• Robert Cheeke

Add More Color To Your Plate – A Plant-Based Approach to Elevated Athletic Performance

In my forty years, including a quarter century as a plant-based athlete, one of the things I am most proud of is a decision I made back in 1995 to stop eating animals. I was only 15 years old, but as a farm kid growing up in Western Oregon, I just didn’t want to cause harm to my animal friends anymore, so I became vegan, not knowing how long it would last. Since I was always athletic, I put the plant-based diet to the test, back when the Internet was brand new, documentaries about this lifestyle hadn’t been made, and books were few and far between. I ended up growing from 120 pounds to 210 pounds, and went from high school long distance runner, and eventually college long distance runner (just for one season), to champion vegan bodybuilder.

This lifestyle, turned fulfilling and rewarding career, has taken me around the globe giving lectures and signing books to diverse audiences from Asia to Australia to Europe and all throughout North America. Becoming a successful plant-based athlete wasn’t always easy though, and I would have to learn to adapt and be patient and allow actions to become habits, which helped create a foundation for success. And my plant-based diet wasn’t always diverse and fulfilling, and there were certainly some adjustment and adaptation periods as I learned what to eat as a teenage plant-based athlete, moving on from chips and salsa and bagels to, well, real food, like fruits, vegetables and legumes. Luckily, we cultivated many foods on our farm, with plentiful fruit trees providing apples, pears, plums, cherries, and more, to a robust garden with corn, squash, peas, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and more, and we even had a walnut orchard, harvesting thousands of pounds of walnuts every year. I ate so many walnuts as a kid, I got canker sores in my mouth, which is common from eating a high volume of walnuts (and other nuts). Real food was right in front of my nose all the time, but I was mostly focused on the foods I wanted to exclude from my diet (animal foods) and didn’t always recognize what was in front of me all along.

My diet evolved dramatically as I transitioned from runner to bodybuilder as well (including a change in my calorie intake and food choices based on their sports performance impact), but those runner-to-bodybuilder nutritional obstacles were overcome, lessons were learned, and new strategies were applied. Once I learned that I could succeed in both health and fitness, not in spite of my plant-based diet, but perhaps because of my plant-based diet, I was eager to share my stories and lessons learned over the decades with anyone who would listen to me.

What I would like to share with you now is one easy and practical step to add more color to your plate, therefore boosting your intake of vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients, helping you perform at your best in whatever areas of health and fitness are important to you.

As a quick Nutrition 101 refresher, dietary cholesterol only comes from animal foods, fiber is only found in plant foods, and plants contain 64 times more antioxidants than animal foods. Adopting a plant-based diet has been shown to produce decreased rates in all causes of mortality. Furthermore, abstaining from animal protein, replacing it with plant protein, has been shown to prevent and even reverse many of our common degenerative diseases. The power of true health and wellness is in your hands, and it begins with what you decide to put on the end of your fork.

Here is one easy step to add more color to your plate (which adds more nutrition to your diet):

Determine what your favorite fruits, vegetables, and legumes are. Those will be the key foods to incorporate into your diet for maximum nutrient intake and absorption. What I have found over the years is that even if we know certain foods are good for us, if we don’t enjoy them, we will find other alternatives (which often happen to be heavily processed or junk foods we have grown accustomed to eating). If you can make a list of your top five favorite foods in each category, it will help you identify what you actually enjoy, and it will encourage you to shop for those particular foods. In turn, that will ensure those foods are incorporated into your daily nutritional intake, taking the place of foods that are far less healthy. Over time, the inclusion of your favorite foods will become routine, and you will not have to rely on willpower to avoid less healthy alternatives, because consuming your favorite foods will become your new normal, as a integral part of your everyday life.

As a native Oregonian, which very likely shaped my food preferences, my list of favorite foods might look like this:

Fruits: Vegetables: Legumes:

Blueberries Potatoes Lentils

Raspberries Cucumbers Pinto beans

Strawberries Peas Black beans

Cherries Green beans Garbanzo beans

Peaches Broccoli Soybeans

Here’s how it looks in the real world: If you’ve been told to eat kale for health benefits, but you don’t like kale, you may literally replace kale with cookies or some other processed snack. But if you actually like broccoli, even though it is a different type of vegetable with a different nutritional profile than kale, it is still a better option than cookies for overall health. But maybe you didn’t think of broccoli because you hadn’t made a list of your food preferences before. This approach has many benefits, including the inherent increase in nutrient diversity beyond what has become routine. And by focusing particularly on fruits, vegetables, and legumes, you are sure to add more vibrant colors to your plate, beyond what grains, nuts, and seeds tend to offer, and therefore these particular food groups shine as the foundation of your meal. The base of a meal (legumes or vegetables), sides (vegetables and fruits), snacks (fruit), pre-and post-workout nutrition (legumes, vegetables, and fruits), and even desserts (fruits) are all satisfied by these three primarily classification of foods. Add in grains, nuts, and seeds where they fit as accessory or ancillary foods, and you’ve got a well-rounded, nutrient dense, calorie sufficient, colorful and vibrant plate.

In essence, eat potatoes instead of potato chips or fries. If salads aren’t your thing, how about eating tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and beets that often go on salads? If you love pizza, what about holding the cheese, but using artichokes, bell peppers, olives, mushrooms, and spinach as toppings, still increasing your vegetable (and nutrition) intake? Instead of ice cream, what about frozen fruit like antioxidant-rich, colorful berries? Basically, take any meal, even a bland color like a baked potato, pasta, or oatmeal, and spice it up with splashes of color. Think green (leafy green and cruciferous vegetables), red (berries, tomatoes,