Plant-powered players push for progress

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If you ask former Cal soccer player Daisy Cleverley what she eats in a day, you might be surprised that whey protein, chicken, Greek yogurt, milk and steak are never on the menu. Many believe that you cannot be a successful athlete without consuming these protein-dense animal products. As a starter midfielder for Cal who represented New Zealand at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Cleverley disrupts that antiquated notion.

In a world where seconds can win races and millimeters can win matches, there is little room for error. Fitness and form are important, but the overall lifestyle of an athlete can make or break the success of entire teams. With stakes this high, an athlete’s nutrition can fall under heavy scrutiny. Nutrition is widely accepted as one of the most important components of a healthy athlete, but there is no one way to do it right.

Current Cal volleyball senior Isabel Potter and soccer star Cleverley have built their success upon a strong foundation of plant proteins. Although they play two very different games, the two athletes are linked through their adherence to a plant-based diet.

While plant-based eating patterns are generally accepted by the wider community, herbivore athletes tend to come under more scrutiny by those who believe protein must come from animal products. Amid a brutal practice schedule and demanding academic standards, Cal athletes are bound to see their dietary deficits exposed. But Cleverley and Potter have yet to crumble — and neither athlete seems to be lacking in energy, zest or drive.

Cleverley stopped consuming meat and dairy for sustainability reasons in January 2017 when she moved from Auckland, New Zealand, to Berkeley.

When she first shifted her diet, her energy levels plummeted. Realizing that she needed to replace the foods she’d cut out, Cleverley focused on adding nutrient-dense plant foods into her diet. Now, she consumes at least 20 grams of protein with each meal, mindful of consuming “complete proteins” — a food source that contains all nine of the essential amino acids.

“Your body naturally can pair up the amino acids throughout the day. So say I have rice for lunch and then beans for dinner: Because that’s a complete protein together, it doesn’t matter when you eat them,” Cleverley explained.

Now, Cleverley feels that a plant-based eating pattern has enhanced her recovery process and energy levels. Cleverley and her former teammate Avery Lakeman express a love of cooking in their Instagram food blog, which documents their plant-based meals on a student budget.

Her daily food choices might include oatmeal, nut butters, plant-based protein milk, wraps, rice noodles, curries, tofu, plant-based meat alternatives, fruits, vegetables, hummus and edamame beans.

“It’s interesting because once you become more restrictive in your diet, you actually end up eating a lot more because you have to think about more things to eat,” Cleverley said.

Potter, a setter for Cal volleyball, has followed a plant-based diet for nearly four years — the entirety of her athletic career at Cal. For two and a half years, she was strictly vegan, but within the last year she has integrated some animal-based proteins into her diet, loosely following a 90-to-10 rule.

“It’s helped my performance so much because I can just go harder and longer,” Potter said of her eating patterns.

However, in order to maintain high energy, Potter focuses on taking in enough calories. In a typical day, Potter enjoys foods such as oatmeal, avocado toast and sauerkraut, eggs, tempeh, rice, tofu, cooked vegetables, grain bowls, tacos and smoothies.

While Cleverley avoids meat and dairy, she occasionally consumes fish or eggs. Likewise, Potter — whose family formerly owned a pizza shop — may consume eggs and enjoy a cheesy pizza from time to time. The athletes view this flexibility as an integral aspect of the plant-based diet: It does not have to be strict or rigid, and athletes can tailor it to suit their own personal preferences.

This is the message that Cleverley and Potter hope to convey to other athletes: The plant-based diet doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even with small changes, other athletes can reap the benefits of consuming more plant-based foods. Cleverley and Lakeman created the student-run class Powered by Plants with this very message in mind. Potter — originally a student in the class — is facilitating it this semester.

Catering to student-athletes, Powered by Plants is divided into three units designed to provide students with a broad overview of the plant-based diet. The first focuses on the health and nutritional aspects of the plant-based diet, featuring live Zoom cooking sessions. The second unit delves into the environmental consequences of heavy meat and dairy consumption. And the last section focuses on practical tips and affordability, recognizing that student-athletes are limited in the time and money that they can allocate to their nutrition.

“Destigmatizing the diet in the athlete community is one of the big (goals),” Potter said.

Further support for athletes who express interest in transitioning toward a plant-based diet comes from Yasi Ansari, the assistant director of performance nutrition at Cal. She finds that intentionally adding certain plant-based foods into an athlete’s eating pattern is a much healthier approach than labeling animal-derived foods that need to be taken out.

“I never like to label foods as good or bad at all. That’s not the approach we take here at Cal performance nutrition,” Ansari said. “We really focus on having healthy relationships with food and finding what works for each athlete.”

“Plant-based foods — for example, lots of fruits and vegetables, lentils, beans, heart-healthy fats from seeds, avocados, olive oils, nuts — these all have nutrients that support decreasing inflammation,” Ansari said, emphasizing that simply adding some of these foods throughout the day can aid athletes’ recovery, even if they continue to consume animal-based foods as well.

For athletes who want to avoid consuming any animal-based proteins, Ansari closely monitors their transition, ensuring that they are still able to absorb all of their necessary micronutrients. While she stresses that food should be the first source of nutrients, she may recommend B12, iron or zinc supplements for athletes who are entirely plant-based.

Ansari’s role of structuring athletes’ nutrition extends beyond their day-to-day college lives. Her department works to ensure that athletes receive their proper nutrition while travelling to competitions — especially athletes with specific dietary restrictions.

A plant-based eating pattern might require thorough research, thoughtful planning and some trial and error. But for athletes wanting to make the shift, it is possible.

“I’m fueling myself with good-quality food,” Cleverley said. “And living up to my morals and helping the environment as well.”

Sarah Siegel covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].