At least seven members of the LA Dodgers baseball team are now following a dairy-free diet. And, according to the athletes, the lifestyle switch has led to some major health improvements.
According to The Athletic, Corey Seager, Max Muncy, Kiké Hernandez, Ross Stripling, David Freese, and Kenley Jansen have all cut dairy out of their diets. The teammates followed in the footsteps of former Dodgers second baseman, Chase Utley.
Utley initially went dairy-free as he was approaching 40 in order to slow the aging process. The now-retired southpaw soon found that it came with other health improvements; cutting out dairy also alleviated chronic pain and inflammation.
Dodgers players soon also found that ditching dairy led to health improvements. Seager said that he lost 25 pounds and also attributed his new diet to his ability to continue working out after hip surgery last August. Twenty-eight-year-old infielder Muncy said that reduced inflammation was enough of a “selling point” to convince him to go dairy-free.
“You’re talking about playing 162 games in 180 days. You’re talking about wearing cleats for all of those, which hurts your feet. Everything hurts. Anything you can do to gain an edge and make your body feel better on a daily basis, why wouldn’t you try it?” he told The Athletic.
Growing up, the dairy industry sold Americans the idea that milk does a body good. Launched by the California Milk Processor Board in 1993, the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign gained fame for its use of celebrities and top athletes, including NBA Hall-of-Famer Patrick Ewing, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, and retired professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The extensive list includes some athletes that have since cut dairy out of their diets – tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams, and five-time Super Bowl champion, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Does Dairy Cause Inflammation?
Inflammation may play a role in the development of health issues such as arthritis, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and certain forms of cancer, according to Dr. Michael Greger, author of the 2015 book “How Not to Die” and founder of NutritionFacts.org.
The American Heart Association (AHA) notes that it may also be connected to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, though its exact role remains unknown.
Growing up, many of us were sold the idea that milk does the body good. But Utley, Muncy, and several athletes who have cut dairy out of their diets have said that the switch reduced inflammation.
A diet heavy in saturated fat – which applies to foods like whole milk and full-fat cheese – can exacerbate inflammation for arthritic patients. Inflammation can also be a response to stress and lack of exercise. But the constant physical stress that athletes put their bodies through can also cause inflammation.
Why Does Going Dairy-Free Improve Athletic Performance?
In addition to being an indicator to the aforementioned health issues, inflammation is also the body’s natural response to infection or injury. Professional athletes train constantly to stay in peak shape for their sport – combined with actual competition, they tend to experience varying levels of inflammation.
A 2016 study from the journal Biology of Sports which analyzed inflammation levels in professional basketball players for a season of training found that the athletes had acute inflammation at the beginning of the season, but chronic inflammation by the end. Researchers concluded that athletic inflammation is the body’s response to chronic exercise.
No major studies have analyzed why so many athletes feel better after ditching dairy. Dr. Susan Levin, Director of Nutrition Education at PCRM (Phyisicans Committee for Responsible Medicine), told LIVEKINDLY that because of this, improved athletic performance is anecdotal at the moment.
But the reason the LA Dodgers and so many other athletes feel better without dairy is likely because they are eating more plant-based food and less saturated fat from dairy. Additionally, some vegan food helps reduce inflammation.
Studies, such as one co-authored by Dr. Levin what published in the journal Nutrients last January, have shown that plant-based foods can reduce oxidative stress, the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body.
Oxidative stress is known to cause inflammation and professional athletes may be more prone to it due to constant exercise, according to a May 2014 study from the Bosnian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences.
“Dairy is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet. For children, it’s milk. For adults, it’s cheese, and that saturated fat can cause inflammation” said Dr. Levin. “We know from studies that exercise-related oxidative stress is linked to inflammation and slower recovery.”
“These athletes are most likely replacing dairy with plant-based alternatives, so what they’re doing is including more antioxidant-rich foods in their diet,” Dr. Levin continued. “That’s going to lead to better recovery time and less inflammation.”
Dairy-Free Athletes and Switch4Good
The Dodgers aren’t the only team to ditch dairy – over the past few years, several professional athletes who have gone vegan or dairy-free cite major health improvements.
The campaign Switch4Good, founded by Olympic silver medalist cyclist Dotsie Bausch, aims to show athletes how cutting dairy out of their diet can lead to better athletic performance through medical studies and personal testimony.
Athletes who have joined the campaign include fellow Olympic athletes such as sprinter Malachi Davis, skier Seba Johnson, soccer player Kara Lang, and Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris, who, like the Dodgers, said his recovery improved when he went dairy-free.
A growing number of athletes, including those from the Switch4Good campaign, are adopting completely plant-based diets to improve their performance.
