For the first 19 years of my life I considered myself a carnivore. Sausage rolls, hamburgers, chicken nuggets – they were all a regular part of my diet. I never really had to think about what I was putting into my body, since for the most part, I’ve always had a high metabolism and eating these higher fat foods never made me put on weight.
It was only three years ago when in University that I took a conscious personal decision to alter my diet and change the types of foods that I was putting into my body. This meant cutting out meat, for good, and adopting a diet low on carbs but high on nutrients and minerals.
For many gym-goers and athletes, cutting meat from one’s diet is generally not a wise decision, after all, meat is undeniably one of the better sources of protein for building strong muscle. This is when I began researching healthy meat-free alternatives and was amazed at what I discovered.
Proteins are an essential building block for developing muscle and I had to come up with some meat-free alternatives to maximise my physical potential when exercising. The first thing I needed to address was where I was going to source this much-needed protein from. I looked at drinking protein shakes as a means of gaining muscle, but as a student on a budget income, it wasn’t possible. So, I looked for more alternatives and that’s when I realised that many fruits and vegetables contain an incredible number of nutrients, to the point of being superfoods, with protein being one of them.
Although they can cause an allergic reaction in some people, nuts are surprisingly packed full of protein, plus they are incredibly convenient to eat. You can carry a small packet of them in your pocket and you are ready to go, snacking on them whenever you feel a hunger craving coming along. There are also plenty of varieties to choose from, with pistachios being my favourite thanks to their high quantity of protein and fibre.
I try to stay away from varieties which are high in salt as much as possible, and for this reason pistachios are a great option. Plus, it is also believed they can help reduce cholesterol, so I’m getting all the benefits of meat without the negative health complications from having them in my everyday diet. Some experts even consider all nuts as superfoods, so go on and have fun experimenting with them as I am sure there will be one, or two, that you will start to include in your diet.
Quorn can be found everywhere these days, and it’s only in the last few years that it has started to earn the reputation it deserves. Maybe Mo Farah has something to do with that, I don’t know, but it’s really versatile and tastes great. Even if you are a beginner cook like me, there are so many types of meals you can prepare with Quorn. It comes in many varieties including beef, ham, sausage and even burgers, so you really can prepare all your favourite meals and enjoy them just the same. Although you may notice a slight taste difference to their meat counterparts, it really is quite minimal, and for me, I enjoy the taste a lot more. Quorn is also a perfect source of lean protein as it is low in calories and saturated fats, and this means you can allow yourself bigger portions without the guilt!
Popeye loved his green vegetables, and I would have to say, I cannot blame him. Spinach, leafy greens and pulses are hugely undervalued as excellent sources of protein. We all know they have a reputation for providing a well-rounded supply of vitamins, but they are integral to any vegetarian diet regardless of whether you are wanting to gain muscle or not.
This is where spinach reigns king – with just 1 cup of cooked spinach containing 51 per cent protein, plenty of iron and minimal calories. Asparagus, lentils and virtually every vegetable on the planet offers its own unique health benefits so go on and it’s small wonder that so many are considered to be superfoods. They are a lot tastier than they look!
Having incorporated such healthy meat-free alternatives into my diet, I have noticed not only an all-round improvement in my fitness, but I feel far better than I did before.
Strength-wise, I am seeing progression at a far quicker rate than when I was eating meat, and cardio is the aspect of my fitness which I’ve seen the most gain in. By reducing my unhealthy fat intake and cutting down on needless carbs whilst maintaining my protein levels, I’m carrying less ‘baggage’ weight which has helped massively with my running, especially in football (although my technical skills still leave a lot to be desired!)
Whilst everyone’s bodies react differently to such diet changes, it does take some time getting used to but I firmly believe that over the long-term it’s the right choice for me. There are plenty of top-tier athletes that take things even further with vegan diets, but’s for me it’s just one step at a time. Completing my first Tough Mudder assault course yesterday feels like an incredible achievement, if a somewhat sore one. With some more training and dieting though, I can’t wait to get back out there again!