Keen to banish the stereotype that vegans are ‘frail, weak, weird or hostile’, are the UK’s Hottest Vegans, Casey Rider, 22, and her partner Mark Goodwin, 34. The couple won the annual PETA competition with the highest votes for their vegan advocacy in every day life, showing how people can both reduce animal cruelty and carbon footprint, all whilst looking hot and healthy.
Even athletes, and celebrities alike, are proving the plant based diet has benefits to both their performance and looks. Freerunner Tim Shieff, boxer David Haye and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams are just a few who are maintaining muscle without meat. That’s how winner Mark, a CrossFit coach and personal trainer from Eastbourne, became inspired. ‘One day a guy came in to the gym and he was unbelievably fit and quite a bit older than me. He was a masters athlete and double Ironman Triathlon (back to back) competitor. He was as strong as me, if not a bit stronger, and just generally a lot fitter and healthier. I found out he had been vegan for a long time which threw all my misconceptions out the water. I was a pescatarian and am an animal lover, but on the other hand was still contributing to the suffering. I didn’t have excuses. I stopped overnight’, he recalls.
Before I was vegan I was anaemic and always ill
Mark has been vegan for three and a half years, which led to Casey, who works for a therapeutic services non-profit organisation, joining him when they met a year and a half ago. ‘Being pescetarian, I understood why people didn’t eat meat but I didn’t understand what was wrong with dairy and eggs. Mark told me to watch two documentaries, Earthlings and Dairy is Scary. That was it for me, I couldn’t justify contributing to that amount of suffering’, Casey says. She too hasn’t looked back since going vegan overnight.
Vegans are less prone to heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer than meat-eaters are
Casey soon began to realise the power of plant based, especially with her training. ‘Before I was vegan I was anaemic and always ill’, she says. ‘If I trained I would be wiped out for two days exhausted. I would take protein powder and iron supplements, but since going vegan I don’t need to and I have so much more energy. Physically I am so much stronger, I can lift more and my recovery time is so quick. Mentally I used to get really anxious and depressed. But my mood has improved so much. Its bizarre.’
The benefits of going vegan don’t stop at increased energy, and the common weight loss and better skin. Recently, a group of nutrition researchers delved deep into the diet, which is low in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, but high in fibre and antioxidants, in a review paper. They outlined how eating mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes can improve nutrient intake and help manage glycemic control (blood sugar balance), improve cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and reverse atherosclerosis, or the narrowing of the arteries. It adds to a body of research that already shows vegans are less prone to heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer than meat-eaters are.
However, the hottest vegan couple are still battling society’s negative attitude towards their way of life. Casey says, ‘When I did my dissertation on this topic, I found that people’s opinions are that they vegans hostile and different. I find that strange- why do people find it weird that I don’t want to kill something? It baffles me everyday.’
How does someone become vegan overnight?
With a combination of over 14,000 followers on Instagram, Casey and Mark are regularly quizzed about how they eat. But to them, their diet has never been more simple. ‘Essentially all veganism is is picking up a different item on the shelf’, says Casey, who only started to enjoy cooking when she went vegan. ‘You don’t need to go down the free-from section to find vegan food. There are even vegan sausage rolls, burgers, pulled duck and chicken style items, if people think they will miss meat. Google is your best friend when you’re out shopping to check an item’.
For Mark, the transition took a little more education. ‘For a while I was living off chips and dark chocolate’, he says. ‘It took about six weeks to get familiar with it’. Training up to twice a day for 4-5 times a week in the lead up to CrossFit competitions, Mark has a ridiculously high calorie count to hit. ‘I’m roughly looking at 3,500 calories a day. It used to be more than that when I wasn’t vegan, about 4,200. But because of the nutrient density in plant based food, you don’t need to hit as many calories because your body is already well nourished.’
In fact, if anything makes hitting his calorie count difficult, it’s his admittance to being disorganised and taking too many naps. Similarly for Casey, the hardest part is far from the food. ‘It’s the fact you become awake to how much cruelty there is. It can be life changing’, she says. ‘It’s really nice having each other’s support because although we want to help educate people, it can really drain you and get you down.’
Healthy food essentials
With so many looking up to the pair for advice, they share their healthy food essentials and daily diets with Healthista.
Casey: ‘I’m obsessed with it. I think I have it with every meal because it’s so full of nutrients and antioxidants – the list is endless. 100 grams of kale has got more vitamin C than a 100 grams of orange. I feel like it helps remove toxins from the body. It’s got a high iron value, as well as calcium. And being a good source of fibre and protein for vegans, I like to have it after training for muscle repair and recovery time.
‘If I’m on the go I’ll put kale, spinach and mango into a smoothie. It tastes healthy and the mango adds to sweetness. We do a lot of vegetable stir fries that take about ten minutes because we are usually in a rush either working or training late. With spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, spring onion, mixed grains and sometimes nuts and seeds, you feel like you have all your nutrients in one meal. We’ve put kale in the oven and added salt, olive oil and sometimes a little sugar for a crispy snack.’
Mark: ‘I think the most underutilised food source to promote health and fitness, such as antiaging and gut health, is seeds. Chia, flax and pumpkin seeds are three of the best. Non-vegans wouldn’t normally put those in foods because they’ve never had to think about food as they can eat everything that’s available. The vegans that have done their research about where to get their nutrients from will become aware of the power of seeds.
‘Chia seeds are a go to when we cook, usually being added, along with nuts and seeds to most of our meals. They deliver massive amounts of nutrients with not too many calories. I sprinkle them on dinner such as a stir fry, pasta, rice, or even a pizza. Sometimes I just put them in a glass of water and drink it when it’s jelly like.’
