Days after sitting during the national anthem to protest police shootings of African American men, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was thrust into the spotlight for another controversial choice – his vegan diet.
Kaepernick weighed in at around 225 pounds before he left the field to undergo procedures for his shoulder, knee and thumb earlier this year. Unable to work out for several months, he lost a significant amount of weight and muscle mass – a change that was not lost on fans. He recently announced that he has been following a vegan diet and not consuming animal products for the last 10 months.
Kaepernick told The Sacramento Bee that he feels good on the diet and that it has not hindered his ability to put on weight. Still, fans have questioned and even criticized the lifestyle change on social media, worried that without eating meat, he won’t be able to put on the pounds he needs to get back in the game.
The concern is unfounded, supporters of the plant-based diet say. They cite other professional football players who eat vegan or mostly vegan, including Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and defensive lineman David Carter, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, who calls himself “the 300-pound vegan” on Instagram.
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Matt Ruscigno, a Los Angeles dietitian with a master’s in public health and co-author of a book called “No Meat Athlete,” said he has been following Kaepernick’s journey closely and believes that the quarterback, like anyone on a meatless diet, can get the protein required to build muscle mass by choosing the right combination of foods.
A lot of people lose weight when they first go vegan because they replace meat and butter with salads and don’t necessarily know where to find calorically dense foods, Ruscigno said. But if they seek out more high-calorie, high-protein foods and eat them in greater quantities, he said, they won’t have any trouble gaining it back.
“As soon as you mention plant-based and sports, everyone gets concerned about protein, but it comes from a place where people don’t understand nutrition,” he said. “We associate protein with animal products. But the best sources of plant-based proteins are beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Even vegetables have protein. It’s just a matter of eating enough.”
NFL player Carter once told media outlets that he consumed 10,000 calories per day in rice, beans, cashew cheese, hemp protein, fruits and veggies. Ruscigno tells his vegan clients to try rice and beans with avocado and salsa, or stir-fried vegetables in brown rice with tofu and peanut sauce.
While most people on a vegan diet don’t need a protein supplement to stay healthy, Ruscigno recommends that those trying to bulk up add a protein shake made from pea, hemp or soy.
“Everyone, vegans especially, need to eat a varied diet,” he said. “You can be a lazy omnivore and get plenty of protein. Colin does have to work a little bit harder to get enough protein, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible once he works it out.”
However, Dr. Ed J. Hendricks, a bariatric physician at the Center for Weight Management in Sacramento and Roseville, disagrees with that advice.
“It’s my opinion that vegan diets are dangerous to your health,” he said. “Vegetable protein is not of the same quality as protein found in meat and eggs and animal products. It doesn’t have the same amino acid mix. While it’s possible to eat enough protein to maintain your muscle mass, someone like Colin Kaepernick probably needs more protein than he’s able to get on a vegan diet.”
The problem, Hendricks said, is that people trying to bulk up on rice and beans will gain weight from the carbohydrates before they get enough protein to build muscles. They end up overweight and without much strength, he said.
When Sacramento bodybuilder Jonna Edwinson first started giving up animal products seven years ago, she had to work hard to find the right balance of carbs and proteins, she said. She took a break from shows for four years while she let her body adjust to veganism and found protein supplements she liked. When she started competing again in 2013, she actually had far more muscle mass than when she was eating animal products, and by 2015 she was winning competitions, she said.
“Most body builders will be on a high-protein, low-carb diet,” she said. “You can’t really do that on a vegan diet – most of the high-protein foods like quinoa have high carbs as well. It’s important to do enough cardio to keep your protein up but keep the weight down.”
Edwinson, 31, now competes in natural figure competitions with the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation and is sponsored by Vega, a vegan protein supplement company. Her diet consists of protein shakes, grains, beans, greens and nut butters.
“I had more energy, my skin cleared up,” she said of her appearance after going vegan. “It just showed that I didn’t need animal products to put on the muscle mass.”