Nutrition Navigation:Training as a vegetarian

Welcome to back to my ongoing series: Nutrition Navigation. The idea behind the series is part of the vision behind the cookbook I am working on, that is, bridging nutritional knowledge/needs and great food. In this series, I will focus on specific training periods or training needs (like peak training or post-long run), on a specific nutrient (like Vitamin D) or a specific food (like Kale) and show you how that translates into real, healthy, gourmet meals. Often times that means I will provide a snapshot of a days worth of meals or a collection of ideas, recipes or methods. Have questions or want to see something specific covered. Email me with your special requests! Please note, I am NOT a registered dietitian and these views reflect only what have worked for me as a runner and personal chef.

I get a lot of questions about being a vegetarian or vegan runner. I use to be vegan but it didn't work for me. I thrive on a pretty low grain/bean diet, am gluten intolerant, and dairy free. I like vegetables and protein. However, a lot of the time I eat very vegetarian and I think it can work for a lot of people. When going vegetarian there are a lot of questions runners have about meeting their nutritional needs.

  1. Don't be a junk food vegetarian. There are so many processed vegetarian products and replacement products out there it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because it is a vegan or vegetarian processed product that it is good for you. Processed food vegetarian or not is not ideal for an athletic diet. Eat real food.
  2. Stay balanced. Not everyone loves vegetables the way I do. My downfall as a vegan was that I only really wanted to eat vegetables and my diet was out of balance. Make sure you monitor your balance of carbs (it can be easy just to inundate your diet with starchy carbs), fat and protein. A healthy athletic diet is a balanced diet.
  3. Think about, but don't worry about protein. As runners, we need protein. Not a huge amount but that doesn't mean you can neglect it. If you are eating a real food diet, just make sure that you are maintaining a healthy balanced diet that includes some obvious protein sources.
  4. Go nuts! Protein, fat,  nuts are quite the runners wonder food. Enjoy them freely!
  5. Get your Omegas. Try Udo's Oil an excellent source of 100% plant based Omega Fatty Acids.
  6. Cozy up with a good book. Well done vegetarian and vegan meals can often times be more complex and flavorful because they aren't relying on animal protein to carry the flavor and thus more effort is taken in building flavor. Invest in some good vegetarian cookbooks to help learn how to build flavor.
  7. Don't overthink it. There is no universal right answer of what to eat. (Oh look a theme in this series). Try different things out and see how you feel. If you keep the above in mind, you should be good to go!
What works for me:

I personally learn from examples. Even though I can understand a list (like above) or a set of instructions, often times I am able to synthesize it best by viewing an example. I thought for this series, I would include an example of what a typical vegetarian weekday of meals looked like.


Yes, that is real gluten filled toast up there. Yes, I devoured it. Yes, there is an explanation for eating it, enjoying it and not being bothered by it. Unfortunately, no, I am still gluten intolerant. Toast with a butter and a selection of toppings is a great way to fuel up before a run. And a banana. My biggest problem with toast is that I feel hungry about 10 seconds later, I thrive better when I have something more protein and fat rich in the morning. I usually stick with my overnight oats, this week with amazing homemade maple almond butter with chia seeds.

Lunch #1 and Lunch #2:

I eat two lunches and I love salad and feel very incomplete without them on a daily basis. Ditto on the vegetables. Some might say it is too much fiber, but my body likes it, so I go wild with them. I happened to make a brilliant discovery with making my lunch: baked eggs. I had never had baked eggs before, but the idea sounded amazing and I ended up eating the almost identical salad twice.

To make baked eggs take a small pat of butter and melt it in a ramekin. Swirl the butter around to fully coat. Put some fresh chopped herbs, a bit of red pepper flakes and a little salt and pepper in the bottom. Crack two eggs over the herbs. Bake in a 350 oven for 15-20 minutes depending on how hard or soft you want your eggs. The baker tells me that baking them in a water bath is the way to roll. I need to try that.

