Daily diet of a plant-based athlete in Asia
A reference guide for active people looking to reduce meat consumption without sacrificing athletic performance and daily productivity.
After Seven Years of Food Experiments…
I’m a low-meat, competitive ultimate frisbee player and former startup founder based in Hong Kong. Previously, I’ve lived in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and travelled quite extensively across Southeast Asia as part of my frisbee and startup team.
I’m an efficiency geek. Ever since I decided to start cutting out meat in 2010, I’ve been experimenting with different eating protocols to help improve different aspects of my life: energy levels, athletic performance, weight management, mood, sleep, and so on.
I’ve written the following guide to document my learnings from the last seven years in Asian food experiments, so I have a default protocol based on the things that have worked for me. Some friends have pointed out that there aren’t many resources for people like me/us in Asia, so I thought it may be useful to share.
Who is this guide designed for
As a low-meat eater, an amateur athlete and a productivity geek, I found several distinct challenges that I faced every day, around my food choices. Hence, I’ve designed this diet and routine to address those challenges and reduce the number of decisions I have to make about food every day.
If you’re living in Asia (or enjoy Asian foods) and share some of the following traits, this guide my be helpful for you too:
I spend 85% of my time as a vegetarian, 14% pescatarian and 1% as a flexitarian (including the times when I accidentally eat meat, and realized it after the fact). Of my vegetarian-based diet, 80% is also vegan.
While I am an animal-lover, I mainly do this to reduce my carbon footprint, and consequently, to provoke conversations that may lead others to (eventually) do the same.
- Healthy veggie options: These days, finding vegetarian options in Greater China and Southeast Asia isn’t that difficult, but there is generally a trade-off between cost and nutrition.
- Weight management: when I first started to cut meat, I ballooned. This was mainly because I was lazy and just replaced meats with cheap and easy carbs, like breads, noodles and rice.
To tackle both of these issues, I designed my daily foods based on simple, mostly unprocessed ingredients, that are affordable, accessible and require minimal preparation.
I also try to include a good variety of different foods, including healthy fats to keep me satiated throughout the day (vs constantly hungry when eating lots of processed carbs/sugars) and fermented foods to aid digestion (and counteract the inconvient side-effect of legumes/beans).
While I’e been a competitive athlete since highschool, I never felt a need to focus on nutrition until I started to cut meat out of my diet. I noticed two things: 1) increase in injuries and 2) increase in fatigue.
I consulted a nutritionist on our team, who had me keep a food journal for a week. He quickly noticed that my protein and iron consumption were too low, especially for my level of activity. I also learnt that 1) iron needs to be paired with vitamin C to facilitate absorption, and can be blocked by high levels of calcium and 2) that unlike meat proteins, many vegetarian proteins are “incomplete”, which means they need to be paired up provide us with all of the essential amino acids we need.
- Adequate and complete protein consumption
- Adequate iron consumption and absorption
I’ve factored both of these into the design of my daily diet.
I’m pretty obsessed about being efficient with my (work) time, especially back when I was running a startup. I was particularly interested in energy levels: how to maintain consistent and relatively high energy throughout the day and also get a great night’s sleep.
- Too many carbs: Like many others (apparently it depends on your “carb tolerance”), I found carbs to be a key cause of my afternoon lulls. As soon as I cut carbs from lunch, I immediately killed the food coma.
- Too few carbs: Based on that initial success, I went on to experiment with increasingly low levels of daily carb consumption. I did, however, reach a point where it affected my physical health (e.g. skin, period cycle) and my sprint performance noticeably suffered.
Hence, I’ve designed my currently routine to be relatively low-carb, compared to most Asian diets (around 150g carbs per day), but enough to keep my bodily functions intact. I’m still experimenting to find the optimal level of carbs for my sprint performance.
I’ve also experimented with carb timing, and for now, I’ve decided that putting carbs at or near the end of the day makes the most sense. Reasons: 1) I’ll take some fast-acting carbs right before my evening workout (e.g. HIIT or weights) to pump myself up, 2) carbs post-workout may help with muscle growth and recovery, and 3) I want utilize the carb-coma effect at night to help put me to sleep. That said, the carbs in my post-workout dinner are still relatively low, and usually from legume and fruit sources.
Please note that I’m not a medical professional, and this is, again, just a documentation of what I use and what works for me. Also, I’m constantly optimizing based on new circumstances and new research that I come across, so this guide is also a constant work-in-progress.
My Daily Diet
I guess the most noticeable feature of my routine (besides all the things I’ve already mentioned) is that I fast in the morning. This is for the health benefits, better mental performance and at this point, because I’ve just gotten used to it by now.
Daily Diet Snapshot
I plan my diet and routine using myfitnesspal, so I’ll just include a screenshot of here (which I can conveniently update when I change my protocol):
For reference, here are some daily recommended intakes from the US health department:
- Sodium: 1.2–1.5g
- Fibre: 20-25g for women, 30–40g for men
- Iron (not shown above): 18mg
- Sugars: most recommendations are around added sugar, but most of the sugar in my diet is from natural sources
- Cholesterol: apparently the US health Department changed it’s recommendation in 2015 and now does not provide specific recommended limits for the amount of cholesterol you consume every day
- Macro-nutrients (carbs, fat, protein): here is a table of acceptable ranges. I go with 40% carbs, 35% fat, 25% protein
The Daily Routine
Here’s a breakdown every meal by time. I’ve also included some common substitutes I use to add variety to this everyday routine.