Casey: ‘We put pumpkin seeds on most things, too or put them in the oven to roast and snack on. My mum does an amazing recipe of Brussel sprouts, pumpkin seeds, raisins, cranberries and a little saffron. It sounds horrible and I don’t like Brussel sprouts either. But in that combination it’s delicious. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein. They are also high in natural magnesium, making them beneficial for the sleep cycle. Rest is really important for our training as it our muscles need that time to repair.’
Mark: ‘We use packets of mixed grains in a lot of meals such as stir fries and salads. That includes things like lentils, quinoa, pinto beans – a really delicious variety and much better than on their own. They take two minutes in the microwave and you can get a packet in the supermarket next to where Uncle Ben’s would be. I tend to eat a packet of that a day.
Casey: ‘I get this in a pot of flakes and sprinkle it on everything, mainly pasta dishes. I like the taste of it as it’s similar to cheese. When I first went vegan I though I would miss cheese. But no, there are so many different other foods to love. It’s funny how your taste buds change. In the What The Health documentary, doctors explained how cheese has the same effects on the body as herion does, with the chemicals causing similar cravings, which could be why so many people love dairy! It talked about the hormones and chemicals that are in the cows too.
‘Nutritional yeast is also high in protein and provides all nine amino acids the human body cannot produce. It’s gluten and sugar free and lasts ages. I get mine from Holland and Barrett and it’s stocked in most health food stores or even some supermarkets. You can also get it as a supplement.’
Mixed nuts and dried fruit
Mark: ‘I’m moving around all the time with lots of clients in different gyms. I stock up on five or six large packets and then try and get through a packet over the day. It’s about 1500 calories per bag, so if I can get through that pack in the day as a snack, I’m hitting enough calories to fuel my training. And it keeps me full for an entire day. It’s good for protein, fats and fibre from the dried fruit. It’s not exactly nutritionally rounded, but that’s where the other food comes in.’
Casey: ‘I love it because you can dip vegetables into it or I love it spread on bagels or with pitta for a post-training snack. The garlic, chickpeas and oil is a great combination, making it high in protein and I have read about its anti-inflammatory properties. I’m lazy and buy it from Tesco as oppose to making it – there are so many variations to chose from!
Casey: ‘It’s full of all the healthy fats you need making it very good for the heart and body. It contains potassium which is great for our training. We use it on bagels, salads, and for breakfast sometimes. Even on its own on some toast with a little salt and balsamic – you cant go wrong.’
Mark: ‘Oats are a great way to start the day as they’re a great source of carbohydrates, fiber and contain more protein and fat than most other grains while being rich in antioxidants.’
What vegans eat in a day
Breakfast – oats, fruit or pancakes
Mark: ‘Breakfast for me is always fruit because I’m always late and on the go. This morning for example I had three bananas with peanut butter and a bag of satsumas!’
Casey : ‘If we have time we usually make oats with almond milk and sprinkle on some chia seeds for breakfast. We like to add some sort of fruit – usually blueberries are the winner as they’re full of antioxidants and well… so damn yummy. To sweeten it up, sometimes we add agave nectar or cacao nibs.’
Looking for a quick, easy nutritious breakfast ? I love to start my day of with oats with @oatlyab milk topped with #nectar with a sprinkle (or in my case a heap) of @vaicacao. I can't get enough of the #cacaonibs they're so so so good for you. Help fuel recovery, provide energy & just taste amazing. ???????? Whats your favourite healthy breakfast ?
‘Protein banana pancakes with soya yogurt and fruit – this breakfast is usually kept for those lazy Sunday mornings when we aren’t rushing off out the door. It’s super quick, easy and delicious. We make ours with: 80g buckwheat flour, 1tbsp apple cider vinegar, 100ml sparkling water, 50g soy yogurt, 1/2 mashed banana (or extra to add on top or some strawberries), 1tbs spirulina and some vanilla if you have it.’
Lunch – stir fry or mixed salad
Mark: ‘A vegetable stir fry with mixed grains or rice noodles is one of our go to favorites packed with so much goodness while being extremely filling and yummy. We use coconut oil or olive oil and always whack in spinach, kale, tomatoes, mushrooms, spring onion and mixed nuts and seeds. We then add either mixed grains or rice noodles and a bit of BBQ seasoning and balsamic vinegar. Recently we’ve started adding hoisin sauce to it and it tastes amazing. This takes under ten minutes.’
Casey: ‘You can make some beautiful salads with plant based food. Generally ours include mixed grains, avocados, olives, rice, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas or mixed beans and usually a naughty treat like Tesco’s Free From chocolate buttons.’
Dinner – falafel or vegan pizza
Casey: ‘All our meals need to be quick and simple. If you are in a rush after training and all you want to do is go to bed, sweet potato, shop bought falafel, which you can keep in the freezer, with some free from cheese and sweet chilli sauce is a winner.’
Mark: ‘We eat out a lot because we are too lazy to cook! We go to Zizis a lot, at least once or twice a week, and they have an amazing range of vegan pizzas as well as a lentil ragu. You can even get vegan burgers now – we had a bean burger recently stuffed with hash browns and fake bacon – yum!’
Mark: ‘We eat bagels (full of protein) oats, flapjack, variety of nut butters, mixed nuts, dried fruit, olives and our favourite, banana dipped in chocolate spread or cashew butter. Even if it wasn’t healthy, we would still be eating it – that’s just a bonus!
Casey: ‘In terms of treats, we would love to say we eat good and clean every day, but the reality is we are so busy and usually always on the go that sometimes a bowl of Coco pops or toast and jam with a nice cuppa tea is 100 per cent needed’.