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Maybe you’re familiar with The Game Changers, a documentary that explores every facet of how the human body is affected by plant-based diets. More specifically, it highlights a handful of world-class athletes who strictly follow a plant-based diet and through the data provided, seems to debunk the myth that in order to truly perform or get one’s desired physique, an athlete must be consuming ample amounts of animal protein such as chicken and other lean animal proteins.

Since its release in 2018, it’s become relatively common to hear that another professional athlete has adopted a plant-based diet–Tom Brady, Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic to name a few. And while going plant-based isn’t for everyone, we wanted to explore the topic a bit more ourselves. To do just that, we sat down with Analisse Rios. Analisse, a Bolivia native, is not only the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Connecticut Sun but she’s also the Director of Sports Performance at Connecticut College. She’s also quite the athlete herself, as a former member of the Bolivian National Women’s Soccer Team and a three sport athlete during her time at Connecticut College, playing four years of soccer, running track and field for two seasons and being an active member of the cycling club.

Here’s what she has to say about living the plant-based lifestyle: from getting enough protein to listening to her body to the biggest mistakes she sees athletes make when deciding to go plant-based.

Have you always been powered by plants? If no, when and how did that switch occur? Did you experience any major noticeable changes when you went plant-based?

AR: "I’ve been plant based for almost 11 years. My wife and I were pescatarian before we got married. Soon after we got back from our honeymoon, we found a book called “The Thirty Day Vegan Challenge." We decided to give it a try for 30 days. After those 30 days went by, I realized I had not had a stomach ache which had been something quite common for me. Growing up in La Paz, Bolivia (a very meat-centric part of South America), I would have never dreamed of being powered by plants but the change was something my body was almost craving. Once I went plant-based, the major change was my lack of stomach aches and my ability to digest food more quickly and efficiently. Before being plant-based, I had to plan my workouts around my meals because it would take me so long to digest and feel well enough to work out. Once I went plant-based, I could literally have a meal and go for a run soon after!"

Can we get a glimpse into your day in terms of what one might find on your plate

AR: "I am definitely a creature of habit so every morning I have the same thing– overnight oats. I usually prepare it the night before since my mornings are hectic but it includes oats, chia seeds, hemp seeds, raisins, cinnamon, topped with oat milk and fresh berries and a banana. For lunch I usually have leftovers from the night before so a typical thing I would have is baked tofu with rice and broccoli and a pile of spinach. For dinner, my wife and I love cooking so we usually make something from “Bad Manners Food” or “Chloe Flavor” – two of our favorite cookbooks. During the day, I usually have one or two more bananas, especially after working out or if I’m looking for a quick snack. I also love having a rice cake with peanut butter or hummus during the day as another snack."

What are some staple foods to have as a plant-based athlete?

AR: "I usually have tofu or seitan at least once every day. Beans, lentils, and all the green stuff (I love broccoli and spinach)!"

How do you ensure you’re getting all of the proper nutrients just from plants?

AR: "I do my research and listen to my body. If I’m feeling tired or drained, I usually increase my level of protein and add in some lentils or beans into my meals. Vegans tend to have a low B-12 so if I feel run down, I also usually have a beet juice shot in the morning (just blend beets and water). My wife says it tastes like dirt but I actually love the taste. Beets are also so good for cardiovascular health so it makes me feel energetic and happy to drink that!" 

What’s the biggest challenge of being plant-based while being a high-level/performing athlete?

AR: "I think one of the biggest challenges is just making sure I am prepared. It is easier now (than it was 10 years ago) to find vegan food options, but I always make sure I am prepared. Especially because I know I get very hungry after working out, I usually have a Momentous Protein smoothie soon after a tough workout and follow it up with some sort of tofu or seitan based meal. Breakfast options are always hard to find on the go so whenever I travel (especially when I travel with the Connecticut Sun and our schedules are so tight), I bring oatmeal packets so I can easily make myself some breakfast."

There seems to be a debate around whether or not you can get enough protein as a vegan or plant-based athlete. How do you approach that argument?

AR: "I think the meat industry has made it so we constantly think we need more protein than we really do. In reality, it is pretty easy to get enough protein by being plant-based. Seitan, lentils, beans, and tofu are all high in protein and believe it or not, vegetables have a lot of protein too. I mean, you have some pretty mighty animals (such as the elephant or gorilla) who are plant-based and no one is worried about their protein intake."

Are there any supplements you have to take to make up for any nutrients you might not be getting?

AR: "B-12 is really the only one that I’ve found to be low in so I take a daily vitamin to supplement this."

What are the biggest mistakes vegan/vegetarian athletes make? Or, the biggest mistakes athletes make when making the switch from eating meat to going plant-based?

AR: "I think the biggest mistake is thinking that everything that is vegan is “healthy." That’s not the case… I mean, Oreos are vegan so, there’s that! I think athletes should really pay attention to how they are fueling their body. It is easy to be an unhealthy vegan but if you focus on eating foods that are as close to its natural form as possible (vegetables, fruits, grains), then it’s easier to feel better. The other mistake I see when making the switch is not giving your body a chance to adapt. When you make the switch to plant-based, you likely will be increasing your fiber intake so your digestive system may take a couple of weeks to adapt before really starting to see a change. Also note that once you adapt to a plant-based diet, it may be harder to “go back." If you stop eating carrots for a month and then suddenly have a carrot, your body will be fine. But if you stop having dairy for one month and then suddenly have a glass of milk, chances are your body will reject it."

You’re arguing in favor of an athlete going plant-based–what points are you offering to back up your argument?

AR: "I always tell my athletes to listen to their body. I don’t necessarily think everyone needs to be plant-based (although that would be wonderful for the environment and the animals) but I think it’s important to really pay attention to how different foods make you feel. If you are an athlete who regularly gets stomach aches or regularly feels tired or lacking energy, it may be time to pay attention to what you’re fueling your body with. And sometimes, it may take a little experimenting to get you to start changing the way you fuel. Try a plant based meal a couple times a week and see how they make you feel, how you sleep that night, and how recovered you feel the next day. And as for dairy… there are so many plant-based milk alternatives that you could utilize in place of dairy. It’s amazing how many people are lactose intolerant or feel sick after having dairy, but continue to have it. And if you’re still on the fence about dairy –think about this: we’re the only species that drinks milk into adulthood (from another lactating species)! Once you think of it this way, the concept of dairy is actually kind of weird."

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