Should sportspeople’s nutrition books come with a health warning?

Athletics: What we’ve learnt is that there is no single dietary route to peak performance

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady: The 43-year-old  hasn’t gone full vegan, still allowing himself some lean red meat and fish as prepared by his personal chef.  Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady: The 43-year-old hasn’t gone full vegan, still allowing himself some lean red meat and fish as prepared by his personal chef. Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP

 

Excuse that quick splashing of raw cacao butter into my freshly brewed black coffee and the slow nibbling on organic walnuts. And before anyone thinks that’s the best way to start an athletics column, I wouldn’t recommend it, except to say it works for me.

Truth is any mention of food or drink on the sports pages these days should probably come with some sort of health warning, for better or for worse, and nowhere is that more apt right now than around Tom Brady.

Six months before turning 44, Brady will make his 10th Super Bowl appearance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, further extending the record nine he set with the New England Patriots, winning six of them.

Since 2017, Brady has been practising and preaching the apparent benefits of a plant-based diet, adamant that what he eats and drinks helps explain his longevity on the field – and presumably off it too. Brady hasn’t gone full vegan, still allowing himself some lean red meat and fish as prepared by his personal chef, but has cut out all dairy and refined sugars, claiming his diet is now 80 per cent vegetables, whole grains and beans.

Spedding’s book isn’t selling one particular food group over another (nor does it contain a single recipe, for that matter)

Naturally, he’s written the book too – The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance – and also promotes his own brand of TB12 supplements which are entirely vegan (12 must be lucky for Brady, the number of both his NFL jersey and his principles of health).

Parts of the TB12 method are perfectly nutritionally sound (fresh whole foods are best for everybody); other parts (such as drinking half your body weight in water every day) more pseudoscientific and potentially dangerous. Though only warning off fruits such as strawberries because he doesn’t like them, for many people the TB12 method is overly restrictive or simply unsustainable. But hey, he’s Tom Brady.

Bronze medal

Charlie Spedding never won a Super Bowl, only an Olympic bronze medal in the marathon, and is probably still familiar to many here for finishing on the heels of our own John Treacy in Los Angeles in 1984 (they entered the Memorial Coliseum together, Treacy running 67 seconds for the last lap on the track to move away on the backstretch, finishing two seconds ahead).

Spedding also won the 1984 London Marathon, and is still the third-fastest ever British runner over the classic distance, an old-school tough runner.

Spedding was also a pharmacist for 35 years, as was his father, before retiring early in 2012, convinced his profession had become more about treating the symptoms of illness and not the cause. He then spent seven years researching his book – Stop Feeding Us Lies: How Health and Happiness Come to Those Who Seek the Truth – and, like Brady, appears to practice every bit as much as he preaches.

The difference is that Spedding’s book isn’t selling one particular food group over another (nor does it contain a single recipe, for that matter). He does distinguish between what’s pure, white and deadly (sugar) and what’s pure, white and healthy (salt) and uncovers some truths and lies about cholesterol, and ultimately decides that, for athletic purposes or otherwise, the best foods are those that come from the farm or fisherman and not from the factory.

For the occasionally devout vegan such as myself, Spedding’s thoughts on plant-based diets were of obvious interest, his main claim being vegans are perfectly entitled to their opinion, just not to shove it down the throats of any meat eaters. And ethical or environmental factors aside, all vegan athletes need to be extra careful about what they eat and drink so they don’t end up getting run down.

Flippant

Part of the truth (or lie) around veganism is that it’s not something as flippant as going Veganuary. Plenty of successful athletes have cut out meat altogether – Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Nate Diaz among them – but it can be more difficult for those straddling a professional training environment while staying within amateur guidelines, such as the senior GAA intercounty player.

Daniel Davey has recently completed the first research paper on that subject, along with Shane Malone and Brendan Egan, entitled Case Study: Transition to a Vegan Diet in an Elite Male Gaelic Football Player. (The player involved isn’t identified other than that he is a prominent forward on the Dublin senior football team, and three-time All Star award winner).

Davey is eminently qualified: a performance nutritionist with Leinster rugby and the Dublin senior football team, he played senior football with his native Sligo and won an All-Ireland club football medal in 2016 with Ballyboden St Enda’s. He also grew up on a small family farm in Sligo, and on that front alone admits he was naturally biased towards eating meat and other traditional sources of protein.

“There is a lot of nonsense, and confusion, and misinformation around this, and I was certainly happy to remove some of my own bias,” he says. “And even though to me it was black-and-white, putting this paper out was still seen as some type of endorsement, whereas it absolutely isn’t. All we have done is proven, in one particular situation, with one committed athlete, what can be done.

“Without question, I felt there might be difficulties, it would be too much of a task to take on the extra work involved in meeting the requirements of an elite athlete’s diet. I expected, potentially, that the performance outcome measures could be compromised.”

Performance indicators

The player involved adopted the vegan diet at the start of 2019, and his key performance indicators were then measured throughout the playing season (which culminated in Dublin winning a fifth successive All-Ireland). The research found that despite the “many logistical challenges and potential nutrient inadequacies”, the performance indicators, physiological information and feedback indicated “an elite level of athletic performance and body composition can be maintained after transition to a vegan diet”.

Still, Davey would be slow to recommend it to anyone. “In many ways it’s more difficult for a GAA player than a professional player, the likes of Tom Brady, who have their own chef, or simply a lot more time. There are lots of variables, so it’s not easy to just copy and paste. Going vegan, there has to be transition period, a whole lifestyle change, a change in mindset, you need the time and resources available.

“So I still wouldn’t encourage going vegan, but understand if you can meet your requirements, I have no issues. It is person-dependent. There are multiple ways people can reach peak health and performance, that’s the beauty of food. People have to understand what fits their need, that’s what I try to educate people on, also implement myself. Like, say, having a fish day, a meat day, a vegetarian day now and again, a true mix of what works.”

Which as an occasionally devout vegan I wouldn’t recommend, except to say it works for me.

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