I like reading about what other people eat. Especially other athletes or people who eat similar kinds of plant-based foods as I do, but also in general – I’m intrigued by humans, and I’m intrigued by the detailed window into their lives that you get when you see what they eat. And so sometimes, for similar reasons, I like writing about what I eat too, and sharing it.
Except today I realized that literally the only reason to include very detailed portion sizes and servings of the things that I eat in a particular day would be to allow other people to directly compare themselves to me. So I’m not going to do that. (There is no other human on the planet who has the same metabolism, body composition, activity levels, fitness goals or lifestyle as I do, so…exact portions sizes would always be irrelevant! As compelling and satisfying as it is to label and understand everything with concrete values / numbers).
Instead, what I’m going to do (which I hope could in fact be relevant and interesting to more than one kind of person, in more than one context), is to share the kinds of things I eat in an average day. A broader overhead view. And the things that work and don’t work, and the imperfect but realistic balance that I am always trying to get closer to – finding ways that allow me to live the life that I want to live as a whole person, and be the athlete that I want to be, with hard training and big dreaming and big goals.
Things I do:
- To save time and effort in the week (things are usually different on the weekend), I generally eat the same thing every day, and mix up toppings / fruit / veg / things on the side to avoid getting bored. (For example, while I may eat some form of oats almost every day for breakfast, I can have it with many different kinds of fruit, nuts, toppings, etc. )
- I eat what I want, when I’m hungry for it, and I stop when I’m full. Sounds simple, and it is for some people, and for many other people it definitely isn’t. But when I am truly able to listen to my body and give it what it needs, I am without doubt the best athlete and person I can be. Exceptions to this may be…after a really hard workout or long run, when I know I need more energy when I’m hungry for, or at a celebration or special occasion: I hope there is always space in my life to step out of the routine a little bit, and eat food not JUST because it’s ‘optimal fuel’ but because the food is delicious and I’m with people I love.
- I eat a plant-based / whole food balanced vegan diet, and I have for the last 4 years. For ethical and health reasons, this is just what works best for me.
- Without allowing it to fill up an unnecessary amount of my mental energy and time, I do genuinely enjoy and look forward to all the food that I choose to make for myself.
Things I don’t do
- I don’t count calories or macronutrients. Or at least – that is the intention. Once you know the caloric value of every single fruit and serving of grain and spoon of peanut butter, it’s hard to unlearn that stuff. But for me it is very helpful (and possible) to decide to tune it out a bit, and rather focus on other things, like eating a large variety of colours and flavours and nutrients, and observing how the food makes me feel. (In an isolated way, not helping me achieve any of the athlete / person-related goals that I care about in my life, but as a thing of itself, counting calories has sometimes helped me to create an energy deficit and lose weight. Which is a tempting compelling truth. But every single time my body has done some really hard thing that I want it to do, or when I’ve been able focus and write and draw and generate lots of creative work, or study and do really academically well, I have also spent that time listening to my body and fueling for life / performance over aesthetics. This is something I want to emphasize and not forget)
- I don’t have cheat days, or ‘forbidden foods’ or forbidden food groups or anything that is completely off limits. If I am craving something that is considered a ‘treat food’, then I eat it in moderation, or I find a way to make it myself that is healthier or less processed. And if I eat something that is different or quite a bit more extravagant than what I’m used to, I try really hard to not ‘compensate’ for it or restrict what I eat in any way in the time that follows. I just go straight back to listening to my body and doing what I already know will work.
- I don’t really consume protein powders or other nutritional supplements or meal replacements or other typical ‘sport food’. I take iron and B12 supplements, but apart from that I aim to get all the nutrients I need from whole foods. I do sometimes take an energy gel halfway through a long run or race (32Gi for taste preference and for its extremely good / minimal ingredients list, and Gu as an alternative with caffeine).
The food of a typical day
This year (and it will change a lot next year), a typical weekday has tended to involve an early start, a morning workout and an evening workout (sometimes I train before breakfast, sometimes after, also sometimes just once a day in the evening), at least 3 meals and 3 snacks, an afternoon nap, time for getting other non-running-related things, and an early bedtime. I obviously eat more on days when I burn more energy, and less on the days that are more relaxed. But these things, in varying amounts, are what I like to eat:
As I said, breakfast is almost always oats. But with lots of different things mixed in and on top, and many options to mix it up and adapt it to your taste preference, or to what you have in the house.
