Interview with Anthony Zacchino: Vegan Ironman
Written by Leigh-Chantelle
Created Thursday, 13 February 2014
Anthony Zacchino is a vegan nutritionist and health counselor as well as an endurance athlete who trains up to fifteen hour a week during peak training periods. On top of this, he works in development in New York City.
How and why did you decide to become a vegan?
I went vegan over 8 years ago when I was twenty years old. I first started exploring veganism after meeting and befriending Darius Fulmer, a great athlete in his own right and a defendant in the SHAC7 case
. While he is a stout defender of animal rights, I was primarily attracted to veganism from an environmental point of view. As I learned more about the impact our diet can have on the environment, I realized that cutting out meat and animal products was right for me. At the time, I was going to college at a small liberal arts college in south central Pennsylvania. While I knew a few other vegans through rock climbing, it felt like I was blazing my own trail at school. After a brief stint as a vegetarian, I soon turned vegan and never looked back. It didn’t take me long to quickly embrace animal rights and health aspects of the diet as well.
How long have you been vegan?
I have been vegan since 2007.
What has benefited you the most from being a vegan?
Besides sleeping easier because I know that I’m causing as little harm to other beings as possible, I believe the greatest benefit for me has been the health benefits. Fitness and endurance events are now part of my normal life, but I originally started running simply as a way to burn off extra energy that I found myself with after changing my diet. I recover from hard workouts quickly, I have stabilized and constantly high energy levels throughout the day, and I sleep more soundly.
What does veganism mean to you?
Veganism means doing as little harm to other beings as possible. It means not exploiting animals while reducing the environmental degradation to the greatest degree.
What sort of training do you do?
It fluctuates but I’m always very active. For awhile, I was focused on triathlon and doing between 6 and 8 swim, bike, or run workouts a week. In my first half ironman, I placed twelfth overall, and second in my age group. Recently, I’ve been more focused on running. I ran the 2014 New York City marathon, and am planning on running the 2015 Buenos Aires marathon among other events. During the winter, I tend to do more weight and body strength exercises.
How often do you (need to) train?
Five to six days a week. As I mentioned above those types of training days change with my goals. When I am preparing for a 70.3mile ironman, I swim, bike, and run most days of the week along with core and body weight exercises to stay balanced. During marathon training, I obviously place more attention on my running. Even during the cold and wet winters here in New York, I still train nearly every day for at least one hour.
Strengths, Weaknesses & Outside Influences
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegans and how do you address this?
It’s hard to put into words, but I believe these misconceptions have changed over the eight years since I’ve been vegan.
When I first went vegan, I was living in south central Pennsylvania and most of the people I met didn’t even know how to pronounce the word. Now it is increasingly accepted as a healthy diet, and many celebrities and famous public people – such as President Bill Clinton (who I briefly worked for after graduate school) – have brought veganism (or plant-based diets) into the mainstream.
Still I think the biggest misconception is that you need animal products to be healthy. Being a nutritionist, I believe I am well armed in the scientific literature to answer any misconceptions, including the always-persistent protein question. I always do my best to be friendly and approachable.
What are you strengths as a vegan athlete?
Dedication might be my greatest asset in both sport and everyday life. I have a very strong work ethic and this allows me to achieve the goals that I set for myself.
What is your biggest challenge?
I think like most endurance athletes, I sometimes need help find balance between work, life, and training. Thankfully, I have great friends and family who typically help keep me on track and are always very supportive.
Are the non-vegans in your industry supportive?
I have been fortunate to have very supportive and open-minded colleagues. A few have even tinkered with the idea of changing their eating ways.
Are your family and friends supportive of your vegan lifestyle?
I met resistance from both at first, but over the years, as I’ve become more educated I’ve helped several of my friends and family members adopt full plant-based diets. Perhaps it is easier in New York, because I’m surrounded by like-minded individuals, but I also have a large network of vegan friends – many of them are my closest friends.
What is the most common question/comment that people ask/say when they find out that you are a vegan and how do you respond?
I would be surprised if anyone responds to this question with anything other than the protein question.
Food & Supplements
What do you eat for:
Breakfast – I have a massive appetite and I prefer hot breakfasts to cold ones. I normally make some type of pseudo-grain and oat porridge with berries and other fruit. Then I typically have more fruit later in the morning with tea - oolong is my current favorite.
Lunch – Lunch is always a large bowl of greens and vegetables with grains and beans. Most of the time, I just have leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Again, I normally have a fruit with it.
Dinner- During the week, I typically have a handful of old favorites like lentils and barley cooked in Indian spices with a large side salad or something like that. However, on the weekends I like to spend more time and prepare something a little more creative and unique. I blog many of the recipes I create so check out my blog for more examples.
Snacks (healthy & not-so healthy)
I rarely eat unhealthy foods. On the rare occasions I do, I feel a decline in my energy the next day and as a result typically just stay away from them. Fruit is always my go-to snack especially if I’m on the run somewhere. If I’m just relaxing at home, I’ll often make either a green and cacao smoothie, or just a large plate of roasted veggies.
What is your favorite source of:
Protein – I guess I’ll say lentils but in truth, I believe that we need to stop viewing foods as individual nutrients and realize that all foods are package deals. Lentils are high in protein but they are also a great source of fiber, folate, copper, iron, zinc, potassium etc.
Calcium – Dark leafy greens like kale and collards.
Iron – Dark leafy greens, seeds and legumes and beans.
What foods give you the most energy?
Oil free, plant based whole foods.
Do you take supplements?
I take a B12 four times a week and a Vitamin D pill during the winter.
What is your top tip for:
Gaining muscle – Eat plants and work hard. The research shows enough evidence to suggest that protein may not be the end all be all nutrient when gaining muscle weight is your goal. Rather, eat an excess of calories and workout properly.
Losing weight – Follow a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet. As Dr. McDougall always says, “the fat you eat is the fat you wear.”
Maintaining weight – Eat a balanced diet of plants, except in rare circumstances, your body will naturally balance itself out.
Improving metabolism – Get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, eat greens and other vegetables and start exercising at an appropriate level for your fitness. I should add that many of my clients have these very goals. For more information and tips, visit my website.
How do you promote veganism in your daily life?
I promote veganism many ways, but I believe being a happy and healthy example for others is the best.
How would you suggest people get involved with what you do?
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