Fighting for Veganism: New Diets in MMA
by Lily Prasuethsut
I’ve always been pegged as being small because I was a picky eater when I was younger. After becoming a vegetarian at age twelve and remaining under five feet tall, my petite stature was then blamed on not eating meat. Fast-forward ten years. I’m still a vegetarian, and I’m much smaller than my fourteen-year-old sister. Of course I never blamed my height on my choice (I blame genes actually) but relatives still bother me about my strange choice of straying from meat as the cause of my smallness. Imagine my surprise then when I read about a burgeoning emergence of vegetarianism and veganism in, of all places, mixed martial arts (MMA).
I know little of the professional fighting world, but it’s apparent that in addition to intensive training, nutrition and specific diets increase the potential of winning a match, not to mention putting on the needed weight. Upon further research, I came across interviews, diet plans, and even recipes of MMA fighters who have been vegetarian and vegan, converted to the dietary lifestyle, and many who have removed the emphasis from meat protein to vegetable and nut protein. A few of the names of such fighters I found were: Mac Danzig, James Wilks, Mike Mahler, Jon Fitch, Jake Shields, Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, Ricardo Moreira, and Georgi Karakhanyan. I’ve included some interesting bits and pieces of interviews from some of the previously mentioned fighters to give a sense of how their eating habits have influenced their performance, matches, and lifestyle.
“I love proving people wrong. I’m not trying to preach to people to not eat meat, but I just like to show people there is an alternative.”
“I’ve grown up this way, so it’s what I’m used to…I feel great this way and I plan on staying a vegetarian. My whole life people trying to get me to eat meat, telling me I couldn’t be a top athlete like this.”
“It’s good to be an example that you can do what you want. James Wilks just went vegan, I think last month. He just called me and I know more and more guys are doing it. I think that’s pretty cool,” Shields said. “I’m starting a trend maybe.”
Has being vegan helped your training and helped you maintain your weight class?
Absolutely. When I decided to go vegan, I was able to make the 155-pound weight class much easier, and I haven’t lost an ounce of muscle. I’m leaner than I used to be, and I have much more energy than I used to.
What are your favorite vegan foods generally, and what do you eat when you’re training?
When I’m not in training, I eat Soy Delicious ice cream and vegan chocolate chip cookies like they’re going out of style. There’s also some awesome vegan restaurants out here in L.A., like Native Foods, that have great vegan pizza. When I’m in training, I eat a lot of brown rice, tofu, oatmeal, and of course lots of vegetables and fruit.
How’d you get started in MMA?
I grew up doing Kenpo Karate. And eventually I competed in full contact karate. In March of 2007, I competed in the first legitimate MMA event in San Francisco. And I was the first event on that card, so in essence, I am the first MMA fighter to get in the cage in San Fran history. I had just become a vegan too! I thought I was the only vegan fighter doing this, until I came across Mac Danzig. That was really refreshing to know there were other people out there doing this.
What kind of feedback do you get from other MMA fighters about being vegan?
Not too many people give me a hard time. I’ve trained with a lot of guys who are vegetarians and there’s a lot of attention paid to individual diets. Everyone understands that fighters do different things to get ready for fights. Lots of fighters eat similar diets to make weight for fights. Living in San Francisco helps a lot too. This is a veg friendly area. I think people are a little more open minded and understanding.
I understand that beans, lentil, quinoa, etc. all contain a pretty complete amino acid profile, but up against a piece of grilled chicken can it really compare?
Yes, when you combine legumes with nuts and seeds you’re creating a perfect protein meal and also a nice balance of protein, fat, and carbs. Meat is loaded with a lot of toxins especially if the meat is not 100% organic. The animals are fed garbage and then you eat the animals. Eating unhealthy animals and thinking that it is healthy is asinine. Protein is essentially a source of amino acids. Your body does not care what the source is whether a vegan source or meat source. You can certainly give your body what it needs on a vegan diet and make it work as I have.
On training days I have two protein shakes per day. I eat light during the day and then have my main meal at night. This is an eating style that I picked up from my friend Ori Hofmekler, author of The Warrior Diet. A typical day for me is a protein super shake in the morning after my morning cardio workout. This may consist of two scoops of sun warrior rice protein, 1 cup of frozen fruit, 4oz of light coconut milk, 1 tablespoon of Udo’s oil, ¼ teaspoon of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and 8oz of water. This super shake gets me through most of the day. I like protein shakes for breakfast, as they are easy to assimilate. I do not want to waste a lot of energy on digestion when I am busy and active. I have another protein shake thirty minutes after my evening strength training workouts. This shake is similar to the one I have in the morning.
“There is no way that you can get big and strong on a vegan diet! I used to hear this all the time from my meat-eating friends. I say, used to as I never hear it anymore from people that know me or from people that have seen my photos on my website. Yes my friends, you can in fact get bigger and stronger on a vegetarian diet. You can even do it on a vegan diet (no animal products whatsoever). Just because the pot smoking, rice dream eating hippie vegetarian in Venice Beach, CA looks like he has not eaten in a month, does not mean that every vegan does. I have the strength and size to back up the fact that you can get strong and have a muscular body on a vegan diet and I am far from being the only one.”
What do you say to fellow fighters who say, “You can’t fight if you’re a vegetarian!”
I would tell them, “I don’t need to eat meat to kick their ass!”
That last quote is now one of my favorites. From the interviews I’ve read, it seems like a good number of fighters are turning to a vegetarian and vegan diet with great success. These guys are highly trained – and rather frighteningly enormous – vegetarians and vegans. Amazing. Take that relatives; it goes to show that you don’t need animal products to be a big and healthy champion.