There’s a new type of fighter that’s been quietly taking the world by storm. They’re faster, stronger, healthier, and have better mental clarity—all thanks to what they put on their plate.
This new type of fighter is having much success eating vegan. They all have their strengths and reasons for choosing a plant-based lifestyle. Vegan athletes are proof that you will not be frail, weak, protein-deficient just because you decide to leave meat, dairy, and eggs out of your diet.
They put an end to the idea that being a great athlete and eating plant-based are mutually exclusive. So here is an attempt to show exactly why these fighters have so much success in their training, recovery, and performance in the ring.
Don’t you feel weak? How do your muscles grow? WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR PROTEIN?!
There is an unhealthy obsession in this day and age over protein intake, or, more specifically, how to get as much protein as possible. With the huge boom in recent years in the health industry and considerable interest in high-protein diets, many people are eating as much protein as they can.
Protein supplements marketed towards athletes are sold in stores, claiming they help with muscle recovery and growth. People eat massive servings of meat thinking it will make them stronger, even with the protein supplements. There are even formulas going around saying you should eat 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
“Everyone is under the illusion that not only protein has to come from animals, but that they aren’t getting enough of it,” says Rudy Felix, a 26-year old Muay Thai fighter who has been vegan for 3-4 years.
Protein deficiency is not a real concern people should have, especially if they eat enough calories. From the National Research Council (US) Subcommittee in 1989:
“Protein deficiency rarely occurs as an isolated condition. It usually accompanies a deficiency of dietary energy and other nutrients resulting from insufficient food intake. The symptoms are most commonly seen in deprived children in poor countries…Deficiency of this severity is very rare in the United States, except as a consequence of pathologic conditions and poor medical management of the acutely ill.”
Yes, it is true that protein is extremely important to our well-being. Protein is used to make muscles, tendons, skin, organs, enzymes, and other molecules that are important to our daily function. Without protein, we simply cannot survive. However, this concern with eating enough protein is unwarranted and unnecessary. Let’s take a look at how much protein you actually need.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or, 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight a day (g/kg/d). This means the average sedentary woman needs 45 grams of protein a day and the average sedentary man needs 55 grams a day. This is estimated to be sufficient to meet the needs of almost all healthy men and women 19 years and older (Campbell, et al., 2007).
But I do Muay Thai! Don’t I need more protein than someone who doesn’t exercise?
Yes… but you also need more fat and carbohydrates. Because athletes—especially Muay Thai fighters—burn so many calories during training, they need to eat more calories overall. Eating more calories automatically means proportionately consuming more protein.
Eating more protein than is necessary does not mean you will have more muscle, either. To prove this, a study was performed on “resistance-trained individuals” (think weightlifters). They fed these men and women a very high protein diet of 4.4 g/kg/d and wanted to see what the effects were when it came to muscle composition. “The current investigation found no changes in body weight, fat mass, or fat free mass in the high protein diet group” the researchers found. “The high protein group consumed an extra 145 grams of protein daily (mean intake of 307 grams per day or 4.4 g/kg/d)” (Antonio, Peacock, Ellerbroek, Fromhoff, & Silver, 2014).
Eating a high protein diet also does not seem to have positive health benefits either. It may increase the risk of osteoporosis (Sellmeyer, Stone, & Sebastian, 2001) and impair kidney function (Knight, Stampfer, & Hankinson, 2003). Too much protein releases nitrogen into the blood, which places a strain on the kidneys. A study was done by Harvard University that linked high protein diets with reduced kidney function. This damage was only seen with animal protein; plant protein seemed to have no effect (Knight, Stampfer, & Hankinson, 2003).
Animal protein has also been found to increase risk of cancer. “Specifically, certain proteins present in meat, fish, and poultry, cooked at high temperatures, especially grilling and frying, have been found to produce compounds called heterocyclic amines. These substances have been linked to various cancers including those of the colon and breast.
Long-term high intake of meat, particularly red meat, is associated with significantly increased risk of colorectal cancer. The 2007 report of the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research, Food, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Cancer reported that, based on available evidence, diets high in red meat were considered probable contributors to colorectal cancer risk. In addition, high-protein diets are typically low in dietary fiber. Fiber appears to be protective against cancer. A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is important in decreasing cancer risk, not to mention adding more healthful sources of protein in the diet” (The Protein Myth, n.d.).
So what exactly is protein?
