Plant-based NFL players are proving you don’t need to eat meat in order to compete.
The 2018 James Cameron-produced vegan documentary, The Game Changers, discussed the misconception that athletes need to consume meat in order to be strong. The film, which was directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, features a number of plant-based athletes. These include former UFC fighter James Wilks, actor and former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Formula One racing champ Lewis Hamilton, among others.
Many athletes who consume a plant-based diet, such as Hamilton and Wilks, have reported improvements in their athletic abilities, such as higher energy levels, quicker recovery times, better sleep, and fewer injuries.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a non-profit organization of more than 12,000 physicians that advocates for plant-based living and preventative medicine, has also suggested that consuming a vegan or plant-based diet can improve athletic performance.
According to PCRM, examples of the performance-boosting power of plants include enhanced cardiovascular health, reduced cholesterol and blood pressure, weight loss, improved blood flow, and faster recovery times, among others.
Hamilton says his vegan diet has helped him feel “better than ever.” Speaking to CNN about his diet in 2017, he said, “I do feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life, in my 32 years, physically. I feel incredibly clean and healthy.”
Novak Djokovic, who follows a plant-based diet, claimed his fifth Men’s Singles Wimbledon victory in July 2019. Djokovic believes his diet helped his allergies disappear and quickened his recovery times.
Vegan athlete Conor Devine—who has multiple sclerosis (MS)—said it only took 28 days for him to see major improvements in his health after switching to an animal-free diet. “After 28 days or so of taking meat and dairy out of my diet and stopping conventional medication, I felt an amazing sense of mental clarity,” he told LIVEKINDLY. “The fog and pressure kind of lifted from my head,” he explained, adding that “you need to experience it to believe it.”
American cycler and Olympic medalist Dotsie Bausch, professional footballer Lionel Messi, and professional surfer Tia Blanco are just a handful of other vegan athletes who prove you don’t need animal products to succeed in the sports world.
10 Current and Former Plant-Based NFL Players
From quarterbacks to wide receivers, a number of NFL players have gone vegan or plant-based in recent years. Here are 10 current and former plant-based NFL players you should know.
Now the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tom Brady has appeared in nine Super Bowls, garnering six titles—more than any other player in NFL history. Super Bowl LV will be his tenth appearance. And he’ll be powering through the game on a mostly plant-based diet.
He’s often credited his mostly plant-based diet for allowing him to play the sport well into his forties. Brady teamed up with vegan meal delivery service Purple Carrot to create a high-protein, low-carb, plant-based TB12 performance meal plan.
And in 2017, the quarterback released the exercise and diet book The TB12 Method. The book outlines Brady’s 12 principles for achieving “sustained peak performance.” The diet is largely made up of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and legumes. The diet does feature meat and fish. “It really doesn’t matter how much exercise you do,” Brady wrote in the book. “if you’re not eating the right food and providing your body the right nutrients.” Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said the vegan meal plan helped to extend his career.
Now the quarterback for the New England Patriots, Newton credited his vegan diet for his speedy recovery after he sprained his foot.
“Vegan. Vegan strong,” he told ESPN. “That helps a lot. I’ve been a vegan all year, and I don’t think I’m going back. I feel good. I recover well. And that’s pretty much what it’s all about.”
“It’s not putting certain things in your body that is going to combat your body trying to recover. You want to put things in your body that is going to expedite that whole process,” the quarterback explained.
Speaking to WCCB News, Newton pointed out: “Some of the strongest animals, some of the strongest species on this Earth are vegetarian.” He added, “Look at gorillas, look at elephants, they find their source of protein in plants and I do the same thing. I’m loving how I’m feeling.”
Theo Riddick, running back for the Las Vegas Raiders, credited his vegan diet for his improved energy levels and recovery time. In 2017, he told The Detroit News: “I turned vegan over the summer. I’ve noticed a difference just with my energy level. I’m not a junk-food type of eater. I’m like a smoothie guy; I do a lot of fruit and throw my kale and all my protein in there and that’s how I get everything.”
He also told MLive that his recovery level became “phenomenal.” “I think when I was younger, to be honest, I wouldn’t really feel better until probably Friday. And then you go back out there and play on Sunday,” Riddick said. But on a plant-based diet, he was “feeling good by Tuesday.”
It was documentaries like “What the Health” that motivated the change for Riddick. “Watching things like that is alarming on a lot of levels because of a lot of things you don’t know in terms of things you eat on a daily basis … You have to be conscientious of what you’re putting in your body,” the athlete told The Detroit News.
Although he’s now retired from the NFL, former defensive end David Carter went vegan after learning that dairy contributes to tendonitis—inflammation of the tendon.
“I realized I was making everything worse,” he told GQ. “I was feeding the tendonitis, the muscle fatigue, everything. So the next day I went vegan. The first thing I ate was a bean burger and [I] haven’t eaten meat since.”
After going vegan, Carter told the publication he was able to run faster and farther, lift heavier weights, and maintain his body weight. His plant-based diet also helped alleviate pain he was having in his joints.
