There is no doubt that veganism is on the rise around the world. Veganism is a lifestyle which avoids all animal exploitation, mainly focused on diet but also all other animal products, such as leather. When animal products are completely excluded from the diet only, this is called a ‘plant-based diet’. We will be looking at how an athlete can easily become a vegan footballer, tackling most aspects and issues regarding this subject.
Why Veganism is Becoming More Popular
A big reason for the increase in veganism and plant-based diets is the increased attention on climate change, in which animal agriculture and sourcing meat products play a huge part.
There is also the element of animal abuse. Factory farms make up 99% of the meat supplied in the US, and the figures are similar in other developed nations. People are becoming aware of this and the poor treatment of these animals as a result of meat consumption. Finally, and importantly for elite athletes, there has been multiple studies on the health of a vegan diet. Whilst meat can be a good source of protein, red meat in particular comes with many unhealthy side effects. It is also thought that the benefits of dairy have been overestimated, and that a vegan diet can include all the necessary proteins from other sources such as beans, legumes, and vegetables.
The Game Changers | Netflix
The Netflix documentary ‘The Game Changers’ shows examples of elite athletes who have thrived on a vegan or plant-based diet. One of the athletes mentioned in the documentary is UFC fighter Nate Diaz, a vegan who beat Conor McGregor in a shock victory. Novak Djokovic and Lewis Hamilton are examples of athletes who are the best in their sport who live a vegan lifestyle. Famous vegan athletes also include bodybuilders, long-distance runners, Olympians, boxers and weightlifters. But what about a vegan footballer?
Vegan & Plant-based Footballers
One of the most vocal promoters of his vegan diet is Chris Smalling. The Manchester United defender who, at the time of writing, is in talks with a permanent move to Italian club Roma, has been vegan for around 3 years. He claims he feels more energised, stronger at the gym, and improved his recovery. This certainly showed in his last season at Roma where he was brilliant for them at the back, prompting the Italian club to try and tempt Manchester United into selling him.
Another vegan footballer is Hector Bellerin. The Arsenal full back has also talked up the advantages of veganism, and stated that it has helped reduce injuries and calm inflation of his ankles. Bellerin states that he no longer needs to tape up his ankles before games thanks to his vegan diet. The Arsenal player also talks up the benefits for the planet too, and he recently became a shareholder in English League 2 side Forest Green Rovers.
Forest Green Rovers
The unique thing about Forest Green is that it is an entirely vegan football club. This means all pre-match meals and post-match meals provided for players are entirely vegan, as are the refreshments and food served in the stadium. The players are free to choose their diets at home, however many of the club’s players are vegan themselves.
Fabian Delph is another vegan footballer, and even the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, has dabbled with veganism. He and national teammate Aguero have cut meat from their diets, adopting a vegan diet during the season in an effort to prevent injuries and inflammation, but they often eat a vegetarian diet during the off-season
The Necessary Diet for a Vegan Footballer
We’ve heard about the benefits for the planet, animals, and the advantages that athletes feel from a plant-based diet. But what is the science behind it?
In terms of fuelling for high energy performance and fitness training, carbohydrates are the important food group. The best source of carbs is oats, potatoes and pasta, and fruit, which are all vegan foods. Carbohydrates complimented with protein is the ideal meal for providing energy for footballers.
A big worry and criticism of a vegan diet is that it is difficult to get high amounts of protein. Lots of athletes eat white meat such as chicken, fish, as well as lean red meat as a source of high protein. These are indeed great sources of protein, but they are by no means the only way to get protein into diets. It is true that animal proteins have a higher amount of essential amino-acids contained in them. To get enough of these amino-acids from a vegan diet requires a wider variety of foods. These include nuts, seeds, nut butters, soya milk, tofu, tempeh, beans and pulses. So, a vegan footballer would need to include a wider range of foods in their day to day diets, rather than simply chicken and vegetables.
What About Vitamins & Minerals?
Well, vegan footballers diets can get enough of those too. Calcium and iron, commonly found in milk and red meat respectively, can be found in abundance in leafy green vegetables. Zinc can be found in beans and chickpeas, and Omega-3, associated with fish and seafood, can be found in small amounts in chia, flax and hemp seeds.
It is recommended that vegans take supplements which contain vitamin B12, which is an essential vitamin found mainly in animal products. Some plant-based milks are fortified with B12, but it is recommended that this is sourced via supplements, which are easily accessible.
Nutrition & Benefits for a Vegan Footballer
So, it can be proved that a vegan diet can get everything a vegan footballer need in terms of food groups, vitamins and minerals to be healthy. But is it actually better than an omnivore diet? Well, looking at the negatives of animal products, you can see the case for becoming a vegan footballer.
A benefit for footballers eating vegan is increased blood flow. An animal-based meal has been proven to thicken the blood, which slows down the flow of oxygen and the nutrients blood transports to the muscles used during exercise and football. As well as this, heavy animal-based meals restrict the arteries, which also exacerbates this problem. Vegan footballers experience the opposite effect. Since plant-based meals allow blood to remain fluid and flow quickly to its destination. Hence, a vegan footballer can benefit from muscular endurance during training and matches.
The nitrates in plant foods also allow muscles to contract more efficiently, sparing their energy reserves and allowing them to accomplish more work with the same amount of effort. This allows a vegan footballer to perform better. Nitrates, like those found in bacon, do not have this effect and have also been proved to be a leading cause of cancer.
Recovery hacks like Cryotherapy chambers, which reduce body temperature to around minus 160-200 degrees to reduce inflammation, have become a big part of the game at elite level. The recovery advantages are probably the biggest argument for vegan footballers, and the proof is in the science.
Inflammation is an unavoidable consequence of high intensity exercise and part of the healing process. It essentially prolongs the healing process, i.e. The muscle soreness and aching after a workout, or the swelling of an impact injury.
Research has shown that meat and other animal products contain (or lead to the formation of) a wide range of pro-inflammatory compounds and molecules. Plants, however, are the opposite. They naturally contain anti-inflammatory compounds, including thousands of powerful antioxidants. In fact, plants have on average 64x the antioxidant content of animal foods. Research has shown that vegan footballers can reduce inflammation by 29 percent in just three weeks by switching from an animal-based diet. The benefits of quicker recovery can also improve the longevity of a vegan footballer’s careers.
Overall, the opinion of veganism can still be quite negative across the world and in football. Many believe that diets high in meat and dairy help build muscle and provide strong bones, but this isn’t based on any scientific nutritional evidence. A lot of plant-based diet activists often cite the example of the biggest mammals on the planet, including gorillas, which are herbivores. The arguments against the vegan diet in terms of health are pretty unsubstantial.
While a vegan footballer may have to plan their meals more and include a much wider variety of foods as well as taking B12 supplements, they can still intake everything they need. As veganism grows in popularity around the world, the number of vegan footballers will also increase. Awareness of the benefits is higher, and the climate change aspect is also very important. A mainstream switch to veganism could have great effects on the planet and reduce the threat of climate catastrophe. Overall, it’s pretty hard to argue against veganism, even for elite athletes like footballers.