On Being an Athlete Who Doesn't Eat Meat
By Kate Reece
Coach Whitney H. first walked through the doors of The Brooklyn Lyceum to join CFSBK in late 2009 and though she now tackles WODs like a boss, she certainly wasn't born doing kipping pull-ups. Around that time, yoga and dance were her main focus along with managing a lululemon store. She got certified to teach yoga in 2010, started teaching full-time in 2013, and introduced Yoga for Athletes here last August. A few months and hundreds of hours sweating under barbells later, she took her Level 1 Certification and soon began coaching CrossFit. Oh, and all that time, she was still dancing.
Expending as much athletic energy as she does requires adequate nutrition, so we sat down (at the virtual dinner table known as email) and chatted about her journey with giving the ax to meat (har har!) and kicking ass at getting protein—so she can then kick ass at CrossFit and all her other endeavors.
CFSBK: I remember one of the first times I benched with you, I was stunned by the height of the arch in your back, and you told me it was because of dancing (and some injuries). Tell us about dancing, and when you feel like you started considering yourself an athlete.
Whitney: I started ballet when I was three years old, then jazz when I was maybe five or six. I did gymnastics as well for a while, but around middle school the time commitments got a bit intense, so my mom told me to choose—and dance was the winner. I added in tap when I was 12 or so, and that was also when I started competing. I think I averaged 18 hours of class or rehearsal a week from that age on through high school. While I didn't necessarily consider myself an athlete in those years (because I wasn't playing high school volleyball or field hockey or whatever), I certainly spent a lot of my waking hours in the practice of form, rhythm, and movement as well as creating power, speed, and flow within those movements, which I consider athletic. I competed both as an individual and in a troupe, and after I got over the pee-my-leotard feeling of the very first "Nationals," it was great!
CFSBK: When did you first start practicing yoga?
Whitney: I started yoga in my junior year of college. I was in a BFA program in Dance at Illinois, and Yoga for Dancers was the 8am class that no one wanted to get out of bed an hour earlier for (before ballet at 9am). I figured if I didn't try it once in the four years I was there, I'd kick myself. Once I committed, I was hooked. Even though I was waking up earlier and maybe getting less sleep, I had more energy throughout my days. My body felt better. I felt more balanced. I continued every semester thereafter, and when I moved to New York and started working for lululemon, a big part of my job was to get to as many yoga studios and teachers as possible. It was incredible.
CFSBK: So where does becoming a vegetarian fit into all that athleticism?
Whitney: I stopped eating meat halfway through my senior year of college. Basically, someone handed me a flyer on the quad about factory farming with all these pictures of little baby chicks being thrown in a dumpster and sad cows and all that kind of stuff, as well as some info about the environmental impact. I literally had never considered these things before, and so it shined a light on my narrow-mindedness. I read more about the topic and became interested. I had always been the person who said, "Why on earth would you ever want to do that? Meat is so delicious. That's insane." So becoming a vegetarian ended up being mostly about perspective. Whereas before I couldn't fathom giving something up that I was so accustomed to, I sort of took it upon myself as a way to expand my point of view and just give it a go.
At that point in college, I had started cooking for myself for the first time and didn't really like handling meat anyway, so figured cutting it out wouldn’t be too hard. I ended up eating a lot more vegetables in the process, and I started feeling really good! The new habit stuck. It's also important to note that I'm actually a pescetarian or, as I like to say, a veggaquarian. So, I still incorporate fish and seafood into my diet.
CFSBK: Ah, yes. Strict vegetarians can get quite feisty about that distinction. Talk to me about starting CrossFit (really starting CrossFit), and when you began noticing that what you ate affected how you performed.
Whitney: I started CrossFit in November 2009 with David over at the Brooklyn Lyceum. For the first year (or even two?), my attendance was quite off and on. I was a bit scared and nervous most of the time and so found a lot of reasons to get out of going. I was practicing yoga, taking spin classes at Soul Cycle (yup), and working a lot. But, the interest was always there and as I got more confident, I started getting hooked. I think CrossFit is the kind of activity that the more results you see, the more results you want—so the more time and effort you put in. It's like an awesomely vicious circle of fitness and fun.
To me, quantity is an important variable in the equation. If I don't eat enough—before class or something like Tough Titsday, or just in general—I get very light-headed, dizzy, and irritable. What we pleasantly call “Hangry.” But on the other hand, if I overdo it with heavy, starchy carbs or just too much at one meal, I get lethargic and unmotivated very quickly. Both of those can become a pattern over several days or weeks. Personally, I've found that eating several small meals throughout the day works for my lifestyle and my energy levels. This is obviously an individual preference, and everyone should experiment with what works for them. Coach Fox likes to make fun of me because he manages to always see me when I'm eating at the gym!
