In September of 2019, during my Sophomore at the University of Vermont, I went vegan—basically overnight. During that time, I was playing Division 1 field hockey and was battling leg injuries. In search of ways to improve my health and recovery, I stumbled across Game Changers on Netflix, a documentary about the effects of plant-based eating on strength and athletic performance. The next day, I went vegan.
I cut all meat, fish, eggs, and dairy out of my diet. My wish that a plant-based vegan diet would improve my injuries never came true. If anything, it made them worse. During my sophomore year, I dealt with ongoing stress fractures in my shins and needed Compartment Syndrome surgeries on both of my legs.
There is undoubtedly a healthy and sustainable way to compete as a high-level athlete while following a plant-based vegan diet, but I was not going about it that way. By May of 2019, I followed the ‘food combining’ plant-based diet - a term coined by health influencer Kenzie Burke. My protein intake was way below what was needed to sufficiently fuel my Division 1 workout regimen. While following this diet throughout my junior year, again, my performance suffered, and my injuries continued to worsen.
Then, in March of 2020, COVID-19 hit. Despite the damage and disruption the pandemic brought on, it forced me to consider what I was doing to my body. The pause from field hockey due to the lock-down allowed me to realize the damage I was causing to my body and the pain I was in every day. That was a hard pill to swallow.
I started seeing a nutritionist in May of 2020, which was a significant turning point in my journey. Working with a licensed nutritionist helped me adjust my eating habits and begin to meet my nutritional needs. With her help, I began working certain foods into my diet and started eating more nutritious meals. That process was challenging and did not happen overnight. But by August of 2020, I was eating eggs and cheese again and was preparing more balanced meals. In August of 2020, I decided not to continue playing field hockey for my senior year. A difficult decision, but one I knew was best for me.
I tried so hard to make a vegan diet work for me - so much so that I ignored the negative effects on my health. The vegan diet was simply not suitable for my active lifestyle, nor my issues with injuries. For years I tried to fit into the category of plant-based vegan. Once I started eating eggs and cheese again, I found my body responded positively, my injuries and my relationship with myself improved tremendously. Today, I consider myself vegetarian but try to avoid using restrictive terminology to describe how I choose to eat. Eating patterns and food aren’t about fitting into a category, it’s about fueling your body.
For those looking to begin to adopt a vegan or plant-based diet, there are a few tips I have discovered over my three years following ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ diets. My biggest suggestion would be to get creative with cooking. There is so much opportunity to cook when you are vegan or vegetarian, and that can be an excellent opportunity to learn and create new recipes. It’s assumed that animal products carry the flavor in a meal, but that doesn’t mean a meal without meat, fish, or cheese has to be bland. I am a firm believer that if you put enough seasoning on anything, it will taste good. If you are like me and are not a big fan of tofu, give tempeh a try. Most grocery stores carry it, and it has similar ingredients and nutritional value to tofu, just a different texture. Next, I’d recommend hopping on the smoothie train-- my NutriBullet is my best friend. Especially during the summer, making your own smoothies is so easy and delicious and is super refreshing on a hot day. I find breakfasts are hard when you aren’t eating meat or eggs. I’d recommend trying oatmeal and overnight oats. It’s super easy to make, and I love prepping overnight oats the night before a busy day to take on the go in the morning.
Finally, don’t chase perfection when following a vegan, plant-based, or vegetarian diet. Be kind to yourself and focus less on fitting into a category and more about fueling your body and feeling good. And, of course, when in doubt, schedule an appointment to get an expert opinion from a licensed dietitian.
If you are struggling with food and or eating, seek help from a licensed dietitian, counselor, or therapist. Food and various eating styles have a tremendous effect on our bodies and health. Finally, food and eating styles are not a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for me may not work for you—it is crucial to speak with a professional!
*Edited by Carolyn D’Auria.