Simply put, protein is the combination of different amino acids. There are 20 total amino acids, 9 of which are called “essential amino acids” because your body cannot produce them on its own—that is one of the reasons you eat food. Amino acids are continuously put together and taken apart depending on what your body needs. When you eat, the proteins are broken down into amino acids for your body to use, whether it’s to repair muscle tissue or form new cells.
Amino acids are found in ALL foods. Yup, that apple has amino acids in it. So does broccoli. However, with the exception of soy, chia seeds, and hemp seeds, a specific plant-based source will not have all 9 essential amino acids.
This means those beans you eat have a few essential amino acids, and the rice you eat with it will have the amino acids the beans does not have. As long as you eat a variety of foods, with adequate calorie intake, you will have no problem getting the different amino acids you need, and subsequently you will get enough protein!
Here is a great chart on the essential amino acids and the plant-based sources you can get them from!
But that seems like a lot of work…can’t I just eat a piece of meat and get all 9 essential amino acids at once?
Yes, you can. But keep in mind that just as you can have a poor, uneducated plant-based diet (there is such a thing as a junk food vegan), you can just as easily have a poor, uneducated diet that includes meat. The typical western diet includes lots of meat (cholesterol, saturated fats) along with refined sugars and poor amounts of vitamins and fiber. We live in a world where unhealthy food is much cheaper and more widely-accessible than healthy food. Any sort of attempt to eat better will take some work! But at least with a vegan diet, you avoid the negative side effects such as kidney and bone issues, high blood pressure, and cancer.
So what happens to that extra protein you eat?
Again, from the National Research Council (US) Subcommittee from 1989: “Amino acids consumed in excess of the amounts needed for the synthesis of nitrogenous tissue constituents are not stored but are degraded; the nitrogen is excreted as urea… utilized directly as sources of energy or are converted to carbohydrate or fat.” Yup, that extra protein can be used either as energy… or stored as fat!
What about B12? Iron? Creatine levels?
There’s a saying in the vegan community: Tell someone you’re going to eat McDonald’s and nobody says anything, but tell someone you’re going vegan and everyone suddenly turns into a nutritionist or doctor. Keep in mind that while vegans do have to make sure they get the proper vitamins and nutrients, so do people who are not on a plant-based diet!
Low levels of B12 can cause nerve damage and anemia, but a diet that includes a variety of foods should raise no concern to the levels of B12. B12 is found in spirulina and seaweed. Many foods are also fortified with B12, such as cereals, plant-based milks (soy, almond, rice, etc.), energy bars, and nutritional yeast. B12 is one of the few vitamins that are stored in substantial amounts in the liver until it is needed. “If a person stops consuming the vitamin, the body’s stores of this vitamin usually take about 3 to 5 years to exhaust” (Johnson).
Iron is a part of hemoglobin, which helps to carry oxygen in the blood. “Some might expect that since the vegan diet contains a form of iron that is not that well absorbed, vegans might be prone to developing iron deficiency anemia. However, surveys of vegans have found that iron deficiency anemia is no more common among vegetarians than among the general population although vegans tend to have lower iron stores” (Mangels, n.d.). Also, the amount of iron found per 100 calorie serving of food is much higher in plant-based sources! Generally, dark leafy greens are excellent sources of iron and consuming foods high in vitamin C (such as fruit) helps to increase iron absorption in the body (Hallberg, 1981).
Many people, especially weightlifters, supplement their training with creatine because it supposedly increases power output. Creatine can be made by the body, and it can also obtained by eating meat and fish.
People on vegetarian and vegan diets do have lower levels of creatine in their bodies but that does not mean they are weaker! Some studies done show that creatine supplementation has no effect on power output (Clarys, Zinzen, Hebbelinck, & Verlinden, 1997), while one study showed that creatine supplementation did increase power output, but guess which group had the highest increase in power? Yup, those on a plant-based diet who supplemented with the same amount of creatine as meat eaters (who get additional creatine through their diet) increased their muscle mass and power output way more (Burke, et al., 2003).
Also, keep in mind that having a high power output on paper (like being able to deadlift 1,000 pounds) does not mean it will transfer over into functional power when it comes to Muay Thai. There are plenty of meatheads at a regular gym who can’t throw a punch nearly as hard as someone who can lift half as much.
That being said, let’s take a look at some vegan athletes (including fighters) that trump their meat-eater counterparts.
- Carl Lewis won 10 olympic medals and 10 World Championship medals in his career running track. He said his best year was his first year eating vegan.