And, of course, quality is crucial. In the LFPB Challenge at the beginning of 2013, I tried to go strict Paleo. I cut out all grains and legumes, restricted dairy, everything. Well... after three weeks of that, I felt bloated, unmotivated, and generally crappy. To make up for all my missing calories—I was SO HUNGRY—I basically stuffed myself with nuts and fruit a couple times a day. No bueno. So, for the last three weeks, after a brief and enlightening conversation with Fox, I added in quinoa, beans and lentils, and some dairy. I immediately had more energy and felt ready to move again.
CFSBK: We just read that even Iceland Annie eats non-Paleo dairy for protein! And your answer points to the most common thing people tell you to watch out for as a vegetarian—getting enough protein. Has that been a problem for you at different points? How do you make sure to get enough and what are your favorite sources?
Whitney: I definitely spend quite a bit of mental energy on the topic of How Whitney Will Get Enough Protein Today. Honestly, it can be challenging. Getting clear on the Zone classifications of macronutrients (carb, protein, fat) has been quite helpful, in terms of considering type and quantity. What's key for me is making sure that my kitchen is well-stocked in a variety of protein sources. Otherwise things go south quickly. Obviously, I have the "advantage" of still eating fish. Being a true vegetarian reduces the sources.
The other consideration is variety and planning in advance so I don't get bored with the same stuff all the time. My go-to's include:
Eggs: I make little mini crustless quiches in a muffin tin that keep for a week (with spinach, scallions, and cheese), hard-boiled eggs, scrambled, etc.
Fish: I buy wild Alaskan canned salmon and smoked salmon (portable, lasts for a bit, and pairs with many things), a lot of Arctic Char (it's relatively inexpensive, good on environment/contaminants, and delicious), frozen shrimp, and sometimes frozen fish fillets (Whole Foods has good wild Pollack ones, although they still have a bit of breading on them), as well as anchovies/sardines for salads. I also make it a point to eat good fish when I go out to eat—though of course this can get expensive. Also: Fish CSA!
Dairy: I almost always have Greek yogurt and cottage cheese at home. Add some fruit (berries with the yogurt, citrus with the cottage cheese) and nuts/seeds and you've got a complete snack or meal.
Protein powder: I've started using this a lot more in the past year. I do my best to get protein at each meal without it, but it certainly helps. Breakfast is often a bowl of plain oatmeal with chocolate protein powder, a spoonful of almond or peanut butter, and a sprinkling of unsweetened coconut.
Lentils/Beans: I often make a big pot of vegetable soup/stew or chili so I have something hearty to go to throughout the week. Favorites are red lentil coconut curry stew with greens, rosemary white bean and mushroom soup, and black bean butternut squash chili.
CFSBK: Beyond what you just shared, what does a typical day look like for you, eating-wise?
Whitney: Here's one possible combo:
Breakfast: 1/2 cup (dry) plain oatmeal, 1 scoop chocolate protein powder, 1 tablespoon peanut or almond butter, and a sprinkling of shredded coconut. Black coffee.
Snack: Cottage cheese, grapefruit, and a few pecans. Or carrots and celery with hummus and maybe an ounce of cheese or a hard-boiled egg.
Lunch: Three mini egg cups (crustless quiches) and a whole mess of vegetables (favorites are roasted brussels sprouts, sauteed broccoli, sauteed kale, baked sweet potato, spinach salad, etc.), with maybe 1/4-1/2 an avocado. Or a mixed greens salad with canned wild salmon (I mix in a little bit of hummus and lemon), some veggies and avocado, chopped in, and a bit of fruit.
Dinner: Fish (probably baked Arctic char with a bit of butter and lemon) and lots of veggies. Or breakfast-for-dinner if I had fish at lunch!
CFSBK: Sounds delicious! Where can we find some of your favorite recipes?
Whitney: Well, it needs some serious updating, but I have some recipes on my blog, here. Anything with a picture of food is a recipe!
CFSBK: Lastly, we're hearing great reviews about your coaching at CFSBK! How's is going? What's been your favorite moment so far?
Whitney: Coaching has been incredible so far—rewarding and fun. I know I have plenty to learn and that wisdom comes with experience, but I feel I've started out on the right track under the tutelage of Coach David and Coach Fox. Leading barbell drills for the first time was an invigorating highlight: a mixture of not wanting to hit myself in the face with a bar while demonstrating, saying all of the correct cues at the correct time, and observing the athletes to see what's happening. Also, it was really enjoyable to watch people power through and kick ass on the Open WODs on Saturdays once I had already given them my best in the morning! Our community rocks.
What's been your experience with vegetarianism or some variant of going meatless?