Is it the end of the meat-muscle connection?
The list of high level athletes going vegan or vegetarian grows every year across almost every sport, including football, basketball, soccer, distance running, bodybuilding, Formula 1, and tennis.
The pros are ditching meat for a variety of reasons. Venus Williams, the second highest earning female tennis player of all time, did it to fight back against an autoimmune disorder, and now she’s revamped her career at the age of 37, when she was previously on the brink of never playing tennis again.
“Not only does it help me on the court, but I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me,” she said in an interview.
NBA superstar Kyrie Irving recently went vegan, and says he has found new energy from the change. Elite ultramarathoner Scott Jurek is another believer, as is Jermain Defoe, a top ten all-time goal scorer in English Premier League.
Hundreds more athletes have swung to heavily plant-based eating, while not eating strictly vegan or vegetarian. Despite decades as the standard, it seems the meat-muscle connection is starting to crumble at its foundation. While every athlete has to be concerned about protein intake, many are finding that meat doesn’t have to be involved.
For Erika Tymrak, National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) player for the newly created Utah Royals, the vegan diet started out of compassion for animals. But the 26-year-old is now in the best physical shape of her life, and says the benefits of her diet are undeniable.
The 2013 NWSL rookie of the year and two-time NWSL champion says she’d been wanting to make the switch for years, but had held off, always hearing it wasn’t a smart thing to do if you’re like a high level athlete. But while playing in Australia for Melbourne City in 2016, she decided to go for it.
“A lot of Australians are vegan, at least in Melbourne,” she says, “and it’s really easy to eat out there and be vegan so I thought, you know I’m just going to try it.”
She says that the change she felt was dramatic.
“I would say it took a few months, my body to adjust,” she says. “But then after I adjusted, I felt better than I’ve ever felt. I feel like my whole life has been foggy. I would nap a lot, I would always be fatigued, and I just wasn’t consistent with my energy. After I adjusted to a vegan diet, I can’t describe to you how great I feel on it and how much energy I have. My recovery is so much better. My performance and my endurance and my fitness is the best it’s ever been.”
As a professional soccer player, Erika has the benefit of exact measurements to see where she’s at physically. So while she knows she feels great, she has data to back up the effects of her diet change.
“We wear these GPS trackers that track our overall load and endurance and sprints,” she says. “This year year has been my best year with my numbers from an endurance and fitness standpoint. I’ve also been able to keep gains and keep the perfect amount of muscle for myself, which is harder for me because I have a smaller frame. If I don’t, you know, work out for a couple weeks, it’s really easy for me to lose muscle, but now I find it really easy for myself to keep the muscle. And just physically I’m in the best shape of my life and I 100 percent contribute that to a vegan diet.”
“There’s a few vegan ice cream places here (Salt Lake City area), and have taken some of the girls on the team,” she says. “People are always so surprised, like oh my god it’s so good and it’s vegan?”
The stereotype the vegan food tastes bad is just not true, Erika says.
“Vegan food is real food,” she says. “It’s wholesome.”
Erika’s Homemade Mac and Cheese
“Made completely from vegetables, potatoes and spices!”
- I boil pasta, any noodle is fine, I will usually use an elbow or spiral noodle.
- I boil potatoes and carrots until soft and then add them to a blender along with turmeric, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, almond milk and nutritional yeast. I will blend that until smooth and that creates a nice “cheesy” sauce.
- I’ll add that to warm pot and stir for a few minutes then add in the noodles! Just a healthier, more compassionate version of your typical mac and cheese!
For Erika, changing how she ate meant changing how she cooks. As a long-time lover of baking, she experimented and searched for the right ingredients to make delicious, earth and animal-friendly food.
“With baking, switching to vegan wasn’t that different,” she says, “I would use, instead of dairy milk, non-dairy milk, almond milk or cashew milk, and then I found a really good egg substitute. I’ll always bake stuff and like my teammates will be like ‘there is no way this is vegan.’”
Another myth, Erika says, is that vegan diets are highly restrictive. Her go-to meals are varied and sound delicious: sweet potatoes with almond butter and granola, homemade pizza, avocado toast, veggie pad thai, black bean burgers, buckwheat pancakes, acai bowls, and the list goes on. She says she eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and smoothies, and that she eats many small meals throughout the day.
Feeling better and better fitness are important to athletes and non-athletes alike, but there is also the planet to think about. Eating plant-based is good for animals obviously (as they aren’t being eaten), and helps combat livestock practices that contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions. Professional athletes are in a unique position to change perceptions about diet, Erika realizes, which can have a huge impact on the world at large.
“I think athletes have a great platform to show people that you can not only survive on a vegan diet, but you can thrive,” she says. “There are so many professional athletes around the world who choose not to eat animal products and are surpassing physical expectations. We are destroying the negative stigma attached with veganism and are showing the world that you can be fast, strong and healthy on a plant based diet.”
Did You Know…
If all the grain (corn, soybean meal and other grains) currently used to feed livestock in the United States were used instead to feed people, 800 million people could be fed.
Source: Scientific American