- Mike Tyson went vegan after a controversial and successful boxing career, but the list of benefits he felt was not a short one. The most obvious was losing over 100 pounds. Eating vegan also helped with his arthritis and joint problems, and has said that his diet made him feel powerful and more energetic. (Szenthe, 2014)
- Patrik Baboumian currently holds the world log lift record with a lift of 165kg in the under-105kg division, as well as the German heavyweight log lift record. In 2011, he won Germany’s Strongest Man, 105 kg division. In 2013, he set a world record in the yoke walk by carrying a 550kg yoke at Toronto Veg Fest! Wow! After setting the record, he said,
“This is a message to all those out there who think that you need animal products to be fit and strong. Almost two years after becoming vegan I am stronger than ever before and I am still improving day by day. Don’t listen to those self proclaimed nutrition gurus and the supplement industry trying to tell you that you need meat, eggs and dairy to get enough protein. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources and your body is going to thank you for stopping feeding it with dead-food. Go vegan and feel the power!” (Iles-Wright, n.d.)
- Steph Davis is a climber, base-jumper, and sky-diver. She is the first woman to summit the 2685m peak of Torre Egger in Argentina. She is also the only woman to have free-solo climbed a 5.11 grade mountain. She’s been vegan for over 12 years and discovered veganism reached aspects of her whole life. : “I have found that eating a vegan diet gives me optimum physical and mental awareness.” She also believes that going vegan has given her a better adaptive connection with her environment. (Willis, 2015)
- David Carter is a 28-year old NFL defense lineman and calls himself the 300-pound vegan. He advocates his lifestyle through social media and says you don’t have to take a life to gain muscle.
- Tim Shieff is a professional free-runner. He won the 2009 World Freerunning Championships and set an American Ninja Warrior course record. Although Tim went vegan because of ethical reasons, he’s found a vegan diet gives him lots of energy, and helped to get rid of his tendonitis and gave him stronger joints. (Willis, 2015)
- Venus and Serena Williams, sisters and stars in the tennis world, announced they were going fully vegan in 2011.
- Nick and Nate Diaz are notorious for their press conference behavior, dominate in the ring, and they both eat mostly a vegan diet. Nick as has said, “I try to eat raw vegan, I’ve been doing that since I was 15, 16 years old, so I’m used to it… It definitely helps me not feel like shit, you know, and I got to train all week long.”
- Cam Awesome is a decorated boxer and is currently representing the U.S. in boxing at the Rio Olympics. He is ranked #4 in the world.
Here is a good list of vitamins and how to get them through your diet: http://gentleworld.org/vegan-sources-of-vitamins-minerals/
Okay…so it is possible (and very easy) to get enough protein, vitamins, and minerals through a vegan diet. What other benefits are there to eating vegan?
Something many people express right after changing to a plant-based lifestyle is their surprise about how much energy they have! Theresa Decker, a 36-year old single mom with an 8-year old boy said her change in energy levels was insane. “I didn’t realize that I could work a 40 plus hour work week and train from 6:30pm to 9:30pm, sometimes longer, 7 days a week,” Theresa exclaims. “On top of all my single motherly duties at home! Was I tired? Yes. But who wouldn’t be after all that! But not so tired that I couldn’t do it all again day after day. My brain was still functioning!”
Similar stories have been shared from the Muay Thai community. Joel Estevez is an amateur Muay Thai fighter and has been transitioning between eating vegan and vegetarian depending on his goals for the past 2.5 years. Joel says, “I don’t remember how I felt in terms of the food and eating but I do remember waking up in the morning and automatically being alert. I definitely noticed a difference in my energy and in my training. I felt lighter, faster, and clear-headed.”
How can this change of energy benefit you? William Diego Plantillas, owner of Plant Powered Warrior, firmly believes veganism can take your training to the next level. “It changes your energy levels dramatically,” he says. “Most people won’t believe you until they experience it for themselves. Especially athletes who feel they are already at the top of their game. Well I’ve got news for them. You can get better.”
Besides physical energy, many people go through positive mental changes as well. Many good things start with intention and intention starts within your mind. Les Newton, who has been vegetarian for 2.5 years, said he “felt healthier and had a clearer mindset…This lifestyle works for me as it makes me feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally.” Muay Thai fighter Rudy Felix says “I would never go back to eating meat. I directly link all my life changes to veganism and taking care of the body. I believe there is a reason why from what I can see, those who turn Vegan become spiritual, and/or more positive, more peaceful, etc. It’s weird, I love it.”
