Two local athletes weigh in on how a vegan diet shapes their training and performance

By Haley Rae Shoning

Sharon McDowell-Larsen ran her first 7K race as a junior in college in 1985. Shortly thereafter, she ran her first marathon and promptly signed up for Ironman. The accolades that follow include two-time Xterra age-group world champion (55–59), winner of the Leadwomen challenge, national Nordic ski champion in marathon distance for her age group and multiple podiums in masters mountain bike championships. She continues to train in all of these disciplines, but focuses mainly on Xterra triathlons.

McDowell-Larsen became vegan 19 years ago after reading a book called “The China Study.” While she was skeptical at first, she says, “I kept looking up many of his citations and reading the research and I couldn’t argue with the science.”

Vegan and plant-based diets have leapt into the mainstream over the past 15 years. However, data shows that, unlike the rapid rise and fall in popularity of fad diets like the high-carb diet or low-fat diet, veganism continues to trend. “The number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017, a 600% increase,” according to a recent article in Forbes. “Sales of plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods, including meat, cheese, milk and eggs, grew 17% over the past year, while overall U.S. food sales rose only 2%.”

Kirsten Smith is a Boulder-based triathlete who has been competing since 1999. (photo courtesy Kirsten Smith)

Kirsten Smith is a Boulder-based triathlete who has been competing since 1999. She trains in “all distances of swimming, biking and running.” Smith has been a vegetarian since she was 8 years old. “About 15 years ago, I learned about the dairy industry and wanted to stop eating eggs and dairy too,” she says, “but it took me about 10 years to give up dairy.” She made a full transition to a vegan diet five years ago, and today she eats “75 percent whole healthy foods with some processed foods thrown in.”

Boulder has always been a few steps ahead in terms of health and wellness. In 2015, Huffpost named Boulder one of “The 10 Most Vegetarian Cities in the U.S.” Many local restaurants offer vegan or vegetarian options, and a slew of eateries boast entirely vegan or vegetarian menus.

Improving Health and Performance

It’s only natural that health-conscious, athletic Coloradans were quick to latch on to the trend. A well-rounded, plant-based vegan diet is anti-inflammatory, includes plenty of plant protein and healthy fats, and is chock full of necessary vitamins and minerals, which can lead to weight loss, increased energy and reduced risk of chronic disease.

Prior to going vegan, McDowell-Larsen ate a healthy diet of salads and vegetables and minimal junk food, but says, “My cholesterol was high, and I was having a hard time losing any extra weight I would gain over the winter.” Since her transition to a plant-based vegan diet, McDowell-Larsen was able to get off three different asthma medications and says her cholesterol levels dropped and her joint pain dissipated.

Chronic inflammation is a continual release of chemicals and proteins from immune cells to defend the body against foreign invasion, but by doing so irritates and causes tissue damage. This results in symptoms such as muscle and joint pain, fatigue, gas and bloating, and other digestion issues. This chemical release is triggered by food, particularly sugary foods and trans and saturated animal fats. Antioxidants, phytonutrients and flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables quench free radicals — which result from exposure to harmful toxins, microbes and chemicals — and reduce inflammation. Polyphenols, which give fruit and vegetables their color, are also powerful anti-inflammatory agents. Whole soy foods like tofu, tempeh and edamame provide isoflavones — antioxidants that control free radicals. Many nuts and seeds and healthy fats contain omega-3 fatty acids, which turn into anti-inflammatory molecules in the body.

photo by casanisa

Chronic inflammation often leads to autoimmune diseases, which occur when the body recognizes itself as an invader and attacks its own healthy tissue. This can present as celiac disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes … the list goes on. Eliminating inflammatory foods (such as sugar, animal products and processed items) and replacing them with anti-inflammatory foods (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats) can reduce symptoms dramatically. Additionally, a study funded by the National Cancer Institute shows that those following a vegan diet had a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and hypertension compared to vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

Plant-based foods have a lower calorie density than animal products, which means that they have fewer calories per pound of food. For example, broccoli and kale have about 130 calories per pound, berries have around 140 and tofu has about 270. By contrast, salmon has more than 800 calories per pound, chicken breast has 750 and cheddar cheese has 1,820. By eating plant-based foods, you can eat more, therefore consuming more nutrients and staying full longer, without the caloric load.

Since becoming vegan, Smith says that she recovers from training more quickly, her skin has cleared up and she has lost weight. “It has allowed me to recover more quickly so I can train more and lose weight so my run has gotten much faster. I switched for the animals but found so many health benefits accidentally. I think the outcome that has made me the happiest is the weight loss. I have struggled with weight my entire life and the past few years it’s been a lot easier.”

Legumes and beans are full of protein, iron, calcium, magnesium and soluble fiber, which supports healthy digestion. Whole grains provide a rich source of fiber, B vitamins and protein. Harvard School of Public Health points out that “a four-ounce broiled sirloin steak is a great source of protein — about 33 grams worth. But it also delivers about 5 grams of saturated fat,” whereas “a cup of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber, and has virtually no saturated fat or sodium.” This is the difference in the “protein packages” of animal foods versus plant foods. Animal foods may be high in protein but they are also high in saturated fats, sodium and other components that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and weight gain. Eating legumes and beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and high-protein vegetables offers the right amount of protein and fiber to promote fullness and keep energy up without the saturated fats.

In terms of her performance, McDowell-Larsen claims that her vegan diet keeps her from getting sick, reduces inflammation and aids in her recovery. “My ability to recover got amazing,” she says. “There are still times I can’t believe how good my recovery is, even at the ripe old age of 59. At the time I switched, I was very focused on mountain bike racing. I think I had my best year as a mountain bike racer the year after I switched. In fact, at the age of 49, I had to race as a pro again, because I was winning everything in my age group. I just wish I was vegan when I was racing more seriously as a pro.” McDowell-Larsen adds that, in addition to improving her own health and training recovery, “I can also feel good about doing less harm to the planet and animals.”

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