Health

Friday 22 August 2014

The Good Life: Plant-based diet for marathon success

Ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek has inspired me to forsake meat and I'm having more interesting and diverse culinary experiences

Person cooking with vegetables, close up
Celebrity chef Rachel Allen

Seems like every other day there's a new research study about how harmful the food we eat is for our health. Last month all the focus was on the evils of sugar.

This month, it's animal protein. According to a controversial research study published in the journal 'Cell: Metabolism', people who eat a diet rich in meat, eggs, milk and cheese are four times more likely to die of cancer.

Interestingly, the harmful effects are almost completely removed when people's protein came from plant sources.

According to Dr Valter Longo, of the University of Southern California, the report provides convincing evidence "that a high-protein diet – particularly if the proteins are derived from animals – is nearly as bad as smoking for your health." Controversial stuff.

This study arrived around the same time as I was starting a meat-free trial, partly as something interesting to do for lent, but also because I was curious about the potential health benefits. I know that some vegetarians are passionately motivated by the animal welfare issues, but that's not my driver.

I am not immune to the suffering of animals and I think that the commercial meat industry's treatment of animals at times leaves a lot to be desired. When I buy meat, I do my best to make sure that it comes from animals that have been reared humanely out in the fresh air, grazing or rooting on grass.

I don't know how I feel about killing animals for meat. Sometimes I think it's barbaric. Other times I think nature is brutal, and I suspect Mother Nature doesn't share our squeamishness. I've reared pigs and chickens here on the home farm, have butchered a pig myself and even killed chickens with my own hands. I like to think that having been through that process, I am at least, an honest carnivore.

I can't get too worked up about the environmental impact of meat production either, though I know I should. It takes more than eight times as much fossil-fuel to produce animal protein as it does plant protein, and the UN FAO estimates that a minimum of 18pc of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock farming (that's more than transportation by the way).

Undoubtedly, cutting back on meat combats climate change. My main motivation for trying a plant-focussed diet is that I am intrigued by the health implications and how it will make me feel. I am training for a marathon presently and reading a book called 'Eat and Run' by Ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek who has won nearly all of ultrarunning's elite events, including the historic Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile jaunt from the bottom of Death Valley to the shoulders of Mount Whitney.

Jurek also happens to be vegan, which I guess proves that you don't need meat to fuel distance running. His story is as much about food and nutrition as it is about running, and I am fascinated at how he found the less animal protein he consumed, the more he could push his body to the limits of human endurance.

Though the recent study on animal protein is controversial, there is consensus that vegetarian diets are more healthful. Because they eat almost no animal fat or cholesterol, and more fibre and anti-oxidants, vegetarians quite simply get less cancer and less coronary heart disease than meat eaters. They are a third less likely to develop heart disease and about 40pc less likely to develop cancer.

According to Michael Rozien, author of 'The RealAge Diet: Make Yourself Younger with What You Eat', a vegetarian diet can add 13 years to your life. A study of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan, home to some of the world's longest-living people, found that the secret of their longevity is a low calorie diet of fibre-rich veg and fruit.

Just a few weeks in to my experiment and here are the things I find most surprising. I don't feel like I am exploding with energy just yet, but I do wake up feeling somehow lighter in the morning. The other day I noticed something I hadn't experienced in a long time – after a night's sleep, my stomach was rumbling. I was hungry, and I enjoyed my breakfast more than I have in a long time. I expected to feel that I was losing out or sacrificing something. I expected meals to feel incomplete. But on the contrary, I am actually having more interesting, diverse and tasty culinary experiences. Without meat to turn to, certainly one needs to be a more thoughtful and more prepared cook – meat is so 'convenient' when you need to rustle up a quick meal.

Here's something else I notice. Though it's far more acceptable than it used to be, people still think vegetarians are lentil-eating crazies! It's considered a little 'out there', perhaps even a little drastic. This seems odd to me when you consider that what's really drastic is how sick a protein rich diet seems to be making us. People still get annoyed, when I tell them that I am not eating meat, like I am judging them for their own meat eating (which I am not).

I don't know whether I will stay vegetarian or not. Gradually, over the last few years, I have eaten progressively less meat than I used to. Perhaps the logical end point to that journey is cutting out meat altogether. Or maybe I become a more selective omnivore. Either way, a diet based mainly around plants is exciting because it puts the fantastic veg and fruit that we grow in our garden centre-stage.

Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

 

Grow your body fuel: Shallots

Small shallots:

Plant in March, but leave until April if the weather is very poor or the soil is very wet.

Make sure the soil is light and free draining – add some compost or manure the previous winter.

Add some sand or compost if your soil is heavy when you go to plant.

Push the shallot in to the soil with the tip just visible above the surface – allow about 5-7cm between sets.

Grow:

Water only in dry weather and keep the bed weed free.

Harvest:

They are ready when three quarters of the leaf on each plant has turned yellow and fallen over.

This is the same incidentally with garlic.

Carefully lift them.

You will need to dry them out fully before storing – if the weather is dry

leave them on the bed (not touching each other) for about 2 weeks.

If the weather outside is rainy, put them in a shed on a chicken wire rack kept about a foot off the ground (so the air can circulate beneath them).

GIY Recommended Varieties

Golden Gourmet.

Problems

Most serious disease is onion white rot which causes leaves to yellow and wilt and bulb gets white mould. No remedy but to remove and burn.

You can not grow onions or shallots in that spot for up to 7 years.

GIY Tips

1. If you dry shallots carefully they should store until the following

2. You can plait them as you would with onions.

Watch GIY tutorials on growing vegetables at www.giyireland.com/videos.

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