Plant-based pugilism: why boxers are laying off the meat Tomé Morrissy-Swan
With veganism rising so significantly over the past few years, it's unsurprising that sportspeople are increasingly turning to a plant-based diet. While animal protein was once seen as crucial to building muscle, there are now a raft of bodybuilders, for example, who forego meat, fish and dairy – without it hampering their form.
"Someone asked me, 'how could you get as strong as an ox without eating any meat?'" says Patrik Baboumian, a German strongman with a long list of records, in a recent documentary called The Game Changers, which profiles a number of successful vegan athletes. "Have you ever seen an ox eat meat?" was his reply.
The documentary, which topped the iTunes download chart earlier this week, references a number of elite vegan athletes. There are record-breaking weightlifters (Kendrick Farris), cyclists (Dotsie Bausch) and 15 members of the NFL's Tennessee Titans, who reached the playoffs for the first time in a decade after making the switch. Lewis Hamilton, who has recently opened a vegan burger joint in London, Novak Djokovic and NBA legend Chris Paul are listed as producers; while Arnold Schwarzenegger, who two years ago announced he was attempting to go vegan, is seen bemoaning the clever promotion of meat as a manly, bulking product.
And these aren't isolated cases. In boxing – a sport that might not be thought of as fertile breeding ground for vegans – there's been a noticeable trend for plant-based pugilists over recent years. The most high-profile is probably Timothy Bradley, a welterweight who went vegan in 2008, beating Manny Pacquiao four years later in a world title fight. There's Bryant Jennings, a heavyweight who lost to Wladimir Klitschko in 2015; Chris Algieri, a former world champion and a nutritionist; and David Haye.
Adam Booth, Haye's coach from the age of 16 until the Dereck Chisora fight, himself turned vegan three years ago, at the age of 47. After a full medical which showed a calcium deposit in a main artery and a high cholesterol score, doctors wanted to put him on statins for the rest of his life. "They made me feel rotten," says Booth, as we chat at the Rathbone Boxing Club in Fitzrovia, London, co-founded by another vegan boxer, Greg White. Booth searched for solutions and was intrigued by veganism. "I'm a little bit all or nothing, so I decided to do it." The day after eating "the nicest steak I've ever had," Booth gave up meat, fish and dairy for good. His cholesterol has since dropped, despite exercising less, and he feels more energised.
Sitting next to us is Harlem Eubank, the cousin of Chris Eubank Jr and nephew of Chris Eubank Sr. The 25 year-old super lightweight, who has won all nine of his professional fights, went vegan four years ago, after spending years researching nutrition. Though he attributes his changing physique to natural growth, Eubank believes the main benefits he has felt are "the effects within the organs and the mind, as opposed to physical. I wouldn't say there's much difference either way [in terms of physicality."
Faster recovery, it seems, is a big draw. Eubank believes it has helped him get over injuries more quickly, while Booth says chronic knee pain from a broken leg has dissipated. White turned to plants after being diagnosed with Crohn's in his early 20s and feeling no benefit from the medication he was given. "I've not had a problem since," he exalts. So what do the vegan boxers eat, then? Chicken, broccoli and whey-based protein shakes were once the athlete's meal plan of choice. Training every day and eating plant-based foods, Eubank opts for high-energy wholegrains, plenty of veg, and two or three protein smoothies a day, often including hemp or pumpkin seeds, which contain all the essential amino acids.
"I always have a smoothie before training, come home, have a smoothie, then cook dinner," Eubank explains. "In the evening, I try and eat before eight o'clock, to digest the food before sleep." A favourite dish is spelt pasta with a sauce made from sundried tomatoes and grated lemon zest.
Is there any cause for concern when giving up animal products for boxers, and sportspeople in general? According to the experts, as long as the diet is properly managed, not really. Richard Brennan, managing director of Sport Science Consultants, says there's an ever-growing body of research pertaining to the benefits of the diet, including a reduced risk of heart disease, lower LDL (bad cholesterol), lower blood pressure, and a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
A vegan diet, when poorly constructed, can leave an athlete lacking in certain macro and micronutrients, such as Vitamin B12 (which the boxers supplement with), vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and long chain fatty acids. Brennan notes however that non-vegan diets can be just as poor.
"Strategic management of a properly designed vegan diet can meet these challenges and nutrient requirements." Protein is often considered an issue – animal protein is seen as more effective (complete protein sources with all the essential amino acids). Brennan and Dr Adam Collins, a senior tutor in nutrition at the University of Surrey and head of nutrition at Form Nutrition, say this is easily compensated for by eating multiple plant-based protein sources (such as legumes, seeds, lentils, tempeh, quinoa, oats, seaweed, algae and fermented soy).
What about feeling lighter, less sluggish and having a quicker recovery time? "This is entirely plausible," says Brennan, "as increased levels of soluble and insoluble fibre [from the likes of peas, beans and lentils] can improve gastro-intestinal health." Dr Collins points out that meat and dairy is slow to digest and takes significant effort to break own.
A growing number of boxers are turning to plant-based diets, though it's still the overwhelming minority. Neither Booth or White factor veganism into their coaching – it is, after all, a very personal, emotive subject.
Rather, Booth lets Eubank lead by example. "He's the least experienced of my fighters," says the coach. "I've got three Olympians, one was a world amateur champion, one an Olympic silver medalist, one regarded as one of the best prospects in the world. But Harlem's the one in the gym with the most energy, who trains the most tenaciously.
"They are starting to look at him and take influence from him. If you look at the muscle bulk he has in his quads, the physique that he has, it's obvious you don't need to eat meat to maintain muscle tissue." And Booth tells me that just in the past week another of his stars has decided to take the plunge. "Harlem has had as much influence on him as anybody else."
Athletes are always looking for a competitive edge, and diet is one of the most effective methods of seeking marginal gains. Nutritional advice is constantly evolving, and there is mounting evidence that animal products might not be strictly crucial to success on the pitch, on the court or, indeed, in the ring.