When we do something 3x a day, every day for our entire life, it seems like it’s an important thing and we should give it some attention, doesn’t it?
This blog post is for everyone, but especially for Eugenia Kis, who recently asked me about my diet and suggested I should write it up.
I love food, so I’m happy to oblige. If it helps one person, then it was worth it.
So let’s step back in time, because we really have to start at the beginning. Well, not the very beginning, but the time when a seismic shift happened in my life.
In February 2008 I bought a book called ‘Skinny Bitch’ in the hope it would finally be a diet program that would let me be successful. It was, but it was so much more than that and my life changed literally overnight.
Skinny Bitch is not about dieting, but the title is clever. Skinny Bitch is full of tough love and painful truth. It’s about opening your eyes and your heart and it comes with a hefty punch in the face and as much as it broke my heart to read it, I couldn’t put it down and at the end of the evening I had completely changed my mind.
Overnight I went from being a meat-loving, vegetarian-mocking foodie to becoming a passionate, compassionate, curious vegan. I was also idealistic. Forgive me, I was only 22.
The coming days, weeks and months were filled with food experiments, endless amounts of baking, cooking and trying to convince everyone around me that I had found the holy grail (I have, but I have stopped trying to convince people – they can do it or they don’t, I don’t really care).
At the time I lived in Wellington, New Zealand, and believe me when I say that 2008 was a time when vegans gathered secretly at organic shops to admire the book selection of 2 (!!!) vegan cookbooks from the US, freshly imported cacao nibs and stupidly expensive Mission Figs.
There were no vegan restaurants, cafes, gelato places, no vegan burger joints, no vegan donuts, no vegan butter ‘chikn’. Vegan meetups were organized via flyers at said organic shops.
And you know what? For me this was great. Not because I like things to be difficult, but because it meant I had to really put effort into cooking all my meals, baking all my cakes and getting skilled at making meals with ingredients I never even heard of.
And suddenly my diet catapulted me to a lifestyle featuring Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Cambodian and Indian cuisine. Who needs burgers when you can have flavours, textures and the most amazing selection of vegetables all in a single meal?
I had exactly one vegan friend and she was my absolute best friend. We studied psychology together and became inseparable. I brought food, she kept me from eating it all at once and we worked hard to ace all our statistics papers. It was an amazing time.
Everyone else around me was indifferent (at best) or went straight on the attack (at worst). They still do. It’s a funny thing, actually, this food stuff. People see you eating something different from them and unless you keep your cool, the meal will end in arguments, even if you just want to eat and not be cross-examined.
But over time you grow a thick skin. You have to when you’re ‘different’.
I didn’t keep baking and cooking like crazy, because thanks to the internet I was soon able to watch hours and hours of youtube videos from fellow vegans and I soon began to embark on a raw food journey. Nope, I didn’t live on an island and I didn’t stop showering. I was simply trying to find the optimal diet, the one that is most healthy and gives my body all it needs.
I lived on raw fruits and vegetables for a year. And I felt better than I ever have before or since. It really is incredible, and I was never hungry (just gotta eat enough). So why did I stop? It just wasn’t practical. Even as a student with a schedule that allowed for enough time to prepare, wash, peel, chop and carry around kilos of food every day, I just couldn’t be bothered with the impracticalities of it. It was also pretty unsocial. Have you ever been to a restaurant and tried to have a meal of only raw fruits and vegetables? No bread, no rice, no potatoes, no pasta, nothing to fill you up. If you’re lucky you get a tasty salad (hold the dressing!) and a fruit salad for desert. And you leave still hungry…
So my diet kept evolving and between February 2008 and October 2018 I have found what is optimal for me.
Optimal? The optimal lifestyle (let’s not call it diet, because it is so much more than that) for me is one that gives me plenty of energy, features delicious food for every single meal, food that is nutritious, simple and energizing. Optimal means no food comas, no indigestion, no heavy feeling. Optimal means it fuels my training, let’s me be an athlete and supports my many travels, shifts in timezones, keeps me healthy and balanced.