The basic recipe for me is like this:
– A staple whole grain: 1/3 to 2/3 cup rolled oats, or barley / spelt flakes, or sometimes I mix in buckwheat or pre-cooked brown rice / quinoa
– A fruit or vegetable to grate in: grated apple always works well in oats, but I usually prefer to be a bit more adventurous, and grate in a small beetroot, a small peeled zucchini, or a floret of cauliflower. Sounds strange, but it really isn’t, and just adds extra texture / flavour, nutrients and volume.
– A plant–based milk: The liquid ratio for cooking standard oats is 1 portion of oats to 2 of your chosen liquid. I generally do half plant-based milk, (or regular milk if you’re not vegan) and half water. (I use unsweetened non GMO soy milk more often than something like almond milk, because it contains much more protein, and is sometimes also fortified with vitamin B12)
– Spices and things for flavour: I am very devoted to cocoa powder, and literally always add it to my oats. Cocoa and grated beetroot is my absolute favorite combination. But cinnamon, any other spices, vanilla, orange rind, whatever you’ve got on hand…these are all good things too. I also usually add a small pinch of salt.
– A source of sweetness: I use stevia drops as a sweetener for my oats. But chopped dates, raisins, honey, other fruits etc are all healthy good alternatives.
– A serving of seasonal fruit to go on top: This time of year, I LOVE to have chopped up watermelon on top of my bowl of oats, or berries, nectarine, other melon…whatever we have in the house! But I’m pretty much a fan of every single fruit. So I’m happy to use whatever is in season.
– A nut butter / source of healthy fat: We make our own unsweetened peanut butter and tahini, and I always have a generous spoon of either one of those on top of my bowl of oats. But chopped up nuts or a sprinkle of any kind of seed is not a bad alternative (though nothing beats the way peanut butter melts into hot cocoa oats!)
Putting this all together is really simple, and once you’ve done it every single day for a long time (as I have) you will find that it has morphed into an extremely streamlined routine that you can do while making coffee, cleaning up after yourself, drinking a tall glass of water, listening to a great playlist, and planning your day in your head.
What you do is just put everything into a pot except the fresh fruit and the nut butter, and stir it occasionally, until it’s at the consistency that you want it to be (I would say for quite thick oats, maybe…a maximum of 12 minutes?) Then pour it into a bowl, add the toppings, pair it with a great mug of coffee, and…you’ve just made yourself a magnificent and tasty and healthy breakfast!
If I’m not just doing a shakeout run or easy swim or something, I generally do my morning workout after breakfast, and my post-workout meal is lunch. And I’m pretty hungry by lunchtime. So I do my best to make it quick, nutritionally dense, hydrating (with lots of fresh things – I do obviously drink lots of water too though), and with balanced sources of carbohydrate, protein and healthy fat. Also a decent amount of flavour. With these things in mind, I either make a massive salad with lots of different things in it, or I cook up a whole lot of vegetables and legumes together in a pan, and add fresh things on the side. The two are pretty similar – the one is just a cooked slightly denser version of the other.
Lunch salad – you just combine all these things:
– Lots of greens and fresh things: I really love baby spinach, and add it to everything. All other kinds of salad greens are great too, as well as cucumber, celery, red pepper, tomato, and any / all other fresh salad vegetables. I also usually add in some kind of steamed green vegetable, like broccoli or brussels sprouts.
– A source of protein, generally legumes: we buy in bulk and freeze a large amount of legumes, and a larger variety than what you can buy in regular supermarkets (chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, mung beans, black-eyed beans, lentils, adzuki beans etc). I always use one kind of bean in my salads.
– A source of healthy fat: if we have ripe avocados, I always have 1/4 to 1/2 an avocado in my salads. Sometimes instead of that, or in addition, I add tahini, or seeds / nuts like pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts etc. The nuts and seeds are also great for protein.
– A starchier vegetable or fruit: To make it a little bit more dense, I always also add something like steamed or roasted butternut / sweet potato, or grated beetroot and carrot, or even something like diced apple or pear. Or combinations of all of the above.
– Things for flavour and seasoning: if I have something like avo or tahini, I don’t really add extra oil. But I do like to mix in lemon juice, salt, pepper, fresh herbs, spices, balsamic glaze, even sometimes soya sauce, tomato paste…whatever sounds like a good combination.
This is SO incredibly quick, versatile and tasty. Salad combinations like this are also a great way to use leftovers, and are easily made more interesting with pre-made things like hummus, falafels, dressings etc.
