Climbing Health Care: The Vegan Diet

Hi Steph,
My name is Sara and I live in Denver. I work at Rock’n and Jam’n and am obviously a climber and a huge fan!!

I wanted to ask you about your diet and nutrition. I just started reading this book called “The China Study” and it basically focuses on a vegan diet for lifelong health and to help avoid cancer. I have read that you are a vegan, and you obviously climb ridiculously strong.

Do you have any advice for a woman climber who is considering the vegan diet? I am already a vegetarian, but I use a lot of dairy to supplement my protein needs.

Thanks so much. I think you are so awesome!

Dear Sara,
Thanks for writing! I have been vegan for about 7 years now. Originally I was looking for the most effective fuel for sports, weight management and health. I systematically tried several different eating systems, reading books first and then following them for six months each. At the time, not many people were proponents of veganism for athletics, so it was last on my list, and much to my surprise, blew all the other eating systems away with results.

Then, as I learned more about factory farming, I felt unable to contribute to a system that victimizes animals with my consumer choices. I want to take care of helpless creatures, not hurt them. In this country, there is a huge problem with animal torture because of money-saving factory farming systems. Animals raised in factory farms live unnatural and wretched lives, and anything you eat which you have not personally seen being raised is very likely to come from that system. I strongly believe this is unhealthy for everyone, physically and spiritually.

So being vegan takes care of both.
A lot of people ask “how do you get enough protein and calcium?” As I understand it, most Americans ingest far more protein than the body can actually process. You’ll get about a million different answers for how much protein one needs per day. An average sized person probably should eat about 30-50 grams per day, according to people who study these things (at least, this is the average I can come up with, based on the many different studies I’ve seen on it). To put that into perspective, a half cup of tofu has 20 grams of protein and a 6 oz steak has 42 grams. Keep in mind that everything, including grains and vegetables, has a few grams of protein in it. So if you just eat a normal, healthy, whole foods diet, you get more than enough protein every day. I don’t even pay attention to it myself, and I get plenty.

I was amazed when I learned that calcium from dairy does not always absorb into your system as well as calcium from greens and legumes, like brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens and Swiss chard. It can be inaccurate to say how much calcium is IN a dairy product. It may be in there, but it doesn’t necessarily stay in you. Calcium from dark greens and beans (and tofu too) actually puts more calcium in you, where you want it.

Interestingly, after I fractured my pelvis a while ago, I was craving tofu and sauteed greens every day, even more than usual. I healed really fast.

I noticed that when I cut out junk food, refined sugar and processed foods from my diet, my tastes became much simpler and more in tune with what my body actually needs. Usually when I crave a specific food, it’s something like brown rice or tomatoes, so I know it’s something I need to eat. Eating a simple, whole foods diet guarantees better health.

The one thing the vegan diet lacks, and this is a fairly recent issue, is B vitamins. Apparently these used to be more present in soil, and because of lack of refrigeration in days past, people also ate more fermented foods which were not as sterilized in the way things are now, and this also offered more B vitamins. Again, the Bs you get with supplements are generally better processed by your body than much of the Bs you get from animal products (often present due to contamination in slaughterhouses. ugh). I eat nutritional yeast, which is delicious, and has a lot of Bs.

It’s pretty established now that the vegan diet is the best way to stay healthy in the longterm. Avoiding mass produced animal products is the single biggest thing you can do right now to reduce your environmental impact. It is also a very inexpensive way to eat. You can research all this in about five minutes with a google search.

I think it’s great you are looking for the best way to fuel your body and take care of yourself. Just like climbing gear, the better you take care of your body, the better it will function.
Also, striving to be compassionate and to help more than you harm is very healthy for you and for our society. Even if you choose to eat animal products, make the effort to find foods that have been produced without forcing animals to live unnatural, painful lives–for example, fish that lived freely in oceans and streams, or milk and eggs from animals that live in a comfortable, traditional pastoral situation.

The science is all very interesting, and you could study it forever, but I feel sure that helping those who are easily exploited and practicing kindness is the best thing you can do for your health. The health benefits of vegan choices seem to support that.
πŸ™‚ Steph

  • Jeff

    Steph –
    Nice post. As someone extremely interested in health and animal treatment a couple of points from your post stand out. It sounds like the vegan choice was born from an animal/environmental rights perspective. What about organic, naturally raised/free range, humanely treated animals produced for consumption?

    Later you say “it’s pretty established the vegan diet is the best way to stay healthy..” (extremely debatable by the way).. in fact some of the most unhealthy people i’ve known are vegans. Not sure how you’re measuring health here.

    In all, I’m in agreement about the environmental impact and humane treatment to animals. The “more healthy” twist is a fun debate (really a riddle) that both sides feel strongly about. Personally I don’t feel (based on science) moderate amounts of fresh, organic meat deters from health, not physical anyway.


  • Steph Davis

    πŸ™‚ Thank you!
    Here is one link that is interesting and can lead to more sites to check out:

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  • Chris


    Usually enjoy your blog, but have several issues with this post.