Fifteen members of the NFL team the Tennessee Titans follow a plant-based diet as of last August. The major shift in the team’s diet is thanks to chef Charity Morgan, linebacker Derrick Morgan’s wife. Morgan went vegan in 2017, according to ESPN, and Charity, a professional chef, also ditched animal products in order to support him.
The linebacker’s meals soon attracted the attention of teammates like Wesley Woodward, Jurrell Casey, and DaQuan Jones. Now, 15 members of the football team eat a meal plan made by chef Charity.
“It’s been good. I still love it. I feel great. It helps me keep my weight down, too, because it can get too high in offseason as I eat a little bit more.” Casey told ESPN last August.
The Titans aren’t the only football stars who have found success through eating more plants. Brady, considered to be one of the top athletes in the game, follows a strict low-carb diet that excludes dairy, processed meat like cold cuts, and refined grains and sugar. He has a vegan meal plan through plant-based meal delivery service Purple Carrot, which tight end Rob Gronkowski credited for “extending” his own career after multiple potentially career-ending injuries.
Héctor Bellerín, who plays right-back for English soccer team Arsenal, initially went vegan for a three-week “detox” period in 2017. The Spanish football star told Veggie Athletic that he consulted retired world champion vegan boxer David Haye for advise.
Although the diet was supposed to be temporary, Bellerín decided to stick to the diet due to improvements to his sleep, recovery time, and inflammation. “I always had a little problem with my ankles when I had played very hard games they would get a bit inflamed and stiff, and now I don’t even have to strap them to play anymore,” he said.
Members of the English soccer team the Forest Green Rovers all follow a plant-based diet on the field and their home stadium even offers only vegan food. “When you eat meat, you think it has to be in every meal, but it isn’t until you are shown alternatives that you realise there are a lot of different options for you,” said midfieldier Dayle Grubb.
Basketball players are also ditching dairy and meat to improve their athletic performance. Boston Celtics point guard and four-time NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving went vegan in 2017.
“Been on more of a plant-based diet, getting away from the animals and all that,” he told the broadcast team. “I had to get away from that. So my energy is up; my body feels amazing.”
Although he hasn’t ditched dairy, Lakers center JaVale McGee believes not eating meat has made him a better athlete with more energy.
Rebekkah Brunson, forward for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, credits her 15-year career to her vegan diet.
“I feel great and I’m sure that’s attributed to some of [the] things that I put into my body. You just feel better eating the right things,” she said last May, adding, “You know, a lot of my teammates will tell me they’re dealing with things like inflammation and things like that. They will be like ‘Oh, it just swelled up.’ I’m like, ‘No. That didn’t just miraculously happen.’ It’s about what we’re putting into our bodies.”
The sporting world is huge, but across all disciplines, athletes are improving their performance by ditching animal products.
Twenty-three-time Grand Slam tennis legend Serena Williams has been vegan since 2012, according to the Veganuary campaign. Her sister Venus adopted a raw vegan diet to combat her Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder characterized by excessive fatigue.
Ultra-endurance athlete and author of the 2012 book “Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” Scott Jurek, considered one of the greatest runners of all time, is a vegan. Jurek appears in the forthcoming documentary “Game Changers,” which follows elite power athletes who abstain from animal products.
“When I was in college I started reading more about different diets and the vegetarian and vegan diets really came up quite a bit,” he told GQ in October 2015. “As I worked in hospitals through physical therapy school it became clear to me that I needed to change my diet to avoid the health problems I was seeing. It was definitely a long-term decision rather than one made for short-term performance gains.”
Other vegan runners include four-time world record holder Fiona Oakes, who was the subject of the 2018 documentary “Running for Good;” record-breaking runner Catra Corbett; author of 2012’s “Finding Ultra“, podcast host, and top utra-athlete Rich Roll; and Ironman athlete Conor Devine, who battles his multiple sclerosis by adopting a plant-based diet.
Even in the sports entertainment world, aka professional wrestling, athletes are turning to plant-based diets to improve their athletic performance. Daniel Bryan, the current WWE Champion, whose style is fast-paced and often marked by high-risk, high-reward moves, follows a plant-based diet.
Current WWE UK Champion Pete Dunne is vegan, as is former WWE UK Champ Tyler Bate and his tag team partner, Trent Seven. Canadian wrestler Allie, signed to Impact Wrestling, is a vegetarian since age 14 and a vegan since 2014.
Five-time Formula One race car driver Lewis Hamilton went vegan in 2017 after watching the documentary “What the Health.”
“I do feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life, in my 32 years, physically’, he then goes on to add ‘I feel incredibly clean and healthy,” he told CNN in November 2017.
Alex Hannold, a free-climber who was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 2018 documentary “Free Solo,” follows a primarily plant-based diet for environmental reasons, but is considered one of the best. The majority of his diet comes from fresh fruit and vegetables.