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Mixed-martial arts fighter Mac Danzig and NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez are probably two of the toughest guys on the planet. Both spend their days taking -- and dealing -- vicious hits. They face hulking opponents. To keep up their strength and muscle mass, they must live on steady supply of steak, ribs and burgers ... right?
Not even close. Both athletes are vegan, which means that they avoid all meat, dairy and egg products. "For the longest time, I thought I had to eat animal protein in order to train hard and win," Danzig said. But after trying out a plant-based diet in 2004, the animal rights advocate was surprised by the results: He recovered faster and felt stronger during fights.
Gonzalez, who made the switch for his health after reading the book "The China Study," agrees. "I have so much more energy [on the field]," he told reporters.
Danzig and Gonzalez are part of growing number of no-meat athletes, including NBA players, marathoners and triathletes. But adopting this eating plan isn't as simple as steering clear of animal products -- especially if you want to keep your competitive edge, say experts.
"The first time I went vegan in high school, I ate mainly refined carbs like rice, bread and pasta," said Brendan Brazier, a former pro triathlete and author of "Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life." The result: His track practices left him exhausted and hungry.
That's a common mistake among vegan athletes, said Peggy Kotsopoulus, R.D., a Toronto-based nutritionist. "Meat, dairy and eggs contain important nutrients, like protein, omega-3s, iron and B vitamins," she said. "So cutting them out of your diet entirely can pave the way for a deficiency." In fact, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that up to half of vegans don't get enough vitamin B12, which helps the body stay energized.
To fill in any dietary gaps, vegans have to seek out plant-based sources of these nutrients, Kotsopoulus said. "Most athletes need about one gram of protein per pound of body weight daily." Reaching that amount means eating plenty of beans, soy, nuts, and brown rice, pea or hemp powder. "Flax and chia seeds provide protein and omega-3 fats, which are important for fighting off inflammation," said Ashley Koff, R.D., an espnW.com contributor and celebrity nutritionist. "There are also algae-based pills, like Life's DHA." And because there are few vegan sources of vitamins D and B12, she said, supplements may be necessary.
"It took me more than a year to strike the right balance," Brazier said. For him, the key was focusing on nutrient-dense whole foods. "I started eating more iron-rich pumpkin seeds, hemp and dark leafy greens, which made a huge difference." He also concocted a smoothie powder packed with B vitamins, calcium and iron, which eventually evolved into his supplement line Vega (myvega.com).
The real deal
So if done the right way, will going vegan make you stronger, quicker and tougher? Not necessarily. "This diet typically provides more nutrients and less saturated fat than a conventional one," Kotsopoulus said. "But it won't necessarily improve athletic performance." According to a study from Appalachian State University, vegetarian runners performed just as well -- but no better -- than their meat-eating competitors.
Brazier doesn't agree. "Whole plant foods are easier for the body to digest than meat, dairy and refined products," he said. "That means less blood is routed to the stomach, so there's more to deliver oxygen to muscles." He adds that the antioxidant-packed diet also lessens inflammation in the body, which speeds recovery after tough workouts. "Going vegan definitely improved my training and performance in races like the Ironman," Brazier said. "More than that, it's made me feel better in my day-to-day life, too."