If she were to take a guess at how much animal protein is in her diet, Deena Kastor, American women’s record holder in the marathon, would say it’s down to about 10 percent. “My entire adult life I’ve been cautious about eating animal proteins from quality sources, and almost never eat animal protein while at a restaurant unless it specifically says that it’s sustainably sourced, grass-fed, free range, local, and organic.”
The reason Kastor switched to a mostly plant-based diet (occasionally eating fish or eggs) was due to age-related hormone changes and debilitating, unpredictable menstrual cycles. With the change in her diet her cycle “immediately became predictable and mild,” she says.
Registered dietitian Pamela Fergusson says this is an affect some her clients have also experienced when switching to a vegan or plant-based diet. But she also notes that some people don’t experience that particular benefit. “There’s not a ton of research that is actually comparing vegan diets versus non-vegan diets specifically on the menstrual cycle,” she says.
She also adds that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables tend to have fewer issues with cramping. “Also, diets high in iron can make periods worse, particularly heme iron,” she says. “If you’re eating a lot of meat that has heme iron that can contribute to menstrual cycle cramping or heavier periods.” Non-heme sources of iron include things like leafy green vegetables and beans.
There are a multitude of reasons why someone might consider reducing their meat intake, like reducing your carbon foot print or wishing not to harm animals. But the health benefits can’t be ignored. Including potentially making periods easier (like discussed above), plant-based diets tend to be higher in anti-inflammatory foods which are beneficial for your immune system. A whole-food plant-based diet can also reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Vegan diets also tend to focus more on slow-release carbohydrates. “By eating a diet rich in high fiber, slow-release carbohydrates you’re going to build up your glycogen stores and have more energy to sustain long runs,” says Fergusson.
Want to cut out animal products? Or just ready to reap the benefits of eating more plants? Kastor gave us her favorite foods that she always has around.
Plant-Based Food Staples
Here are the plant-based food staples Kastor always keeps on hand:
Seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Nearly everyone could benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. Actually, 70 percent of Americans don’t eat the recommended daily amount of vegetables. But beyond consuming more vegetables, Kastor prioritizes choosing produce that is in-season.
“Depending on the time of year the harvest changes to give us nutrients we need,” she says. The example she gives is watermelon as a fruit that is available in the summer, when we’re more likely to need extra minerals and hydration.
For the month of June, specifically, she loves to eat avocados, leeks, artichokes, and asparagus. If she had to pick one in particular, it would be avocados. Great for “topping toast with a poached egg, making smoothies creamier, and adding to fennel and citrus for a side salad.”
For the uninitiated, nutritional yeast may seem like a bizarre item you’d never dream of purchasing. But for vegans and plant-based eaters, it’s a go-to seasoning with great nutritional qualities (like all the B vitamins). “It’s great on leftover veggies, popcorn, or sprinkled inside veggie sandwiches for added flavor and nutrition,” says Kastor.
They are so petite and pretty, but super diverse too,” says Kastor. Lentils are a high fiber carbohydrate that is also rich in protein (a ½ cup serving of lentils is 12 grams of protein). “Favorites to use them for is to make vegan shepherd’s pie or cold lentil salad with Kastor oil [see below], red onions, sun dried tomatoes, and crumbled goat cheese (optional),” says Kastor.
A concoction of her own making, Kastor uses her namesake oil for marinating vegetables, as a salad dressing, or for a bread dip.
Kastor Oil Recipe
Blend together the following ingredients:
- ½ cup olive oil
- ½ cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 2 teaspoons honey (or maple syrup)
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon chili flakes
- 2 teaspoons each rosemary and thyme, finely chopped
- Lemon zest (optional)
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If you’re interested in eating more plant-based and transitioning away from meat for whatever reason that is, Kastor recommends starting small. “Try incorporating plant-based meals once or twice a week,” she says. “Keep searching for fun recipes while continuing to make the ones you enjoy. Soon you’ll have a delicious and diverse archive of recipes to rotate through.”