Jermain Defoe knows he’s gained far more than he’s lost by dropping meat, eggs and dairy products from his diet. “I don’t find anything hard to give up … because I know the feeling scoring goals gives me,” the recently recalled England striker said.
He’s not the only one fuelled by plants who experiences that unique, momentous feeling. Countless other athletes of all levels are discovering the same benefits of a vegan diet – and, like Defoe, are seeing their performance soar and recovery time plummet. Many even say that fuelling their body with super-nutritious plant foods is the key to their success.
Take the ultramarathoner and vegan Scott Jurek, who broke the world record for the fastest completion of the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail. A passionate advocate of vegan eating, Jurek believes the diet is central to the success of his decades-long racing career.
Or consider the NFL defensive lineman David Carter, who is 6ft 5in and “300 pounds of veganism”. “I don’t have the soreness I used to have before. I’m not sluggish. I recover a lot faster,” Carter told the Chicago Sun Times of his transition to a plant-based diet. “I was shocked. When I first started, I was, ‘What the hell? I have more energy. I’m a lot stronger than I was before.’” Carter embodies a definitive riposte to the question many vegans often hear: “But where do you get your protein?”
So does the British professional boxer David “the Hayemaker” Haye, widely recognised as one of the best boxers of his generation. Although he went vegan for ethical reasons, Haye told the Telegraph last year that the diet made him stronger than he’s ever been. Even the superstar tennis sisters Venus and Serena Williams eat a plant-based diet, and Venus credits the diet alone for her ability to get back on the court after she was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune condition. “It definitely changed my whole life,” she said in an interview with Health magazine.
So why are so many professional – and amateur – athletes adopting this lifestyle? And why does it seem to supercharge their performance? The body of research on vegan athletes specifically is still small, but studies on those in the general population who have adopted this way of eating offer a great deal of insight.
First, overwhelming evidence shows a diet that is full of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans, and devoid of animal products, is perhaps the best diet for cardiovascular health. In fact, some doctors say it’s the only diet proven to actually reverse heart disease, the UK’s number-one killer. In one long-term study, 99% of people with heart disease following a whole-foods, plant-based diet avoided having a major cardiac event such as a heart attack or stroke. Meanwhile, 62% of people who did not adhere to the diet experienced cardiac events.
Given that heart health is a main concern for athletes of all levels, it makes sense that a diet proven to be lower in cholesterol, and to improve cardiovascular function, would be the top choice for top performance. And at least one study on vegetarian athletes backs this up: plant-eating endurance athletes had better cardiorespiratory fitness than their omnivorous counterparts.
Plant-based diets help athletes and nonathletes alike maintain a sleek physique. Studies have found that vegans have lower average body mass indices than even vegetarians, while meat-eaters, on average, have the highest BMIs. In fact, even when calorie intake is the same across all groups studied, the vegans’ high intake of plant-based proteins, fibre, magnesium and other nutrients helps them stay the slimmest.
These healthy nutrients have also been proven to reduce chronic inflammation: the athlete’s worst nightmare. High meat consumption, on the other hand, is associated with inflammation – not to mention greater risk for serious illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The same is true for meat consumption and cancer. Even when physically fit, athletes aren’t immune from the disease, which accounts for more than a third of all deaths in the UK. Cutting out meat, dairy, and eggs is one of the best ways athletes and others can reduce their cancer risk; studies show that consuming too much animal protein might be just as dangerous as smoking, given that those who eat a lot of meat are four times as likely to die from cancer or diabetes.
Elite athletes make headlines, as Defoe has, when they go vegan, but the science is clear: everyone can benefit from a plant-based lifestyle. We may not all get the thrill of scoring a goal at Wembley, but powered by plants, we’ll all feel better, live healthier and run farther.