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Élise Desaulniers Headshot

You Can Be a Vegan AND a High-Performing Athlete

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svariophoto via Getty Images
svariophoto via Getty Images

"I can't be vegan; I run triathlons!" "I swim!" "I play golf!" Despite the fact that the myths surrounding vegan nutrition are long since busted, and the fact that veganism is getting more and more popular among amateur and professional athletes, this is still one of the arguments I hear most often when discussing food ethics with non-vegans.

Many of those who practice endurance sports on a regular basis agree with the ethical arguments for veganism but remain under the impression that it can be difficult for an athlete to follow a vegan diet and maintain his or her performance level. Luckily, vegan athletes are grabbing headlines with increasing regularity, and are jumping at the chance to share the secret of their success: a compassionate vegan diet.

Meagan Duhamel is one such athlete. Duhamel has been vegan since 2008, and at age 28, the Canadian figure skater won the silver medal at Sotchi with her partner Eric Radford. In a recent interview, she explained how her plant-based diet helped improve her performance and led her to become the amazing jumper she is today: "I have always loved to jump! And to fly! Doing triple jumps is second nature to me. Since becoming a vegan, my jumps have been more effortless, and I credit this to the fact that my body is in peak form all season long." As a professional athlete and certified holistic nutritionist, Duhamel really knows her stuff. As soon as she got back from Sotchi, I asked to her to meet and discuss her lifestyle with her, and she graciously accepted.

We met at Sophie Sucrée, a new vegan bakery and tea salon on the Plateau in Montreal. She arrived wearing a red Canadian team hoodie and the same bright smile she has on the ice. Her enthusiasm at the pastry counter was contagious: "Oh my god. I don't know what I'm going to choose." Obviously, Olympic athletes crave cupcakes just like the rest of us.

"That's what I'm going to do with my life"
It's not just cupcakes that Duhamel craves. She is also a voracious reader with a thirst for knowledge. It all started one day, when she picked up Skinny Bitch, a best-selling diet book that promotes a vegan lifestyle for health reasons."I've read the cover of it and it was really funny. They had a humorous take on health." She read it in one go the same night and the morning after, she decided to drink her coffee black. She resolved to go vegan. "I wasn't doing it to be in good shape. I just seemed like an interesting challenge. So I went to the ring and I told my coaches I was gonna be a vegan and they both told me I was gonna be malnourished. The more people that told me that I couldn't do it, I wanted to do it even more. So instead of being a little small project I said "that's what I'm going to do with my life'".

In the last six years, Duhamel hasn't eaten a shred of animal protein. Not only has she maintained her muscle tone, her performance on the ice has never been so good: "My muscle definition got better when I became a vegan...I've started eating less protein, but the foods I'm eating are giving are better protein and better iron. Plant-base iron is the best for your body to absorb."

What does a vegan athlete eat?
I was hoping to come back from the interview with a list of specific shake recipes a vegan athlete should consume to maintain good performance. Yet I was surprised to see how simple Meagan's diet is. "Basically, I'm eating what my body is telling me it wants." Meagan doesn't keep a record of what she eats and she doesn't count calories or weigh her food. Her diet is pretty easy to follow for anybody who wants to eat well and have a good level of energy:

"I have a smoothie in the morning. Usually, I have a green smoothie so I can put spinach and kale, or Swiss chard and, or whatever I have that week, with banana, peanut butter, cinnamon and almond milk or coconut milk.

I'm on the go, all day long. So I bring all sorts of snacks. I have homemade muffins, granola bars, home made protein cookies. I make a lot of things myself.

At dinner time, it's often a bowl: some quinoa and vegetables. I like to cook myself. I like to make some noodle dishes and stir fries, stews. I eat stews in the winter a lot. I spend a lot of time cooking and I try to make as much as I can from scratch. Of course, I don't always have the time, but when I have the time, that is what I'll do."

