Myth and reality as sport flies the vegan flag

Myth and reality as sport flies the vegan flag

In the last decade alone, some of the world's leading atletes have given up meat. But experts say a plant-based diet isn't for everyone

Novak Djokovic avoids calling himself a vegan. Instead he prefers using the term plant-based diet to describe his approach to healthy eating. Credit: Reuters Photo

Veganism is an ethical solution to a moral dilemma. So, if the predicament of unethical animal slaughter or climate change scratches the conscience, then the diet and its lifestyle could well be the recourse.

That, however, does not mean moral superiority. Basically, a vegan is in no way better, or worse, than a vegetarian or even a meat-eater. But vegans are better off, just by a bit, and not because of their moral stance. 

See, when Novak Djokovic won the French Open a week ago, the vegan lobby would have celebrated with vegan champagne over vegan snacks because one of their own was doing things he should not have been able to.

Their reason for celebration was not that the Serbian is now one Grand Slam shy of equalling Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — who stand on Grand Slam Everest with 20 each — it was that he provided them with ammunition for their plant-based gun to point at everyone not in their camp. 

It’s especially uplifting to their cause when a vegan athlete succeeds because conventional wisdom has maintained that protein derived from meat is a pre-requisite for optimum performance. But is Djokovic really vegan? 

Also read: Everything is possible: Djokovic eyes Golden Grand Slam

The term ‘vegan’ was created in 1944 by Donald Watson (an English animal rights advocate and founder of The Vegan Society) to describe a person who avoids using animals for ethical reasons.

While PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) speak of Djokovic as their own, there is no documented proof that the Djoker doesn’t use leather or other animal products. For that matter, he still uses natural gut strings (cow’s serous membrane in the intestines) on his racquet, which explains Stefanos Tsitsipas’ Twitter rant against ‘pseudo vegans’ last year.

Tsitsipas, the latest loser to Djokovic’s trampling Grand Slam run, isn’t wrong. 

Djokovic doesn’t claim to be a vegan either. Instead he prefers using the term plant-based diet to describe his approach to healthy eating. The brings us to: how instrumental is this diet to his success. 

Djokovic’s rise to the highest echelons of tennis coincides with his change in diet in 2010 so there’s ample reason to believe it to be the case. In fact, he has accumulated 18 of his 19 Slams since a doctor suggested he give the green theory a chance. 

“When you eat meat, your inflammatory markers in your bloody go up,” explains celebrity nutritionist Ryan Fernando. “When you gravitate towards a vegan or a vegetarian diet, you tend to recover faster, and recovery is imperative to the success of an athlete.”

“They also show lower resting heart rate when they go off the meat,” he adds.

That explains why in the last decade alone, some of the world’s leading athletes including Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Lewis Hamilton, Jermain Defoe and Chris Smalling amongst a horde of others have given up meat, and some even live by the gruelling but impactful tenets of veganism. 

Not for everyone

Ryan’s clientele includes Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Mayank Agarwal among several other world-class athletes so he knows a thing or two about getting athletes ready for their next assignment. But even Ryan admits that a plant-based diet isn’t for everyone.

“Going off meat is really, really helpful to some athletes because the lack of inflammation alone gets them performing at a higher level, but there is a drop in muscle mass, there can be mineral deficiencies and heme-iron deficiency is another aspect to keep in mind,” he reveals. 

Also read — With Djokovic's French Open triumph, 52-year-old Grand Slam record falls

“Sometimes, because you need to consume a lot more food to feel satiated as a vegan or a vegetarian, your gut starts getting irritated. So vegan/vegetarian diets should be carefully monitored, but those who can, should. They should get a gene test and a blood test done and see if they can prescribe to it because it significantly improves the overall quality of life.”

“But you need to supplement this diet with plant protein to compensate for the lack, otherwise there’s a lack,” he adds. 

But is there is a direct correlation between a non-meat diet and performance? “No, not really,” concedes Ryan. “Plant-based diets have shown that they improve endurance marginally, but there is lower power output when it comes to power-based sports.”

This means bodybuilders, wrestlers and the like are actually not benefiting from the dietary restriction. And this goes against everything the now-famous documentary ‘Game Changers’ professes. The documentary makers, powered by the vegan troupe, of course, constructed a one-sided argument for veganism without going deeper into the data.

There was honest research done, but the readings were made to fit a narrative. And that seems to be the case beyond the screen too. 

“There’s a lot of half-baked knowledge out there when it comes to most diets,” rues Ryan. “See, you need to get a gene test done to know what sort of a diet you can go on. And with that information and the corresponding diet, I can tell if, say for example, when you will get injured. It’s not wishy-washy science. The problem is also with the Indian mindset towards diet and nutrition.”

Quality of food is important

A sizeable portion of Indians, including athletes from here, are vegetarian by culture. So, ignoring meat isn’t really a problem for the majority of the population, and should they want to transition to a vegan diet, it would be far easier. But, as Ryan mentions, the source of energy and the quality of food is just as important. Remember, a packet of potato chips (mostly) and a bottle of cola are vegan too! “When fads become a science, it’s a problem,” warns Ryan. 

Veganism is now being used as a style statement in some quarters of society. “Many athletes claim they are vegan because it’s a nice sentiment but many eat meat on the sly,” reveals a former cricketer.

None of this means we get to detract from those fighting against animal cruelty. Veganism done right is a lifestyle worth paying obeisance to. But going off meat doesn’t mean you will become a better athlete. Research shows that a plant-based diet is known to help those with autoimmune diseases, such as in the case of Djokovic, fight against certain allergies and raise the quality of life in general. And that’s about it.

So, Djokovic didn’t win the battle for the vegans. He simply ate vegan and won the French Open because he is, at this moment, the best tennis player in the world. As for ‘the battle’, there’s not enough morality in this world to stop it from becoming a war.

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