Sex, lies and beetroot juice: true confessions of a vegetarian runner
Ian O’Riordan: A number of high-profile athletes swear by the vegan diet
Serena Williams is among the elite athletes who have adopted a plant-based diet. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Bless me vegetarians for I have sinned: it’s been 36 hours since my last venison ragu. Sometimes there is only so long one man can survive on nuts and berries in the wilds of the Wicklow Mountains before the call of the Roundwood Inn. Especially now that winter has properly landed.
Maybe the truth is in the tasting. There’s been a lot of debate this week about the benefits or otherwise of not eating red meat, chicken, fish, pork and whatever other pieces of flesh you might like on your dinner plate. On one side, people like the 20 food scientists whose research was published in the Lancet Medical Journal, suggesting meat consumption in western countries such as Ireland may need to drop by 90 per cent to avert a climate catastrophe and reverse our obesity epidemic.
On the other side, people like Independent TD Danny Healy-Rae, who believes that for anyone who does “a hard day’s work, there’s nothing to bring you back and to revive you again than a piece of good meat”, and that it’s “easy to know these people that are suggesting that we should give up eating meat, they never did a day’s work”. Or better still: “If there was a shovel put into their hands they’d starve with the hunger because they won’t make it until dinner time.”
Even our running-fit Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted he was cutting back on meat “for health reasons and for reasons of climate change”, before promptly adding he’d eaten “a very nice Hereford steak” the night before, as well he might, given our own meat and livestock exports amounted to €3.97 billion last year.
Without adding to the confusion, the untruths, or the indeed lies, my shift towards being vegetarian began in college in America, 25 years ago already, when running at least 100 miles a week, studying pretty hard at the same time too. Without ever being religious or devout about it, the reasons weren’t necessarily ethical or moral, but in truth mostly financial. Plus all the clean-burning and ultra-efficient foods as fuel happened to be meat free.
Granted, there was no climate change back then, only some loose warning that being vegetarian could sometimes result in a decreased sex drive, unless properly substituted by beetroot juice or some other blood-red vegetable. The beetroot juice must still be working for me. And even without buying, cooking or handling any meat in at least 10 years it’s not yet a forbidden fruit – especially not when it melts in the mouth as easily as a venison ragu, or indeed a seafood chowder.
Even accounting for this occasional flexitarian – that wonderfully worded category of devotees who don’t feel any great need to make up their mind – part of the confusion here is the notion that no proper athlete, or hard-working person for that matter, could survive for very long without eating meat. Which is both a lie and untrue.
Most elite athletes I know are hard-core carnivores; few admit to being devout vegetarian. Pure veganism is another matter but there is plenty of clear and present evidence that a plant-based diet takes nothing away from athletic performance – and in some cases enhances it.
Anyone closely following the tennis over in Melbourne may have heard Serena Williams singing the praises of her vegan diet, especially since giving birth to daughter, Olympia, and originally inspired by her sister Venus, who went vegan in 2011 to combat her Sjogren’s syndrome.
Same with Novak Djokovic, who like me is not religious about it, but recently told Forbes magazine that “eating vegan makes me more aware of my body on the court, more alert”, and that “as an athlete, the most important thing is to keep your energy levels consistent, and for me, the right fuel is plant-based”. So much so that Djokovic opened a vegan restaurant, Eqvita, in Monte Carlo in 2016.
Carl Lewis is still hailed as one of the first properly elite athletes to go vegetarian, back in 1991, and whatever else he might have been on, that happened to be the same year he ran his 100 best of 9.86 seconds, and long jumped a best of 8.87 metres. At other extremes, ultra-marathon record breakers Scott Jurek and Rich Roll are both devout vegans, as is four-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, Britain’s former boxing world champion David Haye, and MMA fighter Nate Diaz, who praised his vegan diet after first taking out Conor McGregor in 2016.
Surprised yet? I could go on. Listen to Mike Tyson talk about how the vegan lifestyle has helped clean up his act for more evidence. And without being devout about it, the new Beyond Burger, made entirely from plants and with Leonardo DiCaprio among its investors, is especially delicious post-run, oozing with beetroot juice for that meaty red hue.