Are there successful vegan athletes?
Thats a question I have been asked frequently over the last 10 years.
And the answer is not as simple as yes or no.
First, we need to define what „successful“ is. Does that mean you do better than the average at your sport? Or does it mean that you are in elite percentile competing and winning at World Championships and Olympic Games. To argue that a vegan diet is excellent for athletic performance and that there are successful vegan athletes the latter should be the case.
Second, we need to define what a „vegan athlete“ is. Again, sounds simple, it isn’t that simple though. If I compete and win the World Championship today at noon and my breakfast was vegan, does that make me a vegan World Champion? I think everyone will answer with a clear „no“ to that one. Yet, what if one has been a vegan for 3 months or a year before becoming a World Champion, does that make that athlete a vegan World Champion? Despite training and developing in the sport for 5 to 15 years on an omnivore diet including animal products leading up to the win.
One classic example is the Bodybuilder and 4time Mr Universe Bill Pearl. He is known as being the first successful vegetarian bodybuilder. The intersting point here is that during his 19 years of competitive bodybuilding he was vegetarian for only the least 2 years. And won 3 of his 4 Mr Universe Titles as an omnivore. So the clear point has to be that he build his muscles and his body in a span of over 20 years with eating an omnivore diet including meats. Does that make him a successful vegetarian bodybuilder?
And there are many more examples like this were athletes and their success are taken out of context to promote a vegan diet.
To clarify this right away, this is not an anti-vegan post. Even though I don’t recommend a vegan diet, I do see multiple benefits of the vegan diet. And I know multiple people that do well eating vegan. Actually three out of the first seven guests on my The Wolfgang Unsoeld Podcast were vegan at the point of recording the podcast. And I had zero intent to try to convince them otherwise.
The intent of this post is to look at the validity of the examples of „successful vegan athletes“ given.
The first two points I make is:
1. How successful is that successful vegan athlete really in an relative and absolute context?
2. How long has that athlete actually been vegan to be a vegan athlete?
With the„The Gamechangers“ documentary being very popular, many nutrition experts have taken the time to dissect and research the statements made in the documentary and about successful vegan athletes in particular.
I have come across the following segment, that has been put together by Chris Kresser, who looked at and researched the „successful vegan athletes“ in that movie and beyond.
Patrik Baboumian (Strongman)
If you watch the film, you come away with the idea that Baboumian is one of the top strongmen in the world. They emphasize his “multiple world records including the front-hold, keg lift, log lift, and super yoke.”
However, while certainly impressive, Baboumian is not a world-class strongman. He hasn’t even been invited to the top strongmen competitions like Giants Live, World’s Strongest Man, or the Arnold Strongman Classic. Many of his best lifts wouldn’t qualify as minimum weights for the world strongman competitions. A lot of his “world records” are regional in nature.
Baboumian’s top deadlift weight of 794 lb. is not competitive on the world stage. The current world record amongst Strongman is 1102 lb.
He now appears to be injured or retired. There has been no activity on his Wikipedia page since 2015. (1)
Morgan Mitchell (400m Sprint)
Mitchell is an Australian sprinter who was a former champion in the 400m. She went vegan in 2014.
In 2017, she finished in 26th place at the World Championships.
Mitchell no longer runs the 400m because she’s too slow. Her 2019 400m time was slower than 10 American 9th grade girls. (2,3)
Kendrick Farris (Weightlifting)
Farris went to the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, and built his strength/career before he went vegan. In 2008, his total weight was 362 kilos (between snatch, clean, and jerk) and 2012 a 355kg total both in the 85 kg weight class. In 2016, he was in a higher weight class (94 kg, which is 20 lb. heavier), but he lifted even less weight, 357 kg, on a relative score. He hasn’t competed since then.
Nate Diaz (MMA)
A big deal is made in the film about how Diaz, a plant-based fighter, beat Conor McGregor, an omnivore. Diaz is not vegan; he eats fish and eggs. McGregor was cutting down to 155 lb. to fight another opponent (and has only fought at 145 lb. in the UFC before), who withdrew at the last minute. Diaz was fighting at 170 lb., so McGregor had to try to regain that weight in one week. This is very difficult to do, and it decreases aerobic capacity (and conditioning). In a rematch four months later, McGregor won.
