Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, April 17. THERE are many reasons why very few swimmers have adopted the vegan diet. The top two, from my experience, are the difficulty in keeping the same amount of nutrients in your diet and resisting the strong urge after workout to consume everything in our reach regardless of its source.
To refresh your memories, I switched to a vegan diet on my 40th birthday in February in the hopes of improving my overall health. The effect it would have on my swimming was a big unknown, and that scared me from the beginning.
After two weeks, I was feeling great. I had lots of energy. I was enjoying veggie burgers, 10-bean soups and vegan jambalaya. Things were going so well that I wasn’t seeing the warning signs. Everyone kept mentioning how much “skinnier” and “leaner” I looked. I didn’t see any difference when I looked in the mirror. My husband remarked that he could see my shoulder blades for the first time. I bought a scale to check my weight. On March 1, I weighed 193 pounds. I had to stare at the number on the scale for a long time. I had just lost 10 pounds in about a month. Apparently, adopting a vegan diet is an excellent weight-loss plan.
I promised to keep an eye on the weight. The number kept dropping. When I returned home after attending the men’s NCAA championships, I weighed 189 pounds. I didn’t tell anyone, though alarms started going off in my head. I knew I had very little fat in my body when I weighed more than 200 pounds, so I knew that the 11-plus pounds I had just lost mostly came at the expense of my muscles.
Though I was trying to consume a lot of food every day, I realized my calorie count had fallen drastically. The amount of carbohydrates in my diet had dropped and though I was eating nuts and beans by the pound, none of it provided the right amount of protein that swimmers need to build and repair muscles. Even vegan protein powder wasn’t enough. So, as my calorie count and protein ingestion decreased, so did my muscle mass. I did find it a little harder to sprint, though my aerobic capacity had not changed.
The true test came at the Arizona Masters state championships in the first weekend of April. I knew I hadn’t been putting in the right amount of training since October, but my times in workouts suggested I would be pretty close to my Masters best, despite the occasional difficulties with sprinting. I was wrong. My times were some of the slowest in my Masters swimming career, and it had everything to do with a lack of power. Add to the fact that every other person was commenting that my body wasn’t as muscular as they remembered, and I knew I needed to re-evaluate things.
All other things being equal, I knew the fault was in my diet. I knew I needed to get much more protein into my meals. I’m not a nutritionist, but I would imagine a professional would tell any elite athlete that protein is a major component of most meals. When I was a vegan, I consumed protein in every meal – vegan protein powder in my oatmeal for breakfast, nuts as part of my lunch and beans with dinner – but after adding it up, I rarely got more than 40 grams of protein a day. For the average Joe Blow, that’s fine. But for a sprinter, that’s just scratching the surface. I don’t think there’s anything on the vegan menu that can provide the same protein that a chicken breast, a pork chop or slice of meatloaf has.
The day after the state championships, on April 7, I decided to change my diet once again. Instead of completely ditching the vegan diet, I decided to become a “daytime vegan.” I’ll still eat oatmeal with protein powder for breakfast five to six days a week and adhere to vegan restrictions for lunch. As for dinner, anything goes. Dinner on April 7 was wonderful. I had a big salad with two chicken breasts mixed in. My body didn’t wretch as the chicken entered my stomach, nor did I feel any physical difference after dinner. Mentally, I knew it was the right decision.
I’ve detailed the negative effects of taking on this vegan diet, but there was one major piece of positive news that came exactly two months after the experiment began. I got the results of a blood test that I had taken three days earlier, and on the second page was the number “151” next to “Total Cholesterol.” I don’t think I have ever seen that number so low. I believe I was 25 years old in 1999 when I first had my cholesterol checked, and it was around 220. The sole culprit was genetics, so my doctor at the time did not know of anything that could help. Thirteen years later, I started taking a generic pill to help with cholesterol, the same year I started eating oatmeal nearly every day for breakfast. Last year, my total cholesterol was 195. Thanks to a diet of mushrooms, rice, beans, lettuce, strawberries, oatmeal, tofu and pasta, I dropped my total cholesterol 44 points.
If I didn’t have my athletic condition to consider, I would still be a complete vegan today. But if I want to be the swimmer I know I can be, I must live part-time in the world of vegans and the rest of the time as an omnivore. It will take some time to regain my muscle mass, but I’m motivated to make it happen, and that’s a big first step.