I, like many others, was both impressed and confused with the release of Game Changers late last year. For those unaware, this James Cameron-produced, Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring documentary shook the fitness industry with claims that vegetarian and vegan diets were not only healthy for you and the environment, they could also help you build muscle and strength.
A common, and somewhat lazy, accusation against vegan or vegetarian diets is that they don’t provide the requisite protein and calories needed to excel in sports or in the gym. Showing athletes, strongmen and bodybuilders thriving on the vegan lifestyle, Game Changers forced coaches and trainees to seriously consider their diets.
What surprised me about Game Changers was not its scientific claims, which as a historian, I am in no way qualified to address. What confused me was the general public’s reaction. For the most part, people seemed perplexed at the claim that athletes and lifters could be vegetarian.
But this is not a particularly new idea. Far from novel, Game Changers represents the latest in a series of efforts over the last 150 years to prove the benefits of plant-based or lacto-ovo vegetarian diets for strength seekers.
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As Game Changers pointed out, vegetarian and/or vegan diets were used by Roman Gladiators as part of their training programs. Indeed, recent archaeological digs found direct evidence of plant-based diets on the parts of these athletes.(1) What is missing from these debates is the fact that gladiator training schools have been described by some as athletic prison camps.(2) There is, then, a danger in promoting a diet that was potentially forced on the athletes.
That being the case, the physical culture of Hindu wrestlers is a much better example of what vegetarian diets can achieve in the sporting context. Largely unchanged over hundreds of years, Joseph Alter’s work on Hindu wrestling and club swinging stressed the importance of milk, ghee, almond paste, and fruits. Gama the Great, one of the greatest Indian wrestlers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, survived on a diet of butter, milk, ghee, and fruits.(3) Aside from tossing and slamming every European and American wrestler who crossed his path, Gama was renowned for his ability to do thousands of Hindu squats and push ups in a single training session. Gama’s diet likely mimicked that of his Hindu predecessors many centuries before him.
Turning to Europe and the United States, which was the prime focus of Game Changers, the history of vegetarian or vegan athletes is rather more modern than Ancient Rome or India. James Gregory’s work on vegetarianism in Great Britain explained that plant-based diets only came into vogue in the 1810s and 1820s.(4) Not initially a health concern, these diets were part of a moral social movement which sought to lessen the suffering of animals through plant-based diets.
The moral undertones of vegetarianism meant that vegetarians in Britain in the early nineteenth century were subject to many of the insults and criticisms still used today: they were accused of being weak, unathletic, nutritionally deficient and slightly preachy.(5) Such gibes explain why, during the 1840s and 1850s, famous vegetarian promoters in the United States, like Sylvester Graham and William Alcott, wrote about the benefits of a vegetarian diet in physical tests. Alcott, for example, credited his diet with allowing him to run the mile between his home and the post office, or, being capable of walking 78 miles over two days.(6)
Even at this juncture, the 1840s, studies on nutrition raised fears about protein deficiency. In 1842, the German scientist Justus von Liebig published Animal Chemistry, which cited the role of protein in muscle growth and repair. James Whorton’s study of ‘muscular vegetarianism’ claimed that von Liebig’s theories effectively turned public opinion against vegetarian diets.(7) This point was the case in both Britain and the United States.(8) Simply put, from the mid-nineteenth century, protein was king.
[Related: How Much Protein Do I Really Need In a Day?]
The general reaction against vegetarian and vegan diets in British and American society led to a hardening of some vegetarian groups against meat-eaters. By the second half of the nineteenth-century, specifically the 1870s, efforts were made to prove that vegetarian diets were, in fact, far healthier than those including meat. One of the most vocal, and prominent promoters of vegetarian diets at this time was John Harvey Kellogg, of Kellogg Corn Flakes fame.