Apart from eating whole foods and taking a holistic approach when she can, Duhamel doesn't deprive herself. If she wants cookies or cupcakes, she eats some! As well as desserts, vegan mains are far from boring for Duhamel. "I think I have every vegan cookbook that has ever been done. I have everything folded and labeled. All the recipes that I wanna try and the recipes that I have tried. I have twice as many still left to try!" Meagan is obviously the kind of person you would text at 5 p.m. when you don't know what to have for dinner.

And what about supplements? The silver medalist is sponsored by Vega, but these protein supplements are not central in her diet. "I use like one bar a day. But I can feel a difference when I take them and when I don't. After a great workout, if I don't take the recovery product the next day I feel like my body has not recovered."

Being a vegan
Let's go back six years ago. Honestly: how difficult was it to become a vegan? When Duhamel decided to get serious about her health, "the hardest thing for me was to give up diet coke and coffee, not becoming a vegan!" she says. "Slowly, I've stopped drinking Diet Coke but I still love coffee."

She believes that everything individuals need to go vegan is easily available: "to me, it's not a sacrifice. The only thing difficult in becoming vegan is reading the list of ingredients on my box of English muffins to know if I can eat it!" For Duhamel, it's just of mater of taking the time to think about what we fuel our bodies with. "You can make a choice to go buy a burger at McDonald's or make yourself a smoothie at home. To me, it's so simple. The amount of effort it would take me to go to McDonald's and get a burger and the amount of effort it takes me in the morning to make a smoothie is the same. It takes the same amount of time. Costs about the same amount of money."

And what about those who say that they have tried to be vegan and feel sick? "I ask them how much research did you do before you started this and what were you eating? Chips are vegan! I have this friend who tried to become vegan many, many times and after two weeks, she always telling me 'Oh, I'm so sick.' But what were you eating? 'Well, I had a toast with peanut butter'. Well, that explains everything! There are other options!"

Doing your own research... and helping people!
Meagan Duhamel asks people to do their own research and it's something she has experimented with a lot. Being a professional athlete, everybody has advice about what to eat. Learning to critique the suggestions she was getting was an important step for her: "Before I was vegan, I was following a diet and what people told me, so many different things. I only saw a nutritionist once and she told me to eat cheese strings. I knew nothing about nutrition at that time but I knew that cheese strings were processed food and there was no nutritional benefit in a cheese string. This was a nutritionist that worked for the Canadian Sport Institute, telling me, a high level athlete, to eat granola bars and cheese strings. I just seemed so weird to me."

That was a tipping point that for her. Soon after becoming vegan, she started studying nutrition, and, two and half years later, became a registered holistic nutritionist. She wanted to better understand vitamins, minerals and nutrients, but she also loved reading "about those obscure places in the world where people were living to 120 years old and had never heard of cancer and never heard of heart disease." She now wants to help other athletes once her skating career is over.

She also wants to start writing a blog "about my skating, about my nutrition, about veganism, about everything. I think it would be very interesting and this summer, it's something I could take time to do." With all the passion she exudes talking about her lifestyle, it's easy to tell that it's going to be a great blog to follow. I for one can't wait to read it!

Meagan's advice for new vegans:
  • Give it a chance. Don't come with pre-conceived ideas.
  • Go slowly. If you want to stick with something for the long term, you have to make changes gradually - doing a lot of research helps.
  • Get your B12 supplements.
  • Play with herbs and spices - it really makes a difference.
  • Go to smaller, local organic health food stores. Most have great alternative foods that you might not even know exist yet.
  • Follow the blog Oh She Glows. The author is Canadian and lives in the Toronto area. She posts recipes, photos, and talks about her own experience. Meagan swears by it!
  • When Meagan reads ingredient labels, her rule is that if she can't pronounce more than three ingredients, she doesn't buy it.
  • You have to be organized! When she travels, she takes time to prepare fresh granola, cookies and dry cereals and fruits that she dehydrates herself.

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