It’s not easy being green in the NFL.
Houston Texans running back Arian Foster is the latest pro-football player to find out. He joins a small but growing list of NFL vegetarians and vegans that includes Tennessee Titans guard Deuce Lutui, Kansas City Chiefs tight-end Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta, and Detroit Lions running back Montell Owens.
Players eat about 6,000 protein-dense calories a day to meet the physical demands of the game. Traditionally they load up on steak and eggs, burgers and shakes, and a heavy dose of fast food on road trips. It can be done with a diet of greens, beans, grains, and nuts, but it takes real commitment. They need to consume around twice the normal amount of protein to rebuild muscles undone by football. But once an athlete cracks the code of seitan and soy-based protein powders, there are real advantages to a plant-based diet. According to the Centers for Disease Control, NFL linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. The high fiber plus a load of antioxidant vitamins and minerals from a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can boost blood and oxygen flow for improved heart health. This also makes plant-based foods superior to meat when it comes to repairing torn muscles and tendons, speeding up the recovery from training stress and injuries. And the complex carbohydrates in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables can help with intensity and endurance on the playing field because they convert into fuel quicker and with fewer demands on the body than meat.
The bigger challenge is the pushback—hostility even—from teammates, fans, coaches, and the media when players bump up against the gridiron gospel of brute power, vitality, and virility.
Real men are supposed to eat meat.
It’s a cultural cliché that just won’t die: those who eschew animal-sourced foods are, if not exactly girlie, compromised as manly men. A meatless regimen is seen as mild and anemic, and worst of all, it speaks of compassion. Vegans are tagged as sensitive souls—cuddling bunnies, awash in emotionalism; not exactly the qualities of a fearsome tackler.
No poster child for a compassionate diet.
Still, vegetarians in the NFL go a long way toward dispelling stereotypes. A bulked-up physique speaks of the robust healthfulness of the vegan diet. Even a brutish reputation is a myth-busting rebuke to the old stigma of the vegetarian as gentle tree-hugger.
Football fans can go cruelty-free too: see PETA’s list of the Top 5 Vegetarian-Friendly NFL Stadiums.
Check out The Protein Myth explained by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to learn more about athletic performance and plant-based diets.