Interview with Dena Harris: Vegetarianism and Running

blog I have been following for quite a while. Whether she writes about marathons, 5Ks, cats, food or other life adventures, she keeps me entertained!

In researching nutrition and diets for my first-time marathoners book, Knocking Down Walls, I asked Dena to share her perspective on vegetarianism and running. Not only does she provide background on choosing this type of diet, she also offers some great advice on choosing meal-plans to optimize energy.

For more information and entertainment, visit her blog or buy of of her many published books.

Are you a vegetarian? If so, when/why did you give up meat?

I am a vegetarian and what I refer to as “wanna-be” vegan. I eat mostly vegan at home but I find it too hard when dining out or eating at friends homes, so I do allow myself dairy on those occasions. I eat eggs provided by a friend’s chickens. Also, I can’t imagine ever completely giving up Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. I went vegetarian in stages. I gave up red meat/pork in 1988 when I was eighteen, mainly because I’d read a book that said giving meat up for a month was a good detox diet. I was surprised at how little I missed meat and just never had the desire to go back. I gave up chicken/turkey when I was maybe 25 and that was harder and not just because my meat-eating husband was not happy that now we could no longer share any meals. I missed chicken in a way I hadn’t missed red meat, but I stuck with it for moral reasons. I only recently gave up fish. I was watching a reality cooking show and they had to put a live lobster in a boiling pot of water and I was freaking out. Then it occurred to me that “Hey. I eat lobster.” I figured that just because I’m not the one putting it in the pot doesn’t clear me of all guilt. Like chicken, fish was hard to give up. I’ve really had to ramp up my commitment to cooking to make it work.

What has been the biggest influence on the diet you have chosen for yourself?

I became vegetarian for moral reasons but I try not to be preachy about it. I’m not against people eating animals but I AM against eating tortured, hormone-stuffed animals. It’s not good for the animals and it’s not good for us. However, as time has gone by, I find the biggest influence in what foods I choose for myself have to do with how they make me feel. I have a perfect recent example of this: My husband and I travelled to Russia and the food was so salt-laden we could barely eat it. Fruit was scarce and salads/greens almost non-existent. My body reacted immediately. I felt heavy and lethargic. My body craved–literally craved–fresh greens. When I eat healthy, I feel good. When I eat poorly, I feel the consequences. It’s that simple.

Do you think your diet influences your ability to run long distances? Does it impact your energy level? Recovery?

I’m amazed how many people still think you can’t get enough protein or power from a plant-based diet. There are numerous pro athletes out there who are vegetarian/vegan. So no, I’ve never felt my diet does anything but help with my running. That being said, I do know runners who said they’ve tried going vegetarian and they had no energy. Maybe it’s that a vegetarian diet works with some people’s systems and not with others. Or, I’d be curious to know the diet of the people who said they ran out of steam. Subsisting on cookies and Coke is technically vegetarian, but obviously won’t get you far.

What does a typical week’s dinner menu look like?

Beans, greens, and grains. That’s the substance of every meal. One night a week is usually a rice-n-bean burrito or cheesy (rice cheese) zuchinni quesadilla dish. Pasta with veggies one night, homemade pizzas, lots of Indian based dishes as we love spices and curry, maybe a sweet potato bowl with black beans and veggies. Kale salads and red cabbage stir fry are recent favorites. Cereal on the nights I feel lazy.

Do you get enough protein? How?

Again, beans, greens, and whole grains. Dark leafy greens have a lot of protein. I also eat a lot of nut butters and beans. I do eat soy but I caution would-be vegetarians to take it easy on the soy-based meat replacement products. Soy is still highly processed and shouldn’t form the basis of your diet.

What do you eat before marathons?

Pretty standard fare. Dinner the night before is either whole-wheat pasta with white beans, broccoli and red sauce or, if I’m away from home, veggie pizza with thick crust and a beer. The morning of the race I eat 2 pieces of toast with honey and a cup of coffee, two hours before the race.

How many marathons have you run to date? Plan to run in the future? Training starts this summer for marathon #8 in Savannah. Boo-yah!

What advice would you give to a first time marathoner as it pertains to diet?

Experiment early to find out what works for you. I eat the same meal (pizza or pasta) the nights before my long runs during every week of my marathon training. The morning of my long runs I eat the exact meal I’ll eat the day of the race. That way I know what I can expect from my body in terms of performance and I’m not trying out a new meal (Hey–let’s eat Thai!) the night before a race. Whether you chose to go vegetarian or not, I think every runner/athlete will benefit from less red meat in their diet. For all meat, I’d recommend paying the extra bucks for the local free-range, led-a-happy-life animal. Everything we put in our bodies affects our performance. The cleaner we eat, the better we’ll perform.

Melinda Hinson