“I don’t want to be vegan,” David Carter once said to his wife. “That’s for weaklings.”
At the time, Carter was an NFL defensive end, weighing in at more than 300 pounds. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was raised on barbecue at his family’s restaurant and felt that meat was his source of strength, so there was no way that he’d ever adopt his wife’s vegan diet.
That is, until he started to experience health issues that affected his career, which ended in 2015.
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“I had been big and strong,” Carter says. “But . . . I was taking medication for high blood pressure and suffering from nerve damage” and as a result, he had a hard time doing bench presses and pushups. On Feb. 14, 2014, his attitude suddenly changed: “I was drinking a milkshake and watching the [animal rights documentary] “Forks Over Knives.” And I just thought to myself, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’
“I got up, threw out the milkshake and went vegan.”
For many athletes who have switched to a vegan lifestyle, the change was prompted by reasons similar to Carter’s. Poor health plagued Rich Roll before he adopted a plant-based diet and began a career as a world-class ultramarathoner in his 40s. And tennis star Venus Williams famously chose a raw vegan regimen five years ago after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an immune-system disorder that caused her joint pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Along with these stories comes a common query from incredulous non-vegans: “How do you get enough protein?”
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“It’s always the first question,” says Torre Washington, a bodybuilder who has been following a vegan diet for 18 years, laughing. “But you really don’t need protein to get shredded and lean.
“I’m looking for nutrients and focused on variety.”
Indeed, vegan athletes including Washington and 10-time Olympic medalist Carl Lewis — who retired from athletic competition in 1997 and has said that athletes have “the worst diets in the world and compete in spite of it” — tend to agree that athletes should put an emphasis on increased calories when in training, as opposed to more protein. “I’ve never met a patient who has had a protein deficiency,” said sports dietitian Susan Levin, who is also a vegan and recreational runner. “It’s really a nonissue.”
Ashley Koff, a registered dietitian, agrees that “we tend to overemphasize the amount of protein that we need”
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