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Interview with Anthony Zacchino: Vegan Ironman

Anthony Zacchino is a vegan athlete who trains up to fiften hours a week. On top of his training, he currently works as research specialist and executive coordinator at Hunter College in New York City.

Anthony_Zacchino_running

Why Vegan?
How and why did you decide to become a vegan?
I officially went vegan over 6 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 first attracted to veganism due to the environmental impact the Standard American Diet has. Shortly after I started experimenting with vegetarianism for about 1 year, I made the switch and never looked back.

How long have you been vegan?
I’ve been vegan over six years.

What has benefited you the most from being a vegan?
Besides sleeping easier, knowing that I am causing as little harm to other beings - humans and animals alike. I believe the greatest benefit is the health benefits. I recover from hard workouts much faster than I use to, I have far more energy, and I have no fear of contracting heart disease or any of the many other diseases which are plaguing America and westerners.

What does veganism mean to you?
Veganism means doing as little harm to other beings as possible. It means not exploiting animals in any way.
 
Training
What sort of training do you do?
I completed my first Half Ironman in September where I came twelfth overall and second in my age group, but I have run marathons and half marathons and before that, I was serious rock climber with a few wins in some local competitions. I plan on racing three 70.3s this year as well as the Clearwater Marathon.

How often do you (need to) train?
Five to six days a week. I swim between three to four days a week, cycle about three to four, and typically run two days a week. This means most days I’m doing double workouts, and well over two hours of exercise each day that I train. I also try to fit in some calisthenics like pushups and planks into my routine, and I did a very intense TRX workout block during the winter.

Do you offer your fitness or training services to others?
Yes, but only recreationally. I am not a coach or certified trainer so my advice is simply based off what has worked for me.

What sports do you play?
As mentioned above, I am a runner, and soon to be triathlete. I am also recovering from an obsession with rock climbing as well.

Strengths, Weaknesses & Outside Influences
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegans and how do you address this?
Recently, I told a teenage woman that I was vegan. She responded that vegans are weak. I think I then told her my training regiment and asked her if she still believed all vegans were weak. She was amazed because she didn’t know a single person who could do the types of activities I perform on a daily basis.
 
I think the biggest misconception is that you need animal products to be healthy. Having worked as a research intern for Dr. Michael Greger of Nutrition Facts, I believe I am well armed in the scientific literature to disprove any such misconceptions, but I always try to do this in a friendly, and approachable way. I try my best not to be judgmental or preachy, and often won’t even discuss nutrition or animal rights unless someone else brings it up.

What are you strengths as a vegan athlete?
Dedication might be my greatest asset in both sport and normal life. I have a very strong work ethic and this allows me to achieve the goals that I have set.

What is your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been maintaining an injury-free body. I have had a weaker right ankle and knee for as long as I can remember and during intense periods of exercise, these issues can flare up, causing me to take several extra rest days.
Getting adequate rest is also an issue. While I try and get 10 hours of sleep or more every night - and I believe I sleep more soundly because of my nutrient dense, plant based diet - I often find myself incredibly bored on days I don’t workout and have to resist the urge to do a short or easy workout.

Are the non-vegans in your industry supportive or not?
I currently work as an executive coordinator at Hunter College, although I am planning a career change soon. Many of the people there have been incredibly inquisitive about my diet and training, and I have gotten many to switch to a more plant-based lifestyle. That said, there is rarely vegan food at meetings, although I recently got them to agree to start bring fruit as an alternative to cookies and brownies.

Are your family and friends supportive of your vegan lifestyle?
I’ve met resistance from both at first, but over the years, as I become more educated about the subject, I’ve been able to help many of them switch to full plant-based diets. Most of my family still eats the Standard American Diet, but I was able to convince my mother switch to a plant-strong diet in August with dramatic effects. She lost over 30 lbs in 3 months (without exercise) and is now completely medication free. She was on blood pressure and blood thinning medicines for the past several years. She was also pre-diabetic, but now all of her blood work is perfect. Her doctor told her they had never seen such a rapid improvement in so short of a time and were surprised when she told them the secret was going vegan.

