Venus Williams is a titan of women’s tennis.
The 36-year-old is currently ranked as the No. 17 singles player in the world. Considering the fact that she’s the oldest player in the top 300, that’s no small feat.
Venus’s seven Grand Slam titles may pale in comparison to her younger sister Serena’s 22, but she’s still a marvel of consistency and longevity. So, what’s her secret?
In 2011, Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes symptoms like dry mouth, dry eyes, joint pain, joint stiffness and prolonged fatigue. Since she was already 31 at the time of her diagnosis, it would have made perfect sense for Venus to throw in the towel and call it a career. But she didn’t want to stop playing.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Venus made drastic changes to her diet. She began following what’s known as a “raw vegan” diet, shunning foods that involve any animal products and even avoiding foods that have been cooked above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Although research has found that certain cooking methods may actually make some vegetables healthier for you, the raw vegan approach has worked wonders for Venus. It helped her reduce her symptoms, boost her energy and get back out on the court.
“I literally couldn’t play tennis anymore, so it really changed my life,” she told HEALTH in a recent interview. “Because it was starting to take away what I loved, I had to make some changes, I had to change my life. Thankfully, I was able to find something that helped me get back to doing what I loved. Once I started, I fell in love with the concept of fueling your body in the best way possible. Not only does it help me on the court, but I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me.”
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While a raw vegan diet might sound incredibly restrictive, Venus makes it work for her. She’s one of a number of elite athletes who’ve managed to make occasional cheat meals and cheat foods healthy choices.
“I’ve tried to find things that I love that are sweet but are still healthy. So, for me, sometimes it’ll be a juice or a sweet smoothie. There’s a smoothie that I have called ‘orange creamsicle,’ so I’ll put in Silk milk, oranges, a little banana, vanilla flavoring, and sometimes a little coconut oil—it just depends, again, on what I have. The best thing about the orange creamsicle is that it tastes like you’re having an ice cream, so it makes me really happy but it’s still really healthy,” Venus says. “[Find] a replacement food that tastes good. So you like chips? Find a kale chip or bake your own chips that are healthy. Just find a replacement so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.”
It might not be a great idea for a young athlete to go on a strict raw vegan diet—its highly restrictive nature may make it difficult to stick to—but it’s never a bad idea to find healthier alternatives for your favorite foods.
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