Finding my optimum
How did I find this optimum? Apart from trial and error, my biggest lesson learnt from the last 10 years is to orient yourself towards the people who have achieved the goals you want to achieve.
I’m often surprised that people who want to change their lives, be it professionally, personally, health-wise, fitness, etc., don’t surround themselves with the right people. If we surround ourselves with those we aspire to be like, it’s much easier to reach our own targets. We still have to do the work, ask the questions and make the changes, but at least we are working with those who have achieved success.
So I looked at fit, healthy vegans and followed their advice. My diet shifted from a colorful mix of various foods to a simplified one that was built on the basis of carbohydrates. About 80% of daily calories come from carbohydrates and that has been that way for almost 10 years (including that year of raw foods). 10% from protein, 10% from fat.
Why? Because it works. I’m no food scientist and I don’t want to get into all the details which would require a lot of research and paraphrasing here. I knew it 10 years ago and it has never failed me, so just believe that it works 😊.
Yes, yes, I hear you. Your body NEEDS more fat and protein. But it doesn’t. Lions all eat the same stuff. Elephants all eat the same stuff. Dolphins all eat the same stuff. Humans are not as special as they think. While we can survive on crazy bad diets and while we can digest and even get energy from highly processed foods, the question for me is not one of survival.
I want to THRIVE. Nothing less will do. I have one life here (as far as I know) and I want to make it count.
Eating crap three times a day, day after day and doing what I do just doesn’t go together.
So back to the story. I followed people who did what I wanted to be able to do, who had the physiques and lifestyle I was aiming for. And over the years I found what worked for me.
In essence that means this:
- Simplicity: minimal seasoning, minimal amount of ingredients
- As unprocessed as possible: Potato is better than rice. Rice is better than pasta.
- Fiber for every meal: Animal products do not contain any dietary fiber, but we need fiber for a healthy digestive system
- Fruit for breakfast: always, unless there is no way of obtaining it. A day that starts with fruit is a good day
- 3 liters of water every day
- Home cooked whenever possible: I’d rather eat a healthy bowl of warm oatmeal at home than go to a fancy restaurant. Yup, cheap date.
- Avoid anything with ingredients you cannot pronounce
At this point you might be shaking your head and rolling your eyes and I would have done the same 11 years ago. Keep in mind, this was a long evolution. I don’t expect anyone to do it, to change or to even consider it. But if you want to, here is your shortcut.
One big lesson I learned during the first 3-4 years of my vegan journey was calorie counting. I was focused on counting calories to ensure I was eating enough and the right amounts of this and that. All part of the learning process and the biggest factor in successfully getting to a healthy lifestyle that I can keep up when stressed, when travelling, when training, when visiting relatives and in all those other tricky life situations.
Calorie counting is a bit boring but understanding how many calories are in different foods is really helpful. Counting calories is easier when your meal consists of 5 ingredients instead of 25.
A lot of crazy diets are based on 1000 calories a day. Not a good idea if people want to maintain it. I also notice that people have great New Year’s resolutions to become healthier and they have lunches that feature a green salad with 3 tomatoes and cucumbers. If you’re lucky and add a bit of dressing this might add up to 200 calories. Not enough.
Let’s do the math.
I need about 2,000 calories a day as a minimum to just maintain everything as it is (1.66m (5ft 4), 55kg (121lbs), active lifestyle with training 5-6x per week).
I eat 3 square meals a day. No snacking, just 3 meals. 2,000 calories / 3 = 670 calories per meal.
When I eat that much I am not necessarily full, but I’m satiated. 200 calories for lunch are ridiculous.
So while we’re talking about calories, simple meals and all of that, what do I actually eat?
At this point I want to remind you why I eat this way:
- I want to eat the healthiest diet possible given my lifestyle
- I want it to be practical and portable
- I want to feel more energized after a meal, not fall into a food coma
- The diet needs to fuel my athletic and travel adventures
So here we go.
