A Game Changer?
by Cassandra Marillier
First off, a little about me... having always been sporty in some shape or form, I started lifting weights in 2016 because I wanted to get stronger for my sports at the time - aerial silks and roller derby. A coach at my gym suggested I start Powerlifting, so in 2017 I started training for my first meet at the same time as training for my first marathon! I was told that this was impossible... I completed both firsts in the same month! I discovered Powerlifting late, aged 36 and now, I cannot wait to compete in the Masters category - A good reason to look forward to getting older! I figure marathon running can wait until I'm in my 60s.
But now to the matter at hand! My bestie, Eve was watching the film Game Changers one day when I went to visit so I sat and watched with her. The content and evidence that was presented was compelling BUT, I love meat! AND I’ve spent the last three years that I’ve been lifting, actively trying to eat MORE meat to get all the protein I require.
I’ve only been competing in powerlifting for about 2 years, but I love it and I’m ambitious, I want to be the best lifter I can be. Aside from training, I’ve been obsessive about my food and macros, striving for the best quality to fuel optimum performance and recovery so now, listening to someone present what looks like solid evidence that my diet is less than optimal, I had a dilemma – do I need a massive diet overhaul?
Being naturally curious I set out to research the subject. I read article after article, fact checked via peer reviewed studies and spoke to anyone who may be able to offer some wisdom on the subject. I looked for balanced views from both sides and finally concluded... It’s impossible to know anything for sure! For starters, in studies such as these, it’s impossible to eliminate all variables, most sample groups are fairly small and the people behind the studies invariably approach the study with an agenda either for or against plant based diets. In the film, they even cite the fact that big business has been funding studies for meat consumption. Is it a surprise then that the exec team behind Game Changers just happens to own one of the biggest plant-based food processing companies in the USA?
So I decided that the only way to know if it really is the optimal way to fuel would be to give it a try. So I set out to eat a plant based diet for a 7 week trial and assess the impact on my training - this is what I found:
Week one, day one: I set out with good intentions, I’d done all my shopping and made sure I had all the essentials in the house to ensure success. In the evening, I was taken for dinner and with a chunk of steak half way to my face remembered that I was not supposed to be eating meat! I wasn’t about to waste my mixed grill so I ate my plate of meat and reset the following day – oops! For the rest of the week, cooking and eating at home was a lot more successful staying on track with my food.
Week one challenges: Hitting protein target of 2g per kg of body weight. Bloating! Pooping!
Training wise, I had just done a competition so had an easy recovery week in the gym.
Week two: I spent the week in Glasgow for work. Not staying in my own home and cooking my own food meant little control over exactly what I ate but Glasgow has a huge selection of Vegan restaurants which made it easy to stick to plant based food and interesting to see the kind of food restaurants served.
Week two challenges: Still finding it difficult to hit protein targets while staying within my fats and carbs targets. Still really bloated and still struggling to poop normally!
Training wise, I had just started a hypertrophy block so volume was way up.
At this point I was noticing a change in how I felt physically. I felt “cleaner” – it’s difficult to elaborate on this I can only say that I felt healthier and fresher! I noticed that my skin was clearer, more like it used to be twenty years ago! I have to confess that because of my struggle with getting enough protein, up until this point I was still using whey protein supplements. At the end of my second week, because of the positive changes I’d noticed, I decided to take it up a notch and cut out the whey. If I was going to do this, it had to be all in! I spoke with a nutritionist about the challenges with bloating and digestion – the cause of this was the huge increase in fibre intake. The gut struggles to deal with such a dramatic increase all at once. Aside from a 20g whey supplement once a day, I had been trying to eat only whole foods. The nutritionist recommended supplementing with vegan meat replacements like tofu, quorn, tempeh and seitan and if I still felt that whole foods only was the way I wanted to go, to gradually phase these in and reduce the “fake meat” intake to allow my gut to adjust. He also recommended to drastically increase my water intake to 3 litres per day to help the fibre pass through the digestive system which should reduce the bloating and help get my digestion back to normal.
So by week three, my nutrition was fully plant based and my training volume was way up. I had switched my whey protein for a pea protein supplement – which, by the way, tastes like feet! No matter what I did or how I tried to improve the flavour, all it did was make anything I added it to taste like feet too!
By the end of the third week, the positives I’d started seeing in the second week started to be overtaken by some negatives. Because of the increase in training volume, I was starting to struggle with recovery. I was finding that while I was perfectly fuelled for training sessions, when it came to recovery, my muscles hurt for days afterwards. DOMs like I’ve not experienced in years!
By the end of the fourth week, even the feeling of being adequately fuelled for training sessions started to wane. I was struggling to lift the weights I’d found easy in my last hypertrophy block and my muscles were hurting all the time. For the last two weeks of the experiment, I was only sticking it out to see if my body would adapt given time.
Towards the end of my seven week trial, I consulted Anastasia Zinchenko, “an international level powerlifter, bodybuilder and badass scientist with a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Cambridge” for some guidance. Look her up, she is SO knowledgeable and has a bunch of interesting articles on her website. Her recommendation was to increase protein intake to 2.4 grams per kg of bodyweight from a variety of plant sources (50% legumes, 25% seeds and 25% grains), in simple terms this should provide all the essential amino acids to support muscle growth. I have paraphrased here but if you are interested in the science behind the theory, have a read of this article: https://www.sciencestrength.com/nutrition-blog/2018/8/5/vegan-protein-for-maximum-muscl e-gains-complete-scientific-guide
My conclusion: If I were a regular girl (or guy), not lifting particularly heavy or doing mostly cardio based training, I’d say that the effects of a plant based lifestyle were positive and an ideal way to live. My skin, hair and energy levels were better than they had been in years. After a six week return to my normal eating, I’m going to implement the adjustments suggested by Anastasia and have another go at it.