The concept of a meatless diet may be a hard sell for many athletes and their fans. The demands of strenuous activity necessary for games/matches or regular practices may require as many as 6,000 calories and 200 grams of protein daily depending upon the player and his or her sport. How can famous vegetarian athletes possibly meet that need without eating meat?
While plant-based diets have been proven to help reduce the risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as well as speed along the repair of torn muscles and tendons and improve blood and oxygen flow, some still emphasize the difficulty vegetarian/vegan athletes face when attempting to reach their athletic goals. NFL Nutritionist Mitzi Dulan explains that reaching the massive caloric and protein intake levels necessary is easier for some players to reach by eating protein-dense, higher calorie animal foods. However, the body itself more easily processes grains, veggies, legumes and fruit into energy. The only problem, according to Dulan, is that it takes a LOT of the latter foods to fuel NFL player body demands—as well as strict vigilance about the nutrients they’re consuming. Quinoa, beans, hemp, nuts, seeds and vegetarian/vegan protein shakes can help these famous vegetarian athletes meet their needs. Let’s meet some famous athletes who’ve gone meatless despite the naysayers and find out how it’s working for these vegetarian athletes!
While most tennis players retire in their early to mid-30’s, superstar Martina Navratilova credits her ability to extend her life of competitive playing to age fifty to a strict vegan diet. Navratilova recommends eating fresh, unprocessed, raw, whole, plant-based, organic foods whenever possible, and details her nutritional guidelines in this video. Martina was the winner of a total of eighteen major international tennis championships and runner-up in an additional fourteen competitions.
Uber-famous New York Jets player Joe Namath became a prominent vegetarian, stating in an interview, “I have been a vegetarian for a few years. Fred Dryer of the Rams has been one for ten years. It shows you don’t need meat to play football.” Although not much is known about the details of Joe’s diet, it is evident that Namath continued his healthy eating lifestyle after leaving football, and later also successfully recovered from years of over-indulgence in alcohol.
Shortly before his 2005 season playing for the Miami Dolphins, the NFL’s Heisman Trophy winning Ricky Williams decided to go vegetarian. How did it work out? Well, aside from often needing to order what he calls ‘side dishes’ (i.e. salads, etc.) to be able to eat in most restaurants, Williams reports he has “tons of energy.” Not only that, but Men’s Journal shares that, after becoming vegetarian, Williams went on to have, “five successful seasons, carrying the ball 1,121 yards in 2009, an impressive feat for any NFL player. “It changed my game, and it changed my body,” says Williams. Williams reportedly has no trouble meeting his dietary needs, and explains that his healthy lifestyle incorporates not only a vegetarian diet but meditation and yoga as well. Williams states, “A healthy body, mind and spirit are the reasons I’ve been able to have longevity as a professional football player.” Williams played for the NFL for ten seasons.
When Olympic Sprinter Carl Lewis knew he had to do well in the 1991 World Championships, he decided to go vegan. Following that decision, Lewis reported racing the best meet of his entire life. Others took note as well, and Lewis was named ABC’s Athlete of the Year in the Wide World of Sports contest in 1991. He also went on to earn nine Olympic gold medals. Lewis stated, “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… I enjoy eating more, and I feel great.”
Although Mike Tyson, aka “Iron Mike”, went vegan to reportedly “flush bad drugs/cocaine” from his system, he also noted a remarkable 100-pound weight loss since he implemented the change. Former boxing heavyweight champion Tyson included veganism in his overall lifestyle change for the better, explaining that, “Becoming a vegan gave me another opportunity to live a healthy life. I was so congested from all the drugs and bad cocaine, I could hardly breathe, [I had] high blood pressure, [was] almost dying [and had] arthritis. And once I became a vegan all that stuff diminished.” In a recent video featured on Oprah, Tyson shared that he greatly enjoyed the new plant-based lifestyle as well as improved relationships and family time.
Following a diagnosis of Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease causing fatigue and aching joints, Wimbledon champion Venus Williams was determined to heal herself. This journey included becoming a raw vegan. Williams shares that she drinks a lot of wheat grass shots and plenty of fresh juices and smoothies to get her protein balance up. Her sister Serena has also reportedly stepped up in solidarity to join Venus in her diet, as well as helping her incorporate additional holistic alternatives, “like yoga and massage.” Venus now prefers raw foods and also eats grains, pastas and bread before matches. She credits her dietary shift to an impressive athletic comeback and successful management of her illness symptoms.
Detroit Pistons’ James Jones is one of the first NBA players to join other athletes turning vegetarian or vegan. Jones explains the odd hours of basketball games leads to challenges for healthy eating—but he manages. Since most games finish up late at night, they’re usually followed by press conferences and late night hotel room stays, if not another long trip to the next town. Eating from room service and to-go menus is rough, according to Jones, who explains that he often finds himself, “…ordering five side dishes of steamed broccoli, five dishes of steamed asparagus and a bowl of brown rice” when he eats away from home.
Also referred to as “The 300-Pound Vegan”, David Carter of the NFL’s Chicago Bears is another athlete devoted to the vegan lifestyle. His blog, aptly titled “The 300 Pound Vegan” is featured on Facebook posts, where he shares his writings about his dietary choice, as well as pictures of his meals and the thoughts of his wife, animal rights activist Paige. Although at first he had difficulty maintaining enough weight and lost a quick 40 pounds, that soon changed, as did an improved energy level, increase in speed and faster recovery from injuries. One of his blog postings included his statement that, “the ethical vegan was born when … I learned that you don’t need to take a life to gain muscle or survive … anything else is cruel and unnecessary punishment to animals, the planet, and the body as well.” Carter recently told GQ magazine that he tries to eat over a pound of protein daily in the off-season from sources like grains, beans, beets, cashew cheese, avocado, bell peppers, couscous, oatmeal with hemp protein, berries, bananas, spinach salads, a variety of other plants and brown rice. He consumes 10,000 calories on a normal day, broken into five meals and several snacks.