Last spring, I was lucky enough to get invited out to the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in the CLIF RD Summit—a two-day event bringing registered dietitians like myself together to learn more about the brand that makes CLIF Bar, LUNA Bar, and more. Of course, when you visit a company built around creating food that supports athletes, “learning” involves an on-bike scavenger hunt around the city, yoga breaks, and relay races. Nope, no sitting around a lecture hall when you’re visiting CLIF Bar & Company!
So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that many of the people I met there—CLIF staffers and the other RDs on the trip—were athletes in their own right. I was excited, in particular, to meet one RD who is not only an incredibly accomplished triathlete, but a vegetarian since the age of ten. Marni Sumbal runs Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, a business that fuses her knowledge of and passion for nutrition and fitness to help athletes use their bodies as best they can to successfully cross that finish line.
When I met Marni, I told her about The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, and how my biggest regret about the book is that I didn’t include information for teenage vegetarian athletes. We agreed that it would be amazing if she could help me put together a blog post on that very topic! I finally got Marni on the phone for a super fun interview about her experiences becoming a vegetarian as an athletic preteen, being a vegetarian athlete in high school and college, and her expert advice for student athletes.
Get ready to get inspired. Read on for a condensed transcript of my conversation with Marni.
Rachel: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk! As I mentioned, I’ve felt like I haven’t served the teen vegetarian athletes in my book as well as I could have, and you’re so well-suited to help me fix that. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Marni: Sure! I come from a swimming background. I was swimming in college competitively while I was also starting to get my bachelor’s in exercise science and a minor in psychology. When I was a senior I picked up cross country running just because I was getting a little burned out of swimming and I really enjoyed running and seemed to do OK in terms of competitions.
R: And when did you stop eating meat?
M: I became a vegetarian when I was around ten-years-old, for animal reasons. I just came home from school one day and told my mom that I didn’t want to eat meat anymore because I just didn’t want to kill animals.
R: And did that play into your decision to go into health and nutrition?
M: Well, having been a student athlete for so long, I didn’t really have the best vegetarian diet. I just knew what I didn’t want to eat. My diet was pretty rich in cheese and ranch dressing and Dr. Pepper and cookies and candy.
R: My story is so similar—well, except for the athlete part. People often think being a vegetarian is about what you’re taking out of your diet, but it really has to be just as much about what you’re putting in.
M: For sure. And I could get away with it because I was expending so much energy. I didn’t know what was going on in my insides because I seemed healthy. I just swam so much, and was burning all of those calories. It was not a very nutrient dense diet. And of course, I was getting sick, and not knowing how diet could relate.
R: Did you have an “aha” moment that diet could be playing a role?
M: Around the last year of college I started educating myself with books. Unfortunately, many were “diet” books. I started making some changes and incorporating more healthy foods to my diet, but I still wasn’t meeting my needs as an athlete because these books weren’t treating me as an athlete who expends so much energy. While I was in grad school for exercise physiology, I started to really enjoy the nutrition side of things.
R: How did things start to change for you?
M: Around the same time I also got introduced into endurance training. Someone was like, “you should run a marathon,” and I was like, “OK, why not?!” I put together my own training plan, and started to dabble beyond just Gatorate, which we use a lot of in swimming. I started to learn a lot more about sports nutrition and supplements and recovery and protein powder; my knowledge improved and I was able to apply all of the information to myself and see those benefits in energy and recovery. Certainly, I still made a lot of mistakes—but I was able to feel like I was understanding sports nutrition enough to fuel my endurance lifestyle.
R: Tell us more about your endurance lifestyle!
M: I ended up running the Miami marathon and I qualified for Boston. So I was kind of like, “wow, I guess I’m pretty good at this!” So then I started to get into triathlons more, and because I had a good swimming background I seemed to do pretty well in that leg. I was not the best cyclist, but I ended up marrying a very good cyclist, so I’ve improved! And then I did my first Ironman. An Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and then you finish with a marathon. So, a very great toll for my body. I ended up winning my age group, so that qualified me for the world championship.