Bryant Jennings (Boxing)
Jennings went vegan at the end of 2013. His record was 17-0 before going vegan, and 7-4 after going vegan.
Thanks to Tennessee Titan Derrick Morgan’s wife, Charity, Morgan transitioned to a vegan diet in early 2017. The couple convinced several other Tennessee Titans to make the change as well. A 2018 report stated that 11 players on the Titans adhered to a plant-based eating plan. The report didn’t mention that in 2019, 5 of those players are out of the NFL and most didn’t sustain a vegan diet.
Derrick Morgan (NFL Linebacker)
Morgan went vegan in 2017. He had knee and shoulder injuries in 2018. He was unable to recover from these injuries, and retired in 2019 at the age of 30.
When he retired, Morgan was quoted in Forbes as saying, “I’m at a time where, physically and mentally, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to continue.”
Griff Whalen (NFL Wide Receiver)
Whalen went vegan in the 2013/2014 season. He got injured in 2015 and was waived, signed, and waived by several teams between 2016 and 2019. Whalen signed with a CFL team in 2019, and then was released. It appears he is not playing professionally now.
Brian Orakpo (NFL Linebacker)
Orakpo went vegan in 2017. He sustained injuries in 2018, and he retired in 2019.
Jurrel Casey (NFL Defensive End)
Casey is not vegan; he still eats fish.
Nimai Delgado (Bodybuilding)
Delgado built muscle on dairy, eggs, and whey—all very highly rated on the DIAAS (Protein Quality Score).
Dotsie Bausch (Cycling)
Bausch was a seven-time U.S. champion before going vegan. Bausch became vegan in 2009, and won a silver medal in 2012. Then she retired after that. Bausch appears to have done well for at least three years on a vegan diet.
Scott Jurek (Ultra-Marathon)
Jurek appears to be doing very well on a plant-based/vegan diet. That said, a Belgian dentist shattered his 2015 Appalachian Trail record without getting injured (unlike Jurek), while eating 10,000 calories a day of pizza, potato chips, lots of candy, M&Ms, and granola bars. There’s a lot more to performance than diet!
What about successful vegan athletes not mentioned in the film?
Tim Shieff (Freerunning)
Shieff won the 2009 Barclaycard World Freerun Championship. He went vegan in 2012. He started eating eggs and fish again in 2018 after experiencing severe health problems, including “digestion issues, depression, fatigue, brain fog, lack of energy,” and “waking up stiff” in his joints. “I couldn’t do push-ups without getting injured,” he said. He even did a 35-day water fast. Shieff was originally featured in The Game Changers, but was dropped from the film after he started eating animal foods again.
Cam Newton (NFL Quarterback)
Newton switched to a vegan diet in February 2019 and had the worst season of his career. He had minus-2 yards on five carries in the first two games this year. He rushed for more than 33 yards in a game only once in his last nine starts. Newton also developed a Lisfranc injury in his foot, which hasn’t responded to treatment, will likely require surgery, and may be career-ending. An article on ESPN speculated that the Panthers are going to release him. (4)
An article in The Charlotte Observer speculated that Newton’s vegan diet was harming his performance and impairing his recovery. “Go back to 2015 Cam, badass Cam. He was a pescatarian,” said Chris Howard, a certified nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach from Waxhaw. “Salmon, shrimp, you get a lot of good fats and complete proteins. In fact, (fish) is one of the best protein sources there is. Now you take away the most valuable part of that.
A vegan diet is lower in bioavailable protein, especially collagen, which is critical for recovery and repair. (diet), and … there’s just no way around it: He can’t recover as well with less nutrients, with less calories and with less muscle mass. It’s just not going to happen.” (5)
The vegan diet is lower in bioavailable protein, especially collagen, which is critical for recovery and repair. Newton also lost at least 10 lb. For ahigh-level athlete like him, losing this
much weight can affect energy and ability to recover from injuries. A 250-lb. highly active person needs almost 4,000 calories. It’s hard to get that on a vegan diet.
Novak Djokovic (Tennis)
Djokovic went dairy-free, gluten-free, and nightshade-free and became the best athlete in the world. After he went vegan, his ranking dropped to number 22, the lowest since he was a teenager. Then he added some meat and fish back in, and his ranking went back to number one.
As of 2019, he has a serious shoulder injury.
