One of the greatest myths regarding the vegan diet is the protein myth. Many people are under the impression that vegans and vegetarians can’t be as strong as meat eaters due to insufficient protein intake from plant-based foods. This perception is a result of misinformation. Unfortunately, people who are misinformed about plant-based diets often spread false information. This can create huge obstacles in promoting plant-based diets.
It is quite common from the moment someone declares they are eating a vegan diet, for other people to suddenly act as if they are nutrition or evolutionary biology experts, giving frequent advice on how to protect oneself from the imminent sickness and weakness that a plant-based diet will eventually cause. While we can appreciate that presumably some of this advice comes from a place of concern, it’s also important to expose these myths for what they are, and show that even athletes can have their nutritional needs met by a plant-based diet.
Protein: myths vs. facts
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that the average omnivore who lives in the Western world likely consumes more protein that they actually need, due to diets that include unnecessarily high amounts of animal products and byproducts. Most Americans, for example, have a diet that provides them with more than twice the protein a human needs.
One notable difference between animal and plant protein is that plant protein does not have the same absorption rate as animal protein. Plant proteins have a 10% lower bioavailability, meaning that if someone aims to consume 0.8 grams of animal-product sourced protein per kilogram of bodyweight, when they go vegan, they will need 0.88 grams. This difference is minuscule, and in light of all of the benefits of a plant-based diet for one’s health, the environment, and animals, it seems like a very small price to pay.
We’ve decided to list some top vegan athletes to make it clear that veganism and athleticism are two completely compatible concepts. We’ve chosen to introduce male and female athletes of various sports, with different dietary requirements, who follow a vegan diet, so that we can debunk the myth once and for all, as they all have some great achievements on their records, such as earning gold medals or breaking Guinness records. Some have been vegans or vegetarians since birth, while others made the change at some point during their lives.
1. Frank Medrano – calisthenics
Frank Medrano ate meat for 30 years, but has been vegan since 2014. Along with his two friends, Noel Polanco and Dan Attanasio, he runs the Vegan Calisthen-X Facebook page, through which they inspire and advise the world about veganism and calisthenics. Watch the following video of one of Medrano’s calisthenics workouts, which speaks for itself.
2. Scott Jureck – ultramarathon
Scott Jureck is an American ultramarathon runner who has won many highly regarded competitions, such as the Hardrock Hundred (2007), the Badwater Ultramarathon (2005, 2006) and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (1999 – 2005). In 2010, he set a new American record for distance running, by running 165.7 miles in 24 hours. That’s a rate of about 8 minutes and 42 seconds per mile for 24 hours straight! Scott Jureck has been eating a vegan diet since 1999, and wrote the book In the below video, he discusses long distance running while fueled by a plant-based diet.
3. Kendrick Farris – weightlifting
Kendrick Farris is the only weightlifter on the male American team that took part in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He went up a weight category as he set a new record for America by lifting 337 kilograms [about 743 pounds] in the American weightlifting team trials for the Olympic Games. He has been vegan since 2014. In the video below you can see images of Farris weightlifting and hear quotes from him about why he changed his diet and how that change has affected his performance.
4. Alex Dargatz – bodybuilding
German bodybuilder Alex Dargatz became famous in December 2005, when he earned an international bodybuilding title. This award came five years after he went vegan. He changed his diet firstly because of the violence in factory farms, listing his motives as “ethical, environmental, mental and health reasons (in that order).” Alex soon realized that it was easy to find delicious food that met his nutritional needs as a bodybuilder in training. The following video is in German but shows Dargatz working out and competing.
5. Nate Diaz – boxing and Brazilian jiu jitsu
Nate Diaz is a mixed martial arts athlete and winner of Ultimate Fighter 5. Nate declares that he is proud to be vegan since he turned 18 years old. He now follows an exclusively raw vegan diet. Diaz has also inspired fellow UFC fighters to go vegan, uncluding Alex Caceres. The following compilation video shows five of Diaz’s most “brutal” fight wins, definitively demonstrating that his diet has not negatively affected his skill or strength.
6. David Haye – boxing
David Haye says adopted a vegan diet in 2014, and he said that switch has made him feel stronger than ever while also helping him go back into the ring after a serious injury that left him unable to box for three years. His results are answer enough to questions of whether an exclusively plant-based diet is suitable for an athlete, as in the four months since his return he has won two fights. As he said himself, “I watched a documentary on television about how animals are bred, how they are killed and how they are prepared for eating. I saw all these cows and pigs and realized that I couldn’t be a part of all that anymore. It was horrible. I did some research so I could be sure that I could still get enough protein to fight and, when I realized that I actually could, I stopped. I’m never going back.” Haye discusses his diet in an interview in the following video.
7. Patrik Baboumian – strength athletics, former bodybuilder
Patrik Baboumian holds several impressive titles and records. He holds the world record in yoke walk since 2015, when he lifted 560 kilograms, breaking his previous 555 kilogram record, and doing so 28 seconds faster as well. He also holds the world record in log lifting in the 105 kilogram category and the title of the strongest man in Germany. Patrik went vegan in 2011, and two years later he said,“This is a message to all of you out there that think you need animal protein to be strong. After two years of being vegan I am stronger than ever and I keep getting better day after day. Don’t listen to those who call themselves nutrition gurus or the supplement industry that tries to tell you that you need meat, eggs and dairy to get enough protein. There are a variety of plant sources of protein and your body will thank you after you stop feeding it dead food. Go vegan and feel the power!” You can watch his interview with Happy Cow below.
