Why Aren't There More British Vegan Athletes?
By Davina Leonard
Wimbledon's gone for another year (with Andy Murray being knocked out in the Quarter Finals), the FIFA World Cup's over for another four (with an English exit in the first round) and yet the summer of sport is not finished for us here in Great Britain. The Commonwealth Games start in Glasgow at the end of this month, and although the Commonwealth no doubt sounds across the Pond slightly quaint, dated and rather British, some of the world's great athletes will be taking part.
All this sport, and all these less-than-optimal performances by British sportsmen and women, got us thinking ... Why aren't there more vegan athletes in the UK?
Are we really on this side of the Atlantic still thinking of vegans as weak, pasty and deficient in some way? Is it because a vegan diet is unsuitable, or is it because the largely carnivorous British public put such pressure on our athletes that for them to adopt a vegan diet would create a backlash from fans?
In the U.S. veganism has been embraced as a clean, healthy and powerful alternative for such high profile stars as the Williams sisters, Carl Lewis, Mike Tyson and also a number of well-known NHL and NFL players. Names such as Deuce Lutui of the Seattle Seahawks, Arian Foster of the Houston Texans, Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta Falcons and Tony Fiammetta of the Dallas Cowboys don't mean much to us in the UK, in the same way that our soccer superstars probably go unrecognised in the US, apart perhaps from David Beckham, but we have no doubt that these names are immediately recognisable to any self-respecting sports fan in the US.
Americans accept veganism
Top athletes spend hours in training under the guidance of coaches, nutritionists and dietitians and their livelihoods rely on their bodies being in the most healthy, powerful and effective state possible. Why is it then that only a handful have embraced a vegan diet?
First, the failure to take up veganism is nothing to do with suitability. The abundance of US athletes who have switched permanently or temporarily to veganism is testament to that. A plant-based diet has many proven benefits including lower blood pressure, less body fat, and increased energy levels; there is plenty of evidence to show that although more food may have to be consumed more regularly to reach the desired number of calories, a vegan diet is not only a viable option, but also a desirable option for athletes.
Okay, animal sources of protein are more bioavailable (the body can make use of them more readily), but with a little mixing and matching of vegan sources of protein, athletes can get just as much as they need--and isn't that what the nutritionists and chefs are there for anyway?
MORE PROTEIN THAN YOUR PRIME CUT
The following foods have more protein per 100 calories than the standard steak:
And, what's more, they don't have all the saturated fat and cholesterol. Now of course, 100 calories' worth of broccoli is much more of a mouthful (or mouthfuls in fact) than 100 calories' worth of steak, but it is also much more nutritious calorie for calorie. And for athletes, efficient eating is what it's all about.
So is it then that UK sports stars are unwilling to consider the vegan option because of the public stigma of veganism?
We think there are two reasons
The second more fundamental reason does seem to be, however, that meat-eating is still closely linked with popular ideas of masculinity. In their 2011 study, Ruby & Heine recorded how male vegetarians were scored as less 'manly' and 'weaker' than omnivores, even by non-meat eaters and women who might have been expected to be more level-headed on the subject of diet. And let's look at the tabloid image of our most popular, and highly-remunerated sports stars, football players: masculine, with tattoos, a love of expensive cars and pop star/model girlfriends. Would a high-profile footballer identifying as vegan affect his fan base?
And since football is tied up with national identity, here and in lots of countries, a high profile athlete identifying as vegan might be problematic, too, in terms of marketability-- sports stars (particularly in Olympic sports that still have the veneer of being "amateur") often need to rely on sponsorship and endorsement deals, in lieu of any substantial prize money. Is it too far-fetched to think that these stars aren't even exploring a vegan dietary option, or being presented with a dietary alternative by their management team, for fear of reducing their earning potential and altering their status in the public's affections.
We are so lucky to live in a country where fresh fruit, vegetables and unadulterated food are readily available and relatively cheap (in some cities in the States in mainstream supermarkets, we have struggled to find food that isn't laced with high fructose corn syrup), and yet over in North America a larger proportion of the public choose a plant-based diet, notwithstanding its expense. We can only hope that our national sports stars, being held up as role models and national icons, will lead the way and introduce more people to a life free from animal products--maybe then we might win more too?