"You have to see what works for you. Not do it just because Sunil Chhetri is doing it."

So says Sunil Chetri, the 35-year-old captain of the Indian football team. He turned to a strictly plant-based diet on 10 December, a date he remembers clearly, after trying and failing to stick to the regime on previous attempts. This time, the star footballer, who had eaten meat for most of his life, had to make the switch for health reasons.

He realized that he was tiring more easily on the pitch, which is detrimental to a career that is as reliant on speed and fitness as on skill. The new diet not only made him lighter—he lost a few kilograms—but faster, without losing muscle mass.

While Chhetri refuses to be pushy about it, his India and Bengaluru FC teammate, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, is trying what Chhetri started 11 months ago. “I wish I knew the things that I know now about food, 10 years ago," Sandhu says in a text message.

Sandhu’s reasons are both ethical and personal. He is doing it both for physical enhancement, like better recovery, good gut chemistry and fewer inflammations, as well as for the effect the food industry (meat and dairy) has on the environment and the climate.

Other athletes who are on predominantly plant-based diets echo the sentiment, the most common one being “recovery". India’s cricket team captain Virat Kohli, mountaineer Kuntal Joisher, and L. Sathishwaran, once a top 10 Indian TT player, are some of the others who are breaking myths about the connection between meat and high-intensity sporting performances.

Propelling the idea is Netflix’s new documentary The Game Changers, which has among its executive producers heavy-duty names like vegan athletes Lewis Hamilton (Formula One) and Novak Djokovic (tennis), Arnold Schwarzenegger (actor, former bodybuilder) and Jackie Chan (actor, martial arts practitioner). The film lists a series of active and former sportspeople who excelled on a plant-based diet, including Olympians Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis and Morgan Mitchell, fighter Nate Diaz, cyclist Dotsie Bausch, ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek, besides the world’s “strongest man", Patrik Baboumian.

For years now, athletes’ need for muscle mass, stamina and the ability to sustain intensive training day after day was linked to animal protein, which was considered imperative for building strength. Feeding the notion was pop culture, like the advertisements promoting dairy and eggs in India or meat in the West. Mumbai-based nutritionist and lifestyle coach Vinita Contractor refers to the film Dangal, in which the father (played by Aamir Khan) of a vegetarian household encourages his wrestler daughters to eat non-vegetarian food for strength. A self-deprecating sequence in The Game Changers shows a scene from a film in which Schwarzenegger tells another character that he “hits like a vegetarian".

But new studies and practices are increasingly proving otherwise.

“I stopped competing eight years ago and there was not so much information then," says three-time Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Stephanie Rice, who was in Mumbai recently. “Had I known what I know now, if I were still competing, I would definitely be a vegan athlete."

“After I turned 30," says Chhetri on the phone, “I was tempted to leave meat and I did for a month. But it was on and off. I could not realize exactly how much my body is gaining by not consuming meat."

He consulted a doctor towards the end of last year, laughing about how it was possibly age that was leading to fatigue. But he was told to stop consuming meat and dairy if he wanted “magic to happen". He did some research and found other top athletes were going in the same direction.

“After eight weeks, I realized I should have started this a long time back," adds Chhetri. “The concept of global warming, killing animals, etc., came later. I started this because I wanted to be healthier on the pitch. This is one of the best things I have done in my life."

He has frequent chats with Kohli, discussing what they have tried and how it has worked, a brotherhood of leading sports role models munching on quinoa, avocado and pomegranates alongside other fruits and leafy vegetables.

“For me it was health-related," says Kohli. “My body was getting acidic because of too much meat. My stomach started pulling calcium from my bones and my bones were becoming weak. I will never touch meat again. It has been a year and half and I have never felt better vis-à-vis my energy level."

Sandhu adds, “It has helped me achieve better self-care, promote healthy eating and, in some way, help the planet—be it in a small way."

In 2009, when Kuntal Joisher decided to climb Mt Everest, he weighed 110kg—he is 80 now. While researching the climb, he came across this line from another climber: You need a top of the world mind and body to get to the top of the world.

Joisher had turned vegan in 2002, when he was studying in the US, but his quest forced him to examine his food habits closely. “A lot of people think if you suddenly become vegan, you become healthy. That does not mean the same. I could eat dabeli, pizza and everything deep-fried and I would never be healthy because I am eating crap," he says.

He changed form, hydration, sleep levels but nothing worked till he reached out to a dietician specializing in plant-based nutrition. “It was the turning point to my journey. When you eat heavier food, GI (gastrointestinal) system, bowel movements, etc., get affected. More nutrition and fibrous food has made my GI work well."

This year, when he was on Everest—he had summited once before in 2016—the other seven members of his team had GI issues, like diarrhoea, or chest infection at least twice during the climb. Joishier didn’t.

Sathishwaran gave up eating meat, his favourite grilled chicken in particular, because he used to suffer from frequent colds and coughs. Around 2013, influenced also by ethical reasons, he first became a vegetarian and later gave up dairy too. He became calmer, he says, and less aggressive—Chhetri echoes the sentiment.

“It helped me mentally, I could be more stable. I can see these changes because my body and muscles respond better," says Sathishwaran.

Chhetri believes you have to figure it out for yourself. “There is no harm in trying it for six-eight weeks because meat is not going anywhere—at least for the time being, sadly. If you feel better and if you are convinced your body can function properly or better without meat, the only thing left is that you are eating for taste. A lot of people depend highly on dairy, so it takes time."

While some nutritionists say plant-based diets improve arterial flexibility, blood flow and, in turn, oxygen supply to the muscles, they are also rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients which help in faster recovery. A healthy plant-based diet fuels activity and healthy complex carbohydrates improve energy and stamina, believes Nellore-based R. Saravanan, a nutrition and lifestyle medical consultant.

“Scientifically, your diet becomes alkaline when you are on a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables," says Dehradun-based holistic health coach Bhavna Kapoor.

Common concerns for vegans, which The Game Changers addresses as well, are related to getting enough vitamins and minerals through this diet, particularly calcium, protein and B12. But most nutritionists and athletes agree that there are enough of these in vegetables to take care of all nutritional needs and one does not need the “middlemen" of animals to provide them for all these.

“In urban life, there is a B12 deficiency for all because water is treated. We don’t drink from natural sources such as streams. Due to unhealthy diets as well as pesticides in our produce, our gut health isn’t at its best," says Contractor.

“It’s not easy all the time," says Kohli, who is vegan 90% of the time. “Sometimes, I eat ghee, which is healthy for you. But this (diet) is the best decision I have made."

What about getting enough calcium? He shrugs before walking off, “That’s all marketing."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

Close