How can I get started?
- The best way to get started is to do a bit of research so you feel ready changing your diet
- Look up what foods and meals you can use to replace what you usually eat that aren’t vegan. This will also help to ensure you’re not just cutting out certain foods, but eating something else in place so you will get enough calories
- Before going out to eat, look on the website for items that can be easily be made vegan (eg, telling them to leave out the cream sauce) or even items that are already vegan! You can also call the restaurant ahead of time and let them know you are vegan – many times, they will be happy to accommodate and make something for you off-menu.
- Learn how to cook if you don’t know how to already. Eating vegan is extremely affordable, but sometimes not so much when you frequent a vegan restaurant. Cooking your own food will cost you a fraction of the price. There are many websites that feature easy vegan recipes (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/channel/vegan-recipe/)
- Try it out with a friend! This helps you with accountability and you can give each other support
- Follow fellow vegan athletes on social media. This will give you a good idea of their meals on their off days, as well as what they eat before and after training
- Bring portable snacks with you, such as fresh or dried fruit, nuts, snack bars so you have something to hold you over until your next meal
- Aim for progress, not perfection. If after a fair trial period you still find it hard to give up cheese, then eat everything else vegan except for the cheese! You will still be doing yourself and the environment a huge favor
- Keep in mind that when you do go vegan, not everyone will understand it, and some people will try to dissuade you from doing so. The vegan jokes will not stop, so don’t get angry and pick your battles wisely. Use it as an opportunity to prove people wrong and show that you can thrive without meat, eggs, and dairy. Lead by example.
- There are plenty of websites that offer tips and support. Here are a few to get you started:
-How to Make Any Dish Vegan http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Any-Dish-Vegan
-5 Vegan Meals You Can Get On The Road http://www.peta.org/living/food/five-vegan-meals-can-get-road/
-Accidentally Vegan Food List http://www.peta.org/living/food/accidentally-vegan/
Forks over Knives (health)
Meat the Truth (environmental)
Special thank you to everyone who took time to answer my questions, even the ones who are not featured in this article.
Antonio, J., Peacock, C. A., Ellerbroek, A., Fromhoff, B., & Silver, T. (2014). The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Burke, D., Chilibeck, P., Parise, G., Candow, D., Mahoney, D., & Tarnopolsky, M. (2003). Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians. Med Sci Sports Exerc., 1946-1955.
Campbell, B., Krieder, R. B., Ziegenfuss, T., La Bounty, P., Roberts, M., Burke, D., . . . Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Clarys, P., Zinzen, E., Hebbelinck, M., & Verlinden, M. (1997). Influence of oral creatine supplementation on torque production in a vegetarian and non-vegetarian population. Vegetarian Nutrition, 100-105.
Hallberg, L. ( 1981). Bioavailability of dietary iron in man. Ann Rev Nutr, 123-147.
Iles-Wright, C. (n.d.). Patrik Baboumian, vegan strongman. Retrieved from Great Vegan Athletes: http://www.greatveganathletes.com/patrik-baboumian-vegan-strongman
Johnson, L. E. (n.d.). Vitamin B12 (Cobalamins). Merck Manual.
Knight, E., Stampfer, M., & Hankinson, S. (2003). The impact of protein intake on renal function decline in women with normal renal function or mild insufficiency. Ann Intern Med, 460-467.
Mangels, R. (n.d.). Iron In The Vegan Diet. Retrieved from vrg.com: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php
National Research Council (US) Subcommittee. (1989). Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US).
Sellmeyer, D., Stone, K., & Sebastian, A. (2001). A high ratio of dietary animal to vegetable protein increases the rate of bone loss and the risk of fracture in postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr 2001, 118-122.
Szenthe, A. (2014, May 23). Top 10 Vegetarian or Vegan AThletes. Retrieved from The Richest: http://www.therichest.com/sports/other-sports/top-10-vegetarian-or-vegan-athletes/
The Protein Myth. (n.d.). Retrieved from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/how-can-i-get-enough-protein-the-protein-myth
Willis, C. (2015, October 2). Ten Best Plant Powered Athletes. Retrieved from The Vegan Society: https://www.vegansociety.com/whats-new/blog/ten-best-plant-powered-athletes
- Plant-based fighter, foodie, and aspiring physical therapist. Angela is currently living in Bangkok and training full time.