What is health, really?
There are many measurable factors that determine health: BMI, body fat, overall weight, cholesterol, etc. Which one of these factors is a true measure of health? Or is it a combination of all of these? Is someone that is only 12% body fat but has to take high cholesterol medication considered healthy? Or is it someone that can run a half marathon, but has to take blood pressure medication daily? These were the questions I started to ask myself after watching so many former athletes struggle with their health.
I played college football at Michigan State, alongside some of the best college athletes in the country. From the outside, each of them, including myelf, seemed to be healthy. They could run fast, jump high, and lift a lot of weight. After my first 4 years in college I was coming off my third knee surgery and was informed by the training staff that I would not be able to participate my final year. I felt crushed by this news, but within a few days I realized what I wanted to do. I went to my strength coach, Ken Mannie, and asked to join his strength staff for my final year. He graciously allowed me to.
I began strength training the MSU football team. I worked with the athletes during their lift times and during practice I would train the injured players. By focusing my studies on strength training, I learned a great deal about the physical side of health. While conversing with the players during their training, I started to realize that there was a great lack of knowledge about nutrition even among the top athletes. The majority of us, including myself, consumed high animal-protein diets with the assumption that this would provide us the proper “nutrition” we needed for our high-energy lifestyles.
After my year at Michigan State, I was given the opportunity to strength train under Coach Jeff Dillman at the University of Florida. I was able to train not only football athletes but also track and field, baseball, and others. Being under both Coach Dillman’s and Coach Mannie’s advisement, I realized they have very different approaches and styles of strength training. However, both are able to not only gain the respect of every athlete that walks in their building, but also make every athlete feel comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. It truly is an inspiring trait to see in people. During my time at University of Florida I was able to continue expanding on my knowledge of strength training athletes, but I had also started my own journey with nutrition research. This started my curiosity and now expertise in a whole foods plant-based diet.
I started by reading a book called “The China Study” by Thomas Campbell. My new interest in nutrition, along with my background in athletics, lead my research to find that whole foods plant-based athletes were able to extend their careers far beyond that of athletes eating a normal Western diet. Some top athletes that either switched to a plant-based diet from a Western diet or have always eaten plant-based are the Williams sisters in tennis, David Carter in football, Tony Gonzalez in football and many endurance athletes. What is it about this diet was able to extend their careers? And how did their bodies not wither away from not eating meat?
“But where do you get your protein from?”
I found that from a young age we are taught incorrect information. Most of us are raised to believe that the only way to obtain protein is through consuming meat. This is actually entirely false. The healthiest way to obtain protein is through non-animal sources. Eating a whole foods, plant-based diet not only provides all of the protein we require, but also has the added benefit of being 100% nutritional valuable. This means no supplements, ability to get off of some medications, and eating as much as you want! During my time as a college athlete, I never understood the difference in the quality of what I ate and my performance. There is a chart called the nutrient density chart, which shows ranks food based on their nutrient density compared to the amount of calories. The top of this chart is dominated by plants. This means for each calorie of plant eating, you get far more nutrients than from each calorie of meat.
Some critics of a plant-based diet will argue that meat has a complete chain of amino acids while plants (except quinoa) do not. But, if you eat a wide variety of plants and nuts you will be able to obtain an adequate amount of protein, even for the most extreme of athletes. Consuming a high animal protein diet has been linked to high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer. All of these things can be almost eliminated by eating plant-based.
So, after learning this truth, what could I do? How could I get the word out without sounding like an extreme hippie? With my background in collegiate football, I would have never believed someone telling me about eating plant-based. It was around this time that I purchased a personal training gym. That experienced truly opened my eyes and made me realize that I could impact people on a personal level and that I could help individuals change their lives through a plant-based diet. This diet switch not only helped clients lose weight and feel great, but they were also able to stop taking medications ranging from high blood pressure to SSRI’s. Witnessing the first few people that no longer had to take daily medications that they had been taking for years was truly inspiring.
Having originally worked in college sports, strength-training athletes will always be a passion of mine. Watching athletes, in particular football players, get sick and pass at an early age makes me want to change how people view animal protein and health. Energy drinks and meat cannot fuel an athlete through several seasons. I wish I could tell them all, instead of battling your diet use it! Use your diet? That sounds like something Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, would have said. He was correct by saying ‘Let food by thy medicine.”
I do not believe that everyone will be or needs to be completely plant-based all the time. I started with just a 30-day challenge and felt so good that I never stopped. I have had some clients replace one meal a week with a plant-based meal, and then increase the replacement meals each week. Others yet, have decreased their meat portion to make a veggie dish their main portion. I have seen have success with all of these methods. I challenge you to try and implement one of these. There are many resources available to learn how to make any meal out of plants.
If you need help getting started, I now reside permanently in Denver, CO. where I own a personal training gym called Whole Health Club. We not only personal train but we also have an in-house kitchen to teach people how to cook plant-based. Learning how to cook is a skill like anything else; you can become better and more efficient by practicing and learning from an expert. There is no downside to incorporating one of these methods into your daily life. You can always go back to how you eat currently.
If you’d like to try to incorporate a whole-foods plant based diet successfully and see a difference, here are some helpful words of advice
· Keep a journal. One of the first things that you notice is your increased energy level. Sometimes it is hard to gauge, so it is helpful to write down how you feel. For example, if you normally take naps and haven’t felt the need to, or if you don’t have to take that middle of the day coffee-run.
· My next tip is to research. The more you learn something on your own and engage yourself, the more likely it is that you will stick to it.
· My final tip is to try new things. If you love pulled pork, look up a vegan alternative and try it. At the beginning, an easy way to do this is by looking up at least three new recipes every week and trying them. After a month or two and you will then have a great grasp on how to make new meals and what you enjoy.