The Explosion of Vegan Athletes in 2017: The Tipping Point for the Rest of Us

“If you are going to build muscle you have to eat more meat”. The odds are you have heard some version of this statement from your mother, trainer, or doctor.

For most, meat=protein=muscle=athletic success. In contrast, the highly visible success of athletes in 2017 (and prior) who shun animal products is challenging this belief as the number of athletes following a plant diet is growing from a trickle to a torrent. Many of the athletes are claiming that they are lighter, stronger, more successful, and healing faster with a plant diet providing an impetus, if not the tipping point, for the rest of us.

I have known some of the persons behind these success stories. John Salley, former NBA 4-time champion, ate vegetarian during much of his career but moved to a fully vegan diet since leaving the NBA. Ultra-marathoners Rich Roll and Hillary Biscay are friends that have inspired many to follow their plant nutritional programs. The number of vegan athletes who are at the top of their fields goes beyond these three and is quite remarkable. Even the brief overview that follows here forces a reexamination of the meat=muscle paradigm. Some of these athletes credit a plant diet for their superior performance. Others chose the diet for environmental and ethical reasons. Here are 20 who have done well with plant diets.

  1. Mac Danzig (Mixed Martial Arts Cage Fighting)

Danzig won the King of The Cage Lightweight Championship in 2005. In 2007 he entered The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 6 competition and won. He says that “When I decided to go vegan, I was able to make the 155-pound weight class much easier, and I haven’t lost an ounce of muscle. I’m leaner than I used to be, and I have much more energy than I used to.”

2. Tia Blanco (Surfer)

Blanco is a Puerto Rican American surfer known for winning first place Gold medal at the International Surfing Association (ISA) Open Women’s World Surfing Championship 2015. The following year, she successfully defended her title. She says that she “I went vegan for the animals. I love them all and I don’t want to eat my friends. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true.”

3. Scott Jurek (Ultramarathon Runner)

Jurek has set at least eleven major course records including the record for the 2189 mile Appalachian Trail. He was also the first American to win the 246k Spartathon (he won it twice).

“It was out of long-term health, and after I read Dr. Howard Lyman’s book, Mad Cowboy, it truly inspired me. If this 3rd generation cattle rancher can go vegan, then so can a backwoods Minnesota guy like myself.”

4. Heather Mills (Disability Winter Sports)

Mills has set no less than five World Records in various disability winter sports including bobsleigh, downhill skiing and ski jumping. She describes herself as the fastest disabled woman on earth following her 167km speed skiing record. In terms of her vegan diet she ways that “In order to heal my infection all those years ago I embraced a living raw food diet which is rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins.”

5. Austin Aries (Professional Wrestling)

Known as ‘The Vascular Vegetarian’, wrestler Austin Aries has been the longest reigning Ring of Honour (ROH) World Champion, ROH Tag Team World Champion, and TNA World Heavyweight Champion.

“Take the power back, and put the nourishment of your body, mind, and soul back into your own hands. Every little step you make to eliminate animal products in your meals is a one step closer to the big leap we all could benefit from taking.”

6. Alex Dargatz (Bodybuilding)

Dargatz rose to fame in December 2005 when he won the World Champion BodyBuilder title. Five years before this he had become vegan in response to the cruelty of the animal food industries. He says that “there simply is no need for us to consume animal products and we cause a lot of harm by doing so; that is the definition of crime. I couldn’t be anything else but vegan after understanding that.”

7. Patrik Baboumian (Strength Athlete)

In 2011 Baboumian won the title of “Germany’s Strongest Man” by winning the open division at the German strongman nationals. On September 20, 2015 he beat his own world record by completing the yoke walk with 560kg.

He says that “there are plenty of plant-based protein sources and your body is going to thank you for stopping feeding it with dead-food. Go vegan and feel the power!”

8. James Southwood (Savate: Kick-Punch)

Southwood has been British champion in this kick-punch sport based on ballet and boxing. In 2014 he became the first British World Champion.

He says that “it is very rare for someone in my sport to question my diet. My fitness and physique speak for themselves. Occasionally it will pique someone, but I leave them to their own troubles with it.”

9. Carl Lewis (Track Athletics)

With 9 Olympic Gold medals, Lewis was one of the best-known athletes in the 1980s. Lewis adopted a vegan diet to assist him in sports and continued it into his retirement. “I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look.”

10. Cody Elkins (Racquetball)

Cody won the World Outdoor Racquetball championship in 2015 in the ten and under category. A vegan his childhood, he says that “my hopes for the future are that everyone will be vegan so we do not have to kill livestock and cause all that animal suffering.”

11. Pat Reeves (Powerlifting)

Reeves began sports as a marathoner then transitioned to power lifting. She was a British Masters Title holder for a decade and successfully competed at an international level. She says her vegan diet is successful because she “ensures I am consuming all different types of plant-based protein to cover the full amino acid profile as well as my vitamins and nutrients. I am also a huge fan of spices and condiments to change the flavor profiles of your staple foods.”

12. Torre Washington (professional bodybuilder)

Washington adopted a vegan diet in 1998 following his Rastafarian roots. It has not hurt his career as he has won 1st place in MuscleMania. He says that “Food is fuel, so I typically focus on getting in as much of a variety of plant-based, whole foods as possible — the less processed, the better. For me, eating is about being mindful and intuitive to what the body needs, feels like, and (for some) what the body looks like.”

13. Venus Williams (Tennis)

Williams is an American tennis player who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles and 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles. She has also won the prestigious Wimbledon women’s singles title five times and has four Olympic gold medals. She adopted a raw vegan diet after she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011. She days it has been a good choice and that “not only does it help me on the court, but I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me.”

14. Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1 racing driver)

Four-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton won his fourth title this week after adopting a vegan diet earlier in 2017. Talking to the BBC about his recent transition to a vegan diet, Hamilton said: “As the human race, what we are doing to the world… the pollution coming from the amount of cows that are being produced is incredible. They say it is more than what we produce with our flights and our cars, which is kind of crazy to think. The cruelty is horrible and I don’t necessarily want to support that.”

15. Jermain Defoe (soccer)

Defoe is the seventh best goal scorer in Premier League history, scoring over 150 goals in the league to date. He plays for Bournemouth FC and the England national team. Defoe credited his “comeback” in March earlier this year to his vegan diet. On giving up meat, eggs, and dairy, he said that: “I don’t find anything hard to give up… because I know the feeling scoring goals gives me.”

16. David Haye (boxer)

Haye is a British boxer with world titles in two weight categories. In 2008, he won three of the four major boxing world titles at cruiserweight. Haye researched the benefits of a plant-based diet on healing rates and recovery time after a serious shoulder injury prompted surgery and meant he had to take a break from the ring. He has now been vegan for four years. He said that “Apes are 20 times stronger than humans and they don’t rely on a meat-based diet. They eat plants all day long. It’s a myth that you need meat for strength.

17. Steph Davis (Rock Climber)

Davis is considered one of the world’s greatest female rock climbers. She adopted a vegan diet in 2003 after trying various diets to assist her climbing skills. She eats a whole food, plant food diet and loves grains for breakfast with protein rich soups and noodle dishes for lunch and dinner.

18. Kyrie Irving (NBA player)

Kyrie is an American professional basketball player for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association. The NBA is abuzz about the lean body and high performance this year by Kyrie Irving. Irving adopted a vegan diet and said his energy is up and his body feels amazing. He says that “this season I’ve been on more of a plant-based diet, getting away from all the animals and all that. I had to get away from that. Just understanding what the diet is like for me and what’s beneficial for me for having the highest energy out here and being able to sustain it at a very high level.”

19. Wilson Chandler (NBA player)

Wilson Chandler is an American professional basketball player for the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association. He has previously played for the NBA’s New York Knicks. He has much to say about his diet. “A few things led me to the vegan diet. I guess the first thing to say was that I had multiple injuries and surgeries. Then additional complications: stamina level, inflammation, stuff with my stomach, overall mood, how my body was feeling and working. The animals that we eat get their protein from plants. So, we’re eating the protein that they’re eating from the plants. I feel better overall, in everything that I do. I can take in more information easier. My mind is just open.”

20. Griff Whalen (NFL)

Griff Whalen is an American football wide receiver who is currently with the Baltimore Ravens. He played college football at Stanford and was signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Whalen has eaten a vegan diet for 4 years and found he feels “much lighter. My joints felt smoother, everything felt better. I could run and breathe easier”. He said his recovery periods are much shorter.

The science of why vegan athletes report superior performance or recovery has been explored in only a few scientific studies. Many athletes mention less perceived inflammation and quicker recovery periods. Scientific analyses confirm lower levels of inflammatory markers like hs-CRP in persons eating a plant diet but the test groups were not athletes. In one of these clinical assessments, researchers compared a, ultra-athlete (3 time Ironman) eating a raw vegan diet to 10 other endurance trained athletes on mixed diets. The vegan athlete did not demonstrate any nutritional deficiencies. When compared to the 10 omnivore athletes, the vegan athlete showed a higher level of oxygen uptake. A recent review article provides guidance for the newly vegan athlete. A focus on foods and supplements to achieve optimal levels of vitamin D, B12, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids was stressed.

Until more science is available, the testimonials of the dozens of highly trained athletes succeeding in their fields stands as a clear indication that the adage “meat for muscles” is the new “the world is flat”. It is for the rest of us to follow suit in 2018.