For most people, going vegan sounds impossible.
Not only do you have to ditch meat, but you also have to avoid all animal-related products. No cheese? No milk? No eggs? No chance.
Ten years ago, Kara Lawson never could've envisioned herself going vegan. By then, Lawson had already established herself as one of the better players in the WNBA. But things started to change when she was given the opportunity to play for the U.S. National Team. While with the team, Lawson made sure to closely watch the habits of the players around her. One thing she quickly picked up on was how serious many elite players were about their nutrition.
At a recent Nike-sponsored event, Lawson told STACK, "I was able to observe. I was fortunate enough to be around some athletes who had been a part of the national team for over a decade. And you observe and you see what they do and think how you can integrate some of those things into your own routine. What I saw was how intentional some of those players were about their nutrition. They brought their own things to meals, their own dressings or their own drinks or whatever it was. They were very intentional about what they put in their bodies, about what they wanted to go eat. When I took stock of who was doing it, these were players that had multiple gold medals, that had long tenures on the national team."
It served as a wake-up call for Lawson, who had never been too concerned with her nutrition up to that point. She started off with simple changes like drinking more water and eating more produce. When she noticed how much better she felt, she sought out other nutritional advantages. Over the years, she continued to streamline her diet and ultimately wound up where she is today—a vegan who avoids processed sugar.
"It's been a journey for me with nutrition," Lawson said. "Initially, I was trying to increase my protein, fruits and veggies, water. Stuff like that. Then I became a vegetarian and took out the meat. And then six months after that, I became vegan. Then about 6 months into being vegan, I realized I really needed to take out processed sugar. I've been a vegan now for over five years. We know the stuff that's good for us. Healthy stuff that grows. Not the processed snacks and sweets. So that's what I try to focus on, eating whole foods."
The main reason those changes were able to stick for Lawson is because each one resulted in sharper play on the court, faster improvements in training and quicker recovery.
"The motivation for me in changing my diet was performance-based. A lot of people think it might be because of animal rights or those different things, and those are all noble reasons for eating vegan," Lawson said. "For me, why I became vegan was my performance. I took certain things out of my diet and I felt great and I felt my performance increasing. So then it was like 'what if I get this processed thing or this product that has hormones or whatever out of my diet?' It was a way I could increase performance, decrease soreness and decrease recovery time and do it in a natural way. It's motivating. Taking something out that you like and enjoy eating is a sacrifice, but I'd see the results and the positive gains and that motivated me to do more and to keep up what I had been doing. Performance on the court and gains in the gym are powerful motivators for me to keep eating right and keep eating healthy."
In addition to promoting a more consistent approach to fitness, the nutritional changes made some serious measurable differences in Lawson's on-court production. From 2003 to 2007, she averaged 8.75 points per game, 1.77 assists per game and 2.26 rebounds per game. From 2008 to now, she's averaged 10.49 points per game, 3.06 assists per game and 2.85 rebounds per game.
Lawson has now become so knowledgeable about nutrition that she's helped other WNBA players (such as Maya Moore) change their diets for the better.
A vegan diet isn't realistic for every athlete, but the takeaway here is that identifying and removing foods that negatively affect your performance is a sure-fire way to feel and play better. Not sure how to go about it? You can start by keeping a food journal. Write down everything you eat and drink for the next week and note how you feel during workouts or practices. If you notice a correlation between eating certain foods and feeling sluggish during activity, cut those foods out and see if you feel sharper.
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