• Answers From Athletes About Plant-Powered Performance

    By Carey Rossi

If you train hard, you know the typical arguments against going vegan—a plant-based diet with no animal products. That’s no meat, no eggs, no dairy. “Won’t that just make me sluggish?” “How can I build strength and muscle just on vegetables?” “There’s no way I can get faster, stronger, better without a regular diet.”

While meat eaters still vastly outnumber vegetarians among top athletes, more and more have been going all-out vegan in the past decade or so—and, in the process, proving the stereotypes wrong.

We talked to four high-performing stars of their respective sports—former professional Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, co-founder of Vega and author of the “Thrive” book series; IFBB pro bodybuilder Jehina Malik; professional climber and BASE jumper Steph Davis; and professional wrestler Austin Aries, currently Impact Wrestling’s reigning world champion and co-author of “Food Fight: My Plant-Powered Journey From the Bingo Halls to the Big Time” (Grey Books, 2017)—for their insight and advice for going green while staying lean and mean.

24Life: What made you decide to become a vegan?

Steph Davis: In 2001, I decided to try four different eating systems for three months each to see what effect it would have on my climbing and running performance. I didn’t even consider being vegan because at the time climbers had the attitude that you need meat for climbing power, and I didn’t know anyone who was vegan. When I finished that year of nutrition testing, I did a cleansing fast, and when I started eating food again, I was most drawn to whole-grain plant foods. After a couple of weeks, I realized I was eating vegan, so although I had not considered that as a dietary option at all, I decided to go with it. I started to see significant positive results in my athletic performance and my energy.

Brendan Brazier: It was gradual. I was looking for an eating plan that would speed recovery and allow for more training. I just tried a lot of different diets—high-carb, low-fat, high-protein, etc. Then I tried plant-based eating and it worked. Not right away: I did have cravings because I didn’t do it the “right” way to start, so I did more research and ended up making my own blend, using hemp protein, pea protein, flaxseed for omega-3 fats and so on. I found it made a big difference, and it eventually evolved into Vega. I felt better, I had more energy, I slept better, but it took a while over many months. I kept a training and nutrition log so I could follow when I trained and raced well. I saw unmistakable patterns.

Austin Aries: I stopped eating meat in 2000, and then I gave up all the dairy and eggs about seven years ago. I don’t think there was necessarily one thing [that prompted it]. In my book “Food Fight,” I talk about these seeds that were planted throughout my life that when I put them all together, I pulled my head from my sand—the health factor, how the animals are treated, the impact on the environment. For me at the core, eating other living creatures was off-putting and not really appetizing.

Jehina Malik: Nothing made me decide to become vegan — I was born vegan! Both my parents converted to full vegan many years before having me.

24Life: What was the most difficult thing for you to do when adopting a vegan lifestyle?

Aries: The biggest thing was the actual process of learning about food and the realization that we have been so uneducated about it—its impact and the choices we have. When I started reading ingredient lists, I realized there were all these chemicals, preservatives, and things made in laboratories and not natural to the human body. Having to keep a food diary, I came to the realization that everything that’s easy and cheap is some of the worst things out there for me. Then you start thinking, “Why would that be? Why would they want to have consumers that aren’t informed buying things not good for them?” The system is set up for people to fail and be sick, and you have to be smarter than the system.

Davis: At first, I said I was a “half-and-half” vegan because I couldn’t give up organic half-and-half in my morning coffee. Over time, I switched to powdered soy milk, and recently a great product came out called Nutpods, which is even better. Unlike most every other nondairy creamer, it doesn’t have added sweetener and has a very creamy texture.

Brazier: I always recommend starting slowly, perhaps replacing one or two meals a day … not too much at once. And you should focus on adding good food instead of focusing on what you can take away from your diet. This works much better.

Malik: There wasn’t anything difficult, honestly. If I had to say one thing, I would say having my friends accept the fact that I was different.

24Life: How do you make sure you consume enough protein to help with recovery?

Malik: I eat often and I just listen to my body—we all must be aware of how we feel internally and externally.

