One of the most polarising lifestyles in today’s society is that of veganism, a derivative of the vegetarian diet that excludes meat, eggs, dairy and all other animal-derived ingredients. Many who adopted this lifestyle reference environmental reasons or an alternative to the animal cruelty perpetuated by the industrialisation of the meat and dairy industry as the main grounds for their support of this doctrine.
Although benign in its intent veganism was largely met with hostility and often vilification from early on. Vegans were boxed in and portrayed as hypersensitive, self absorbed, of lower testosterone, lacking nutrients or worst – against the human race. This having been an envelope pushed in popular culture by well known figures, the biggest in martial arts world being UFC commentator Joe Rogan who portrayed them as such in his stand-up comedy and on his podcast the Joe Rogan Experience.
Many who adopt the plant based method will tell you of this pressure, be it through media or through the usual barrage of ‘light-hearted’ comments at the dinner table. Vegan BJJ athlete Victor Silvério believes that this insistence comes from a place of discomfort: “a lot of people are interested in starting this kind of diet but (…) It’s just easier to accept that you can’t if nobody can. Also, the food has the power to connect people. People choose people based on similarities they with others, and diet can be with one of those similarities. And that is why this has been my biggest challenge.”
But even Joe Rogan has toned down on his anti-plant based rhetoric in recent times, a sign of an evolution that seems to be taking place in understanding vegans as this dietary choice slowly walks towards mainstream acceptance. The message and efficiency of this process has reached different branches of the sporting world and is rapidly spreading to Brazilian jiu jitsu.
Among the first vocal voices for the movement in BJJ was that of US black belt pioneer, member of the Dirty Dozen – Dave Meyer as well as BJJ photographer William Burkhardt, who used his brand (BJJ Pix) to spread the benefits of a plant based lifestyle and suffered plenty of backlash from his decision. As time moves on we are now at a stage where some of the world’s top grapplers, including Joao and Paulo Miyao or the aforementioned Silvério actively use their social accounts to discuss personal positive experiences with the vegan method.
Former UFC middleweight champion, the late Evan Tanner often spoke of “The Power of One“, a philosophy he strongly advocated for and a tool often used by the plant based community. This was an important part of how ADCC veteran and Brazilian national champion Felipe Cesar got on board with veganism. Already aware of the environmental damages caused by the meat industry through his reading habits, communicating with teammates Paulo and Joao Miyao (and a few others) helped Felipe make his mind up.
In Victor Silvério’s case it was a history of high blood pressure in the family that geared him towards the aforementioned lifestyle. After reading “How Not to Die” Victor felt encouraged to give it a start as he explained: “The story behind the book, caught my attention. The writer’s grandma was diagnosed with an end stage heart disease when she was 65 years old. The doctors said there was nothing else to be done. She found this new program that a Doctor Ornish was doing based on a plant based diet and exercises, simply changing her lifestyle. This program gave her more 31 years, she died at 96 years of age and not of heart disease.” After due research he also took on the environmental issues that come into play and decided he wanted to do his part “for a better world”.
When it comes to the effects of a vegan diet on a BJJ competitor there is also plenty of misconception. For Silverio “the changes are more brutal in the beginning for whatever we do. I can’t say that I felt weaker, but I did lose some weight. I also feel that I have more energy during the day and when I wake up. No more snoozes in the morning.”
From the standpoint of a full time athlete Silverio believes the biggest plus that came from a plant based diet was a fastest digestive system which help him cut weight – “It’s easier to control [your weight] based on a fast digestive system and a whole balanced body.”
For the Swede Sebastian Brosche, longtime competitor in judo and jiu jitsu, founder of Yoga for BJJ as well as a medalist at the IBJJF World and European Championship the main challenge was that of changing habits while hungry: “I did all the normal mistakes of an overnight convert, which was cutting out products before finding a replacement. Back then plant based products were few, far between and were notoriously pricy.”
Having been solely plant based for over 5 years, Brosche mentions being “converted after watching a lecture on YouTube, where a guy [Gary Yorofsky] made a bunch of compelling moral arguments against meat consumption. I was raised on almost exclusively milk meat and potatoes, so I was heavily biased against vegetarianism for most of my life.” going on to say that “the one biggest benefit [to veganism] is that it is a sound choice. Making sound choices is the most important thing we can do. All of the above are contributing factors, but since it’s easiest to care about your own body I want to reiterate that there is no other proven way to, for example, reverse heart disease, than a properly planned, plant based food regime. That says a lot: if it can even reverse an existing disease, imagine how strong through preventative effects this small change will make over the years!”
A regular talking point against plant based diets is that it “lacks protein”, but one of the most entertaining black belts on the planet and long time plant based athlete, Francisco ‘Sinistro’ Iturralde disagrees: “I strongly believe that all this protein is not needed, at least for me. As long as I have enough fat and keep my calorie intake high to go through my training session.”
Unity BJJ black belt Felipe Cesar mentions that he uses plant based supplements to increase his protein intake, referencing that an advantage in veganism is drastically lowering the consumption of “processed foods, which has plenty of benefits in the long run”.
What was once an extremely niche diet choice in combat sports gyms, applied only to a handful of members of the ‘Scrap Pack’ – The Diaz Brothers, Jake Shields or Kron Gracie, the plant based movement has been growing in numbers with high profile vegan grapplers taking the spotlight, including the Miyao’s, Enrico Cocco, Italy’s top black belt Luca Anacoreta, those referenced on this piece and many more. Does this mean we are witnessing a take over of BJJ’s sub-culture similar to that of Acaí did in the 1990’s? We will find out.