Each salad included:
  • Mixed Greens
  • Leftover sweet potato salad with preserved lemons and green olives.
  • 2 baked eggs with herbs and red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 cups roasted broccoli (lightly sprayed with oil, roasted for 10-15 mins in a 450 oven).
  • simple vinaigrette

As with my taper week salads, I try and make sure that my salads are balanced with a good source of carbs (leftover sweet potato salad), protein (eggs), and fat (salad dressing). 


I was really excited to do this post and was really good about taking photos of my food all day long. One of the main reasons I picked this particular day was because I was preparing an epic vegetarian meal for dinner since we were having a vegetarian dinner guest. The meal turned out excellent. The flavors were amazing, the colors beautiful. And we gobbled it up without a thought for my camera which I had picked up right before we sat down to eat. So you have to settle for this:

That was a great recipe from Everyday Greens. It was a Indian Curry with Tamarind and Chilis. It was complex and flavorful and packed full of veggies. I served it over saffron rice, though I didn't have any. A great recipe, one that even a meat eater would beg for more of.

Being a vegetarian athlete has become more and more common and it is easy to create amazing delicious meals that also meet your nutritional needs. I think everyone benefits from having a meatless day each week so even if you are just going vegetarian for a day, this is a great place to start.

I like food

Nathan's stop photographing my food and let me eat face.
Just kidding. Lunch at Pok Pok in Portland.

I like food. I promise. I admit it, I have left out the foodie part of this blog for some time now. Today, I was trying to figure out why.  I haven't been baking any great new muffin creations, but I have been cooking up some hugely creative meals. While you may miss my muffins (note: you can buy all your favorite gluten free muffin mixes from me here), I have been focusing my eating on all sorts of amazing vegetables and creative recipes that don't really include that much grains. I am actually surprised I haven't done a better job documenting all these eats because frankly I have been impressed with myself. I think that my kitchen confidence is coming from working more and more as a personal chef. It is all in the practice and I am in my groove. So why no food blogging? Well, I think the answer is, at least partially, day light. You see when I bake things, I can take beautiful shiny wonderful shots of the food in the afternoon light or even evening light. It makes a big difference. Since I make dinner around 7pm and its winter, there is not much light to be had for good photography. Believe me when I say, those shots of beautiful looking food you see all over the internet are not done in a dark kitchen or under florescent lights or using a flash. When I go out to eat, I am getting lost in the moment and enjoying myself and my experience. I don't want to be the person that makes everyone wait to eat and have their food get cold while I get a good shot of it.

Delicious treats from Ken's Bakery in Portland.
But not for this gluten free lady!

Whatever the reason, I have not been making you drool nearly enough or sharing the foodie side of me. This is just an acknowledgement of that. Whenever you do need to drool, head over to my recipe page and have at it.

Anyways, one thing I was inspired to share (again) is my kombucha. I have been brewing kombucha for almost 6 years now and I love having my own supply on hand. I would love to just go hog wild and start making enough to sell, along with other fermented goodies; I love fermentation. Everyone seems to be on the bandwagon these days with kombucha but I've been here all along. I posted my kombucha recipe on my blog 3 years ago (here). Check it out if you want to know how to brew it. My kombucha recipe is very simple and has a great flavor profile. I don't mess with a good thing by using herbal teas or flavored teas. I think it is easiest and safest to flavor after the fact.

A beautiful healthy kombucha culture.

Enough about the things I haven't been doing, I need to get out for another run and start work on another delicious dinner.

Exceptions and Rules

Sunrise on Tam. An exceptional day.

This morning I headed out to do my tempo workout of the week. I was scared, I was intimidated and nervous. I knew how significant this workout would be. It is a big week in my training for Houston which is just over three weeks away. I also knew that I had struggled through my "track" workout on Tuesday and been reduced to a crying, shaking bag of bones and not necessarily in a good way. Needlesstosay, I knew that this workout would be telling. The workout was a very stout 10x 1 mile tempo run at race pace minus 10 seconds. Ideally, I wanted to hold 5:58s or better. As I ran my warmup down to the polo fields in Golden Gate park, I pondered whether the paces I have been holding in previous weeks tempo workouts were the exceptions or the rule. I knew THIS workout would make that clear. And it did.

