Achievement. It’s at the core of human existence. Athletes of all types dedicate their lives to it, yet those in professional roles also work extremely hard to aspire to reach the top of the corporate ladder. Without the motivation to achieve our goals, it’s fair to say that human beings wouldn’t have developed and progressed as much as a civilisation. Some even say we are in the age of the anthropocene!
What we feed our bodies is an important part of achieving. There is the famous saying, ‘we are what we eat’. High performers will tailor their diet carefully to optimise their performance. What though if that level of performance could be achieved on a vegan diet? Hmm.
To many, the modern-day vegan movement is a lifestyle thing, much of it based on the ethics of a meat-free diet. I recently learnt of the horrors of the dairy industry. Much of this drives me on with the choice of food that I eat. However for some, being vegan is nothing to do with caring for the welfare of animals or how it is produced. Rather, it is about choosing a plant-based diet to optimise their performance in their chosen passion. Scott Jurek, the champion ultra-marathon runner being an example. Ross Edgley, the man who ran 30 marathons in 30 days, some with trees strapped to his back, is another.
David Haye, the champion boxer and the Williams sisters (Venus & Serena) are also all vegan; Venus chose this path in the effort to reduce inflammation in her body resulting from an auto-immune disease; and Serena, in solidarity, is supporting her cause. It is well-known that a diet rich in red and processed meats is implicated in heart disease and inflammation in the body. A plant-based diet, rich in colourful fruits and vegetables, is known to reduce this.
According to British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy member, Haley Coles, we do know that plant-based lifestyles are associated with a range of health benefits including ‘a lower risk for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers’.
Haley is quoted as saying that a balanced vegan diet means consuming more fruits and vegetables, ‘providing higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants, phytonutrients and fibre than omnivores, which might help reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress’. To this extent, choosing a nutrient-dense diet is obviously going to be performance enhancing.
Moreover, animal protein is more difficult to digest. Some people may consider it a complete source of protein, but it can cost the body some time to digest it. For those wishing to optimise their energy levels, would it not make more sense for that energy to be consumed actually pursuing their passion, rather than tiresomely in the process of digestion? When I look at it that way, choosing a vegan-based diet makes total sense.
For me, I realised the power of a plant-based diet with my other big passion: skiing. Every year, I take a demanding off-piste skiing course in the mecca of big mountain skiing, Chamonix. I’ve been doing these courses for the last four years with my elite ski instructor, Mark Gear.
I first took a course with Mark, initially at an ‘intermediate‘ level, then for the last three years, at a ‘advanced level’. I train all year for this event with my yoga and pilates practices. My goal has always been to reach ‘expert level’. By the end of last week, Mark said I was ready to take the next step. I was elated. My sense of achievement was manifest and I felt a sense of purpose in my life. My dharma perhaps.
What’s more, I achieved this feat pretty much on a vegan diet. In fact, it’s fair to say that I left my co-skiers pretty much behind me when it came to stamina and fitness. I was “hungry” on the mountain and I desperately wanted more. From the first to the last run, I felt lighter, focussed and extremely determined.
That’s not to say that my high performance is exclusively linked to my diet. I love what I do, so why wouldn’t I have more energy. As Mark Hill, my yoga teacher regularly says, “wherever the mind goes, the energy flows”.
A great diet won’t fix a poor mind. Mind and body are one. But, if we can feed our body properly, then we will give our minds the best shot at being in equilibrium too. This is not just a lesson for extreme and demanding sports, but in any job or profession too. I am conscious of what I eat at the office; because I know what I eat will affect how I feel and perform for the rest of the day.
To this extent, the choice of a plant-based diet totally works for me. The notion that animal protein is required to perform at the highest level at any game is just an old wives’ tale. Let’s just keep it at that.