The question: can an All-Star National Football League player live on a vegan diet and still excel in one of the most punishing jobs in sports? At 6-foot, 5-inches and 247 pounds, the challenge would certainly be formidable.
The answer: Yes!**
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on Tony Gonzalez, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs who decided to go vegan.
Why would an NFL star change diets? In this case, it was all about health, and ultimately, athletic performance reasons. And chance. In this case, an introduction to “The China Study,” a 2006 book by Cornell professor and nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell.
After reading the first 40 pages he says he was convinced animal foods led to chronic illness.
But is it really possible to be a high-performing, competitive athlete and a vegan? Opinions differ:
Experts say athletes in training need as much as twice the protein of an average person to rebuild muscle. Their bodies also require a big dose of minerals and vitamins, as well as the amino acids, iron and creatine packed into fish, meat and dairy foods. It’s fine to be a vegan, says sports nutritionist and dietician Nancy Clark, if you’re willing to work at it. “It’s harder to get calcium, harder to get protein, harder to get Vitamin D, harder to get iron,” she says. “You have to be committed.”
By reducing the amount of animal proteins and fats, the body should become leaner and more athletic. The question: does a vegan diet improve performance? According to the WSJ article, not necessarily:
There’s no evidence a vegan diet can improve an athlete’s performance, says David Nieman, a professor of health and exercise at Appalachian State University. His 1988 study of vegetarian runners found they ran as well as their meat-eating rivals but no better. Although the vegetarian athletes in his study also ate eggs and dairy foods, he says, “there is scientific evidence that veganism, when done right, won’t hurt performance.” But, he adds, there is only anecdotal evidence that it can help.
Gonzalez replaced cheeseburgers and other protein and fat-heavy foods with soy protein shakes, fruit, nuts, vegetables and the like. Working with a nutrition specialist has allowed him to make all of the right diet choices as he transitioned to this healthier lifestyle.
Ultimately, a professional athlete at the top of this game decided to make a life-altering change and is coming out on top. He finished the year by breaking the all-time NFL records at his position for career receptions and touchdowns.
And he remained, for the most part, a vegan.
** Tony Gonzalez isn’t truly vegan, in that he does eat small portions of chicken and salmon. However, it does seem that he avoids all other meat and dairy.