    First, protein requirements for the athlete are well studied and understood. Peter lemon recommends 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

    A more recent position paper from the International Society of Sports nutrition recommends 1.4-2.0 g/kg/day.

    30-50 grams of protein may prevent muscle wasting, but certainly won’t help your recovery or optimal performance unless you weigh 60 to 90 pounds.

    Calcium bioavailability does not significantly differ between the average green vegetable and milk. Some vegetables have high calcium content (kale, celery, collard, chinese cabbage) while others have lots of oxalate that inhibits the bioavailability of calcium (notably spinach).

    There is no “vitamin B”, rather a fairly diverse class of b vitamins that all exhibit a broad range of biological effects.

    Vitamin B12 is not present in plant sources, so one must supplement or use fermented foods (it is unclear whether or not the B2 from fermented foods is adaquate/sufficient).

    Plants also don’t contain vitamin k2, but rather K1, which is a vastly inferior form. Incidently, K2 is heavily involved in proper bone metabolism and prevention of arterial calcification.

    Happen to have a dexa scan after you broke your pelvis? A number of epidemiological studies have demonstrated significantly lower bone density in female vegatarians and vegans

  • Steph Davis

    Thanks for your concern. Apparently I have extremely dense bones (luckily), and the force which fractured my sacrum (in a base jumping accident the summer before last, when I pounded in very hard) “should” have caused it to break much more severely, according to the doctors. Instead I ended up with hairline fractures, rather than displacement, which healed in 5 weeks. It’s good to be durable….
    Nutrition is such a fascinating topic. It’s great to hear from such knowledgeable people on this, thanks for the information!
    For myself, having seen scientific studies say wildly opposing things at different points in time, the most important thing is to use my common sense and simply do what works consistently and over the longterm, and more importantly, what feels right in terms of reducing harm to others.
    πŸ™‚ Steph

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  • HI Steph,
    Hello! This is your nutritionist friend in Steamboat if you remember. Funny I just came across this as I remembered a good vegan cookie recipe that I saw on your site a while back and wanted to copy it. A few additions for some of your readers on vegan diet and B vitamins. B vitamins are very important for energy metabolism, as they are involved in different processes for turning fat, protein and carb into energy for exercise (and everyday life) There are vegetarian sources of most of the B vitamins but there are several different B vitamins.

    Here are just a few (VERY quick descriptions)…all important for the athlete!:
    Folate is best naturally found in leafy greens and fortified in many cereals, very important for DNA synthesis, athletes and pregnancy.
    B2 riboflavin is found in milk and eggs and naturally in organ meats, as are other B vitamins but not from slaughter…( BUT….not vegan obviously!!!) but also in broccoli and wheat bran to name a few vegan sources. B2 is directly involved in energy metabolism.
    B12 is only found in animal products and vegans should supplement or consume fortified foods with B12 added, it is involved with energy metabolism, red blood cells and nerve function.
    Thiamin, B1, is directly essential for carb metabolism, good sources are unrefined whole grains, legumes and nuts.
    Niacin can be found in vegan sources such as legumes, some leafy greens, and seeds naturally.
    My advice on calcium is that if you do not have enough Vitamin D in your diet calcium will not be absorbed properly period, there are few food sources of Vit D, and fewer good vegan sources. We do get Vit D from the sun but you also need to ingest Vit D, as it is not stored in the body and we all do not live in sunny Colorado and Utah, people with darker skin and living in northern climates are more in need of Vit D.
    Vegans should pay special attention to calcium intake and eating foods that help with calcium absorption, same thing with iron. Leafy greens are a source of calcium, but that plant sources are better is very very debatable. As for Jeff, I truly think that everyones body responds in a different way to dietary choices. For me my body prefers a 99.9% vegetarian diet, but I do think that it varies and some people feel better with organic sustainable meats added. Surely a vegan lifestyle is better for the environment and you can get your nutrients but you have to know what you are doing, and do not believe everything that you hear, just do your homework from reputable sources, nutrition is a dynamic field but some facts are just science. There are certainly many very successful athletes (Steph included obviously!) that are vegans, but do it right if you try it Sara.
    If anyone has read Animal Liberation, a book from the 70’s, I think they would be much more concerned with where their meat comes from, and nowadays where all of your food comes from.
    As for protein, Steph is right the AVERAGE american gets too much protein for their needs, with exceptions for those with disease and poverty. You can get protein from plant sources again you just have to know what you are doing, and it may depend on what your sports is, climbing only? running? cycling, etc. Athletes typically have higher protein needs. Hope you are enjoying this indian summer and I hope this was some help!

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  • I just have one question, which goes more into your social life as a vegan and to some may sound funny but I think is quite relevant. I have no special dietary habits, just eat to survive, but recently I have started to think a bit more about it in order to improve my physical and mental state for my sports. I dont think I am ready to give up meat nor dairy but if it will change my life to the better I am really keen on giving it a go.