12pm Tea / Coffee
As mentioned, I fast in the morning, and for my first drink, I just do tea or coffee plus a bit of cream.
I do a very light lunch, basically some low-carb, crunch veggies with homemade hummus (using greek yogurt instead of tahini), cherry tomatoes, plus a latte (preferably, but rarely, with vegan milk) to finish things off.
430pm Pre-Workout Snack
Before I do my evening workout, I grab some fast-acting carbs. As I’m usually out of the house, I may grab a variety of things, including:
- Muesli with (soy)milk (or yogurt)
- Taiwanese milk tea (sometimes with red beans)
- A grainy bun plus a soy latte
- A fruit and two eggs
Just depends on what’s available and what I feel like that day.
As you may have noticed, I take in relatively few calories during the day, which means… I have a lot of leniency for dinner! I find this is convenient because even if I eat out, I can eat very freely. And if I eat in, I have a 3-course feast:
Appetizer: cheesy salad
A very straightforward raw salad — I just combine:
- Some greens as a base, e.g. spinach, kale
- Some juicy veggies, e.g. tomatoes or cucumber
- Some cheese, e.g. cheddar or whatever’s on clearance! (can replace with nuts if vegan)
- Some crunchy seeds or nuts, e.g. pumpkin, almonds, chia (even quinoa works)
- Some dressing, usually balsamic vinegar and sometimes Japanese sesame sauce
In the winter, I may substitute this cold dish with a hot veggie dish instead. This would consist of:
- Higher protein Asian leafy greens, e.g gai lan, bak choi
- A bit of olive or coconut oil
- Fermented sauce: shrimp paste or bean curd (vegan option)
- For extra protein, I may add in some peanuts / cashew or, on the rare occasion, some canned sardines / dace (in which case I would not add any additional oil or sauce)
Main Course: veggie bowl
I like to imagine it this like a bibimbap (Korean rice bowl):
- Lentils as the “rice” (while I’m preparing my salad, I start boiling the lentils)
- Mushrooms, cucumbers or sprouts (whatever is one sale)
- Eggs (can replace with tofu if vegan)
- If I’m feeling fancy, I may also boil some spinach and add some sesame seeds/sauce
In my mind, this is a Japanese-style dessert. This includes:
- Edamame (or nuts if I don’t have any)
- Some fruit: berries, grapes, stone fruit (again, whatever is on sale)
If I’m craving something more decadent, I’ll do 1–2 pieces of dark chocolate
Weekly Grocery List
These are the items that I try to keep stocked in my kitchen every week. When I source for these products, I look for:
- Taste — since I’m eating a lot of the same things every day, I need to make sure that I’m enjoying what I’m eating!
- Packaging — package-free whenever possible
- Price (and clearance items) — I try to spend under US$100 per week on groceries every week. This is why I buy a lot of my groceries when they’re on clearance. It generally means I can buy high-quality items for half the price.
For fresh foods, I do a more thorough check to make sure nothing is seriously bruised or molding. For packaged foods, I was convinced by this episode of 99 Percent Invisible (podcast) that expiry dates are more about freshness than food safety, so I’m much more lax. I’ll also put foods nearing their expiry date into the freezer (e.g. cheese, bread, tahini) to keep them for longer. (Note: I tried freezing yogurt — it doesn’t work).
- Local production — I’ll generally choose local farms and shops over supermarkets when it’s accessible within region
I’ve chosen foods that are pretty easily accessible across Asia. However, if you’re based in Hong Kong, and want specific sources, these are the main shops / suppliers that I use (with link to their store locations):
- Bulk stores: there are many traditional bulk stores across Hong Kong — they are generally great for nuts and dried fruit. However, I also need dried legumes and condiments, so I usually go to Live Zero, a dedicated package-free bulk store. For other options (and locations), check out this article.
- 759 store — local chain selling lots of products from Japan and Korea. They often have very good discounts for members (just sign up in store)
- Prizemart — local chain with what I’ve seen to be the cheapest nuts in the city. Unfortunately, their biggest quantities are just 500g, which means quite a bit of plastic packaging for each purchase. If you’re willing to spend a little more, you can get 1kg packages for 10–20% more at Bestmart 360.
- U-Select (supermarket with partnership with Tesco) — not completely local but the prices are hard to beat
Tea and coffee
- Morning tea: in the morning, I drink western teas. I’ve tried most of the leading brands, but I’ve always gravitated to the more common (and cheaper) brands, like Tetley’s Original and Tesco’s Assam. They have a stronger flavour than most English breakfast teas, which I like in the morning, both plain and with a bit of cream. I usually get my Tesco Assam from U-Select. (US$3 for a box that lasts me 3–6 months)
- Evening tea is Matcha, usually bought from friends coming back from Japan (US$20 for a small tin that lasts me 3–6 months)
- If I do drink coffee, it’s usually from my co-working space, i.e. it’s free!