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. Actually, every meal is my favorite meal, but there is something about breakfast that is special.
I start my day with around 600-700 calories of food. Here are some sample meals:
- 5-6 bananas mashed, topped with raspberries and mixed with some hazelnut milk (deconstructed smoothie anyone?)
- Green smoothie made from 6 bananas and 150g spinach, blended with water
- 12 golden kiwi fruit
- 1kg grapes
- 1 large pineapple
- A whole watermelon (I have no shame when it comes to food)
- 1.5 liters of freshly squeezed orange juice
I eat breakfast between 8am and 8.30am at home before leaving for work.
As I typically train in the morning, lunch sometimes feels like the first proper meal because breakfast might just be refueling after my morning workout. Again I’m aiming for 600-700 calories. Lunch happens between 12-1pm.
- Overnight oats: 1 cup oats, 5 medjool dates (chopped), soaked in hazelnut milk
- 4 large potatoes, 1 jar of sweet corn, Aijvar
- Roasted vegetables
- Or simply more fruit
These days I eat dinner around 4pm. This obviously is flexible, so when I go out with people I eat later, or when I’m travelling. Whenever I’m making my own food though, I eat at 4pm. This gives me 16 hours between dinner and breakfast and gives my body a nice break. Also makes sleeping much easier and simply feels good.
For this reason I eat between 800-1000 calories for dinner, depending on my training volume and how hungry I am.
- Cooked white rice (1 cup raw volume) with 1 avocado, lemon juice, salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
- Potatoes with steamed vegetables
- Curried rice with banana
- Vietnamese noodle salad with lots of vegetables and fresh herbs
During the week I have dinner at work, so it has to be easy to prepare (in the morning) and portable. On the weekends when I’m home I tend to actually cook something, e.g. a thai curry with rice or something like tortellini with creamy spinach or mushroom sauce.
All in all you can see it is very simple. I imagine that many of you will think ‘OMG this sounds so boring, don’t you want to just go eat a burger/burrito/Chinese buffet???’.
Nope, I actually don’t. When I travel, I try all sorts of foods, as long as they’re vegan. But I don’t need that every day. My body really enjoys simplicity. Having a heavily seasoned, spicy, fatty meal gives me a food hangover the next day. So when I go out, I prefer healthy cuisines like Vietnamese or Thai food. Or a place that serves a lot of salad.
This is what works for me and has worked for years. Being healthy isn’t something you notice. Being sick on the other hand really sucks.
I’m not immune from disease but having had less than 15 sick days during my professional career since leaving university at the end of 2010 is proof enough for me that what I’m doing works for me. And I just feel good. On a normal day I simply wake up, get up and start.
I don’t drink coffee or alcohol (oh now you’re really reconsidering that cheap oatmeal date invite you were going to send, aren’t you?). No coffee, because I don’t feel the need to. No alcohol because I don’t like it. Nothing more to it.
So how do I end this post? It started with Eugenia asking me what I eat, especially as a vegan athlete and the above is the best summary I can give you. Learning about food, what is in food (labels!), and how many calories it has (so you know how much you need to eat) is really helpful.
Plenty of people are shocked about how much I can eat, but of course the caloric density plays a big role in that. A head of broccoli has a fraction of the calories of a double whopper but has much more volume, because of its water and fiber content. People can ridicule me for piling my plate high with vegetables, but I know that those humble vegetables (and grains and fruits) are the building blocks for everything.
Every single cell in your body is built from the many different components you absorb from your food. And you truly are what you eat.
I know what I want for me, what makes me feel good and what gives me the energy to do ‘all the things’. And when someone tells me they could ‘never do that’, I have no doubt that they’re right. It just depends on what’s important.
So the moral of the story? For me it was to follow those who had achieved what I still wanted to achieve, to put their advice into practice and to feed myself an optimal diet.
And that is it, I guess.