Archive for the Vegetarian Athletes Category

Vegetarian Athletes: The Football Player

Posted in Health, Vegetarian Athletes on July 29, 2009 by Powered By Produce
As some of you may know, I am currently training for the Nike Women’s Marathon (that’s 26.2 miles) in San Francisco, CA on October 18, 2009. This will be my third marathon, first as a vegetarian. Many people are skeptical about the ability of vegetarians to be athletes, but there are a great number of vegetarian athletes who have proven this skepticism to be unwarranted. (See also my post about protein.)

There is an excellent article on espn.com featuring four vegetarian athletes, which I want to share here. The article is rather long, so I will break it up into four sections.

But, before I begin, I will shamelessly plug my fundraising efforts. I am running this marathon with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training. Everyone on our team pledges to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s mission to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families. For more information, or to make a tax deductible donation to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, visit my Team In Training website: http://pages.teamintraining.org/nca/nikesf09/angiechappell

Ok, back to the topic at hand. From espn.com:

The Football Player

When you’re a Pro Bowl tight end, it’s difficult to change your routine. Difficult, and maybe crazy. If you’re in the midst of a Hall of Fame career, why change anything? As Tony Gonzalez discovered, sometimes change comes to you.

Sitting at home one day in May 2007, Gonzalez suddenly lost all feeling in his face and felt a terrible pain in the back of his head. He initially thought he was having a stroke, but hospital tests confirmed he had Bell’s Palsy instead. Many doctors prescribe a diet consisting entirely of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds — no animal products or processed foods — as a way to improve digestion and combat the condition. A few months later, Gonzalez got another health scare, when doctors warned him of a low white blood cell count, raising the possibility he had leukemia. In the end, a mix-up with another patient’s blood had caused that diagnosis. Still, with two scares in a span of a few months, Gonzalez became more attuned to his health and to what he put into his body.

Not long afterward, Gonzalez was on a cross-country flight when he struck up a conversation with the man next to him in first class. When lunchtime arrived, Gonzalez’s seatmate ordered the salad with shrimp, hold the shrimp. Come dessert time, the man turned down the flight attendant’s offer of milk to go with his cookies.

“So I asked him, ‘Are you a vegetarian?'” Gonzalez recounted. “He said he was a vegan. Not eating meat I could understand, but I asked him why he wouldn’t even drink the milk. He said that we’re the only animals on Earth who drink milk after being babies.”

A few years earlier, or maybe even a few months earlier, Gonzalez might have nodded politely and ended the conversation right there. But that year, he’d started to seriously ponder his long-term health and the dietary choices he was making. The health scares had opened his eyes. But more than that, Gonzalez wondered what life would be like after football. He wanted to stay in shape and live well after his playing days were done.

When the man recommended “The China Study” as a must read, Gonzalez devoured it. The 2005 book by Cornell professor and nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell claims people who eat mostly plants contract fewer deadly diseases than those who eat mostly animals. The book got its name from diet studies and blood samples drawn from 6,500 men and women in China. Gonzalez has since met with Campbell and now plans to write his own book about dietary choices from the perspective of a 246-pound football star.

For Gonzalez, now 32, getting from Point A to Point B took a great deal of thought and self-doubt. Conventional wisdom held that eating steak and drinking a gallon of milk a day would make you big and strong and prepare you for the rigors of NFL life. Gonzalez followed that path, pounding steaks and milk, as well as pizza, hot dogs and burgers — whatever it took to pack on the pounds. He especially loved macaroni and cheese, with an emphasis on cheese, piled as high as possible. You couldn’t argue with the results. In his first 10 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Gonzalez had made the Pro Bowl eight times, establishing himself as the best tight end in the league.

When he switched to a meatless diet, he wondered whether the move would backfire on him. At first, it looked like it might. In the first few weeks of his new regimen, he lost 10 pounds. His strength quickly dropped, and Gonzalez found himself unable to lift the heavy weights he’d hoisted with ease in the past. Teammates started telling him he looked skinny. “You’re going to get your butt kicked” was another common refrain.

