We take a look at the footballers who are changing their diets in a bid to prolong and improve their careers
Discussions about veganism can be rather divisive and the topic evokes strong feelings in those who adhere to its tenets as well as those who don’t.
In the UK, for example, the mere promotion of a ‘vegan sausage roll’ by a bakery chain caused ructions on social media and it lamentably became a cause du jour on talk shows across the country.
Some of those who bristle at the idea of veganism might be surprised to learn that an increasing number of elite-level athletes are ‘going vegan’, including footballers.
Players from teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City have reportedly made the change to help, with each of them giving their own reasons.
As more footballers embrace vegan diets, We take a look at what it is, stars who have taken meat off the menu and the benefits of doing so.
What is veganism?
Veganism is the philosophy and practice of abstaining from the use of animal products. It is generally associated with diet, but also extends further into other aspects of life.
The term ‘vegan’ was coined by animal rights advocate Donald Watson in 1944 and it is closely associated with vegetarianism, whose practitioners do not consume meat.
A vegan diet is based predominantly on vegetables, grains, seeds, legumes, fruits, mushrooms and nuts.
As well as abstaining from meat, vegans do not eat animal products such as eggs, milk or cheese, but their alternatives sourced from plants, such as oat or coconut milk.
Footballers who are vegan or vegetarian
Scientific advances in sport over the course of recent decades have helped to increase the capacity of athletes and diet is a major part of that.
A number of footballers at the highest level have revealed that they have adopted vegan diets in order to improve their performances or deal with chronic inflammation.
Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin has been particularly vocal about his decision to become a vegan, explaining that he spoke with the boxer David Haye, who also follows a vegan diet, about the benefits.
“For me the most important thing is that inflammation in my body after games and the speed that my body recovers compared to before,” Bellerin told The Players’ Tribune.
“I’ve always had little problems in my ankles when I played very hard games, they’d get very inflamed and stiff.
“Now I don’t even have to strap them to play any more. It doesn’t just make a difference in your body but I strongly believe that with what we’re doing to the earth [it’s] paying back the earth too.”
Manchester United centre-back Chris Smalling is another example of a footballer who has adopted a “fully vegan” diet, having been influenced by his wife Sam Cooke. The England international indicated, in an interview with ESPN, that it helped the tendonitis in his knees.
West Ham midfielder Jack Wilshere has embraced a gluten-free vegan lifestyle and believes that it has improved his performances on the pitch as well as his appearance.
“I feel that I look better, I have certainly lost a bit of weight, and am leaner. I am probably fitter as well,” Wilshere told the Evening Standard. “I feel sharper and quicker on the pitch. I feel like I can last longer.”
Colombia international Sebastian Perez revealed in 2018 that he had become vegan telling Infobae: “There are those who say that animals are there to be eaten, but for me the world belongs to all living beings.”
Russell Martin, a Scotland international who previously played for Norwich City, told the Eastern Daily Press in 2016 that he began following a vegan diet to help with his health.
“It started because of a health problem I have which can sometimes flare up,” Martin said. “I had stopped taking my medication for it and turned to alternative Chinese therapy. And now along with not eating any animal products I have not had any flare ups since.”
A number of players have recently been reported as vegans, but on closer inspection, they are not strictly followers of the philosophy. Manchester City and Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, for example, has cut meat out of his diet in a bid to help avoid the recurrence of certain injuries, but he is more of a vegetarian than a vegan.
“I had to change a lot of things, starting with my food,” Aguero told the Independent in 2015.
“I went to a doctor in Italy and he checked everything we did, and I had to change quite a bit – no more pasta, no more sugar and no meat, which I used to eat quite a bit because Argentinian meat is very good.”
Aguero’s compatriot Lionel Messi is believed to avoid meat during the playing season, while the striker’s Man City team-mate Fabian Delph is another example who is not strictly vegan, with the midfielder clarifying, contrary to reports, that he had only cut red meat – not all meat – out of his diet.
England international Jermain Defoe has tried a vegan diet and frequently sings its praises, but admitted to being “more pescatarian” in late 2018, due to his love of fish.
“I do it to try to prolong my career, to just give you that extra edge,” Defoe told ESPN. “But the diet is not just about football for me. It’s long-term. It’s clean living.”
It is also interesting to note that English League Two outfit Forest Green Rovers recently became the ‘world’s first vegan football club’.
Forest Green players are not forced to become vegans, but the club serves only vegan food at its training ground and stadium.
What are the health benefits of veganism?
One of the chief attractions of the vegan diet for athletes is the fact that it is associated with a variety of health benefits.
Studies have concluded that a balanced vegan diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease and, as noted above, players have reported reduced inflammation in previously chronic rheumatic injuries.
Vegan diets generally involve an increased intake of fibre, which helps improve digestion and a somewhat cosmetic bonus associated is clearer skin.
If care is not taken to ensure a balanced vegan diet, followers can risk developing deficiencies in protein and vitamin B12.
Vegan athletes in other sports
A broad span of athletes follow vegan diets, with examples in basketball, American football, mixed martial arts and tennis among others.
Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, UFC fighter Nate Diaz and former San Franciso 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick are all famously vegan.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is reported to follow an 80 per cent plant-based diet, while Derrick Morgan, Jurrell Casey, DaQuan Jones are all believed to follow vegan diets
NBA stars Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Al Jefferson, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, JaVale McGee, Enes Kanter and Jahlil Okafor are all said to be vegans.
As mentioned, former heavyweight boxing champions David Haye follows a vegan diet.