Footballers are usually quick to take inspiration from reigning CONCACAF Player of the Year Alex Morgan, a world champion with the United States, but few have joined her in becoming vegan.
Premier League players Fabian Delph, Chris Smalling, Hector Bellerin and Jack Wilshere, as well as tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, race car driver Lewis Hamilton and boxer David Haye, have also turned to plant-based diets, yet veganism proves divisive and largely misunderstood.
Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero have largely cut meat from their diets, having sought the advice of nutritionist Giuliano Poser, but they are not strictly vegan; they are vegetarians during the football season.
A vegan diet consists of fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts. Unlike vegetarians, vegans do not consume animal products such as milk or eggs; they instead opt for alternatives including coconut milk.
A common misconception about veganism is that it is unhealthy because of the risk of various micronutrient deficiencies including protein, calcium and vitamin B12, which are found in dairy products, poultry and red meat.
If the success of the aforementioned vegan athletes was not enough, Dr Scott Robinson, of Scott Robinson Performance Nutrition and the British Dietetics Association, explained how turning vegan is a healthy choice.
He has provided dietary advice for Premier League footballer Troy Deeney as well as world champion boxers Kal Yafai and Callum Smith.
“Vegan diets provide beneficial antioxidants, which are helpful for recovery after exercise,” Robinson said. “They also include less processed foods, which cause excess body inflammation.
“Plant-based diets also consist of higher traces of nutrients that are required for optimal energy metabolism — the process of generating energy from food — such as potassium, folate and vitamins A, C and E.
“That said, vegan diets can contain less protein, which is important for building and protecting muscles and recovering from exercise.”
It is possible for vegans to increase their protein intake, though, to the average requirement for an adult of 56 grams per day. Seitan is a meat alternative that contains 25g of protein per 100g, whilst also providing calcium and iron.
A small serving of lentils can contain 18g of protein as well as 50% (15g) of an adult’s daily recommended fiber intake.
George Wilson, an exercise physiology lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, explained the benefits of a good fiber intake further.
“This diet is beneficial to anybody with digestion problems, too,” he said. “Fiber helps the gastrointestinal tract take in food, absorb its energy efficiently and excrete waste.
“Fiber does not contain a lot of energy, though, so it is important to source it from elsewhere.
“The body creates 11 of the 20 amino acids it needs for functions, including hormone production, but there are nine it relies on food to provide. A vegan diet includes seven of them, but methionine and lysine are mostly found in eggs and dairy products.
“Small levels of them can be found in nuts and seeds, though, and they can be taken in supplement form. The body needs around 1,400 milligrams of methionine and 2,800mg of lysine a day.”
A deficiency of vitamin B12 leads to tiredness, muscle weakness and disturbed vision, or serious health issues including deficiency anemia, which sees the body produce abnormally large red blood cells which cannot function properly.
The adult body needs 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 per day. It is true that vegan diets usually feature it in lower quantities because it is found in meat, but it can be found in alternative dairy products and cereals or taken in supplement form.
Rose Whyles, a vegan nutritionist, explained how a plant-based diet can be especially beneficial to footballers.
In the 2018-19 Premier League season, 596 goals (55.6%) were scored in the second half of a match, compared to 476 (44.4%) in the first. Furthermore, 253 (23.6%) were scored between the 76th and 90th minutes, against 135 (12.6%) in the first 15. This points to the need for more energy for a sustained period, and suggests fitter players are effective in the latter stages of matches.
She said: “The notable advantage to a vegan diet from a sportsperson’s perspective is that it can provide the complex carbohydrates, protein and nutrients needed to be fitter, stronger and faster.
“Complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose, which is used to provide energy for medium to high intensity exertion for extended periods of time. They can be found in potatoes, parsnips, rice, oats and quinoa.
“In doing so, they will not be taking on the higher levels of cholesterol and saturated fats found in meats and dairy products. The body uses more energy to break these foods down, which means vegans, invariably, will have more.”
Ajay Menon, the founder of the Forza India Academy, encourages his young players to adopt a vegan diet.
“I think for footballers it is all about getting a good level of carbohydrates for energy and the right amount of protein for growth, repair and recovery -- a plant-based diet facilitates that.
“In the Indian national football team, the captain, Sunil Chhetri, and Kean Lewis are vegans.
“Veganism has truly made headway in 2019, and I think it is the future for all of mankind!”
English Football League side Forest Green Rovers became the first fully-vegan team in 2017. Their commitment to their players’ health and fitness was recognised by the Vegan Society, which awarded them a Vegan Trademark.
Considering the Rovers’ success in League Two as well as the benefits of a plant-based diet enjoyed by Morgan, Messi and other footballers and sports stars around the world, perhaps Menon is right: a vegan diet is, objectively, a positive, healthy choice for footballers to make.
Ryan Plant is a freelance sports journalist from Lincolnshire, England. He is a recent football journalism graduate from the University of Derby. His portfolio can be found at wakelet.com/@ryanplant1998
Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.