“It was a trial by error,” he said. “I had to educate myself on how to do it the right way.”
After reading up on vegan-friendly recipes, Gonzalez found the right balance. Though he had more than enough money to buy any foods he wanted, Gonzalez still wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of spending through the nose on groceries. Instead, his grocery bills stayed about the same, but the check at restaurants got slashed with no $50 porterhouse steaks on his plate. Gonzalez says he now focuses on produce when constructing his meals. He loads up on berries, bananas and mangoes, fresh vegetables and milk alternatives like rice milk or hemp milk, then blends them into what he calls “power smoothies.”

He gained back most of his lost weight, settling in around 246 pounds. His strength quickly returned. When the season started, he was shocked at how good he felt. In the fourth quarters of games, he found himself sprinting past tired defenders. He became more alert during team meetings. On the day after a game, he’d skip into the gym, while teammates looked sore, beat up and worn out.

“People were still making fun of me, because I think they wanted to make themselves feel better,” Gonzalez explained. “I’d be ordering salad, potatoes, veggies. I think they felt guilty. Unless you’ve been in a cave, you know what’s healthy and what’s not healthy. But most of them still keep eating what they’ve been eating, because they think that’s the only way to get enough protein and compete at a high level.”

As the season progressed, Gonzalez’s numbers picked up. Playing in his 11th season, Gonzalez made 99 catches (the second-highest total of his career), racking up 1,172 yards (the third-highest total of his career). In the previous three seasons, he’d dealt with an arthritic foot that got so bad he could barely walk the day after a game. The foot condition had forced him to give up basketball, a sport Gonzalez loved, having played varsity ball alongside the Sacramento Kings’ Shareef Abdur-Rahim at Cal. Coincidence or not, the foot condition improved dramatically over the course of an offseason, to the point that he started hitting the hardwood again. Playing basketball in turn gave Gonzalez another good way to boost his training, which he says helped improve his agility.

More surprising than his improved health, he says, was the reaction of some of his friends, especially ex-players.

D’Marco Farr was a bruising NFL defensive lineman for seven seasons before injuries forced him into early retirement. Seven years after leaving the league, Farr told Gonzalez he still didn’t feel 100 percent, carrying extra weight and still suffering from aches and pains. When Gonzalez told him about the changes he’d felt since going vegan, Farr jumped on board. He has since spread the word to other ex-players, including Lincoln Kennedy, a three-time Pro Bowler who retired at well more than 300 pounds.

Gonzalez has become something of a spokesman for healthy eating. When he retires, he wants to travel around the league speaking about the value of healthier diets. He’s excited about the prospect of his first book on the subject. Gonzalez wants to reach out to younger players, too. He recently spoke to a group of 300 college football prospects at USC, where he counseled the group not to fall into the trap of scarfing down fatty foods just because that’s the norm for aspiring players trying to pack on weight.

“I believe in moderation,” he said. “I know this isn’t easy. One steak or a chicken dinner once in a while, that’s fine. You just have to be smart about it. When you go from eating that way to a vegan diet, you can get into situations where it’s like an alcoholic going to a bar: You say you’re going to have one drink, and you end up having 10.”

Pin Gonzalez down, and he’ll concede his new diet hasn’t necessarily improved his on-field performance. Science agrees with him on that point: No conclusive studies have proven a vegan or vegetarian diet helps an athlete run faster, jump higher or throw a ball harder or farther. To Gonzalez, making the change was about living healthier and about recognizing there’s a life beyond football.

“In this league, you think you’re invincible, that you’ll last forever,” he said. “Then you look at some of the numbers, that the average football player dies young. I’m sure there are other reasons, but eating unhealthy foods and carrying around all that extra weight can’t help.

“I realized football’s not going to last forever. To me this isn’t a diet. It’s a complete lifestyle change.”
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Breakfast: Whole wheat bagel
Lunch: Leftover Tom Yum Veggie soup – delicious!
Dinner: Chalupas with beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, guac, and salsa verde

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