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How I Play Strong and Follow the Vegan Life

February 21, 2019

Can you be vegan and still be a strong athlete? How can you get all of the nutrients you need without eating meat? The answers to those questions are yes, and more easily than you think. As a professional soccer player with the Orlando Pride, I’ve been a vegan since December 2016 and have loved the experience.

Becoming Vegan

At home, I had been eating a vegetarian diet, which for me meant that while I didn’t eat meat, chicken or fish, I did eat dairy and egg products when I prepared meals. I can’t say that there was one seminal moment that made me decide to start a vegan diet, but part of my decision was because of curiosity. What would it be like not to eat any animal products at all? Part of the decision was influenced by my growing understanding of animal treatment by the food industry and a desire to distance myself from that. And part was a desire to eat better, by eliminating many of the processed foods that were still present even in my vegetarian diet. 

Toni Pressley posing and looking into the camera

The transition to a vegan diet didn’t happen overnight. I decided to try a few vegan recipes, and to my surprise, everything I made was amazing, so I incorporated more. I discovered that I really loved tofu, so I added more of that. I found substitutes for the non-vegan foods I had been eating, so I could eat my favorite foods with a few tweaks. Instead of using milk from a cow, I use almond or cashew milk. I use vegan cheese, and found that tofu is a great substitute for scrambled eggs.

It helps that I enjoy cooking and realized I can do this—it’s not so hard. It can be overwhelming at the beginning to read the list of ingredients on the back of the food packages, and learning to look out for tricky ingredients like gelatin, but once I got the hang of that, it became super easy.

A Typical Vegan Day of Eating

My day starts with breakfast of gluten free oatmeal with chia seeds or hemp seeds, or tofu scramble with avocado. After training, I’ll have a protein shake with unsweetened almond milk, frozen cherries, a banana and vanilla plant-based protein.

Lunch is usually a salad consisting of beans, dark leafy greens, nuts, strawberries, other veggies and olive oil with balsamic vinegar, and I’ll have nuts as a mid-afternoon snack.

Dinner is where I like to spice it up. I will make everything from curries, fajitas, tacos, risotto, pasta, enchiladas—you name it!

Seeing the Health Benefits

As a vegan, I didn’t crave or miss any foods from my old diet, and  the best part was that my health improved drastically. I lost about 20 pounds, which was crucial to me in my sport, where I need to be fast and agile, and have a lot of energy.

My body composition changed. I have more stamina during games and training, and I sleep better at night, waking up refreshed. I also don’t get bloated anymore, now that I am vegan. As an added bonus, since so much of the vegan diet contains anti-inflammatory foods like green leafy vegetables, nuts, fruits and olive oil, this diet has helped reduce soreness after hard workouts.

Probably the only challenge that I’ve found to being vegan is going to restaurants that don’t offer vegan options. But as more restaurants become aware, they do a great job of accommodating my needs. If I ask, most are very willing to make a change, such as making a salad without cheese or eggs, or cooking food in olive oil instead of in butter.

For Athletes Transition to Vegan

If you’re an athlete considering a vegan diet, I’d suggest starting slowly, maybe incorporating some vegan meals here and there--you don’t have to dive in right away. If a nutritionist is available for your team, talk with them and find out what supplements you need. You might need to take an iron or a multivitamin supplement. As you experiment with vegan recipes, if you like the way things taste and the way you feel, you can add more vegan foods over time.

I eased into my vegan diet during the off season, so I didn’t have the stress of feeling I had to perform at a high level. I could just focus on myself, my diet and my personal training.

The results of being on a vegan diet have been all positive for me. I’m leaner. My weight doesn’t fluctuate as much. I’m seeing these positive changes in my body, and am feeling and performing better.

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