The world of sports is often seen with an intensely restricted view when considering athletes who follow vegetarian or vegan diets. However, there is an ever-growing trail of successful athletes who argue that these meatless diets assist in their performances, rather than hindering it. In fact, nutritionists argue that plant-based diets offer athletes all of the necessary protein and carbohydrates without the extensive dose of cholesterol and saturated fats. Although their vegetarianism eliminates meat as source of protein, these athletes have found supplementary foods to incorporate into their diet.
Whilst vegetarian diets follow less calorie densities than meat-based alternatives, athletes have discovered how to control their caloric intake and expenditure to accommodate such an intense exercise routine. An athlete who follows a plan of physical exertion needs protein to keep their bodies healthy, functional and in their finest shape and while meat gives athletes essential nutrients, many sport stars have favored alternative plant-based sources to fuel their bodies.
Vegetarianism is growing more popular in the sports industry, with current as well as former athletes giving up the animal based proteins and turning to the alternate option that is vegetables and other plant-based food. There have been many debates over the subject, as some believe that it’s a disadvantage. Nonetheless, athletes who have won endless medals and competitions have proved otherwise, going down in history as some of the most memorable and talented in their sports regardless of their diet choices.
Many famous Olympians and highly respected athletes are either vegan, vegetarian of cutting meat out of a lot of their daily diets. Therefore, contrary to what many believe, it really is possible to succeed in the highly intensive world of sports on a vegetarian diet.
These 15 vegetarian athletes rose to the top of the sports world — proving that you don’t need meat to excel athletically.
15 Walter “Killer” Kowalski
For Walter “Killer” Kowalski, a former Canadian professional wrestler, world tag team champion and US tag team champion, becoming vegetarian was initially for athletic purposes. However, he later indulged in the plant-based diet with concerns for his overall life, admitting that vegetarianism had a religious and meditative influence on him. Nonetheless, he comments that his diet was frowned upon throughout his wrestling career, commenting that as far as he knew, he was “the only vegetarian around. To this day, it’s the same.” he also admits that he is still considered a ‘nutball’ in the wrestling world, regardless of his success as a vegetarian.
14 Bill Walton
On the court, Bill Walton is remembered as one of the greatest players in NBA history. He has won the College Player of the Year Awards three times straight with UCLA and continued to impress as he became MVP in his NBA career. Throughout his entire basketball career, the Hall of Fame athlete committed to a plant-based diet, which only added to his athleticism. Even today, Walton proudly acknowledges his vegetarian diet as he continues to be involved with the NBA as a commentator.
13 James Southwood
Being one of the most respected UK practitioners of Savate, James Southwood is a self-funded and proud vegetarian athlete. The fighter earned a World Bronze and several British and European honours in the sports of Savate. Southwood claims that he has been vegetarian his entire life and at 16 decided to push it one step further and become vegan. He states that he barely noticed the influence it had on his athleticism, considering his diet still kept within strict weight limits for his sport.
12 Ricky Williams
The former NFL running back makes the strict belief of his vegetarian diet clear with this one statement: “I wouldn’t eat a chicken if it dropped dead in front of me holding up a sign that said ‘Eat Me.’” Ricky Williams was one of the first footballers in the NFL to choose a vegetarian diet because he felt that it was an overall healthier lifestyle. The famous athlete also opened a vegetarian-friendly restaurant to support his beliefs and share the benefits of vegetarianism with the world .
11 Prince Fielder
The first baseman for the Texas Rangers and one of the most respected vegetarian athletes, Prince Fielder has followed a strict vegetarian diet since the beginning of 2008 and hasn’t looked back. Fielder was previously the active ‘ironman’ leader for 547 consecutive games and is a five-time All-star, proving how he wasn't held back by his diet. He has found plant-based alternatives to fuel his intense exercise regimes. He was so confident with his diet change that Fielder decided not to consult the Brewers medical staff, because of how good his body felt since skipping meaty meals.
10 Venus Williams
Venus Williams changed into a full vegan diet after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition, in 2011. Williams claims that her diet has only affected her athleticism positively, improving her health and assisting in the management of her Sjorgren’s symptoms. Acknowledging the high-demanding reality of the caloric intake needed for any athlete, the tennis star recruited the help of a renowned vegan chef, Lauren Von der Pool, for the intense life change, who believes that ‘food is your best medicine.’