- Once in a blue moon, I’ll have a latte at a cafe (usually for work meetings). I always bring my tumbler, and sometimes this gets me a 10% discount.
I get all my alcohol at the 759 store, namely:
- Plum wine: lots of different options, and I haven’t tried any that I disliked.
- Moscato: I’ve seen only two options so far, both are good value (taste) for money.
- Tesco sugar-free tonic water / lemonade from U-Select
This is sort of a “cheat” drink at night if I have a craving but don’t want to break my fast. Sometimes I’ll use sugar-free sports drinks as a substitute. You can use sugar-free soda too; I just don’t like the taste.
- Vegan milk, usually Kikkoman soy milk from 759 store
This is a tasty and affordable default option. It’s sold in many places, but I find 759 has the best prices. When I’m in a supermarket, I’ll also check out what’s on clearance to try some of the fancier and fresh vegan milks
I try to buy locally-grown veggies as much as possible. Some of the produce shops in my neighbourhood show the sources of their veggies. This is my usual list:
- Leafy greens: Spinach / kale
- Juicy: Cucumber / tomatoes
- Crunchy: Broccoli / cauliflower / radish
- Edamame (soy beans)
- Mushrooms and avocados — I’ve not been able to source this locally, so I usually buy them from supermarkets when they’re on clearance
If I can’t get everything I want from my local shops, I supplement with one of the local produce delivery services. So far, my favourite has been Magic Seasons Organics, as they have the best service and have been working with me (and other customers I’m sure) to minimize packaging. It seems like these CSA (community supported agriculture) delivery services are on the rise in Asia.
I like being able to choose based on how I feel in the moment, and I like getting fresh (preferably warm) buns, so I don’t usually stock up on bread. I do keep a couple slices in the freezer (bought on clearance) though, as a backup (e.g. feeling to lazy to go to the bakery).
For some specific recommendations:
- Healthier option: the Paper Stone Bakery chain does a lot of creative and, by the looks of it, relatively healthier breads (e.g. kale baguette, beetroot roll). This is my go-to when I have a chewy carb craving.
But if I’m craving local breads, my go-tos are:
- Pineapple bun: most local cafes with their own bakery do a decent job of this, but my favourite one is Lok Heung Yuen Coffee Shop (G/F, №8–12 Gilman’s Bazaar, Central) because they actually have pineapple flavour (not traditional)
- Mexico bun: again, many places have this, but only one cafe does it with coconut filling: Honolulu Coffee Shop (one in Wanchai, one in Tseung Kwan O).
I like to keep fruit around the house and in my backpack to “nudge” myself into eating them when I want a snack. Unless otherwise specified, I get my fruit from local stalls or occasionally on clearance at supermarkets. I also find that it’s generally harder to find locally-grown fruit, but I’m on the lookout for affordable options.
I find I tend to crave fruit for specific flavours and textures, so I try to stock a couple of different varieties:
Some tangy stuff
- Tomatoes: I’ve found a local farm-to-table restaurant (Fresca) that also sells their fresh produce in store. They have a huge variety of tomatoes and I usually get a whole week’s worth for under US$15.
- Grapes / berries: I’m still looking for a source that sells these without packaging. For berries, I only buy them if they’re on clearance because they’re very pricey otherwise.
- Stone fruit, e.g. peaches, nectarines
- I’ll also keep some 7D dried mango in the freezer as a last resort backup plan
Some crunchy stuff
- Apples: sometimes picked up (for free) at workspaces or gyms
Dairy / Chilled
For dairy and chilled products, I generally resort to clearance-hunting at supermarkets. U-select has a good selection, and is affordable even without clearance. If I have time and I happen to pass by one of the fancier supermarkets, I’ll usually drop in and see if they have any items on clearance as it’s an affordable way to expand my palate!
- Hard cheese, e.g. cheddar: bought on clearance at supermarket and kept in the freezer for grating on salads
- High-protein yogurt, usually greek / greek-style: clearance at supermarket
- Eggs: I like the Japanese brand from U-Select
- Kimchi: I usually go for the 500g Chonga packs. There are some other brands available in 1kg buckets, but I’ve found them to be less tasty.
- Dark chocolate (usually bought on clearance)
Dried goods: nuts, seeds, grains, legumes
Live Zero and Prizemart are pretty much my defaults for dried goods:
- Almonds at Prizemart
- Pistachios at Prizemart
- Pumpkin seeds at Live Zero
- Lentils (and quinoa for variety) at Live Zero
- Chickpeas at Live Zero
- Muesli / granola: often on clearance at supermarkets
- I’ll also indulge in some nut butters and tahini (for hummus) if I see them on clearance. Same story for flax / hemp / chia seeds.
- Balsamic vinegar: (still looking for a great source)
- Japanese sesame dressing: 759 store
- Salt (himalayan or sea): Live Zero
- Paprika (goes great with eggs and avocado): Live Zero