R: Wow. That is so cool. I just love how the progression of your career and your progress as an athlete are so intertwined.
M: I’ve learned so much. After I got my master’s, I was a wellness coordinator at the Y and I felt like something was missing in my life. I wanted that RD (registered dietitian) credential. I didn’t know how hard and how time consuming it was going to be! But three years later I did end up getting my credential. I’m really happy I did it because now I can help other people. And there’s so much that’s specific to the vegetarian or “plant strong” athlete; I want to make sure this type of athlete understand how to find the missing links.
R: Great point. So, you were super young when you went veg. Did you get pushback from adults around you, especially as an athlete?
M: I was a vegetarian before it was cool to be a vegetarian! Even when I was in grad school, my professors were like “You’ll never be a good endurance athlete because you don’t eat meat.” And I was like, “well, I’ll prove you wrong.” They were all so focused on protein, and it’s not just about the protein. And that’s why I call myself a plant-strong athlete. We all should have that plant-strong diet.
R: I love how you emphasize the positive. There’s so much you get out of a plant-based diet, it’s not just limitations.
M: And I always work on a good-better-best system. My diet in grad school was pretty crappy because I didn’t have a lot of money. So I did the best I could. But with more available time and resources, I could incorporate more healthy food. So I see my diet evolving. Maybe at one time it was store-bought wraps and putting some veggies in them. Now I can make a salad and incorporate different types of whole grains, and tempeh or tofu. But, I can also sit down and eat with a fork—I don’t have to eat driving to class or on the go. I hope I can inspire other people that you don’t have to change everything all at once, you have to accommodate your lifestyle.
R: What was the experience like as a middle and high schooler? What did your coaches say about your eating habits?
M: Well, I was eating the same foods as other people. We were all eating a lot of pasta, pizza, bagels—a very carb-heavy diet.
R: So what you weren’t eating slipped under the radar?
M: Sure. And I didn’t know how to make those protein replacements, or even know the importance of protein. Let’s say we were traveling and went to Wendy’s. I would just have a baked potato with cheese. Whereas now I’d be like, “I don’t have any protein, should I get some cottage cheese or yogurt?” Or maybe I’d bring tempeh or lentils with me. So now I can think differently and I’m prepared for those scenarios. But back then it was just an afterthought. It didn’t really occur to me.
R: And are a student athlete’s protein—and other nutrient—needs higher?
M: For a high schooler, you’re still developing. Those bone-building nutrients are vital to overall health. If you’re slacking on that, then your bones are not building appropriately. And the muscles also need repairing. When you’re young you can push through anything—pain tolerance is extremely high. You recover fast. You don’t need a lot of sleep. But in the big picture, you want to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success. And that means getting at least a gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day. It’s just a tad above what a sedentary person needs. It will meet your body’s needs, and satisfy you.
R: I love that point—that protein is satisfying. That’s an immediate effect that you can really feel.
M: Plus, you need it for recovery. That’s when all the hormones are high and you’re primed to take in all those good quality amino acids. Your recovery window is open all day. It’s a bad habit for a young athlete to skip meals or go long hours without eating. Many athletes—young ones especially—don’t have a large appetite, they can just go hours without eating. But it’s important for athletes to focus on how nutrition throughout the day is helping them fuel. The biggest struggle I find with high school athletes is they don't know what to eat before and after workouts.
R: So what do you recommend?
M: Pre-workout you need something that is low fat and low fiber—you want something that will give you fuel but not upset your tummy or make you feel really heavy. So, not a whole grain bagel or a salad or brown rice and meat. Those foods are healthy, but they take too long to digest. You want something like a banana and a little honey and peanut butter. Or a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich on pita bread. Or a waffle. Maybe some cream of wheat or oatmeal. As for after the workout, you want something with protein in it like yogurt, milk, cottage cheese.
R: What about protein powders?
