Pro MMA fighter Ashlee Evans-Smith needed to shed pounds while staying ultra strong. That’s where eating plants came in.
Imagine getting a call from the sports organization of your dreams to compete in a last-minute, very high-profile competition. Exciting, right? For Ashlee Evans-Smith, this call came in 2014 from the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), and it was beyond anything she’d ever imagined. There was just one problem. At the time of the call, she was in between competitions and, in her words, “not in my best, leanest fighting shape.” A college wrestler turned MMA (mixed martial arts) athlete, she was fit and strong, but to say she was UFC-ready would be a stretch. She was tempted to pass. Instead, she took the call as an opportunity to step up her training and get her weight down to 135 pounds on her 5'8'' frame—a drop of 10 pounds. While she didn’t win her debut UFC fight, she did put in a strong showing in the first round that left her hungry for more. She was so excited to further her career that in 2018, on the heels of the UFC introducing its 125-pound women’s flyweight division, Evans-Smith took the challenge to drop another 10 pounds … without jeopardizing her strength, endurance, or power. What was the difference this time around? Sure, she mixed up her training to challenge her body. But her ace in the hole was refining the vegan diet she’d adopted in 2016. The combo worked. More than five years after making her UFC debut, she’s still active on the circuit. Curious to learn more? We asked Evans-Smith to share her top training and nutritional tips for anyone looking to elevate their health and fitness and come out fighting strong.* *You can also follow Ashlee Evans-Smith on Instagram (@ashleemma) to keep up with her progress.
You can make the switch to a plant-based diet later in life and still reap major benefits. “I came from a very unhealthy home, diet-wise,” points out Evans-Smith. “When I went to college, I learned about nutrition and originally went vegetarian to try to lose weight—but since removing meat and dairy from my diet, I’ve not only lost extra fat; I’ve leaned out, gained muscle, improved my cardio, and feel all-around healthier.”
There’s just one caveat: You’ve got to eat when you’re hungry! “Do not starve yourself and then bitch,” she says. “That mentality and those habits came from a young and uneducated nutritional background. It’s all about portion control and sustaining yourself.”
When you face challenges—whether in fitness or in life—“people will judge or critique your decisions no matter what,” says Evans-Smith. “Instead of focusing on their opinions, focus back [on] you. Check in with yourself and be honest with your intentions. Ask yourself: ‘Whose opinion really matters?’ If the answer isn’t yours or your immediate friends and family’s, you need to reconsider. You matter first!”
“I’ve had times in my career where I had one head coach that oversaw everything. Nowadays, I have multiple coaches for different disciplines, such as wrestling, jujitsu, and boxing.” In other words, you don’t have to rely on just one person to guide you. Plus, adds Evans-Smith, “We all have a coaching instinct inside of us, and it’s important to tap into this at times. And don’t forget the motivation your teammates can provide too.”
“The most successful people are those who can welcome and adapt to change,” says Evans-Smith. She’s learned when she doesn’t change up her workouts, her fitness goes stagnant. To avoid this, she’s trained at different gyms over her career. She credits a change in environment with being key for moving forward in all areas of life.
If you’re feeling stuck in your workouts, she says, “Try new things. Learn from everyone. Even the white belt in the gym has something to teach you. It might not be technique. It might be something emotional, such as humility … Stay open-minded and keep an open heart.”
The oft-cited warnings that you have to get bulky or eat animal protein to put on muscle are actually myths. Evans-Smith says that since going vegan, she’s had no issues maintaining a healthy body weight with ample muscle and strength. “Women in particular have this fear they’ll get bigger and bulkier with muscle or weightlifting, when really, it’s not the case,” she says. “Plus, the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism, so you naturally burn more calories.”
There are no downsides to fueling yourself with plants, she says. “I’ve never lost strength—only fat. I’ve never lost energy; only guilt.”
[Aurea]Must-have vegan eats before a fight?[Ashlee] Leading up to a fight, I’m on a very strict diet. But I will always have a few things to sustain me: almonds, kombucha, hummus, celery, blueberries, almond butter, and apples.
[Q] Must-watch doc?[A] The new documentary The Game Changers. It’s all about plant-based eating and vegan-powered athletes.
[Q] Smoothie staples?[A] I like to mix up my recipes, but they typically always have vegan protein, almond milk, almonds, frozen banana, cinnamon, and cacao nibs.
[Q] Favorite way to chill?[A] I love going to the beach. I also love taking my dog to the dog park and watching him play, or sometimes just ending the night at home watching stand-up comedy.
[Q] When you’re not training, you can be found …[A] At a punk rock concert or vegan food festival or doing some outdoor activities with my friends!
Aurea Dempsey has been drinking the green juice for as long as she can remember. Along with keeping a pulse on the latest in health, she runs marathons and is a devoted yogi.
A version of this article was published in the January/February 2020 issue of alive USA with the title “Green, Lean Fighting Machine.”