Tips on transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle
Adam Chaim grew up as an athletic kid. Of course in Canada that meant hockey. He also played volleyball, did weight training and inhaled protein to build his muscles.
As an adult, he stayed active and thought he was “eating well.”
However, about the time his wife, Shoshana, was pregnant with their second child, Adam experienced a sharp shooting pain in his chest and arm. A visit to the emergency room and subsequent tests would reveal a tumor on his kidney that was totally unrelated to the pain.
“Over the next nine months, as my baby grew in my wife’s belly, confusion, anger and fear grew in my own head,” he says.
Adam went all in on a plant-based diet to try to save his life. And it worked. A year later, his tumor had shrunk to the amazement of his doctors. Now, the Chaims spread their message of the value of plant-based lifestyles through their website, podcast, newsletter and more.
In the past couple of years, I have refocused my outlook to a plant-based lifestyle with traces of a pescatarian influence. Mostly plants, some fish and egg whites, for me. More people, especially endurance athletes, are considering going vegetarian, vegan or plant-based nowadays.
I decided to frame this interview around basic questions that those new to these types of diets would have. Here are excerpts of my interview with Adam and Shoshana:
Question: I really don't know where to begin. What would you recommend: going all in at once, starting with a Meatless Monday or something in between?
Shoshana: Fortunately, or unfortunately, that is not a cut and dry answer. We get it all the time from our clients. It really depends on personality. If you’re like Adam and can make the switch overnight and never look bak, all the more power to you. If you’re more like me, you need to ease your way in, learn as you go and feel comfortable to make it sustainable. Both ways allow for trial and error, triumphs and failures, but overall, you need to do what’s best for you and consider how fast you want to start reaping the benefits of a plant-based diet.
If you want to go all in, grab a few shopping bags and empty the fridge and pantry now, drop it all off at a shelter and head to the grocery store for beans, potatoes, rice and greens! If you’re going to take it slow, make yourself a schedule and start with breakfasts, move to lunch and then hit dinners. There are many ways to do it, but logically, people can wrap their heads around that!
Question: As an endurance athlete, I need more protein than the average adult. How can get the proper amount of protein in a plant-based or vegan diet?
Adam: The goal here is to put less focus on a single nutrient and focus more on calorie consumption. As an endurance athlete, you will most likely need to consume more calories than the average person. And by consuming the right calories, you will, in turn, take in the right balance of nutrients that your body requires for optimal health. By doing so it will lead to improved performance.
Question: I have already taken red meat out of my diet. When it comes to meat, I only do the healthy products such as wild-caught fish, organic eggs, etc. Isn't that good enough?
Adam: Good enough. Well, if you are here reading this article on how to utilize a plant-based diet for ultimate health and performance then I would think good enough is not really for you. If that’s where you want to be now, it’s your call. All the respect in the world to you for getting to this point. If you want to know the facts, here they are. “Healthy” animal products including wild-caught fish, organic eggs and grass-fed beef will hold you back. They all will contribute to inflammation in the body, which can slow you down and impede recovery. If you want to recover faster … lose the animal products. I should also mention that these foods still contribute to heart disease by raising cholesterol and blood pressure. They have their own natural hormones you’ll be ingesting. And did you know that often the waste from slaughterhouses are poured into the same bodies of water your wild caught fish is coming from? So they are not only poisoned with heavy metals but also blood and waste from the pork industry.
Question: What about daily calories? The foods on a vegan diet have a lot fewer calories than other foods. I don't want to be losing weight as I train. I need to build and repair muscle. How do I get enough calories to supplement what I burn off?
Shoshana: Eat more.
But really … eat more.
It really depends on what your goals are. But for the most part, you have to choose your meals wisely, and once you get it down pat, it’s easy. There are some really good quality calorically dense foods like raw, unsalted nuts and seeds. Yes, eating green leaves are low in calories, but you’ve got to fill up the plate, bowl and blender! And don’t forget the starchy veggies and grains that help fuel the body.
