Tough vegan athletes

Illustration by Mark Stivers

The No. 1 reason for becoming a vegan—giving up meat, dairy, eggs and more—is compassion for animals. A very close second is that vegans really enjoy being asked by nonvegans where we get our protein. After that, saving the planet, losing weight and replacing prescription meds with plants rounds out most people’s top five.

I spent much of my adult life in a state of dietary conflict and confusion because my personal ethics were not aligned with the way I was eating. Three years ago, after six-plus years as a restaurant critic willing to try anything a chef cooked, I changed all that and became a devoted plant-based eater. Smoked ribs, sous vide pork belly and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches are all part of a personal history that now makes me cringe.

As I settled into this journey with ease, learning new cooking approaches and connecting with an ever-expanding trove of recipes, I discovered another reason for going vegan: You can be a total badass.

As a lifelong athlete who still likes to push my limits as a cyclist, I’m leaner, stronger and faster than I’ve been in years. And I recover after hard efforts with ease, free of the inflammation that plagues meat-eaters.

Many athletes are going plant-based, from weekend warriors to world-class runners, even pro football players. Eleven members of the Tennessee Titans were vegan last season. Activist and former NFL defensive lineman David Carter is known as the “300-pound vegan.” Tennis star Venus Williams is vegan. And if you watched the recent Winter Olympics, you might have noticed vegan figure skater Meagan Duhamel taking home a gold medal, and the dog she saved from a Korean meat farm.

Retired sports medicine doctor Gabe Mirkin, whose excellent health newsletter has a national following, told me “the buzzword in training is, ’anything that helps you recover faster makes you a better athlete.’” A diet high in red meat and other fatty foods increases inflammation and slows recovery. Plant-based eaters, thus, often experience much shorter periods of post-workout muscle soreness. I’ve noticed that in my own athletic world. Whereas a long, hard bike ride used to leave my quads aching for days, I now experience little to no soreness.

I might have steel-cut oatmeal with raisins and nuts before a ride and a plant-heavy meal like mango curry tofu over rice or lentil Bolognese with whole wheat pasta after a tough workout with weights. But wait! Where do a I get my protein?

Most nutrition experts agree that any sensible plant-based diet has plenty of protein. For serious athletes looking to build muscle, all you have to do is marginally bump up your intake of quinoa, lentils or tempeh.

While my primary reasons for being plant-based is to take myself out of the cruelty equation and maybe live to be 150, I’m encouraged that veganism is catching on with athletes and that my personal athletic pursuits continue to enrich my life. This proliferation of vegan athletes will help spread the word and America will be healthier, more compassionate and maybe just a bit more badass because of it.