This has its own category because it’s actually kind of like a second lunch, and is more substantial than the other snacks I have. I have this 2-3 hours before my evening workout, and every single time it’s either a yoghurt bowl with soya yoghurt, cocoa powder, homemade nut butter, a banana, and sometimes a sprinkle of oats or buckwheat. Or I have a smoothie. The smoothie usually has 1 – 2 frozen bananas, some other frozen fruit (berries), baby spinach, homemade peanut butter and / or avocado, cocoa powder, and also sometimes oats or buckwheat on top, depending on how hungry I am. Both are filling but quite easy to digest, contain a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat, and…are really delicious! My afternoon snack is always a favourite thing.
This is pretty much always the meal when I come home and I want to eat the whole kitchen. Sometimes one of my parents has made food, which is great. Other times I whip together something that is really quick and filling and as filled with as many colours and textures as I can find (hah while consuming a couple of cooking snacks just to tide me over..). The individual bits change every night (much more flexible than my other meals), but the essential food groups / components of the meal stay the same:
– A whole grain: this is usually wholewheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, or rye / wholewheat toast. But also sometimes millet, bulgur wheat, polenta, barley, or any other interesting-sounding grain I can find and figure out how to cook.
– A protein, cooked with vegetables in a stew or sauce: Again, I return to a broad range of legumes / beans, and have some kind of bean cooked with a whole lot of green veggies and tomatoes and peppers and whatever is in the fridge, almost every night. Sometimes I switch it up with some form of soya protein. This would usually also include some olive oil for cooking, and maybe something like olives or cashews to densify it a bit.
– A healthy fat – Avocado is another showstopper for this one. I always add avocado if we have it. I also often just toast a whole lot of mixed nuts / seeds and sprinkle a spoon or two on top of my food, or have a tahini dressing. (I’m not at all a fan of adding extra oil to my food or to salad dressings, but if you are, then…go for it!!)
– Lots of salad things – without fail, I find every opportunity to pile on the greens – baby spinach, lettuce, kale, rocket, cucumber, and all the other salad things.
– A piece of fruit (sometimes with vegan yoghurt) to finish it off. I don’t always do this, but quite often a slice of melon or an apple or something equally fresh and lovely is a great way to finish off a meal.
Other snacks – between meals, and pre / post-workout:
– If I’m just doing an easy morning shakeout, I generally do that fasted, first thing in the morning. But I don’t like doing hard workouts on an empty stomach, and definitely notice that I take a lot longer for my legs to get going if I haven’t eaten before.
– A very very standard staple pre and post-workout small snack that I have at some point every single day is this: 2-3 teaspoons of unsweetened peanut butter with 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder and a little less than a teaspoon of honey. I stir it all up very well in a small container (like a little espresso cup or something), and it’s the best thing! Like a little chocolate energy ball, but one that is so easy to make, and can be eaten with a spoon. I often have this before a run. If I’m doing a long run, I’d have this around 30 minutes before leaving, plus a serving of fruit or some other quick carbohydrate.
– Another really obvious quick snack is just around 3 dates with some almonds or seeds – a deconstructed version of a raw energy bar. (Speaking of energy bars, when I’ve just finished a workout at my gym, and Kauai is right there, I do quite often turn to the convenience of their very minimally processed raw energy bars, which literally just contain nuts, dates and cocoa powder. They’re the kind of thing that I could definitely make more cheaply at home, but when I’m feeling tired and disorganized, this is not a bad alternative).
– As a post-workout thing for a really hard long run or one of the more endless half marathon interval sessions (or for after an actual half marathon), I have around a cup of chocolate soya milk (almost 8g of protein! And obviously lots of sugar, which is necessary), as well as 2 rehidrat sport sachets in a liter of water. I also try to have a proper meal as soon afterwards as possible
I could carry on adding detail to this for a long time! But this is pretty much my entire food system all summed up and written out with as much clarity and simplicity as possible. I think really the main thing that I want emphasize (again) is:
Everyone is different, and has very different nutritional needs. But if we were all to follow similar dietary guidelines I think they would be to remember that there are NO short-cuts or sustainable hacks to get you to where you want to be. Your best bet will always be to truly listen to your own body. And just…eat a variety of real whole foods! There’s a reason why so many people have returned to telling you to do ‘everything in moderation’! Think about the kind of life you want to be able to LIVE, in the real world, and find a way to eat that allows you to have that life. Don’t do it the other way around – don’t let your eating habits dictate what you can or can’t do. Eat for functionality, longevity, enjoyment and performance, and remember that no matter how long you’ve been doing something, it is always possible (and often advisable) to change. (And while you are changing, it is also still possible to keep saying ‘I am okay as I am’)
I hope you are having a very happy weekend! Eat some yummy things!