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Fitness: going vegan

Rugby player Alex Holguin lost 50 pounds on a plant-based diet.

Photo : Dave Rentauskas Alex Holguin

Alex Holguin, 30, Greektown
Rugby player, coach at the University of Chicago
Lost 50 pounds

I was doing the traditional athlete diet: lots of protein and I ate a lot to replenish. My wife, a personal trainer and certified nutrition specialist, rearranged it so I started eating smaller meals six to seven times a day. I ate grains like quinoa and we took out the gluten. The first 20 pounds just fell off and I haven’t really looked back. A year ago, our diet went completely plant-based. On occasion, I’ll have cheese, but not too much. It’s worked wonders. I get my workouts done in 45 minutes—when I weighed 50 pounds more, it was kind of a struggle. I was in shape and strong, but it was still a struggle. My rugby team, the Chicago Lions, went to the Sweet 16 for Division 1 last year, and I played one of my old positions. The guy I was up against outweighed me by at least 150 pounds, but it wasn’t a problem. It’s amazing how much my strength has stayed intact. When people hear I’m a vegan, I sometimes get cross-eyed looks. The stereotype is Birkenstocks and unwashed hair. A few of my teammates gave me grief, but after the season was over, a few of them started changing their diets. Of course, some of them asked me not to tell anyone.—As told to Kevin Aeh

The nutritionist says “A plant-based diet is very valuable and can be very healthy,” says Victoria Shanta, a Chicago nutritionist and author of The Essential Guide to Healthy, Healing Foods. But, she adds, “Eliminating all animal products from your food can set you up for some nutrient deficiencies.” Vegans need to focus on getting plenty of these biggies: protein (beans, tofu), calcium (almonds, leafy greens), iron (nuts, baked potatoes) and vitamin B12 (soy-based beverages, some breakfast cereals). And as with any weight-loss program, be reasonable with your expectations. “Losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight in six months is a great goal,” Shanta says. But you may need to increase your activity or cut portion sizes in order to keep the weight off.—Liz Plosser