David Carter, NFL defensive lineman and The 300 pound vegan or Brendan Brazier.
Can you share some of your favorite vegan swaps?
As a serious fan of all things frozen, whipped, and delicious, I can tell you that there is no shortage of swaps for ice cream in the vegan world. Here are two of my favorite easy recipes if I’m feeling like whipping something up in the kitchen: Mint Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream or Chocolate Banana Protein Ice Cream. When I’m lazy, I just need to head to the dairy case. Luckily, the world of vegan convenience foods has expanded since the mid-1980s when I first went plant-based. Usually I gravitate towards the frozen coconut milk confections from So Delicious.
What’s a go-to vegan pre-workout and post-workout snack?
It all depends on when I’m working out and what sort of workout I’m doing. Most often I enjoy working out really early in the morning and getting it over and done with. Often I’ll just have a piece of fruit like an apple or a banana and throw some Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer into a water bottle for the trip to the gym. It’s made from green tea and yerba maté, two of my fave sources of natural caffeine. Since coffee is too hard on my stomach, I like that I can still get some clean energy without feeling jittery and gross all day.
Eating healthy is easier if you start on the right foot. Can you share a favorite healthy, vegan breakfast?
Smoothies have been my saving grace as a vegan. I was a raw vegan for about a year, and this is when I really learned what is and isn’t possible with a cheap blender. My two favorite tastes are bitter and sour (weird, right?), so I’m a huge fan of this Pomegranate, Grapefruit, and Beet Smoothie, when I’m feeling a little more on the sweet side, I always go straight for chocolate. This Cookies & Cream Smoothie is crazy delicious and as a post-workout smoothie, there’s nothing better.
When it’s a little colder outside, I’m all about the oatmeal. Either straight up, or with some protein. This Coconut Chocolate Quinoa Protein Pudding is also becoming a fave. Sometimes, I make it at night, and then just warm it up for a couple minutes in the morning.