Davis: I get a lot of protein naturally just by eating a well-rounded diet, with nuts, legumes, soy and whole grains. I make sure there’s a protein source in every dinner meal I make—usually tofu, tempeh and/or quinoa. I make my own hummus and falafel and keep it in the fridge for lunches and to-go sandwiches or wraps to make in the morning.

Aries: I think that we’ve been misinformed on the whole idea that we need these copious amounts of protein. Most normal Joes and Janes are eating three to four times the amount of protein a day they need because they think somehow protein is the “magic calorie” that only gives you lean mass. It doesn’t really work like that. I’m probably comfortable at 25 grams a meal, six meals a day, for 125 to 150 grams per day total. There are some good studies saying that if you get 15 percent of your overall total calories from protein, it should be sufficient to keep muscle mass, and to build muscle mass, you increase your overall calories, not just the protein.

All protein in its original form comes from plant life. The animals people eat, where do they get their protein? They’re eating plants. When your body breaks down protein, it breaks it down into amino acids—it doesn’t differentiate or recognize the difference between a plant amino acid or an animal amino acid. I get plenty of protein from beans and rice, lentils, tofu, nuts and vegetables and eating a well-balanced whole-food diet.

24Life: What is a typical post-workout snack or meal for you?

Malik: Usually a Clean Green protein shake and maybe a handful of nuts along with it.

Brazier: I recommend Recovery Pudding after a long workout. It’s really easy. I eat quinoa, avocado, a little salt, a little sprouts, sprouted bread and salad. And smoothies are of course super easy, too. This means I don’t spend too much time in the kitchen. I travel so much anyways.

Davis: Either a hummus wrap, or cucumbers with hummus, or a smoothie with hemp protein powder.

Aries: I usually do a shake first thing in the morning with blueberries, bananas, kale, oats and some kind of a plant-based protein powder. I might do something like that again after a workout but maybe switch out the banana and the oats. I like tofu scrambles, too, with a few pieces of toast or half a grapefruit.

24Life: Are there any challenges that you still encounter even though you have been a vegan for a while? If so, what are they and how do you overcome them?

Malik: I’ve been vegan my entire life, and as veganism blossomed through the years, there are still restaurants I’ve gone to that had very limited choices, and that should not be an issue in this day and age. So I just try to go where there are sufficient amounts of selections to choose from.

Brazier: I recommend drinking lots of smoothies to overcome any nutrition you might think you’re missing. They are energy- and protein-rich and have many important nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, all depending on what you put in your smoothie. If you like smoothies, you can enhance them with food supplements like Vega, for example, which is one that I developed. Or you can try the smoothie recipes from my book—smoothies are a great way to start.

Aries: You can eat vegan food, but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily healthy. Especially now that everything you used to eat as a kid—mac and cheese, pizza, chicken wings, burgers—they make mock versions of it, but it’s so processed and full of stuff that really shouldn’t be a staple of your diet. So for me, it’s about staying on track and trying to not skew too much into the guilty-pleasure vegan foods.

A second challenge is just continuing to break down the myths of a plant-based diet. I try to never come off too preachy, but it seems that people get defensive and feel like you’re almost shaming them for their choices.

Davis: Traveling can sometimes be difficult. Living in Moab, Utah, with a great natural foods store and a lot of excellent local food sources, I sometimes forget how lucky I am in my food choices here. I’ve noticed big changes, though, in recent years with what’s available in places like airports and more mainstream cities. I think there has been an incredible movement in the last couple of years and that people are much more aware and interested in their health and eating choices.

Photo credit: Stokkete, Adobe Stock; Tom Casey, box24studio.com; Africa Studio, Adobe Stock; ogustudio, Adobe Stock; Michelle, Adobe Stock; Photographee.eu, Adobe Stock

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Author

Carey Rossi

Carey Rossi is a journalist specializing in health, fitness, nutrition and mind-body topics. Her career has run the gamut of working in an immunology lab to launching a women’s fitness magazine, to being the news editor at health website. Her work has appeared in Fitness, Fit Pregnancy, Glamour, Health, Oxygen, Prevention, Self, Shape, plus a dozen more publications and websites. Currently, she blogs at HealthMakestheGirl.com.

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