So, what does he eat? “I try to eat 1.2 grams of protein per pound per day,” he continued, “Otherwise it’s really hard to gain weight.” In lieu of meat, he gets his protein from non-meat sources like rice and beans, nuts, whole grains like quinoa and millet, and supplements like hemp protein.
Derrick Morgan is another example of an NFL retiree who ditched meat and dairy products. The former linebacker went vegan thanks to his wife, vegan chef Charity Morgan. After providing vegan lunches to his team, she also helped 15 Tennessee Titans go plant-based in order to improve their physical performance on the field.
“When they realized that their production didn’t go down, their stats didn’t go down, they didn’t die on the field, they were like ‘sign me up’ because the food already looks and smells good,” Charity told ESPN. “Last year was a test run for a lot of the guys to realize you can be plant-based and successful.”
Derrick added: “Overcoming the preconceived notions is the biggest part. I was a part of it. I used to believe athletes had to eat meat to maintain play, then I educated myself.”
Tennessee Titans defensive tackle DaQuan Jones adopted a plant-based diet in 2017, thanks to his then-teammate Derrick Morgan’s wife, Charity.
Charity prepared vegan meals for Morgan to take to practice, which included vegan chicken wraps, dairy-free cheese and bean flautas, and plant-based pulled pork sandwiches. Morgan’s NFL player teammates, including Jones, couldn’t resist trying chef Morgan’s vegan meals. And they eventually decided to try a vegan diet for themselves.
“For me, it was just re-educating the guys about what food looks like,” Charity told the Meatless Monday.
“Once they realized they could have lasagna, enchiladas and mac and cheese in plant-based form, they were so stoked,” she continued. “A lot of them tell me they feel faster on the field, they feel more energetic.”
While he’s been shut out of the sport for kneeling during the national anthem in order to protest police brutality, in 2016, Colin Kaepernick told the San Francisco 49ers that he had gone vegan during the off-season.
His girlfriend, radio host Nessa Diab, took to social media to discuss Kaepernick’s vegan diet. “He’s also a vegan with me,” Diab said in a video posted to the MTV2 Facebook page. “We did it together. Because we feel like … the more animal products you eat and stuff like that, your body becomes more acidic, which allows more diseases to basically breed within you.”
“So the more alkaline state that your body is in, the less likely you are to get some type of diseases. The more alkaline, the better you are health-wise, supposedly,” she added.
Wide receiver for the Los Angeles Chargers, Andre Patton, went vegan in 2019. In an interview with Chargers.com, Patton said he was inspired to make the change by a friend who sent him videos to “open my eyes.” “I feel like if you actually watch Chargers Weekly Bonus: Wide Receiver Andre Patton those videos and see what actually goes on with the meat packaging and how they deal with their meat, then like, it will kind of make you sick as well,” he said.
So, where does he get his protein? “I eat plant-based burgers and hot dogs,” the athlete explained. He also likes oatmeal, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, pineapple, black beans, peanuts, and salads with plenty of balsamic vinegar. And he doesn’t miss meat. He noted: “To be honest if I’m around meat — like meat, chicken, beef — it smells. It just smells so bad.”
The switch has had a positive impact on his health, especially his energy levels. “It definitely makes my body feel good coming out here and practicing. I feel the difference, especially in the mornings” he said.
Featured in The Game Changers, wide receiver Whalen is currently a free agent who’s played for the Colts, Dolphins, and Patriots, among others. The football player adopted a vegan diet in 2014 to improve his physical performance.
“What first inspired the decision for me was just learning about nutrition to improve as an athlete. I was looking for something that could give me an extra edge,” he said in a PSA for PETA.
And Whalen’s recovery time improved. The wide receiver said it only took him a day (rather than two or three) to recover from an intense workout, something he credited to better blood flow. “I’ve always been a guy who has done everything I can to help myself,” he told the Baltimore Ravens.com. “Any little advantage I can find, I’m going to do it. I felt like this really gave me an edge.”
It’s a far cry from what he grew up on—a diet he describes as “typical Midwest”—but Whalen doesn’t find a plant-based diet difficult to stick to. “It’s not too tough now. I would say the first six months, maybe a year, is pretty tough because you’re totally reprogramming what you look for to fill your plate up,” he said. “Like anything, it’s tough when you’re starting over.”
Plant-based NFL players don’t stop there. Wesley Woodyard, former linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, was initially resistant to the idea of an animal-free diet. When his teammates began going vegan, he stated, “Y’all crazy with this vegan thing. I’m from LaGrange, Georgia. I’m going to eat my pork.”
But Woodyard came around soon enough, and his plant-based diet gave him more energy. “My energy level has gone up,” Woodyard said to USA Today in 2017. “And it’s just putting in good fuel to your body.”
Speaking to ESPN that same year, the athlete explained: “I used to feel sluggish when I ate heavy. I don’t get tired like I used to and that’s definitely the food I eat.” According to ESPN, Woodyard experienced a “revival” following the switch, “going from a two-down linebacker in 2016 to a Pro Bowl-caliber player who ranks among the NFL’s leaders in tackles in 2017.”