Performing on Plants

Olympic rower Brooke Francis is looking to tear down the misconceptions around high-performance athletes and plant-based diets.  

When Olympic medalist Brooke Francis (née Donoghue) announced she was planning to ditch meat, the champion rower was met with predictable opposition. Despite the rising profile of vegan and vegetarian athletes around the world, many myths about the supposed inadequacies of a plant-based diet stubbornly persist.

“I think it is very common,” Brooke says of the negative attitude towards plant-based eating in an athletic context.

That those who eat a plant-based diet are malnourished, you can’t get enough protein without meat, and vegans suffer from low energy are claims frequently trotted out, despite having been roundly disproven by nutritional study after study. However incorrect, the ideas linger, as Brooke found out firsthand.  

“I was initially met with some resistance when I told my wider support team that I wanted to become vegetarian, as it is assumed that non-meat protein sources are inadequate. This only pushed me to make sure that I had all the information I needed to fuel the work I was doing with the foods I chose to eat.”

Brooke has been building on that knowledge since going vegetarian in 2018 for ethical and sustainability reasons, along with personal preference. When the 2020 Olympics were postponed due to the Covid pandemic, the rower decided it was time to share her experience as a meat-free high-performance athlete with the world. She teamed up with Olympic slalom canoeist medallist Luuka Jones and nutritionist Christel Dunshea-Mooij to produce the book Sustain: Plant-Based Food for Active People.

Changing Attitudes

Having been a high-performance athlete for the past decade, representing Aotearoa on the world stage, Brooke is well positioned as an advocate for plant-powered athleticism. She has twice won the Rowing World Championship in double scull with Olivia Loe, and in the Tokyo 2020 Games (which eventually took place in 2021) she and boatmate Hannah Osborne took home the silver medal — strong validation of her meat-free training regime.

While many athletes around the globe have long fuelled their success with a plant-based diet, the idea has become increasingly prominent in recent years. This is thanks to the steady rise of veganism in general, helped by popular documentaries like The Game Changers and the high profile of vegan athletes like racer Lewis Hamilton and tennis star Venus Williams.

Brooke and her co-authors are looking to add to that momentum with Sustain, to further prove what’s possible on a plant-based diet. The book seeks to supply all the nutritional information needed to ensure the reader’s diet ticks all of the boxes for endurance and high-performance pursuits. Accompanied, of course, by a range of delicious recipes designed to fit into busy training schedules. 

“I hope it gives people who aren’t vegan or vegetarian confidence to eat a few more plant-based meals knowing that they’re getting a well-rounded meal,” says Brooke. “And I hope it provides good info for any level of athlete with any dietary requirements to fuel their chosen sport.”

Plant Power

Performing at Olympic level obviously means a firm commitment to training, and Brooke’s workout schedule is just as impressive as you’d imagine. In order to keep in peak rowing shape, she sticks to a regime that totals around 20 hours a week.

“We train six days a week and generally have two to three sessions a day. Most often a longer two-hour row in the morning, a one-hour session on the rowing machine, followed by an hour weights session in the afternoon.”

Fueling the body for that level of exertion takes careful planning, regardless of what your eating philosophy is. As a professional athlete, Brooke has a support team to help her maximise performance, and for the Sustain project she and Luuka worked with nutritionist Christel to ensure the advice in the book was accurate and effective. Brooke says Christel was amazing to work with over the past few years.

“The biggest gains I made with her was from doing a food diary and comparing that to the exercise I was doing each day. We broke down the types of foods I was eating to make sure there was enough carbs, protein, and macronutrients across the day, as well as making sure that I was eating enough to fuel me for the training I was doing. 

“Over time I have learnt what I need to eat and the amounts, which has made a big difference in my daily performance and recovery.”

Alongside delicious recipes and nutritional breakdowns, Sustain also features specific tips for endurance, power, skill, and team-based sports from other high-profile athletes, such as Alex Maloney and Marcus Daniel. While the book uses the term “plant-based” in the broader sense, meaning consisting largely (rather than solely) of food from plant sources, it has many fully vegan recipes and contains substitution advice for adapting others.  

Publishing With Purpose

When Brooke started the Sustain project, it was a very uncertain time. The pandemic was spreading rapidly throughout the globe, protecting people’s health and safety had become paramount, and many aspects of everyday life were completely transformed. With all that going on and regular sporting events passed, the athlete was glad to have something to occupy her mind.

“It was awesome to have a project to literally sink my teeth into and to work with Christel and Luuka, who have become very good friends of mine. We have been very passionate about helping people to fuel their performances with the planet in mind.”

As well as promoting environmentalism, the authors are proud to be donating profits from sales of Sustain to The Waterboy, a charity that helps break down barriers so all Kiwi kids can participate in sport and personal development activities.

Asked if she has a favourite meal from the book, Brooke finds it hard to pick just one; she says Sustain has become her go-to anytime she needs dinner inspiration.

“The tofu noodle salad is always a hit with friends when I make it.”

The book isn’t the only big project keeping Brooke busy — she’s had a year off rowing following the birth of her baby, Keira. Now that the book is out in the world and her family is thriving, the rower is ready to get back out there and show the world there’s no limits to what a meat-free athlete can achieve.

“I’m excited to get back into rowing and hopefully get to represent New Zealand again.”

Sustain: Plant-based Foods for Active People by Brooke Donoghue, Luuka Jones, and Christel Dunshea-Mooij, is published by Bateman Books, available now, RRP $45.

Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine
This article was sourced from the Autumn 2023 edition of The Vegan Society magazine.
Order your own current copy in print or pdf or browse past editions.

The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.

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