Veganism and the NFL: Why America’s most red-blooded sport is choosing seitan over bacon

Veganism and the NFL: Why America’s most red-blooded sport is choosing seitan over bacon

For years, athletes have been trying different ways to eating to get an edge in their game: Usain Bolt swears by McDonald’s chicken McNuggets, Babe Ruth washed his breakfast of porterhouse steak down with a quart of bourbon and ginger ale, and Michael Phelps’ 12,000 calorie diet is the stuff of legend. In 2019, the way to eat for success for many lies in Veganism. From soccer’s Hector Bellerin, wrestling’s Zack Sabre Jr to MMA’s Nate Diaz, it’s a popular choice across all types of sport.  

In a sport full of big personalities, testosterone and stacks of cash, a vegan diet does not seem like the obvious choice for NFL stars, Yet, more and more players are shunning a diet of meat, eggs and dairy in favour of one rich in fruits, veggies and legumes. 

The move towards a vegan way of eating is sweeping the NFL, with players across the league making the change. Most recently Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton announced his veganism, joining new teammate defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in a plant-based life. The Tennessee Titans has a roster containing 15 vegan players thanks to now retired DT Derrick Morgan and his wife Charity Morgan. NFL pro-bowler and former Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez claims his training recovery time is down to a plant based diet. The Greatest of All Time Tom Brady’s TB12 method features long lists of plant based food to help with ‘muscle pliability’. LA Rams wide receiver’s Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks and have pledged to go meat free. 

A vegan diet is one full of fruits, vegetables, plant proteins and carbohydrates. Studies have found that a vegan diet means speedier recovery time, higher bone density and lower chance of long term neurodegenerative conditions. How diet benefits applies to individuals is dependent on their bodies, but overwhelmingly a switch to a vegan diet has been shown to be effective on a variety of people – including athletes in the NFL.

Last November, LA Rams WR Cooper Kupp was running a passing route in the fourth quarter against Seattle when he went down holding his left knee, and was later confirmed to have suffered a torn ACL. Kupp had established himself as one of QB Jared Goff’s preferred targets, entering the game with 35 catches for 527 yards and six touchdowns. Heading into last season, Kupp announced that he’d cut meat out of his diet. 

Speaking to ESPN, Kupp said. “You can gain back a day just based on getting your body recovered and getting inflammation down so you can go back out there and compete and work. That can be a huge advantage based on what you’re eating.” This has played itself out after his injury: Kupp has been cleared for training camp and not placed on the PUP list, just 8 months after suffering his injury. The bottom end to ACL tear recovery is 8 months, with most people on average taking the full 12 months to get back on the field, so Kupp made impressive progress. 

Last season, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton showed signs of struggling with his shoulder until he was finally benched in mid December after the team had lost 6 straight games. For the past 3 years, Newton’s shoulder has been a thorn in the side of the Carolina offense. In 2017, he underwent surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. In January 2019, he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to examine the shoulder joint and announced in a vlog that he had gone vegan in an attempt to prioritise his health and to try something different to recover. In another vlog with comedian Hannibal Burress, he said “I would have thought that by me going vegan, I would be losing a lot of weight; I’d be losing a lot of energy, things like that but it’s actually been flipped.” His Instagram feed offers a feed of high intensity workouts, inspirational quotes and evidence that this is a man working to return to his former MVP status. At OTAs, Newton unveiled a new throwing motion featuring tighter and more fluid mechanics to improve accuracy and work in the confines of his surgery. 

Elsewhere in the league, the Tennessee Titans also give an incredible case study into vegan eating. Their roster contains a 15 strong crew of individuals on chef Charity Morgan’s diet plan of vegan food: chick’n tacos, seitan burgers and chick’n ‘n’ waffles all feature. Defensive end Jurrell Casey, speaking to ESPN, cites a vegan diet for keeping his weight down: “It’s been good. I still love it. I feel great. It helps me keep my weight down, too, because it can get too high in offseason as I eat a little bit more.” Other team members have reiterated that it gives them more energy, speeds recovery and reduces inflammation. The heavily vegan defense moved from ranking 17th for defensive points in 2017 to 3rd in the league in 2018. For defensive yards, in 2017 they were 13th, and in 2018 stand at 8th. This is the best position for the defense since the Houston Oilers era. Derrick Morgan retiring will prove an interesting test to see if the Tennessee vegan squad continues with their diet and remains as one of the most formidable defenses in the league. 

Of course, Veganism is not just about eating plant based food. Miami Dolphins’ WR Kenny Stills is a strong advocate for all forms of social justice – including animals. Former San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is also an advocate of veganism as a moral choice, as seen prominently on his social media. The inclusion of animal rights in his activism is especially impactful given the amount of off-field battles he has fought with the league over morality. With the NFL fraught with social justice issues in recent years, a vegan lifestyle gives players a way to take an ethical stance every time they sit down to eat. 

More of interest to the league are the possible implications that the benefits of Veganism offers to the business of football. Teams need their high paid star athletes on the field giving them value on their contracts: for a General Manager investing 10% of their total salary cap space to a single player on the roster, they want them to play as many snaps as possible. The league relies on these star athletes to keep fans coming back, and when their biggest stars begin to fade to injury, so do TV ratings. This was the case in 2017, when some of the league’s most popular players – J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Rob Gronkowski – were out with injuries. If someone’s diet is optimised to recovery, that is less time on the bench and more time on the field over their career, and ultimately more money for the league.

Long term player safety is also a huge concern. A study by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined 3,349 NFL players who played at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988. The findings from this study suggest that, in comparison to the typical American male, NFL players live longer on average but have around three times the risk of death associated with neurodegenerative disorders. In particular, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was roughly four times higher among former players than the average American male. While players have limited control of how they get hit during the game – no one could have predicted Atlanta Falcons Punter Matt Bosher clotheslining Carolina Panthers RB Kenjon Barner last season, for instance – consuming a vegan diet could give them a better chance of reducing neurodegenerative disease and becoming another tragic NFL statistic. 

With 1 in 3 Americans reducing meat consumption in their diet, Veganism was always going to filter through to football eventually, and Cam Newton’s performance this season will shine a spotlight on the potential benefits of Vegan dietary choices. While early indications are good, and the new throwing technique from OTAs look promising, it remains to be seen if his rehab work and vegan diet provide long term relief for him on the field. As his contract renewal year edges closer, his new lifestyle might just end up being the thing that convinces management that he’s a reliable investment for the future.

Of course, the rise of veganism extends far beyond Newton’s on-field activity and whatever happens, the next few years is sure to see more and more athletes fuelling themselves with seitan rather than bacon – and it could go some way to shaping the future of the NFL.

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

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