Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Olympians Who Eat Entirely Vegan

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A decade ago you’d likely find Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi eating a T-bone steak topped with fried eggs after a big workout. Today, though, the 41-year-old basketballer fuels up with soy milk smoothies blended with hemp, flaxseed, and chia seeds for breakfast; air-fried tofu, broccoli, and rice for lunch; and enchiladas stuffed with vegetables and smothered in “a plethora of vegan cheeses” for dinner. Taurasi went vegan in 2016, hoping to boost her health in the long term, and “felt the change instantly,” she says. “I could recover faster, and the things I’m doing right now on the court, I wasn’t even able to do when I was 28.”

Taurasi is at the top of her game. She’s a 10-time WNBA All-Star with three titles under her belt and the league’s leading scorer. The White Mamba, a nickname Taurasi earned from Kobe Bryant, sank her 10,000th point last year. And she plans to win her sixth gold medal at the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, France—where she won’t be the only one powered entirely by plants.

Studies show veganism is increasingly popular among athletes. In a 2020 review published in the International Journal of Sports and Exercise Medicine, sports scientist Katharina Wirnitzer, PhD, estimates that up to 17 percent of people in any given group may be vegan. “It is very likely that there is no longer any social group or sports team without a vegan,” she wrote. Today elite athletes like surfer Tia Blanco, snowboarder Hannah Teter, soccer star Alex Morgan, marathoner Scott Jurek, and tennis sisters Serena and Venus Williams all eat predominantly plant-based diets. [Editor’s note: While “plant-based” refers to diets primarily composed of plants and “vegan” excludes all animal products, this article uses the terms interchangeably.]

Though skeptics have argued that a vegan diet lacks adequate protein and calories for top athletes, some competitors see the regimen as essential to their success. “I wasn’t a world champion before I was vegan, I was a world champion because I was vegan,” says Meagan Duhamel, 38, who won gold and bronze medals in team and pairs figure skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Duhamel, who eliminated all animal products from her diet in 2008, is an advocate of vegan sports nutrition. She retired in 2018 to coach other skaters and still credits her athletic success to daily bowls of oatmeal, homemade chickpea–peanut butter protein cookies, and lentil pastas.

Former Team USA weight lifter Kendrick Farris, 37, shares an experience similar to Duhamel’s. “If my competitors had injuries, it sidelined them. Meanwhile, I was able to keep going,” says Farris, a three-time Olympian who still holds US records in the clean and jerk and total weight for the 94 kg weight class. “I’m a big pancake guy,” he says. “I got a little saying, ‘pancakes with personal records.’” His go-to recipe is made with whole grain flour, mashed bananas, and almond milk and loaded up with fresh berries and maple syrup.

Powering athletic performance

No one study has unequivocally proven that a vegan diet will enhance athletic performance—but a handful of science-backed reasons could explain why plant-based foods might boost your game. “Elite-level training creates an enormous amount of oxidative damage,” says Desiree Nielsen, RD, a cookbook author and registered dietitian specializing in plant-based nutrition. “Athletes will wake up in the morning almost feeling like they have a hangover because there is so much inflammation from yesterday’s pursuits.” A vegan diet could help to stymie that inflammation.

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