Ilya Ilyin (Weightlifting)
Ilyin is a vegan weightlifter who has been more successful than Kendrick Farris (two-time Olympic champion in the same weight class). He was later stripped of his titles after his samples retested positive for anabolic steroids. Could this be why he wasn’t included in the film?
Alex Morgan (Soccer)
Morgan went vegan in 2019. In an article in Yahoo! Sports in July 2019, she was quoted saying: “I’m knocking on wood right now, but I haven’t had a serious injury [since her last, which was before going vegan] and I credit that to my diet.” (6) But literally on the same day that The Game Changers premiered (September 16, 2019), she announced a season-ending knee injury. (6)
Carl Lewis (Track & Field)
Lewis switched to a vegan diet in 1990, and had great results in 1991. He built his body/speed with a diet containing animal products. But after 1991,
he became progressively less consistent, got injured, and retired. That’s a good example of the “vegan honeymoon.”
Damian Lillard (NBA Point Guard)
Lillard went vegan for five months, and then added animal protein back into his diet due to excessive weight loss. “I did it, but I started to lose a little bit too much weight with all the games and practices and all that,” Lillard said on a podcast. “I had to balance it out, so now I’ve been mixing it up a little bit more, having vegan meals, still mixing it up with other stuff.” (7)
Kyrie Irving (NBA Point Guard)
Irving had season-ending injuries in 2015 and 2018.
He missed at least 15 games because of injuries in three of the last four
Michael Porter (NBA Power Forward) and Jontay Porter (Former College Basketball Player)
The Porter brothers are exceptional, gifted athletes that seemed destined for bright careers in the NBA. Raised vegetarian, they then switched to a full vegan diet. Michael has been plagued with back injuries, and has played only three college games. He was still drafted by the Denver Nuggets, had back surgery, and hasn’t played a single game in his rookie season. He tried to make a comeback this summer, but suffered a knee injury. Michael’s younger brother Jontay was also expected to go pro, but he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) in college. Six months later, he tore his ACL again. He was not drafted by the NBA.
Arian Foster (NFL Running Back)
Foster was a very successful NFL player who shocked the NFL by announcing on Twitter that he was going vegan in July 2012. “Officially a vegan now. We’ll see how far this goes.” By November 2012, he was already not 100 percent vegan. In a Houston Chronicle article, he said “I just wanted a piece of chicken. It wasn’t like temptation. I felt like I could use one” (8). In 2013, he added fish and chicken back to his diet because he was struggling. According to his nutritionist: “But the volume of food you have to eat as a vegan is pretty large. If you need 5,000 calories a day, that’s a lot of plants” (9).
Tony Gonzalez (NFL Tight End)
Back in 2007, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez went vegan. Three weeks later: “The 100-pound dumbbells he used to easily throw around felt like lead weights,” the article says. “I was scared out of my mind,” (Gonzalez) said. He had lost 10 lb. Gonzalez ended up adding small amounts of animal protein back to his diet (10).
Gerald McCoy (NFL Defensive End)
McCoy, a former vegan, says: “The explosiveness wasn’t sustainable because I didn’t have that extra oomph that I needed, because of the lack of the type of protein I was taking in, so I just added a little bit of animal protein back in my diet and it’s given me that oomph back” (10).
David Johnson (NFL Running Back)
“The Arizona Cardinals star running back went full vegan ahead of the 2017 season, which led to his dramatic—and unwanted—weight loss” (11).
Serena and Venus Williams
They are not vegan all the time; they still eat animal protein.
Athletes performing well on a vegan diet
Scott Jurek from the film, and Rich Roll. As well as Nineteen elite athletes in various sports (12).
Again, all credit for putting this together goes to Chris Kresser.
Overall it also points out that despite all the media hype the relative of amount vegan athletes is very low. And the actual amount of vegan athletes winning World Championships and Olympics or just competing on an Elite Level is close to zero. And thats not an opinion. Its a fact. And we are allowed to have our opinions and make our own decisions. Yet, we are not allowed to have our own facts.
To clarify this again, this is not an anti-vegan post. Even though I don’t recommend a vegan diet, I do see multiple benefits of the vegan diet. The amount of „successful vegan athletes“ and the validity behind such claims is very low though.
Click here for more english articles on training and nutrition by Wolfgang Unsoeld.