Question: I really don't want to eat two salads twice a day. I think a vegan diet would bore me. How do I create meals that I will actually enjoy?
Shoshana: Two salads twice daily would bore us too. But this many years later, we’re not bored. We probably eat five salads a week. Some have fruit, some have creamy dressing, some have five varieties of chopped veggies. Some are crunchy and some are every color of the rainbow. Salads themselves have so many varieties and are more than just foliage.
What else can you eat? Big burritos. Pasta of every type. Lasagna, why not? Smoothies. Rice bowls. Sweet potatoes and chili. Curry … in a hurry! Quinoa flatbread pizza. Are you hungry yet? The point is that there are so many different types of foods to eat. Some will be the “veganized” versions of your favorite foods now, and some may be a bit different. But when it comes to salads, vegan, plant-based or otherwise, they should be a big part of your diet already because it aids recovery and has so many other benefits.
Question: We all know processed foods are bad. I see a lot of vegan products like plant-based burgers or energy bars that are clearly processed. How healthy are those and what do you recommend as far as their consumption?
Adam: Those foods should not be the focus of your diet, but there can be a time and a place for them. Having said that, it all depends on you, your goals, and what the alternatives are. Many people will use those foods as a transition technique while they figure out how to make quick, easy and delicious foods. But you’re correct, just because its vegan, does not make it healthy. They are not created to help you fuel your body to perform and recover the way you want to. But if you’re going to choose between a papa burger and the plant-based burger, I think you know what the better option is.
Question: Right now, I snack on apples, carrot sticks, nuts, bananas, etc. If I go vegan and start eating larger amounts of fruits and vegetables for my meals, what would you recommend I have for snacks?
Shoshana: Well, you don’t have to stop having that for snacks. Your meals can be rice, potatoes, oatmeal cooked veggies, smoothies, and the list goes on. Then you’re free to continue snacking as you do.
If you need some new snack ideas, you can make power balls, eat raw nuts and seeds, and we love us some hummus. And cashew butter filled dates! But sometimes your meals will be so spot on, snacks may not be as needed. You’ll figure it all out as you go!
Question: What other recommendations do you have for endurance athletes who are interested in trying a plant-based, vegan or vegetarian diet?
• Stop thinking about it and do it. There are so many resources out there for when you don’t know what to eat or are bored with salad.
• Take it slow and start making changes every day.
• Add more greens and veggies to what you are already eating.
• Don’t make big changes too close to race day.
• Any changes you want to make for training purposes should be tested in advance to see how your body reacts to the food you are using for fuel.
• Get some help from a plant-based coach.
• People will always question what you are doing with your diet, but if you think back to your endurance debut, people surely questioned if running, swimming or biking that much was good for you too and if you’d be able to be successful. So don’t be discouraged. You can do it!
Name: Adam Chaim
Hometown: Born in Montreal, now living in Toronto.
Number of years plant-based: 8
Point of pride: My family, completing two Ironman triathlons and thriving beyond the age of 40 after being told I'd be gone.
Favorite meal/recipe: Bowl of our Slow Cooker Chili with sweet potato and avocado added.
Favorite pre-exercise or training food/drink: Bowl of oats with raw pepitas, cacao nibs, goji berries, hemp hearts, chia seeds and bananas.
Favorite or inspirational quote or song: "I'm strong, I'm determined, I can do anything I choose to do.” — my mantra
Name: Shoshana Chaim
Hometown: Born in Montreal, now living in Toronto.
Number of years plant-based: 8
Point of pride: My family and sharing my values of compassion and helping others
Favorite meal/recipe: Any curry, any time.
Favorite pre-exercise or training food/drink: Dates and water.
Favorite or inspirational quote or song: Somewhere Over The Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
Where can others connect or follow you: • Website: planttrainers.com
• Podcast: The Plant Trainers Podcast (Apple Podcasts or any other listening platform) • Social media: @planttrainers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook