When you think athletes, you often think piles and piles of meat – they need to fuel all that muscle, after all. A beefy athlete forced to endure a grueling game or practice on a belly full of salad would be a recipe for disaster; unfortunately, this is the limited picture many individuals get when considering athletes who follow a plant based diet. However, there are many incredibly successful athletes who follow a plant based diet (whether vegetarian or fully vegan) and argue it helps their performance rather than hinders it. Though their dietary choices eliminate meat as a source of protein, meat is by no means the only way for an athlete to incorporate protein into his or her diet. In fact, some nutritionists argue that a plant based diet can offer athletes all the necessary protein and carbohydrates without such a high dose of cholesterol and saturated fats.
The one thing that is common among all athletes, regardless of what sport they excel at, is their high caloric burn. Simply put, if you spend hours a day working out and pushing your body to the max, you burn a lot of calories. A LOT. Their intense exercise regimes and athletic activities means that athletes need far more calories than the average person. A diet without meat doesn't necessarily greatly affect this, however, as the practice of athletes ‘carbo-loading’ demonstrates. Complex carbohydrates, found in foods such as whole-wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, grains, vegetables, and fruits, are an integral part of any athlete’s diet, whether they finish each day with a big, juicy steak, or a big block of tofu. While vegetarian foods can be less calorie dense than their meaty alternatives, athletes just need to be aware of their caloric intake and expenditure to accommodate this.
Complex carbohydrates and plant based protein sources (found in foods such as beans, tofu, and nuts) provide athletes with all the nutrients they need without requiring the addition of meat in their diet. These ten athletes prove that you don’t need meat to excel athletically.
10 Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez, former tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, is probably the most famous vegan in the NFL, and has admitted that his dietary choices often cause team mates to raise their eyebrows in curiosity as they pile steak onto their plates. The catalyst for his decision to switch to a plant based diet was a chance meeting on an airplane. He was sitting next to businessman David Pulaski, and when Pulaski refused the standard meat and cheese dishes that were being offered to the first class passengers, Gonzalez asked him why. Pulaski introduced Gonzalez to The China Study, an experiment wherein scientists found that the Chinese citizens who ate the fewest animal products were less susceptible to a variety of illnesses. This shone light on negative aspects of the American diet for Gonzalez – more specifically, the cheeseburger and meat heavy football diet he had encountered so often – and he made the decision to cut out meat.
Gonzalez is a prime example of both the dangers and benefits of a vegetarian diet for athletes. At first, he wasn't well informed about nutrition and rapidly dropped weight and lost strength due to his dietary switch. However, though he originally nearly gave up on his vegetarian decision, he spoke with doctors and specialists who taught him how to incorporate more plant proteins and he quickly got back in fighting shape. Gonzalez isn't entirely vegan– he’s confessed to following an 80/20 rule with 80% plant based foods and 20% fish or chicken. However, even with this concession he’s unique among his meat eating fellow NFL players, and is incredibly outspoken about the benefits of a plant based diet.
Has he been the same since? Well, the first season he returned on his plant based diet, he set the new career reception record for his position, so you can judge from that.
9 Hank Aaron
While baseball superstar Hank Aaron has not been as outspoken as some others on this list about their plant based diets, many sources have claimed he is a vegetarian, something that Aaron has never disputed. Despite “Hammer”-ing back salads and beans rather than beef and brisket, Aaron is a 25-time All Star and member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His long and illustrious career demonstrates that his diet definitely didn’t affect his game for the worse.
8 Billie Jean King
King has 39 Grand Slam titles to her name and was ranked Number 1 in the world at one point in her career – she is also a long time vegetarian.
7 Venus Williams
In response to being diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease, Venus Williams switched to not only a vegetarian, but a raw vegan diet (though she has referred to herself as a ‘cheagan,’ admitting that she sometimes falls off the vegan wagon). She is also a proponent of juicing and wheatgrass shots. She claims her diet has not only not affected her athletic ability, but has in fact improved her health immensely and she credits her diet change with helping manage Sjogren’s symptoms – and her impressive comeback after her diagnosis certainly confirms this. Williams says raw, organic foods are the key to maintaining her body at its optimum health, although she acknowledges the reality of how many calories athletes need, and admits that she eats pasta, bread, and rice before matches due to the often low caloric value of raw vegan foods.
What about sister Serena? The two have been incredibly supportive of one another throughout their long tennis careers, and dietary changes seem no different: in order to support Venus, Serena has also switched to a plant based diet.
6 Joe Namath
Joe Namath is one of the most recognizable names in the NFL and is considered one of the best quarterbacks ever. He was inducted to the Football Hall of Fame in 1985, and his athletic accolades are absolutely endless: Pro Bowl selection, Super Bowl III Champion, Super Bowl III MVP, first quarterback to throw 4,000 yards in one season… it goes on and on. His success, however, is not the result of platefuls of chicken and steak. Namath has even stated, in a famous quote, that his experience with a vegetarian diet “shows that you don’t need meat to play football.” If Broadway Joe says it, with his track record, it must be true.
5 Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson’s dietary changes and switch to plant based clean eating obviously went hand in hand with his move to clean living. However, he has spoken quite forthrightly about the benefits his vegan diet have given him and his body. The most obvious is his incredible weight loss – since cutting meat out of his diet, he dropped over 100 pounds. He has confessed to an extremely carnivorous diet during his fighting years (not an ear joke, I swear...). When his age started creeping up, he began feeling like he was in less than peak physical condition, suffering from arthritis, joint problems, and several extra pounds. While he’s no longer in the ring, he’s expressed that his new diet has made him feel powerful and explosively energetic.
4 Robert Parish
There’s no chicken for The Chief. Robert Parish, a retired center, is considered one of the best in basketball, and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. Not only is he a Hall of Famer, he had an NBA career that lasted longer than any other player in NBA history, playing 21 seasons of prime basketball. Though chance does have a role in career longevity (any athlete can be taken down by an unexpected injury at any point in their career), Parish's vegetarian diet and incorporation of yoga into his training regime definitely didn’t hurt. His incredible success demonstrates that even a seven foot tall man who needs a lot of protein to maintain his huge frame can find all the nutrition he needs in a vegetarian diet.
3 Ricky Williams
Former NFL running back Ricky Williams once said “I wouldn’t eat a chicken if it dropped dead in front of me holding up a sign that said ‘Eat Me.’” Williams was one of the NFL’s first vegetarian players and made the change because he strongly felt it was a healthier way to eat. Tony Sparano, his former coach, has referred to his choices at team meals as “Ricky food,” demonstrating just how rare his dietary choice is in a league full of meat eaters. Williams got his foot further into the food world by opening a restaurant, PROOF; while PROOF does serve meat dishes, Williams makes sure that ‘Ricky’s Picks’ provide any vegetarian customers with equally tasty alternatives.
2 Carl Lewis
Carl Lewis, an American former track and field star, credits his decision to switch to a vegan diet with his career best performances in 1991. He has won 10 Olympic medals and 10 World Championship medals over the span of his career. Lewis has been one of the most outspoken vegetarian or vegan athletes, and even wrote an introduction to Jannequin Bennet’s book Very Vegetarian. He makes his position very clear in this intro, stating that “I've found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete” before concluding that “if you nourish [your body] properly, it will be good to you and you will increase its longevity.”
1 Mac Danzig
Mac Danzig competed for years in MMA, a brutal sport that requires high levels of strength and agility. He is also a vegan, a dietary choice that made him stand out like a sore thumb in the carnivorous world of MMA athletes. He initially faced a lot of criticism, but has remarked that attitudes have been shifting over the years and become increasingly more open to plant based diets.
Danzig has spoken to the press time and time again about his diet, fielding various questions, in depth interviews, and even being featured in the documentary Forks Over Knives. He cut dairy out far before moving to a full vegan diet because of allergies, but for several years has happily maintained a vegan diet. As some of his favorite foods and dietary staples, he lists brown rice, portabello mushrooms, tempeh, quinoa, black beans and lentils, seitan, nuts, and seeds. His diet is rich in nutrients and varied according to what competition goals he’s seeking to attain. Danzig seems to be a lean, mean, plant eating machine.