Veganism has made its NFL debut. Or at least that’s what the headlines are all shouting about. The tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs is a big, big boy. At 6-foot 5-inches and 247lbs, Tony Gonzalez eats several thousand calories a day to maintain his size, his strength and his competitive edge. For the majority of his career he has gorged himself on the standard football diet of steak, ribs, burgers and pizza to ensure that he’s getting the high level of protein necessary to match his rigorous training schedule. But he’s also getting a dangerously high level of fat as part of this smorgasbord. Finding himself having to choose between his health and his strength, Gonzalez choose a third option – veganism. Thereby keeping his strength and his health. And throwing sports journalists, team mates and sports nutritionists into frenzy. Can a professional gridiron footballer, with one of the most punishing jobs in sports survive on an exclusively plant-based diet?
Okay so there are a few things to clear up, so lets put Mr. Gonzalez and his eating dilemma to the side for just a minute. First of all, having an American football player go vegan is like a Canadian hockey player or a New Zealand Rugby player going vegan. We’re talking the most extreme of alpha male testosterone driven steak worshippers. This is something unconventional to say the least. Now athletes have gone vegan before, and they’ve retained their competitiveness, however most of these are the svelte figures of triathletes, Olympic runners or competitive swimmers. They lack the same bulk as people like Gonzalez and his ilk. It also further paints vegans as thin, and less manly. This idea though has been the focus of Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin latest ‘Skinny’ series. Freeman and Barnouin are co-authors of the best selling books ‘Skinny Bitch’ and ‘Skinny Bitch in the Kitch’, those weight loss bibles championing veganism as the best way to lose weight and look fabulous. And the pair are currently working on a book for vegan men, called, unsurprisingly, ‘Skinny Bastard’. In the words of Bernouin, veganism for men will not create a legion of ’scrawny little wimps’ but instead following their diet will instead have men and women alike looking and feeling better. They’re making it about health. And they fully support the idea that done properly, someone the size of our earlier gridiron player can easily be supported by going vegan.
So now back to Gonzalez. The headlines are screaming vegan, but that’s not entirely accurate. Gonzalez did give up his steak and pork chops for a vegetable-rich diet. He stocked up on soy protein, Brazilian acai juice, fruit and vegetable juice, whole grains, nuts and seeds. But he also picked up Omega rich fish oils and treats himself to occasional portions of organic chicken. Gonzalez decided to go vegan at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, which ended with the Super Bowl in January, and although he had to endure a certain amount of ribbing from his teammates – especially when he missed a tackle, his diet had no negative impact on his performance. Instead he took control of the NFL record for receptions by a tight end and he finished the season with 99 catches, the third most of his career. And although he didn’t do this as a 100 per cent veg*n (contrary to the headlines) he did show the most obese nation in the world that you don’t have to choose between your health and greatness.