UK Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton (pictured) raised eyebrows recently with the announcement that he has adopted veganism (now saving animals in a similar vein to the way he saves a sickening amount of tax), joining a half-million-strong club of fellow vegan Brits — a number that’s tripled in the past decade.
Performance biochemist Dr Rob Child, who has worked with Tour de France cyclists and Olympic athletes, told the BBC “it’s a bad idea to switch mid-season”, but weeks later, Hamilton secured his fourth F1 crown. Child goes on to say that vegan diets risk reducing free testosterone levels which can slow recovery and compromise a sportsperson’s “edge”, as well as affecting iron levels, but Vegan Society nutritionist Heather Russell disputes this. “Studies have shows that vegan nutrition can support normal testosterone levels,” she says. “… Research suggests that vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat than other dietary patterns, which helps to explain why they have been linked to lower cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease.”
An ever-growing list of world-class athletes seem to agree and are hopping aboard this animal-free ark. Superstar tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams have been vegan since 2012 (winning the Olympics doubles title together a few months later), while their male counterpart Novak Djokovic (pictured) adheres to a mainly vegan diet — and even opened vegan eatery, Eqvita, in Monte Carlo in 2016. Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, who in 2015 broke the record for the 3,500-km Appalachian Trail, puts his decades-long success down to veganism, and those who think his somewhat svelte figure represents the typical vegan build should look to British boxer David ‘the Haymaker’ Haye, who claimed his conversion to veganism made him “stronger than ever”. American Footballer David Carter, who is a defensive lineman described as “300 pounds of veganism”, tells the Chicago Sun Times of his vegan enlightenment: “I was shocked. When I first started, I was, ‘What the hell? I have more energy. I’m a lot stronger that I was before.’”
Top English footballer Jermain Defoe is adamant a switch to veganism has enabled him to play at the highest level well into his 30s, while Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs patrolled Premier League pitches until he was 40 — though not a fully-fledged vegan, he put his longevity down to a vegetarian diet and regular sessions of yoga. (Similarly, Lionel Messi, who’s godlike talent certainly needs no introduction, rarely eats meat during the playing season.) Last year, lowly British club Forest Club won promotion into the national football league for the first time in their 128-year history, and, guess what? They were fed a vegan diet.
Meat avoidance in sport has been prevalent — and a precursor to success — for longer than you may think. Olympic silver medal-winning tennis player Eustace Miles, of Hampstead, was one of the earliest proponents of a vegetarian diet, publishing Health Without Meat in 1915, that went on to be a bestseller for years. Paavo Nurmi dominated middle- and long-distance tracks the world over in the mid-1900s, securing nine Olympic gold medals, while never eating meat; and Australian swimmer Murray Rose was just 17 when he bagged three Olympic golds in 1956 having adopted a vegan diet that was, rather fittingly, heavy on the seaweed. Carl Lewis, once the fastest man on the planet, was a vegan, as was the planet’s former toughest man, Mike Tyson — though only after he quit boxing.
“Previous research shows that vegans may end up consuming less protein and fat than non-vegans, and my struggle to get enough vitamin B12,” writes David Rogerson, senior lecturer in sports nutrition, and strength and conditioning at Sheffield Hallam University, for The Conversation. “… But getting enough protein on a vegan diet is less of a concern that you’d think, especially if enough calories are consumed… Pulses — such as beans, lentils, peas — and grains — like rice, oats, wheat — are all protein rich, with complementary amino acid profiles.” He concludes that being a vegan and an athlete “can go hand in hand”, but tempers it with the warning that “it does take careful planning”.