What has been lost about Kellogg is that he was a well respected surgeon and entrepreneur. From the 1870s, Kellogg sold a series of nutritional supplements for vegetarians as well as overseeing health camps for those seeking to revive their health through plant-based diets. Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, a (meatless) health club in Massachusetts, helped normalise (at least somewhat) the idea of vegetarian diets.(9)
What was notable about Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium was that many of its clients returned from his camps bragging about their improved health, physiques and endurance. In effect, the Sanitarium served as a bedrock of knowledge for vegetarian diets. Similarly, Kellogg’s many connections helped pique the interest of scientists and the general public about what impact, if any, vegetarian diets could have in athletics. The ground was set for the growth of scientific studies into plant-based diets.
Rise of the Science-Based Vegetarians
The closing decades of the nineteenth century saw dozens of popular and scientific experiments pitting vegetarian and flesh eating athletes against one another. Long distance walking races, also known as pedestrianism, were particularly emphasized at the time.
In 1893, a 372-mile walking race from Berlin to Vienna was held. In first and second place respectively were two vegetarian athletes, a result James Whorton argued sent ripples across the sporting world.(10) Soon, other results started to filter through.
Several years later, a 62-mile walking race was held in Germany where 11 of the first 14 finishers were vegetarians. Another German race saw six vegetarians achieve top ten finishes in a 70-mile walking race in less than fourteen hours.(11) No meat eater, in contrast, finished the race. One of the most prolific vegetarian athletes of the age was Jonathan Barclay, secretary of the Scottish Vegetarian Society, who in 1896 competed in over twenty races from the half mile to ten miles.(12) Never finishing less than third, Barclay’s success was linked directly to his vegetarian diets.
Another German race saw six vegetarians achieve top ten finishes in a 70-mile walking race in less than fourteen hours. No meat eater, in contrast, finished the race.
As word got round about these vegetarian athletes, some researchers, like the Yale economist Irving Fisher, began to take interest. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Irving held a series of tests comparing the strength and endurance of vegetarian and omnivorous subjects. One such test took close to fifty college athletes and split them into three groups: meat eating athletes, vegetarian athletes, and sedentary vegetarians. They were then put through the following physical tests
- Rising on the toes as many times as possible.
- Deep knee-bending (a.k.a. squatting) for as many reps as possible.
- While lying on the back, raising the legs from the floor to a vertical position and lowering them again, repeating to the point of physical exhaustion.
- Overhead tricep extensions (a.k.a. The French press) with 5lb dumbbells, repeating to the point of physical exhaustion.
- Holding the arms horizontally out to the sides for as long a time as possible.
- Bicep curls for as many reps as possible. This test was taken with four successive dumbbells of decreasing weight, viz., 50, 25, 10 and 5 lbs.(13)
The result? Vegetarian athletes could not only match their meat eating counterparts but, in some instances, even best them.(14) Even more impressive was the fact that Irving’s results seemed to suggest that low protein diets were potentially advantageous. This dispelled claims that a) vegetarian diets were bad and b) that vegetarians weren’t eating “enough” protein. Much like Game Changers, Fisher’s results were latched on to as scientific proof of vegetarianism’s benefits.
So the sporting world began to take notice of plant-based diets. What, then, of the gym goers?
Vegetarian and vegan bodybuilders, although not as prevalent as today, nevertheless thrived one hundred years ago. Leading the way in this regard were two men, Bernarr MacFadden and Eustace Miles. MacFadden was one of America’s most popular and renowned fitness authorities of the early twentieth century. His Physical Culture magazine, begun in 1899, had a readership counting over 100,000 people by the end of the 1900s. Similarly, his physical culture books were routinely in high demand.(15)
What is important about MacFadden is that he linked a plant-based diet and, at times, fasting, to the creation of a strong and muscular body. In countless articles for Physical Culture, MacFadden told readers that vegetarian diets could make people leaner, healthier and stronger than ever before.
