If you’ve ever stepped foot in the gym or taken to the field, you’d be familiar with the mindset of an athlete – regardless of how amateur your skill level. The quest for athletic performance and strength is one many of us find ourselves striving for and consequently, diet becomes an integral part of our lives. Where our childhood tendencies of consuming Milo from the tin as an after-school snack could grant us the energy boost required for adolescent buoyancy, we can’t get away with such things now – nor would we want to.
But while most of us become preoccupied with protein, purchasing steaks regularly for our meal prep and washing it down with a hearty shake, perhaps we’re ignoring wider research that suggests vegan and plant-based diets pose greater benefits.
Just recently, Netflix aired the documentary titled The Game Changers, which offered a detailed insight into nutrition, training, and the professional athletes challenging preconceptions that meat is essential for athletic performance. Directed by Louie Psihoyos and executive produced by James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic and Chris Paul, it spotlights the story of James Wilks who is an elite Special Forces trainer and The Ultimate Fighter winner.
In a statement released alongside the film, Wilks said his fascination about diet stemmed from an injury he sustained while training which saw him research the optimal diet for recovery. It was during this time that he stumbled on a study about the Roman gladiators, “which concluded that they ate little or no meat.” As Wilks affirms, “This seemed really far-fetched to me since I was confident that animal protein was necessary to build muscle, sustain energy levels, and recover from injury.”
Such a view was reinforced earlier this year by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in recent years has cut his meat intake by 80 per cent. “There’s no one that can relate to it better than I do because I’ve lived in that world,” says Schwarzenegger in the documentary, referencing the deeply-entrenched mindset that plant-based diets and veganism are less masculine and don’t have the same performance-enhancing benefits as meat. “’Steak is for men’…They show these commercials – burgers, George Foreman with the grill and epic sandwich – this is great, great marketing for the meat industry, selling the idea that real men eat meat. But you’ve got to understand, it’s marketing. It’s not based on reality.”
Such changes in thinking which, it should also be stressed, also serve to benefit the planet, even have Game of Thrones and former World’s Strongest Man, The Mountain, considering changing to a vegan diet. Bjornsson replied to a post on Instagram from vegan bodybuilder Kai Greene challenging the actor and fitness personality to try a plant-based diet, saying: “I might as well give it a try for a week on my offseason. I’m always willing to give everything a chance! Especially when it comes from the legends like @schwarzenegger & @kaigreene.”
To help quell the confusion that arises from plant-based and vegan diets and their place in athletic performance and training, here are the athletes who have made the switch and wouldn’t go back.
Amerian Record-Holding Weightlifter
While many athletes will be quick to name dairy as one of their staples, Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris doesn’t eat dairy at all and urges other athletes to do as he does, too. Farris has been a vegan since 2014 and has regularly demonstrated that you don’t need milk or meat to be strong, in 2016 he competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics where he built his personal record of 377kg. Farris lives by the rules of eating when he’s hungry, eating what makes his body feel good in training, and aims for a broad range of vegan-friendly foods.
In an interview with Men’s Journal, Farris described the impact his diet has had on his training: “Now, my body recovers a lot faster. I feel lighter. My mind is a lot more clear. I feel I can focus a lot better – not that I wasn’t a focused individual before, but now I feel like I’m totally locked in.”
His go-to foods include black beans, trail mix with almonds, cashews and pistachios, a wide variety of fruit, avocado quesadillas and a spinach lasagna.
Eight-Time US National Cycling Champion
In 2019, Bausch was named by VegNews as one of the top 20 most influential vegans in the world. It’s not hard to believe, given that her prolific cycling career saw her produce a medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games to sit alongside her eight US national championships.
Bausch said about her diet in an interview with Compassion over Killing, “Soon after switching to plant-based eating, I experienced mental clarity and physical rejuvenation. After intense cycling training sessions, I was able to recover in half the time of my younger teammates.”
She also offers advice to athletes considering making the switch to a plant-based diet, saying: “Go for it! You won’t believe the rejuvenation and repair that occur in a quarter of the time on plants rather than meat and dairy. It’s mind-blowing. By creating a compassionate, loving relationship with the food that fuels you to be strong and resilient, you will feel a sense of purpose behind your food choices, and of fuelling yourself like you’ve never experienced before.”
Five-time Formula One World Champion
Hamilton changed to a plant-based diet in 2018 and has continued to achieve great success since, something he attributes to his nutrition. Not one to keep quiet about the benefits of going plant-based, Hamilton said in an interview in 2018: “I think it’s about educating yourself and being open to it. It’s something I really wanted to do. For sure, it hasn’t been easy to learn new things and new ways, but I’ve felt so good for the last year and a half. It’s been such a great decision.”
He added, “I can improve the amount that I’m eating and when I’m eating. I plan to continue on this route. And I definitely believe it has had a really good, positive impact on my daily life, in terms of the energy that I have and the feeling that I have when I’m at work. I’m very rarely tired. For me, it has been a life changer.”
Foods Hamilton regularly consumes include beans on toast with avocado, vegan burgers, porridge, falafel sandwiches, vegan chilli, and quinoa power bowls.
Two-Time Australian 400M Champion
In an interview with Women’s Health, Mitchell said about her diet: “Getting in the right food after a session is extremely important. If I don’t have time to go out for brunch at a café, I’ll bring along snacks such as peanut butter and chocolate dates or a healthy smoothie (often with nothing but green veggies to make sure my iron intake is up).”
She added, “I’m vegan so nutrition-wise, I mainly focus on getting iron and protein in. Almost all of my meals include spinach and kale. For protein, I love tofu – I can eat it raw so if I need to do that, then so be it! For runners who eat a plant-based diet, I’d recommend seeing a dietician. When I first started eating-plant based, I was so lost and getting professional help really set me on the right path.”
World Record-Holding Strongman
As any strongman can attest, a lot of calories need to be consumed in the day to keep up with this gruelling training schedule. And for Patrik Baboumian, that means eating over 5,000 calories in vegan food. While most strongmen focus on meat and eggs, Baboumian is completely plant-based. His diet includes a vegan smoothie consisting of fruit and dried greens, vegan sausages, falafels, low-fat oven fries, grilled vegetables, tofu, cooked potatoes, peanuts and protein shakes.