Imagine that from now on your meals would only consist of fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes, eliminating all animal products and processed or refined foods from your diet.
For many of us it’s hard to imagine giving up entire food groups forever; cutting out classic favorites like pizza (no cheese aloud), ice cream (no milk products either) hamburgers and hotdogs (bye, bye barbecue foods), but for Suzanna McGee, an award-winning body builder (who used to eat meat for protein) the decision to transition to a plant-based diet was a no-brainer.
At 50 years old, McGee stands six feet tall, weighs 165 pounds and maintains a muscular physique with only 12 percent body fat. Eating only plant-based foods, she continues to keep up with a rigorous training schedule that involves heavy weight-lifting and hours on the tennis court.
“I train every day,” she said. “I play tennis on the concrete and I’m almost 50 years old, so theoretically it should beat me up, but I can play every day and my joints are fine and the plant-based nutrition is definitely part of it.”
McGee is the author of, The Athlete's Simple Guide to a Plant-Based Lifestyle: How to Easily Improve Your Health, Performance, and Longevity, and she says that everyone from athletes to occasional exercisers stand to benefit from the incredible effects that following a plant-based diet can have on your health.
“Making the switch has worked so well,” she said. “I could feel a pretty much immediate response of having more energy, and balanced energy. My energy levels are very stable, which I love. And I recover from workouts much faster and I sleep really well.”
According to McGee, the plant-based diet can help athletes significantly improve performance by reducing inflammation in the body and reducing recovery time.
“If you eat animal products, it’s very acidic for the body. And when the body is in a more acidic state, it causes inflammation and it makes it much harder for athletes to recover,” she said. “If you eat plants the body will be a little bit more alkaline, which decreases the inflammation.”
Another benefit of the plant-based diet that McGee continually touts is its ability to provide quick energy without weighing you down.
“You’re not eating any processed, heavy stuff, everything is very light and the body can just extract the nutrients much faster because everything is in a natural state,” she said.
And even for exercisers who approach fitness on a more recreational level, those who aren’t so much concerned about intense performance or recovery time, the plant-based diet still boasts many benefits, like reduced cholesterol levels and what’s maybe even more enticing, a more youthful appearance.
“It just makes you younger,” McGee said. “People guess I’m 30 years old and I’m almost 50. Young people look different, but also their energy is different. They have a youthful energy and I think that the plant-based diet gives this youthful energy, too.”
Of course (and especially if you’re an athlete) you’re probably thinking, “This all sounds well and good, but how will I get enough protein if I don’t eat meat?”
McGee says she gets this question all of the time and contests that it’s really not an issue at all.
“Everybody is so hung up on protein,” she said. “They aren’t aware of the fact that we don’t need as much as people believe. Actually, people eat way too much, and more people are sick from having too much protein than having too little. If you eat vegetables and fruits, if you eat a variety of different plants, you get more than enough because there’s even protein in kale and green, leafy vegetables.”
McGee also mentioned that many people tend to subscribe to the notion that plant protein isn’t “good quality” protein, which she says is also a myth.
She also made an important distinction between what it means to eat a plant-based diet and a vegan diet.
“I think a typical vegan diet can be really unhealthy, because as a vegan you just don’t eat animal products, but you can eat processed bread and cookies, you can eat pretty much anything as long as it’s not an animal product,” she said. “When you eat a plant-based diet you can’t really go wrong because you eat plants, you eat vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. You eat everything in a more simple state.”
Even after hearing McGee’s powerful argument, it’s still hard to imagine giving up all animal-based food products (life without pizza just seems pointless). But McGee says that you don’t have to make the transition 100 percent to reap at least some of the benefits of a plant-based diet.
She suggests making the transition slowly by first adding more fruits and vegetables to your current diet. Once you get used to the increase of plant-based foods in your day-to-day meals, McGee says you should then try making one smoothie every day, which she loves because they are highly nutritious and easy to digest.
“After you get used to it, you’ll start feeling better,” McGee said. “So then you might be willing to add a little bit more vegetables to your salads and you might start experimenting with different vegetables and eventually you won’t have as many cravings for meat or other animal products.”
If you are serious about giving the plant-based lifestyle a try, McGee says you should try eliminating dairy products from your diet first.
“It’s really addictive,” she said. “So if people can get rid of dairy they will start feeling much better really quickly.”
And for those who are completely convinced, ready to give it a try and can’t wait to start feeling the extraordinary benefits, McGee also suggests experimenting with a raw plant-based diet, which means you don’t cook any of your food.
“I’ve been experimenting with the raw lifestyle, and I know it’s a little bit too extreme for some people, but eating raw is also really good,” she said. “It just nourishes the body so well. I recommend it for people who are willing to push the limits of performance.”