9 Mac Danzig
Competing for years in the brutal and high-demanding sport that is MMA, Mac Danzig’s vegan diet has made him stand out immensely in the world of professional fighting. As his career evolved, his diet evolved with it. Danzig excluded dairy before becoming full vegan as a result of allergies, and for years maintained his vegan diet with confidence. Initially, his diet was criticized because of the strength and agility needed in MMA. However, as the talented fighter boomed through mixed martial arts, his diet started becoming both respected and highly commendable by fellow competitors.
8 Robert Parish
Regardless of his vegetarian diet, Robert Parish became a part of history, being one of the greatest NBA basketball players of all time. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, Parish stood at 7 feet tall and renowned as a force to be reckoned on the court. With his 21 season career, Parish incorporated yoga and a vegetarian diet that many believed helped him throughout his training. He is the perfect example for how vegetarianism isn't a hindrance, as he still became a significant part of NBA history.
7 Andy Lally
Former sports car champion and NASCAR driver, Andy Lally moved from vegetarian to vegan in 2013, considering it an ethical choice. The 36-year-old from Long Island is the first three-time Rolex Grand Am Champion, three-time Rolex 24 hours of Daytona winner and the current record holder for the most top 3 and 5 finishes in Grand Am Rolex Series history. He also understands that veganism isn't particularly popular in his sport, however he continues to educate its benefits with every Cup-race win.
6 Hannah Teter
Hannah Teter is an athlete with an impressive sporting career. The US snowboarder is a famous two-time Olympic medalist, US snowboard Overall Grand Prix half-pipe champion and X Games super-pipe champion who has an intense love for animals. So much so that she became extremely motivated to take the world of sports by storm as a vegetarian. Teter feels that she is stronger than she’s ever been- mentally and physically - and strongly believes that her diet assisted in getting her on the Olympic podium twice. Her plant-based diet has only helped her career as an athlete since changing her food choices in 2008.
5 Paavo Nurmi
The ‘Flying Finn’, also known as Paavo Nurmi, is one of the greatest distance runners in history. Not only did Nurmi have a successful career with nine gold medals in long-distance running during the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, but the famous runner had his extensive and impressive career on a vegetarian diet, which he had started at the age of 12. Nurmi was seen as a national symbol because of his achievements and is viewed as one of the best runners of all time.
4 Carl Lewis
The world famous Carl Lewis decided to change his diet in the middle of his impressive career in track running. In 1991, after winning four gold medals in 1984, he restricted his diet, adopting a vegan diet in preparation for the World Championships in 1991, where he won the ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the year at the age of 30. Lewis believes that this diet assisting in the best running of his life, which was supported by the Track and Field magazine, commenting: "It had become hard to argue that he is not the greatest athlete ever to set foot on track or field."
3 Tony Gonzalez
Former Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons tight end and possibly NFL’s most famous vegetarian, Tony Gonzalez admits that fellow teammates often doubted his dietary choices whilst they fueled their bodies with meaty foods. Nonetheless, Gonzalez is a prime example of the benefits of vegetarianism for athletes. Although his diet is only 80% plant based, Gonzalez immensely outspoken about its benefits. He has the most touchdowns for a TE in NFL History and is ranked 6th overall in reciving touchdowns, so it's difficult to argue with him. Gonzalez now promotes vegetarianism with his nutrition book, ‘The All-Pro Diet: Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Live like a Champion.’
2 Mike Tyson
The famous Mike Tyson is a retired US boxer and former Heavyweight Champion who indulges in his vegan diet and believes that it gives him explosions of energy. Although the legendary boxer was extremely carnivorous when training for fights, his diet was forced to change as he got older, having joint problems and weight issues. After months on a plant-based diet, Tyson admitted to trying a small piece of meat, which forced him to become violently sick.
1 Bill Pearl
US bodybuilder, Bill Pearl gave up on meat after a bad restaurant experience, where he decided that the excess female hormones chicken were fed wasn't something he wanted in his system. He proudly admits to being vegetarian for almost 35 years and states that he can still carry enough muscle mass to win another Mr. Universe title. Pearl strongly believes that “Anything you can find in a piece of meat, you can find in other foods as well.” With a body like his, it's really hard to disagree with him.