It's full of delicious meals that can help you consume the right nutrition while getting (or staying) active.
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Credit: Rodale Books

If you're trying to get (or stay) healthy, there are more than enough reasons to eat more plant-based—even if you don't want to become a full-time vegetarian.

But what if you're also starting to work out more? Will a vegetarian meal have enough of the right nutrition if you’re starting a new exercise routine or hitting the gym regularly? And can it be filling enough? Absolutely, says Heather Mayer Irvine, author of the The Runner’s World Vegetarian Cookbook, due out October 9 from Rodale books.

Don’t get too hung up on the title—you don’t have to be a runner or a vegetarian to make great use of this cookbook. The recipes will appeal to anyone who is getting active, and/or wants to eat more plants. Whether you’re vegan or simply looking to eat less meat, an ultramarathoner or just signing up for some fitness classes, this cookbook can serve as the ultimate pre- and post-workout meal guidebook.  

As the former Food and Nutrition Editor of Runner’s World, Irvine certainly knows a thing or two about healthy eating and exercise. A runner for 16 years, she recently completed New York City’s 5th Avenue Mile (see above) in a speedy 5 minutes and 33 seconds. She’s run seven marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

And while Irvine is not a vegetarian herself, she is committed to plant-based eating and is a firm believer in the mantra, “everything in moderation.” And she worked with a number of vegetarian and vegan elite runners, many of whom contributed recipes to the book.

Irvine and I connected over our shared love of running, and spoke about the importance of eating more plants, the value of exercise to a healthy lifestyle, the challenge of getting enough protein after a workout, and favorite recipes.

Elizabeth Laseter: You aren’t a vegetarian or vegan—so why write a vegetarian cookbook?

Heather Irvine: When I first started at Runner’s World, one of my editors asked if I could do a vegetarian cookbook. When I told him I wasn’t vegetarian, he said “Yeah, but that’s okay.”

I thought about it—and realized, no, I’m not vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to eat vegetarian recipes. When it comes to what I eat, my goal has always been “everything in moderation.”

I try to vary my diet, whether it’s by eating plenty of plant proteins or by making smart decisions when buying meat. This is exactly the message of my cookbook. You don’t have to be a vegetarian or a vegan to make and love these recipes. If you simply want to want to eat well, this cookbook can help you.

Many of our readers aren’t necessarily vegetarians or vegans either, but they are interested in eating healthy, plant-forward meals. How could your cookbook be useful for them?

I wrote this cookbook from the perspective of fueling a workout, but it’s also about celebrating meatless cooking. If you haven’t considered an active, meat-free approach to eating before and you’re looking for a fresh change, this cookbook can definitely inspire you. My hope is for it to give readers the opportunity to be creative and to explore meatless recipes or ingredients they might not have thought of otherwise.

What if you aren’t a runner? Could cyclists, swimmers, or walkers use this book too?

Of course! Whether you’re starting a walking regimen or getting on the bike more, figuring out exactly what you need to eat can be daunting. For each recipe in the book, I’ve labeled it pre-run, recovery, fast (30 minutes or less), low cal, vegan, or gluten or allergy-free to help readers find the exact meal for their needs. My hope is that these recipe tags will give people a starting point to find what works best for them.

The recipes labeled as “recovery,” contain the ideal ratio of carbs and protein that any active person would need after a workout. These recipes are also going to be heartier. Recipes labeled as “pre-run” are going to be lighter to keep you from having too much in your stomach before exercising. And even though they’re labeled as “pre-run,” you can definitely treat them as “pre-workout.”

Eating plant-based means eating more fiber. And—how to put this—that often means some GI distress. As a runner, this makes me pretty nervous, especially if I’m preparing for a hard workout. What can I do to avoid an upset stomach?

I touch on this in the cookbook—but a big rule of thumb with running and any type of physical activity is that you should always ease into a new diet. Don’t try anything new on race day or on [a hard] workout day. You need to experiment to find out which foods agree—and don’t agree—with you.

Chipotle-Sweet Potato Hummus from The Runner's World Vegetarian Cookbook (Get the recipe here)

Credit: Mitch Mandel

One thing I often hear about plant-based eating is that it's hard to get enough protein. To what degree is this true?

There’s a misconception out there that vegetarians, runners or not, have a hard time getting enough protein. This isn’t true. Cheese and eggs are both excellent sources of protein for vegetarians, as well as plant proteins like quinoa and soybeans. Vegans may struggle more, so they really need to focus on nut butters and mixing different plant proteins into their diets.

More so than protein, the bigger issue for vegans and vegetarians that we cover a lot in the cookbook is iron and vitamin B12. While there are several plant sources of iron—like beans, nuts, seeds, and certain veggies—B12 comes entirely from animal products. There are some fortified foods like breads, pastas, and cereals that are enriched with B12, but some dietitians will recommend taking a supplement to help you meet your needs.

What advice can you offer someone who wants to add more plants into their diet, but may feel intimidated?

Going cold turkey (no pun intended here) is tough—but take baby steps and make small gradual changes. For example, if you normally cook beef or chicken three times a week for dinner, maybe you cut it back to two times a week. And for that third meal where you’d normally have meat, try making a vegetarian recipe. Instead of a hamburger, trying making veggie burgers (like the Curry-Spiced Veggie Burgers from my cookbook!).

Also—find ways to get yourself and your family excited over switching to a plant-based diet. Start a meatless Monday tradition in your house, bring back something you’ve never cooked before from the farmers’ market, or join a CSA. Just take it one meal and ingredient at a time.  

Can following a plant-forward diet improve your workout performance?

When you’re adding more plants to your diet or cutting out meat, that in itself promotes a healthier lifestyle—and I think that this can certainly help boost performance and recovery. You’re eating more a varied diet that includes more fruits and vegetables, which are full of antioxidants that help fight inflammation as well as fiber which keeps things regular. You’re also just cutting out more of the “garbage” in general.

Whole Wheat, Flaxseed, and Blueberry Pancakes from The Runner's World Vegetarian Cookbook

Credit: Mitch Mandel

What do you like to eat before a workout? What about afterwards?

I don’t usually eat before shorter runs, but if it’s a longer run, I’ll have something small like a banana or granola bar. But after my long runs, I love to make the Whole Wheat, Flaxseed, and Blueberry Pancakes from the cookbook, which my husband actually helped develop. They’re super fluffy, low in sugar, and we’ve added blueberries in there to boost the nutrition. We top ours with maple syrup, pastured butter, and homemade jam. Hands down, this is my favorite workout recovery meal.  

Have you ever gone fully vegetarian or vegan?

I haven’t, no—but writing this cookbook has certainly inspired me to try it!

Follow Heather Irvine on Instagram: @RunsOnFuel and Twitter: @RunsOnFuel.