“I can’t be a vegan: I do triathlon!”, “I swim!”, “I play golf!”. Despite the fact that the myths about veganism have long been debunked, and the fact that veganism is gaining popularity among amateur and professional athletes, these are the most frequent arguments that I listen to discuss nutrition ethics with non-vegans.
Many who participate in endurance sports on a full-time basis agree with the ethical arguments for veganism, but are still under the impression that it can be difficult for an athlete to follow a vegan diet and maintain a high level of athletic performance. Fortunately, vegan athletes are making headlines with increasing frequency and taking advantage of their chance to share the secret to success: the vegan diet.
Megan Duhamel is one such athlete. Duhamel has been a vegan since 2008 and at the age of 28 won a silver medal in figure skating in Sochi with her partner Eric Radford. In a recent interview, she explained how her plant-based diet helped her improve her performance and make her jumps so fantastic: “I have always loved jumping! And fly! Triple jumps are my second nature. Since I went vegan, my jumps have become easier, I attribute this to the fact that my body is in excellent shape all season. As a professional athlete and certified holistic nutritionist, Duhamel knows what he’s talking about. As soon as she returned from Sochi, I asked her to meet and talk about her lifestyle, and she generously agreed.
We met at Sophie Sucrée, a new vegan patisserie/tea shop in Montreal’s Plateau. She showed up wearing a red Canadian team jersey and the same beaming smile she wears on the ice. Her enthusiasm at the cake stand was infectious: “Oh my God! I do not know what to choose!” Obviously, Olympic athletes love cupcakes, as do the rest of us.
“That’s what I want from life”
But Duhamel loves not only cupcakes. She is an avid reader with a huge thirst for knowledge. It started when she picked up Skinny Bitch, a best-selling diet book that promotes veganism for health reasons. “I read the text on the cover, it was very funny. They have a humorous approach to health.” She read it in one sitting overnight and the next morning decided to drink coffee without milk. She decided to become a vegan. “I didn’t do it to be in shape. It just seemed like an interesting challenge to me. I went to the rink and told the coaches that I was going to be vegan, and the two of them told me that I would be malnourished. The more they tell me I can’t, the more I want it. So instead of a small project, I decided: “This is what I want from my life!”
For the past six years, Duhamel has not eaten a single piece of animal protein. She not only retained all her muscle tone: her performances have never been so good: “My muscles got better when I went vegan … I started eating less protein, but the food I eat gives me better protein and better iron. Iron from plants is the best for absorption by the body.”
What do vegan athletes eat?
I was hoping to come back with an interview with a list of recipes for special foods that a vegan athlete should consume in order to maintain results. However, I was surprised how simple Meghan’s diet is. “In general, I eat whatever my body wants.” Megan does not keep a food diary and does not count calories or weight of food. Her diet is pretty simple for anyone who wants to eat well and have lots of energy:
“I drink smoothies in the morning. It’s usually a green smoothie, so I add spinach and kale or chard, or whatever I have in the fridge this week, bananas, peanut butter, cinnamon, almond or coconut milk.
I am constantly on the move, all day long. So I take different snacks with me. I have homemade muffins, granola bars, homemade protein cookies. I cook a lot myself.
For dinner, I usually have a large dish: quinoa with vegetables. I love to cook myself. I love making noodle dishes and stir fries or stews. In winter I eat a lot of stew. I spend a lot of time cooking and try to do everything I can myself. Of course, I don’t always have time, but if I have time, I do it.”
In addition to a healthy diet and a holistic approach to the extent possible, Duhamel does not limit himself. If she wants cookies or cupcakes, she eats them. Like desserts, vegan main courses don’t seem boring at all to Duhamel: “I think I have every vegan cookbook out there. I have bookmarks and notes everywhere. On all the recipes that I want to try and have already tried. I have to try twice as much as I already tried!” Megan is obviously the type of person you text at 5pm if you don’t know what to eat for dinner.
What about nutritional supplements? The silver medalist is sponsored by Vega, but these protein supplements are not a staple in her diet. “I only eat one candy bar a day. But I feel the difference when I take them and when I don’t. After a hard workout, if I don’t eat something to recover, the next day I feel like my body hasn’t moved.”
Let’s go back six years. Honestly: how hard was it to become a vegan? When Duhamel decided to get serious about her health, “the hardest thing was to give up Diet Coke and coffee, not go vegan,” she says. “I gradually stopped drinking Diet Coke, but I still love coffee.”
She believes that everything a person needs to become a vegan is easily available: “For me, this is not a sacrifice. The hardest thing for me about being vegan is reading the list of ingredients on English cupcakes to see if I can have them or not!” Duhamel believes that we just need time to consider what we feed the body. “You can choose to go to McDonald’s and buy a burger or make a smoothie at home. For me it’s very simple. I have to put in the same amount of effort to go to McDonald’s and eat a burger as I do to make a smoothie in the morning. And it takes the same amount of time. And it costs the same.”
What about those who say they tried to go vegan and felt sick? “I ask them how much they researched before they started and what they ate. Chips are vegan food! I have a friend who tried to go vegan many, many times, and two weeks later she told me: “Oh, I feel so bad!” And what did you eat? “Well, peanut butter toast.” Well, that explains everything! There are other options!”
Research and helping people
Megan Duhamel asks people to study information, which is something she has experimented with a lot. Professional athletes always get tons of nutrition advice. For her, an important step was that she learned to be critical of such proposals: “Before I became a vegan, I followed the diet that other people gave me, there were so many different things. I only went to a nutritionist once, and she advised me to eat pigtail cheese. I did not know anything about proper nutrition at that time, but I knew that pigtail cheese is a processed product and there is no nutritional value in it. This is a nutritionist who worked at the Canadian Institute of Sports, and she advised me, a high-level athlete, to eat granola bars and pigtail cheese. It seemed very strange to me.”
It was a turning point for her. Shortly after going vegan, she began studying nutrition and became a certified holistic dietitian two and a half years later. She wanted to better understand vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, and she also loved to read “about mysterious places in the world where people lived to 120 and never heard of cancer, and never heard of heart disease.” Now, after ending her skating career, she wants to help other athletes.
She also wants to start a blog “about my career, my diet, veganism, everything. I think it will be interesting, I will find time for this this summer.” Given the passion with which she talks about her lifestyle, this must be an amazing blog! Can not wait!
Megan’s tips for new vegans:
- Try it. Try to get rid of prejudice.
- Start slowly. If you want to do something for a long time, go gradually, studying the information will also help.
- Take B12 supplements.
- Play with herbs and spices, they really can help.
- Go to small local health food organic food stores. Most have many alternative products that you might not even know existed.
- Read the Oh She Glows blog. The author is a Canadian living in the Toronto area. She posts recipes, photos, and talks about her experiences. Megan recommends!
- When Megan reads the ingredients of a product, her rule is if she can’t say more than three ingredients, she doesn’t buy it.
- Get organized! When she travels, she makes time to make fresh granola, cookies and cereals and fruit.