He didn’t just talk the talk either. On lecture tours, MacFadden often challenged meat eaters to best him in feats of strength and endurance. Writing many years later, MacFadden’s ex-wife remembered feats of endurance during which meat eaters collapsed on the stage, exhausted from attempting to perform more bodyweight squats than MacFadden.(16)
Importantly, MacFadden often relied on experiments, like Fisher’s, to prove the advantages of plant-based diets. This was also the approach of Eustace Miles, the British physical culturist, who likewise relied on a combination of his own athleticism and scientific diets to prove the advantage of plant-based diets. Miles was supported by another great British vegetarian athlete from the time, Emil Voigt, who won a gold medal at the 1908 Olympics in the long-distance race.(17)
Miles is particularly important in this story because of his well publicised victories. In 1908, Miles won a silver medal at the Olympic Games at the ripe old age of 40! In physical culture books, Miles told his followers that his strength and vigor was a direct result of his plant-based diet.(18) In Miles and MacFadden, the physical culture world of weight trainers and gym goers were given examples of what a plant-based diet could achieve. Importantly, both men use public displays and sport to highlight their strength, published cookbooks on vegetarianism and disproved any ideas that vegetarianism was in some way inferior.
MacFadden and Miles helped encourage individuals on both sides of the Atlantic to take up a vegetarian diet. This continued to be the case during the 1920s and 1930s when several famous weightlifting coaches, like Mark Berry, admitted to experimenting with plant-based diets. Similarly, early bodybuilders such as Lionel Strongfort, recommended something like a lacto-ovarian diet.(19) (Remember, that’s vegan with milk and eggs, what’s generally called a “vegetarian diet” today.) MacFadden kept publishing diet tracts well into the 1940s and others in the field of sport nutrition favored a vegetarian diet for athletes.
So clearly a vegetarian diet for athletes and weight trainers was favored by some. It wasn’t however, until the 1950s that some real heavy hitters began promoting it.
In the realm of sports, we continued to have successful athletes thrive on vegetarian diets. Where Paavo Nurmi, the ‘Flying Finn’, was promoted as the ideal vegetarian athlete during the 1920s, those in the mid-century looked towards Australian swimmer, Murray Rose.(20)
Rose, who won four gold medals between the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, was a vegan athlete, whose constant media attention earned him the nickname of the ‘Seaweed Streak.’ A 1961 Sports Illustrated article on Rose spoke on his importance for vegetarian and vegan athletes. Noting that this diet was style seen as an oddity, the magazine cited Rose as a champion for all vegetarian athletes.(21) Not only had his performance at the ‘56 games become ‘a showdown between the meat-eaters and the vegetarians’, Murray became a star in his own right, with journalist Arlie Schardt dubbing him the ‘Golden Boy.’(22)
What About the Average Gym Goer?
We return then to our question of what about the gym goers? The lifters? The (for want of a better term) the ‘meat heads’? They, too, were beginning to experiment more and more with these diets. South African born Roy Hilligenn was perhaps the strongest, and most impressive vegetarian bodybuilder and lifter of the age. Hilligenn won the AAU Mr. America in 1951 following a series of regional titles in South Africa. What was important about Hilligenn was that he was known and respected for his strength as well as his aesthetics. Although not an active Olympic weightlifter, Hilligenn regularly featured in Strength and Health magazine clean and jerking over 400 lbs. with ease at a bodyweight of 173 lbs.(23) By anyone’s standards, it was impressive.
The early 1950s were a particularly noteworthy time for vegetarian bodybuilders as evidenced by Manohar Aich the 4’11” bodybuilder who won the NABBA Mr. Universe contest in 1952. Aich was the first Indian to win a major bodybuilding contest and inspired countless others with his feats of strength and athleticism.(24) Aich and Hilligeen did not completely change the field but they were part of a growing movement within the fitness community.
Finishing the Century Strong
Up to the 1960s and 1970s, vegetarianism was still very much a fringe activity. What helped to effect real change was the countercultural movement which swept across much of Western Europe and the United States. Defined for many by the hippie movement, it encouraged the questioning of authority and promotion of new ideas. In 1971, Rags magazine wrote that
To many Americans, vegetarianism represents another weirdo protest of the head generation against mom-and-apple-pie-ism.