8. David Carter – American football
David Carter played on various NFL teams from 2011-2015, and is now a free agent and a vegan activist. After watching the documentary Forks Over Knives, he decided to switch to a vegan diet. Just two months after this change, David made the connection with the ethical side of this decision and recognized that this diet not only helped him become stronger, but was also the only humane diet that anyone could follow. He now does vegan outreach through his website The 300 Pound Vegan. Carter discusses his dietary and athletic journey in an interview below.
9. Steph Davis – climbing, BASE jumping and skydiving
Steph Davis is a world renowned climber, BASE jumper and skydiver. She was the first woman to complete a solo 5.11 grade climb and the first woman to summit all the peaks of the Fitzroy Range in Patagonia. She has been vegan for over 15 years and she claims a plant-based diet has helped her improve as an athlete. The following video shows David climbing the 400-foot Castleton Tower in Utah and BASE jumping from the top.
10. Dimitris Kehagioglou – ultramarathon
Dimitris Kehagioglou has been a runner for the past 40 years. He started as a track athlete and has been a distance runner for the past 25 years. He has participated in races of distances from 50 to 1650 kilometers, mountain races such as ROUT and various 100 mile races in Great Britain, and has finished 5 times in the Spartathlon. In 2011, along with Loukas Pratilas, he crossed the international E4 mountain path, which covers all of the mountainous areas of Greece and Crete, traveling 1650 kilometers [about 1025 miles] in 34 days. He has been vegan for more than 20 years and was one of the founding members of Vegan Runners UK. Over the past 25 years, he has regularly volunteered for animal and environment-friendly organizations, and he is a member of activist groups in various parts of the world.
11. Molly Cameron – cycling
Molly Cameron has had a very successful cycling career, specializing in cyclocross biking, which is a type of cycling that involves rough terrain that must be passed at times on foot while carrying the bicycle. She also occasionally competes in road, track, and mountain bike races. Molly became vegan in 1999, and says, “eating organic whole foods maintains my energy levels and keeps my mental capacity stable. It is the logical step when you live a hyperactive and conscious life.” Molly is also the only out transgender athlete to compete in a UCI cyclo-cross world cup, and owns her own 100% vegan bicycle shop in Portland, Oregon. She can be seen cycling in the short clip below.
12. Barny du Plessis – bodybuilding
Barny du Plessis grew up as a vegetarian until he was 18, when he started eating meat because of myths about vegetarian diets lacking protein. Despite that, he never introduced pork into his diet, because he could not get over his traumatic memories of having worked in a factory farm that processed pigs. These memories eventually led him to adopt a vegan diet a few years later. When he first earned the Mr. Universe title in 2014, he reports that he suffered from depression, as he felt that he had no other purpose in life. He was ready to quit bodybuilding in his forties when he and his wife Josie, who earned the title of the strongest woman in the United Kingdom in 2010, decided to adopt a vegan diet. He then started to see noticeably better results in his training. The vegan diet made him stronger, more energetic, quicker to recovery from injuries, with less fat, more muscle mass and increased endurance. All of the above led him to decide to make it his life goal to show the world that we can live a healthy, happy and prosperous life without the exploitation of animals.
13. Jehina Malik – Bodybuilding
Jehina Malik has been vegan since birth and has participated in professional bodybuilding competitions since she was 19. She won the 2013 NPC Eastern USA Bodybuilding Championship in the lightweight category. in the video below Jehina discusses her successes and how veganism has been a part of her triumphs as a bodybuilder.
14. Tim Shieff – free-running
Tim Shieff is a professional free-runner, a sport that involves running and jumping over large obstacles and jumping from building to building in an urban setting. Tim has been vegan since 2011 for ethical reasons and supports the animal liberation movement. He reports that the change in his diet has provided him the energy required for the difficult sport he has chosen. He won the international free-running championship in 2009. Sheiff shows off his impressive abilities in the video below.
15. Tia Blanco – surfing
Tia Blanco, just 21 years old and vegan since 2013, is considered an athletic phenomenon. She has been ranked one of 50 best surfers in the world by World Surf League, she earned her first medal in 2015 (at 17 years old) in the International Surfing Association (ISA) Open Women’s World Surfing Championship, and came back to win the next competition in 2016 for the same title. She grew up as a vegetarian for ethical reasons and went vegan due to the influence of the PETA video “Glass Walls” and the book The China Study.
16. Forest Green Rovers – European football team
Finally, we have the only European football team with players who all follow a vegan diet and train in an environmentally-friendly football field. The Forest Green Rovers existed as a team for 127 years before deciding in to collectively change their diets in 2010. This “resurrection” is attributed to Dale Vince, who bought the team in 2010 and has since invested many millions, in his effort to create a team that promotes environmental sustainability. The field they train on draws energy from renewable wind and solar power and has a water recycling system. Mark Cooper, the team manager, has adopted the vegan philosophy and has appointed the position of chef to Em Franklin, who cooks vegan food for all players as well as the team staff. Finally, vegan food is sold to the crowd during matches. The short clip below from HBO covers the team’s commitment to environmental conscientiousness.
This article was originally published on Ethos & Empathy.
Featured image: A person lifting weights. Image credit www.semtrio.com, CC BY-SA 3.0.