    But here is my question. When on trips (just like StephΒ΄s recent trip to Lauterbrunnen for example), or going out with family and/or friends does it not make things more complicated? That is, if other members of the group (travel partners), your family or friends are not vegans is it not a hassle to find a place to eat, to make dinner and so on?

    This question just popped up because I had to change my diet from normal milk to skimmed, and less fatty cheese when I started my relationship years back. Not a great change, and something I had no problem with changing (took me just few weeks to get used to milk that was closer to water than cream in taste). And now when we have a kid we started buying full cream milk again adding to the inventory in the fridge. So that is why I thought about it. If I change my diet to vegan and not the other family members it will require 2x the inventory and sometimes making 2 dishes instead of just one for everyone.


  • Steph Davis

    Hi Himmi! It’s easier than it seems like it would be, to be vegan even if the other people eating with you are not, especially if you are the one who cooks. Almost anything can be made as a non-meat dish, with the meat cooked on the side and added by those who want it. Then everyone can have what they prefer. My experience has been that anyone I’ve lived with eventually has found themselves always wanting to eat the vegan food I make because it tastes good, and then gradually becoming aware that it works very well for them too, physically.

    When traveling, the only thing that’s really difficult for me is wheat. Of all the things I don’t eat–refined sugar, hydrogenated anything, animal products and wheat– wheat is hands down the hardest to deal with. Both because I love bread, and also because wheat seems to be in almost everything other people make or sell on this side of the world. The only reason I avoid it is that I get a stomachache when I eat too much wheat flour, especially at night.

    In Switzerland, where I walk by cows living idyllic peaceful lives in green fields every day, I often eat the local cheese. And if I end up having salad or plain rice for a few meals while I’m traveling or at restaurants with friends, it doesn’t bother me that much, though I usually do try to vote for a thai or indian restaurant rather than a steakhouse πŸ™‚ But I’m certainly not gong to starve, and it’s kind of natural for creatures to eat more at some times and less at others.

    As with climbing, eating habits are a lifestyle change. Climbers are willing and able to make extremely radical lifestyle changes for the sake of climbing, and nutrition is no different. I guess it just doesn’t seem like a big deal to me to change something like eating habits, especially when it works.
    πŸ™‚ Steph

  • Charissa

    Hi Steph,

    I’ve been following a vegan diet for about 8 years and climbing for about a year. Love being vegan, love rock climbing, and love your website…thanks for putting up all the great info! Reading your book now. Cheers, Charissa (in Seattle)

  • amy

    I would definitely recommend checking out Brendan Brazier’s book The Thrive Diet. He is a world class triathlete and maintains a completely plant based diet (it’s also really great for Celiac’s because he uses mostly gluten-free grains too!) His book gives a really easy to read breakdown of what your body needs, and how it reacts to different foods, all from an athletic viewpoint, and about half the book is great recipes that follow his “rules” of eating. Worth checking out for a vegan/vegetarian/celiac lifestyle, and great for it’s gearing towards athletes!

  • simon

    It’s funny when I first started to read your blog and about yosemite I thought it would be great to live there I really wanted to be there.
    but then I thought well we also have some rocks in switzerland, actually not only some but quite large amounts of great rocks and cliffs and mountains. and when I read what you write about food and factory farming I feel very happy with the situation here in swizterland, you can find almost everything as “organic” and since switzerland is not very large, you can be sure that it didn’t travel very far if it is from switzerland and it’s not even much more expensive.
    it seems this time the grass is much greener here where I am.
    you really made me realize that. thank you for that.

  • Yo Steph
    I fully support the vegan lifestyle. Love to see other climbers/athletes that do too. I have been climbing for 15 yrs. Experimented with diet for gains and retaining my youth (i am 36). Tried vegetarian and noticed a big change for the better, but still to much cheese (vegetarian for 10). Then took the vegan/no refined sugar or oil, or white flour/balanced diet. Wow, is the best way to describe it. My recovery, strength/weight ratio, and over all feeling of being is awesome.
    My wife has a very informative vegan blog, check it

  • Forgot to mention my wife and i have been fully vegan for over 3yrs now. Just keeps getting better

  • I would suggest hemp seed protein for a protein source. I put about 4tbsp in my smoothie every day, that equates to about 16grams of highly digestible protein!

    And I can say from personal experience that a vegetarian diet is highly beneficial, I actually eat about 50%-70% of my diet from all raw foods. I still eat some dairy though.

    Also, for B vitamins I would suggest nutritional yeast for your salads. I sprinkle some on almost all my salads, plus it has a nice cheesy flavor to it πŸ™‚

  • just another vegan climber

    you rule!

    greetings from switzerland

  • Incredible article!

  • Awesome reply Steph! πŸ™‚ I am so inspired by you as a female vegan climber myself! I just started a Youtube channel about vegan climbing, and once I get enough views for me to get your attention, I would love to interview you! (haha) Anyways, check out my first video here:

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