Critically, Time magazine later pointed out that being a weirdo was no longer a bad thing.(25)
This meant that vegetarian athletes and bodybuilders grew in number and respectability. In the bodybuilding world, people like Bill Pearl and Al Beckles, changed perceptions about what a top bodybuilder could look like and eat. Both subscribed to vegetarian diets. For the mere mortal, Vince Gironda regularly promoted vegetarian diets for weight trainers and bodybuilders.(26)
Interest in vegetarianism grew for athletes in the growing field of sport nutrition. In 1968, a Danish research team tested endurance cyclists fed a variety of diets. Some were given meat and vegetables, others just vegetables. The result? The vegetarians outlasted their meat eating comrades.(27) The next two decades were defined by researchers, such as A.C. Grandjean and D.C. Nieman, who studied the vegetarian diet in athletes. But that did little for the general public, what mattered more was seeing vegetarian athletes dominate their respective sports.
In the endurance world, tri-athletes like Dave Scott and Ruth Heidrich seemed to prove the superiority of vegetarian diets. They were joined by Olympic gold medalists in sprinting like Carl Lewis and even NFL players Joe Namath and Fred Dryers. On his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985, Namath told the audience that ‘I have been a vegetarian for a few years. Fred Dryer of the Rams has been one for 10 years. It shows you don’t need meat to play football.’(28)
Herschel Walker, the seemingly ageless former NFL running back, was perhaps the best sporting example of vegetarian said. Said to have spent several decades surviving primarily on soup and salads, Walker’s multi-athletic background dispelled ideas that vegetarian diets couldn’t cut it at the professional level. Walker is also important within this story because he capitalized on the public’s interest in his diet to open his own healthy food restaurants. Long before Tom Brady pushed supplements, Walker was pushing soups.(29)
By the year 2000, the fitness and sporting world got to a place where vegetarian diets, although still seen as a fringe, or indeed strange, practice, had grown in popularity. Would it ever become commonplace?
New Millenium, New Meals
Publishing on the value of vegetarian and vegan diets for athletes in 2010, Joel Fuhrman and Deana M. Ferreri noted the increasing number of athletes on plant-based diets. This phenomenon, which was several decades in the making, had started to reach a tipping point.(30) As teams and athletes continued to search for a competitive edge, the supposed promises of plant-based diets such as injury prevention, more energy, better mood etc., were attracting more and more people.
What’s interesting in this regard is that a key element in veganism’s popularity among athletes relates to pain and career longevity. When the 300 lb. NFL Linebacker, Dave Carter turned vegan in 2014, he did so to help with his tendinitis. In soccer, a number of high profile players like Chris Smalling, Jermain Defoe and Kara Lang, became vegans for ethical and health reasons. This is to say nothing of the countless tennis players, endurance athletes, rugby players and NBA stars who are now proud vegan or vegetarian diners. Reading through their interviews, it is clear that plant-based diets seem to alleviate the unavoidable pains of their sports.
It would, however, be ridiculous, not to mention the growing environmental concerns underpinning the increased popularity of plant-based diets. Across much of Europe and North America, vegan and vegetarian diets have become more normalised owing to the fact that our increasing unsteady climate has prompted some real soul searching about the ecological effects of our diets.(31) For athletes, the growing public support for plant-based diets has meant that using these diets has become acceptable, and seemingly advantageous.
What then, of the weight lifters, strength athletes and gym goers? Game Changers addressed this fact pretty well, calling on everyone from USA weightlifter Kendrick Farris to bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger. While people may dispute some of Game Changer’s claims — the reputation of vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian being one example — the documentary nevertheless pointed to the fact that you can build muscle without the use of meat.
Despite what the internet may tell you, vegetarian and vegan athletes are not particularly new. Neither are the criticisms levelled against them. Many of the myths that Game Changers set out to challenge were those that Irving Fisher’s lab examined over a century ago. The real question to ask is not why should athletes go vegetarian or vegan but rather why have vegans and vegetarians consistently had to prove the value of their diet. After one hundred years, it is time to live and let eat.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image via @sportspecific and @bb.hard_worker on Instagram.
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