When Venus Williams was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011, her tennis career almost came to a grinding halt. After a rough season of injuries and match withdrawals, she announced that she was suffering from the fairly common autoimmune disease that causes dry eye and dry mouth, as well as crushing joint pain and fatigue. The condition severely hindered athletic performance, ultimately causing her to withdraw from the 2011 U.S. Open in the second round. But after taking time off, Williams was able to step back onto the court with newfound strength, thanks to proper treatment— and a drastic diet change. She began following a raw vegan diet, which typically involves eliminating all animal products and foods cooked above 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
In an interview with Health at an event for Silk soy milk, Williams spoke about the switch to a raw diet, her best nutrition tips, and how she keeps herself motivated to eat well.
Why did you begin a plant-based diet?
I started for health reasons. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and I wanted to maintain my performance on the court. 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.
How did that affect your playing?
I literally couldn’t play tennis anymore, so it really changed my life. 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.
Do you have any specific ways that the new diet has made a difference in your game? Has it changed your game at all or has it just allowed you to continue to play?
It definitely changed my whole life. It changed the pace that I live at. It changed everything. There are definitely challenges, though, but it’s about how you face them and how you come on top so you can live in a way that is acceptable to you. So, it has been wonderful to still do what I love. And even though I still have issues, it doesn’t mean they’re going to stop me.
Do you have any tips for people who are looking to make a diet change? What’s right for them, what resources are available?
I always tell people that you have to enjoy what you’re eating. If you’re eating a plant-based diet or a mixture of one, make sure you’re eating something you like. Find a restaurant, recipes, or join a community—that way you can learn and enjoy your food. If you can’t enjoy your eating, I don’t know how fun life would be!
Do you have any favorite recipes that you like? Do you cook a lot for yourself?
I go in spurts, because sometimes I’m like, “I’ve got to cook!” and other times I’m like, “Who’s going to feed me?” So I have different levels. One of my favorite recipes is celery-root soup. I get celery root, tomato, and some Silk almond milk as a base to thicken it a little bit, and then maybe I’ll add pan-fried garlic on top, maybe some truffle oil—whatever I have at the time, I’ll throw it in. It makes for some interesting dishes!
Why is it important to you to eat well and what do you want young women to know about their bodies and fueling and eating well?
There’s something about when you’re eating healthy food, it makes you feel proud and it makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing. When you eat unhealthy, there’s a certain guilt about it…you just know it’s going to catch up. So, I love that feeling of when I’m eating healthy.
But, it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect because you do have to have a little fun. But when you’re doing the right things, and you’re eating plants, and you’re eating live foods, it helps you in your life. I think you feel more energized and you feel more positive.
What are your favorite cheat meals?
Well, honestly I have go-to things. I do love sweet things, so 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. There are different ways to ease your itch when you want junk food.
Do you have any tips for people who have trouble staying motivated to eat well?
Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Because when you’re too hungry you can’t think straight, and you make bad decisions and then suddenly you wake up and you think, “what have you done?!”
Also, set a goal for yourself. It can be something like 30 days without fried food. There’s something about having a goal and working towards it that makes you feel good. You can also get apps on your phone that help track for you, and just seeing those numbers makes you feel like, “Yeah, I’m doing it!”
And always have 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.
If you could give women one piece of advice on wellness, what would that be?
I would call it the 90/10, 80/20, or 70/30 rule—whatever works for you. Be good most of the time, and sometimes just don’t go to the gym, or have that bag of chips. But if you’re being healthy most of the time, then that helps to keep a balance so you can meet your goals, whatever those are.