“I don’t want to be vegan,” David Carter once said to his wife. “That’s for weaklings.”
“I had been big and strong,” Carter says. “But . . . I was taking medication for high blood pressure and suffering from nerve damage” and as a result, he had a hard time doing bench presses and pushups. On Feb. 14, 2014, his attitude suddenly changed: “I was drinking a milkshake and watching the [animal rights documentary] “Forks Over Knives.” And I just thought to myself, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ I got up, threw out the milkshake and went vegan.”
For many athletes who have switched to a vegan lifestyle, the change was prompted by reasons similar to Carter’s. Poor health plagued Rich Roll before he adopted a plant-based diet and began a career as a world-class ultramarathoner in his 40s. And tennis star Venus Williams famously chose a raw vegan regimen five years ago after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an immune-system disorder that caused her joint pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Along with these stories comes a common query from incredulous non-vegans: “How do you get enough protein?”
“It’s always the first question,” says Torre Washington, a bodybuilder who has been following a vegan diet for 18 years, laughing. “But you really don’t need protein to get shredded and lean. I’m looking for nutrients and focused on variety.”
Indeed, vegan athletes including Washington and 10-time Olympic medalist Carl Lewis — who retired from athletic competition in 1997 and has said that athletes have "the worst diets in the world and compete in spite of it" — tend to agree that athletes should put an emphasis on increased calories when in training, as opposed to more protein. "I've never met a patient who has had a protein deficiency," said sports dietitian Susan Levin, who is also a vegan and recreational runner. "It's really a nonissue."
Ashley Koff, a registered dietitian, agrees that "we tend to overemphasize the amount of protein that we need," but she says that a plant-based diet of vegetables, fruit, grains and legumes may not be enough for many athletes. Williams, for instance, calls herself a "cheagan" because she occasionally cheats by indulging in cheese, yogurt or even fish.
“Plants play a primary role,” Koff says, “but what we have to remember about all athletes is that all of our digestive systems and our bodies work differently. I like to say that you are not what you eat; you are what you digest and absorb.” That means that she might build organic pasteurized eggs into an athlete’s diet because it’s a highly absorbable protein, but not, say, cheese.
Levin is director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which promotes non-meat and nondairy nutrition. She cites the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans as an appropriate starting point. It recommends that about 10 percent of total daily calories be protein, meaning roughly 200 calories in an ideal diet. (Certain groups, such as athletes involved in intense physical activity and breast-feeding women, can increase protein consumption to as much as 30 percent of total calories, the guidelines say.) The 10 percent recommendation can be met quickly with a typical four-ounce lean beef hamburger patty at between 200 and 300 calories, while a black bean burger might have half as many.
“Protein is actually a fairly small percentage of what goes into a healthy diet,” Levin says. “The emphasis really is on having a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods throughout the day, and, because protein is found in varying amounts in plants, legumes, grains and nuts, it’s pretty easy to get to the recommended amount. Most athletes don’t need a different diet, they just need more calories.”
When Carter, who is 28, was in intense physical training, he was consuming 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day and looking to get about 300 grams of protein. “It’s a lot of eating,” Carter says. “You’ve got to be focused to get that many calories in a day.” Once he made the switch to a vegan diet, he realized that all of the beans, grains, fruit and vegetables he was eating were helping him be big and strong, bench pressing 465 pounds on a diet of bananas, lentils and cashew cheese.
“The biggest and strongest animals on the planet — elephants, gorillas, rhinos — are herbivores,” Carter says.
James Loomis, medical director of the PCRM’s Barnard Medical Center, which was opened earlier this year in Washington, admits that packing on calories with a vegan diet is still not easy for athletes. “Some people struggle with it,” he says. “Try eating 1,000 calories of quinoa or blueberries.”
Koff says, “The quality of what you put into your body is really critical for athletes — you want to get the most bang for every bite.”
Loomis, who served as team internist for football’s St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams and baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals before he got interested in plant-based medicine, saw professional athletes develop serious health problems at an early age by focusing only on eating a lot of calories. “I call it ‘bro science,’ ” he says. “They’re thinking about getting big and strong without thinking about the long-term impact. But if we help develop healthy habits in younger athletes, it helps them in post-career.”
Inflammation caused by dietary choices, which can lead to a host of chronic diseases, is a common concern for Loomis, Levin and Koff, even if they don't agree on the need for a completely vegan diet. Eating meat and animal products, Koff says, has been associated with inflammation, "so it's all the more reason to have a lot of plants in the diet to balance [that] out."
Matt Frazier, 35, an ultramarathoner and author of "No Meat Athlete," used a gradual transition from omnivore to vegan for his own diet. "I spent a whole year without eating four-legged animals before I took the next step and cut the two-legged animals out of my diet, and then spent a month there before I stopped eating fish," he says. At that point, Frazier found that his speed and endurance were increasing, leading him to shave 10 minutes off his marathon time to ultimately qualify for the Boston Marathon. Over the next two years, he gradually cut out eggs and dairy.
“I think short-term challenges are a great way to dive in and see what it’s like,” Frazier says. “Try a 10-day vegetarian or vegan challenge, and if it goes well, make it 30 days. Having that finish line at the end keeps you from having to deal with those ‘I can never eat a cheeseburger again?’ thoughts that aren’t helpful at all when you’re trying to transition.”
The feared loss of indulgent food is a topic that seems to come up often among both vegan athletes and curious omnivores.
“Your relationship with food becomes pleasing your palate versus making your body look good,” says bodybuilder Washington. “Even when I travel, I head straight for the local Whole Foods and start looking for the ingredients to make a spicy vegan pizza or pan-seared tofu with Japanese sweet potatoes. When you become a vegan, you become a foodie.”
Carter concurs. “I like to make junk food that’s not really junk food,” he says. “My favorite is nachos with couscous, beans and cashew-cheese queso. I’ve converted so many athletes with that cashew cheese — they eat it and say, “Man, that tastes just like real cheese, bro!”