Common Ground: Vegetarians Around the World

We have all heard from the experts and doctors about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. These interviews are an opportunity to connect with vegetarians who could be our neighbors, our friends, our family and discover the underlying unity amongst the diverse range of human personalities.

One of the pleasures of writing for a great website like planetveggie.com is getting out and talking with a wide variety of regular folks who love excellent food, health, the planet, children, the ecology and the environment, or who are vegetarian because of their particular faith or religion. Doing this helps me to appreciate and honor diversity and individuality, while connecting to shared, common ground. In hopes of capturing the simplicity, adventure and fun of the vegetarian lifestyle, we would like to do a series of interviews with people around the world who have been swept away by the joy of vegetarian living.

We have all heard from the experts and doctors about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. These interviews are an opportunity to connect with vegetarians who could be our neighbors, our friends, our family and discover the underlying unity amongst the diverse range of human personalities. Although hard, scientific data is great for developing knowledge and negating fears of non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike about diet and nutrition, the focus of Common Ground will lean more towards feelings and life experiences than on technical facts. We will continue, at planetveggie.com, to provide comprehensive, scientific articles on the vegetarian lifestyle, nutrition, and holistic health; however, it is also important to hear the stories and voices of people who may not have a scientific reason for enjoying vegetarian food and living. You may be one of them!

Many people are still under the old stereotypical notion that vegetarians are solely comprised of old hippies, tree huggers, granola heads, sandal-wearing artists and pencil-thin waifs. While these aren’t negative roles, the truth is there could be a vegetarian sitting next to you and you wouldn’t even know it! Vegetarians are often regular, ordinary people involved in all facets of life on this planet, yet many seem to excel at what it is that they do. Ordinary on one hand, but simultaneously not so ordinary on the other. And most vegetarians are very interesting to get to know. Unfortunately, we have all come into contact with that rare individual who tries to get others to become vegetarian by force, or through fear and threats. The media loves to focus on this type of person or group because they fit into the violent, melodramatic, fearful and tense energy that drives most mainstream media systems. This is a chance to get to know people who are choosing to act as examples, and teach through their own actions. All aboard for a global search for vegetarians everywhere!

I recently caught up with an old friend, who also happens to be a terrific athlete. John Chyz is a top level hockey player with a degree in engineering from Yale, who has also chosen the vegetarian way of eating. We spent an hour discussing his successful combining of high intensity athletics and vegetarianism.

Q: As a top level athlete, former Team Canada hockey member, and Yale University hockey team forward, do you feel like you can get adequate nutrition from a vegetarian diet?
A: There is no doubt about it. I think that most participants in high-intensity athletics tend to shy away from a vegetarian diet because it requires, at first, more planning, and also because there are very few informed vegetarian coaches. This is slowly changing though. What people are not aware of often frightens them, and this is true of vegetarianism. Usually what happens when people become more acquainted with an idea, and look more closely at a different way of living, they are often attracted themselves to the very thing they had feared. Many athletes devote so much of their time to training regimes that don’t always include the proper study of nutrition. Being locked in to a certain mind-set also prevents athletes from taking the time to check out different possibilities as well.

Q: What is the mainstream view of vegetarianism and sports/athletics that you experienced from the university level of coaching?
A: At the collegiate level, where resistance training (weight training) plays a fundamental role in the development of strength, power, and in certain cases endurance, vegetarianism is discouraged because it is thought to be lacking in both energy supply and amino acid content. Tell that to Carl Lewis or Edwin Moses! Strength training coaches favor diet and supplement plans that promote rapid muscle growth and repair. Nutritional counseling usually includes meal plans centered around low-fat protein sources and clean-burning carbohydrates. Most nutritionists are not as aware of the importance of essential fatty acids and plant fats in the diet and how they play an essential role in promoting a strong, healthy body, and so usually favor low-fat diets.

Q: Do you feel different when you are eating vegetarian and remaining active?
A: Most definitely. Vegetarian foods burn faster and cleaner than any other energy source, which has a direct effect on mental and physical equanimity. It took some experimenting and work, but I was able to create a vegetarian diet specific to my level of activity. My body and mind are both alert, and I feel like I have more balanced energy levels than when I was eating chicken, beef, poultry and eggs. I think I received energy from those foods, but there was also the toxic side effects and the extra burden on my digestive system that I no longer have to worry about. I feel better with a vegetarian diet. It is that simple.

Q: How has your view of nutrition changed since you adopted the vegetarian diet?
A: The vegetarian diet has provided me with an enhanced awareness of all my muscle activity and bodily functions. I have come to understand that clean burning foods and whole foods can produce more strength and endurance than I had ever thought possible before. Nutritional choices have a direct effect on the performance of any athlete. I believe that history has shown that properly guided vegetarian athletes can compete at the same level, if not higher, than any other athlete on an animal based diet.

Q: What are some of the vegetarian foods that give you the most energy?
A: Fruit provides the most readily available raw energy source as quick digestion means short conversion times into energy. Clean burning carbohydrates such as steamed rice, oatmeal and potatoes are heavier and thus energy conversion is slower, with longer-lasting effects. All of these sources can also be stored in the body if excess quantities should be present. Nuts and seeds are also tremendous energy sources as they are comprised of high-energy fat molecules that are easily integrated by the body’s digestion system, and burn faster than any other fat configuration. All the nutrients of nuts can be used by the body whereas so many meat by-products cannot.

Q: What do you use as protein sources? Do you feel you get enough protein on a vegetarian diet? More importantly, how have your endurance, strength, and flexibility levels been while eating vegetarian foods?
A: I normally use a creative combination of nuts and bean products for protein sources, as well as tofu and soya products. Endurance, strength and flexibility have all improved, although it is imperative to note that this has been the result of yoga, cardio and form-specific resistance training in addition to a vegetarian diet. Practice makes perfect, and I know I could not attain the level of fitness that I have from diet alone. The combination of exercise and a balanced vegetarian diet have improved all areas of my training. I believe that more than enough protein can be obtained while eating vegetarian. There is an actual tendency towards excessive protein intake, especially in North America, which is causing many more problems than lack of protein. For those athletes who are involved in very high-intensity training programs, I would recommend a rennet-free whey protein powder, or soya protein drink.

Q: Any additional comments on eating vegetarian for those who have never tried it, or are thinking about a transition towards a plant-based diet?
A: We are getting more and more information about the fact that animals feel pain. Nutritional sciences are also advancing, proving that a vegetarian diet is healthier and able to provide more than enough nutrition for even the most active person. It costs the planet a lot to produce meat and meat products, food that often leads to health problems, not health. For those who have never tried eating vegetarian, I can’t help but think “do you have anything to lose?”

Many people are still under the old stereotypical notion that vegetarians are solely comprised of old hippies, tree huggers, granola heads, sandal-wearing artists and pencil-thin waifs.

What you have in your mind?