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A dietitian's road to running and plant-based eating

Kayla Slater is a runner, fitness coach and plant-based advocate. So, which came first: the nutrition or the fitness?

“I would say probably the fitness, because in high school I did cross country,” says Slater, who now owns Plant-Based Performance Nutrition. “I was also running with my mom because she was a runner as well but I actually hated running."

After dabbling in dance and playing soccer for a long time, Slater ran for her high school year round. Like many high school girls, she developed some body image issues.

“I remember dropping a lot of weight and I didn't think it was alarming,” she recalls. “But I think I had some body image issues. And, of course, all my friends were trying not to eat a lot. I didn't really understand that mindset of how an athlete should eat.”

A valuable lesson in college

That was when she began to develop her interest in nutrition. She started making her own lunch and bringing it to school.

“I just realized I wanted to be a really good runner. I wanted to put the right food in my body. I didn't want to go to McDonald's after every meet.

Slater’s mom served fairly typical Western meals like mac and cheese. At the same time, her mom did teach her children about eating more vegetables and other healthy foods.

In college, Slater “didn’t always eat the best,” but she tried out being a vegetarian and then pursued a vegan lifestyle. She transferred colleges to attend the State University at New York in Oneonta so she could major in nutrition and become a registered dietitian.

“I was just studying so much about nutrition, knowing the effect it had on us, that I realized that I should try this.”

Slater ran on and off for college teams, then decided to run for fitness and did her first half marathon in college. Then she set her biggest goal: running a full marathon, which she did in the fall after she graduated.

Making the move

When people switch from a typical Western diet to vegetarian and then to plant-based, they often have trouble with weeding out one or more food groups. Slater fully admits that she doesn't always completely cut out dairy.

“I don't do cheese. I still have almond milk or oat milk, but still have some things with dairy,” she says. “I haven't always been super picky. I take the approach that if I want this, just eat it. I don't want to be restrictive of myself.

Often athletes and others considering going plant-based have concerns about getting enough protein and other key nutrients.

“The biggest tip, I would say, is to be mindful of where your protein's coming from,” she says. “Adding in fruits and vegetables that you might not even realize have protein in them or even grains, like quinoa. That’s what I always recommend to a runner who's struggling to get enough protein. There's so many sources of really good protein in plant foods.”

Iron deficiency is another issue faced by many plant-based athletes.

Slater says one option is taking an iron supplement but warns that it can trigger constipation.

“For iron, just make sure that you're having foods that are obviously high in iron like a lot of leafy greens and beans are good,” she says. “And make sure that you're helping your body absorb as much iron as possible. A good tip is to have vitamin C with that source of iron. So an example is a spinach salad with strawberries because strawberries have vitamin C. So the vitamin C from the strawberries will help your body absorb more iron from spinach.”

For those who are thinking about making the switch, it can be difficult to know whether to go all in or do so gradually.

For Slater it was a slow process but it worked for her. She went pescatarian, then moved toward being a vegetarian and then vegan. (I had a similar approach that I wrote about here.)

“I know some people think they just have to go cold turkey. I really think it depends on your personality and what you think will work for you. I like the idea of doing meatless Mondays. You can incorporate a couple of meals a week, one day a week of a meatless meal, and you're going to still see benefits of eating more plants.”

Journey to a podcast

Some clients experience similar body issues that Slater dealt with as a teenager.

“You do not want to have nutrient deficiencies or anything like that, or be too restrictive,” she advises. “Some of my clients have had disordered eating habits. Sometimes being strict can be difficult or challenging.”

Next for Slater is dispatching advice via a podcast, called The Plant Based Performance Podcast.

“I'm really excited,” she says. “I finally went full time in my business, so I've been able to put more energy and time into it. I just really want to just get more information out there. That's scientific, good information about plant-based eating as an athlete. It’s so important that people understand how to do it correctly so they are not doing more harm to their body.”

She is still working on the concept, format and other details but hopes to release the first episode in late October or early November.

“I would like to bring more people on and do some interviews,” she says. “It'd be great to do interviews with other plant-based athletes, runners, and other clinicians as well.”

Improving over time

A little older and a lot wiser now, Slater says that her plant-based approach has helped her running and recovery.

“I'm running better now than I was when I was younger,” says Slater, who is in her 30s. “I don't really know if it's just diet or that I'm more persistent with running. But I certainly think that it has helped because I feel good. I have more energy. That's something to say because the older you get, usually you have less energy and you see a lot of people complain that they don't have energy to run.”

As an example of her fitness, she recently ran a half marathon trail race in Old Forge, N.Y.

“It went really well,” she says. “It was a tough course. For a half marathon, I should be around about a 1:40. But because it's such a challenging course, it was only 1:46. It was right on my target for my estimated time, so that was good. I was proud of that effort.”

Speed drill

Name: Kayla Slater

Hometown: Moravia, N.Y.

Number of years running: 10 years

How many miles a week do you typically run: 25-30 miles/week, but depends on training schedule.

Point of pride: Finishing a marathon under four hours, next goal is a BQ!

Favorite race distance: Half marathon

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Tailwind

Favorite piece of gear: Noxgear vest

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't usually run with music, if I do, I usually play a Spotify playlist: confidence boost or Daily Mix.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You are enough

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

Facebook group: Plant Based Runner Online Support Group

Instagram: @plantbased_performance_rd


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