The main reason I had been contemplating the concept of exceptions and rules is because a friend of mine inquired about my reference to being on an athletic diet leading up to Houston and urged me to write a blog post about what that means to me. The friend is a world class Ironman athlete and even she says that she gets confused. I can relate to that, I think a lot of athletes understand a bit about nutrition but not necessarily enough to implement a plan for themselves that coincides with training.

I was hesitant to write this blog because I don't believe in defining myself strictly and also because in the past giving myself rules created a great deal of anxiety around my food choices, including peanut butter. In the past year, I have had the healthiest relationship with food in a long time and while that meant I raced slightly heavier in 2010, the reduction in anxiety and obsession and time spent thinking about nutritional content and quality was worth it. I raced well and learned to trust myself. I realized I eat very mindfully, healthfully and don't need to stress about my food choices, since even my indulgences are most people's health foods.

A morning on the trails, currently the exception in my training :(

My training for Houston has been different in a lot of ways as I have discussed. It is also significant because it is the first time I have put myself on a strict race related diet. As I prepared for this race, I finally was able to synthesize the idea of periodization for my food/diet just like I do for my running/training schedule. I made modifications to my diet, changed the rules and exceptions and even implemented some things with no exceptions. The final two weeks of December I transitioned to the eating plan but let Christmas eve/day include exceptions (after all, I needed a glass of wine-believe me and HAD to have a slice of my mother's Stollen on Christmas morning, it's tradition) but after that, it's been on the plan! So what does that plan look like? With the help of my trainer Josh and my friend Ronda and my own experience, experimentation (as well as a few tests which determined food intolerances/allergies), I developed the following plan, rules and practices.

Typical day:
Addendum (1/7/2011): This is the baseline plan, I don't weigh my food and add in additional items as I see fit based on hunger or need. I developed it as guidelines to help me with timing, general portion and content.

Example of a dinner from two nights ago: Ka Pra Grow (fresh ground pork, garlic, gluten free tamari, red chili, coconut oil), Quick cooked Asian Greens (cabbage, mixed braising greens, coconut oil and gluten free tamari) and a side of roasted carrots (for my starchy veg, while Nathan had rice).

Last nights dinner: Bacon, shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes and brussels sprouts topped with homemade fire roasted bell pepper one pan "stir fry" and roasted winter squash.

Rules and Practices:

  • Wheat/Gluten
  • Sugar (refined)
  • Sugar (non-refined)/ artificial sweetners
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy
  • Grains (except oats), Sweets, pastries, cereals, or baked goods
  • Avocados, Pineapple (allergic)
  • No processed foods
Practices (notes from my trainer):

  • Practice a modified paleo type diet- focused on the vegetables and lean meats. 
  • Add back in a select few natural, starchy carbohydrate sources to support training. Time these to support workouts and recovery.  Still keep less ideal sources – sugar, juices, pastries, bread, pasta, flour, cereals, etc. OUT of the diet.
  • Starchy tubers would be a good choice – yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes. Corn tortillas and oats are other options. 
  • If carbs goes up, dietary fat should come down.  
  • Reduce added sources of fat (condiments, oils, nuts, seeds, etc.), and just get your dietary fat as by-product of your animal protein sources (eggs, fish, meat, poultry).
  • Spread food intake out over 5-6 meals. Drink lots of water.
  • Eat 1g of protein per 1lb of lean body mass.
  • Eat 1-2g of carbohydrate per 1lb of lean body mass.
  • Combine a serving of protein with a serving of starchy carbohydrate – both about the size of a deck of cards – with each meal and snack.
  • Starchy carbs (rice and potatoes) are better than fruits for athletes because fruits are sugars, natural sugar, but sugar nonetheless.  They are preferentially stored as liver glycogen whereas starch is preferentialy stored as muscle glycogen (which is what we want as athletes).
  • Continue to eat unlimited amounts of vegetables with any meal or at any other time.

My training and body have really responded to this nutrition plan and I feel great. It is not that terrific of a departure from how I normally eat. I normally eat approximately the lunch listed above, but was eating it in one sitting instead of split into two. I actually like splitting it up. My nutritional timing is way better and more effective. In fact, I have been more creative in the kitchen than ever before and plan to continue to eat this way long term but with room for exceptions. Outside of peak training, if I want something from the "no" list than I can have it, its a welcome exception as long as it is an exception. I have learned that peak training nutrition just means NO Exceptions and that normal eating whether during building phase or time off can be more flexible. As much as I joke about it, I am not chomping at the bit to have the foods I am currently excluding.  I look forward to a post-Houston treat, enjoying a celebratory toast but I also value how I feel currently and plan to continue to be a mindful eater. This plan is currently working for me, it is personalized to my needs and based on my own personal experience and understanding of how my body works. I don't for a second think that it would work for everyone, I don't believe in one size fits all nutrition. I also believe that being neurotic or a perfectionist about your nutrition intake is infinitely more harmful than helpful, so even in times of peak training nutrition a light hearted approach is encouraged. I think the one thing that everyone can take away from this is that peak nutrition is a time to eat a very clean healthful diet, it really does support the hard work you are doing out on the roads and trails. There is a time for (gluten free) muffins and a time for perfectly timed carrot sticks. Right now, I am enjoying food as much as I always do and loving just as much the nutritional benefits I feel.

Meat, its what's for dinner


Eat one of these and call me in the morning.

I started reading a book called The Butcher and The Vegetarian and had a realization. The author was talking about her symptoms of fatigue and inability to lose weight no matter what she did. She was a life long vegetarian and the solution: Eat Meat. The book is delightful thus far but it also made me  realize that I had been forgetting something very essential to my own success. I was writing a post on my other blog but I think the portion that follows really fits here as well...

From the delicious journey:

For the last few months of training and life, I have been working incredibly hard. I have run numerous 100+ mile weeks, ate healthy, been smart and on top of things. And yet, I have not really been feeling good. If anything, I feel like I am back to where I was in the twilight days of my veganism. Training hard, eating healthfully and tired as a corpse and not seeing results that my training and diet would indicate. I realized then that I needed to start eating meat again. I did, I felt better. Wahoo. Problem gone! Energy returned. Training gains achieved. I have the type of constitution that thrives off a diet consisting of fruits, vegetables and meats (and fats) and all parts of that are necessary for me.

But somewhere over the past year, I started eating less meat again. I would eat meat when dining out or special occasions, but slowly and surely meat dropped out of my diet for the most part until I was having it only 2-3 days a week. And lo and behold, for the last few months (since November) I have been feeling like dirt. My energy is low, my body composition is not changing (for the better) and my training gains appear lack luster. Today I realized that in an effort to work towards my training goals that I have been more strict about my diet during the week and basically eliminated meat during the week. My logic was poor on this choice as somehow I decided that regular meat consumption just meant added calories to my diet, when the fact of the matter is, I eat less when I eat meat (because I am satisfied) and that is just plain dumb anyways. I eat meat on the weekends or if I dine out, but in comparison to my needs from training, it is not enough, especially in the last month. I don't think I need a lot, but I need to have a modest portion on a nearly daily basis. If that means I need to swap out something else to make room on my plate, so be it. It WILL make a huge difference. No wonder I feel so good at the beginning of the week and crap by the weekend, I have eat meat on the weekends and not during the week. Thus, I need to eat meat and be good about including it in my diet.

For those of you who aren't familiar, I was a vegan in addition to being gluten free but ended up in really poor health. I discuss this topic in previous blog postings on my food website Fast Foodie cooks, this post and this post discusses the above further. And I think they illustrate that I have not and do not make the above statements in an unconsidered way.