M: Protein powder is a supplement—in other words, you’re just supplementing what you’re not getting. For young athletes, they’re really learning to develop their tastes, and having a wide array of foods is important. For a lacto ovo vegetarian, hard boiled eggs, chocolate milk, yogurt, or kefir are going to give you a lot more bang for your buck, and give you the building blocks of a healthy diet. A healthy diet is not saying “here’s your protein powder,” and then having a slice of pizza.
R: So beware of using protein powder as a crutch—balance your diet, instead. Great advice. What about vegan athletes?
M: For a vegan athlete it’s more difficult, and they might need that protein powder as a supplement. It depends on the individual.
R: What about a multi-vitamin, or another supplement pill? Should a high school athlete who is a vegetarian be taking one?
M: I think it’s a good idea, though I don’t encourage it for everyone. I think that single lab tests are good. So athletes should ask their doctors to test their iron, ferritin, calcium, and vitamin D levels so they can see if any key nutrients are lacking. A multivitamin can be nutritional insurance, just in case. I really recommend vegetarian athletes get their ferritin levels tested. When athletes feel tired or run down, their iron levels might be just fine. But ferritin is the protein inside the cells that stores the iron. So that is going to be the defining test to say if you’re iron deficient. If you are, you’ll want to take a liquid supplement, start increasing iron in your diet, use more fortified foods, combine vitamin C with these foods to promote absorption. If you are anemic, there may be more necessary steps to take.
R: Anything else a vegetarian athlete might want to incorporate into his or her diet?
M: I’m a huge fan of fortified foods. Not Doritos and Cheese-Its, but fortified cereals with one or two ingredients. Ones like Total Cereal and Shredded Wheat are fortified really well with B12, folic acid, and iron, a lot of the nutrients where vegetarians fall short. It’s almost like taking a multivitamin. But a student athlete will do a better job eating cereal. Also, organic reduced fat milk—not skim. Milk is your best source of vitamin D, but you need some fat to help absorb that vitamin D.
R: What kind of advice would you give to the vegetarian high school athlete who is transitioning to college?
M: There are times, as a vegetarian, when you have to be a little creative. In the cafeteria, sometimes there are options like tempeh, tofu, and beans. But sometimes there are not. And what about a student at a community college, where they might not be eating in a dining hall? My suggestion is to first focus on the meals that are in your control. If you are eating at home or in your dorm room, that’s within you control. So you can say, ‘what’s my protein, what’s my healthy carbohydrate, etc.” But when you’re eating outside of your home, you have to be a little creative. If you are eating a sandwich out, maybe it’s just a sandwich with veggies. So buy a yogurt, or bring a hard boiled egg—something that will compliment that meal, because you don’t want to be unfocused in class, or not recovering from your workouts. And when you do have more control, think about what you ate previously and see if you can compliment that. Maybe you didn’t have any vegetables, so now’s the time to have a salad as a snack before dinner.
R: What about a student who is an athlete in high school, but won’t be playing as regularly in college?
M: For an athlete that is no longer an athlete, they will want to remove the extra snacks that helped them meet that extra calorie expenditure. If they have a good foundation, they can easily take out those extra sports drinks and that preworkout or recovery snack.
R: This is great. Anything we missed?
M: I think the most important thing is to stress how important it is to learn how to create a healthy, balanced diet. Most athletes will benefit from working with some kind of sports dietitian that can clear up the confusion or the missing gaps in their knowledge about how to fuel properly. Most student athletes are just thrown into sports and nothing changes. If you can find a way to make sure they fuel appropriately, they’ll end up having much better success.
R: And isn’t that what everyone’s after?!
Thank you, Marni, for an informative and fun interview. And great news for my readers. Clif Bar & Company has generously offered to donate one box of LUNA bars (in the newest flavor, Chocolate Cupcake), and a box of CLIF bars (in Pomegranate Chia) to one SmartGirlVeg reader. In the space below, or on our Facebook page, tell us what athletic endeavor you need to fuel up for (or recover from!) before Tuesday, April 14th. We will notify the winner on Wednesday, April 15th.