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. I simply ask people what protein is and why is it so important. Then I try and correct any misinformation they’ve been given. Education is a powerful tool; however, the meat and dairy industry have been stunningly successful in indoctrinating Americans on this issue.

Who or what motivates you?

I’ve always had a strong work ethic. I am more often motivated by my own goals rather than other individuals. Qualifying for the Boston marathon is a goal which motivates me - completing and being competitive in triathlon is a goal that motivates me. Besides this, there is an entire host of individuals who motivate me and push me to go further, many of whom are included in this project.

Anthony_Zacchino

Food & Supplements
What do you eat for:

Breakfast - 1/3 cup quinoa, 1/3 buckwheat (both cooked in homemade sodium-free veggie broth) with ½ cup of old fashioned oats. I top this with true cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove and pour about 1/3- 1/2 cup plant-based milk on it. Then I add 1tablespoon ground flax seed, 1 tablespoon chia seeds, ¼ cup frozen berries (often blueberries as they are my favorite) and some greens to it and mix the entire thing together to make a cereal. I also eat 1-2 pieces of fruit.
Lunch - Typically a large bowl of brown or wild rice (1 dry cup) with beans (also 1 dry cup) -lentils are my favorite - on top of greens with assorted raw veggies like carrots, peppers and cucumbers on it. I typically top it either with a little hot sauce or an oil-free dressing. It’s my version of a salad. I also often sprinkle some chia seeds on top. I also typically eat a banana and sometimes an apple.
Dinner - Also a large bowl (typically over 1,000 calories) of beans and rice on top of greens. Due to my heavy training load right now, I typically make a large bowl of mixed beans at the beginning of each week and use that throughout the week, so I often have similar dinners to my lunch. On nights that I am not training, I try to make something a little more special. This could include polenta pizza, various soups, or once in a while a large bean salad depending on what the weather is outside. I love using my Vitamix and will often make a custom dressing for each meal to keep the flavors new and interesting.
Snacks (healthy & not-so healthy) - I do not eat unhealthy food. I avoid refined sugars and even “natural” sweeteners like stevia. Instead, my snacks are often smoothies with various ingredients in them (I love Julie Morris’ Superfood Smoothies book). I also make banana whip whenever it is hot. I try to limit my consumption of nuts as they are high in fats, but I do enjoy a handful or so once in a while. My favorite snack is either a date bar (Larabar is good, but homemade is preferred if I have the time), a potato - I eat them like apples, and this is my favorite food to consume while cycling, or fruit. I eat about 3-4 bananas a day, often have some type of citrus, an apple or kiwi etc depending on the season.

What is your favorite source of:
Protein - This is a non-question as all whole foods have protein in them
Calcium - Dark leafy greens like kale and collards
Iron - Dark leafy greens like kale and collards, chia seeds, legumes
 
What foods give you the most energy?
Oil-free, plant based whole foods.

Do you take any supplements?
I take a B-12 vitamin 4 times a week, and will take a Vitamin D pill during the winter.

Advice
What is your top tip for:

Gaining muscle - Eat plants to recover, have a focus on starchy vegetables and make sure you are consuming a high calorie diet. We have all heard enough about protein by this point.
Losing weight - Eat a low-fat diet. As Dr. McDougall always says, the “fat you eat, is the fat you wear.” I am also a firm believer that “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym,” so focus on an oil-free, plant-based diet while limiting your consumption of fatty plant foods like avocado, coconut, and nuts and you will see notice weight loss within a few weeks. Also, avoid alcohol.
Maintaining weight - Eat a balanced diet of plants. Exclude oil and other fatty foods and eat until you are 100% content. Your body will naturally balance itself out.
Improving metabolism - Get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, eat plants and start exercising at an appropriate level for your fitness.
Toning up - See my above statements. All of these questions run into themselves. Eat a clean, low fat, carbohydrate based diet and you will see results.
 
How do you promote veganism in your daily life?
I wear veganism on my sleeve. I often define it as my best feature. I promote veganism by being a happy, healthy, and normal person. I also keep a nutrition blog. Besides this, I also race in a “GO VEGAN” singlet

How would you suggest people get involved with what you do?
If people are interested they can find my blog at Bring Your Own Lentils - BYOL is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
 
 
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