Ghaas poos He-man

Updated: Dec 15, 2019, 07:56 IST | Ela Das | Mumbai

To a generation that followed "eat meat for your proteins" advice, new-age athletes are saying, we are faster, stronger, after going vegan. This gentleman can pull off this stunt with just nut milk for dinner

Martial arts practitioner and calisthenics athlete Gunjan Sharma follows a plant-based diet. Pic/Satej Shinde
Martial arts practitioner and calisthenics athlete Gunjan Sharma follows a plant-based diet. Pic/Satej Shinde

For the first 10 days after ditching meat and dairy, Siddharth Shukla was quite miserable. The 41-year-old Ironman triathaloner—who started training for triathlons in 2016, practising 15 hours a week—took the call in 2015 after a prolonged battle against kidney stones.

"Year after year, I would develop kidney stones 14 millimetres in size. That, paired with a corporate banking job, led me to falling ill frequently. While I stayed as active as possible, my blood pressure and cholesterol, too, were on the higher side." At the time, though Shukla was working in a corporate banking job, he regularly played football and practiced taekwondo.

Gunjan Sharma, Martial arts practitioner and calisthenics athlete. Pic/Satej Shinde
Gunjan Sharma, Martial arts practitioner and calisthenics athlete. Pic/Satej Shinde

Though he switched to vegetarianism in 2010, the problems persisted. Finally, on analysing his condition, he discovered that he had an excess of calcium oxalate in his body. By 2015, after connecting the dots and becoming more aware of what worked for his body, he turned to a 100 per cent plant-based diet.

"Initially, I'd feel weak and low on energy. I had cravings for refined carbs, but I stuck to consuming only raw fruits and vegetables. On the 11th day, however, I woke up with the urge to run." On that day, he ran at an average of eight minutes per kilometre. Over time, Shukla says, he noticed his stamina increasing "very quickly" and his ability to run longer distances improving. Even his breathing pattern was corrected. That his hair and skin started looking healthier was the cherry on the cake.

Kiran Kumar Raju, Cyclist. Pic/Krishna
Kiran Kumar Raju, Cyclist. Pic/Krishna

By 2017, his heart rate dropped from 86 beats per minute to 38bpm, that of an optimal athlete's. His cholesterol, which was at a high of 239 mg/dL, is now below 200 mg/dL. "At 38, I decided to start training for an Ironman Triathalon—most would think that's impossible, but, for me, turning vegan made it easier," he says.

For a generation that grew up on the "eat meat for your proteins" advice, Shukla as a top-notch advertisement for veganism may seem counter-intuitive. Yet, he is in the exalted company of Novak Djokovic and Lewis Hamilton.

Siddharth Shukla, Triathlete. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Siddharth Shukla, Triathlete. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

In fact, Djokovic and Hamilton, who have switched to veganism, are among the many producers—other names include James Cameron, Pamela Anderson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan—of the very popular documentary, The Game Changers. Having released on Netflix in October, and viewed by 158 million, the nearly two-hour film illustrates the benefits of a plant-based diet, highlighting the multiple success stories of some of the most accomplished international athletes across the globe, who've switched from eating meat to being vegan. In it, former UFC fighter James Wilks travels the world, while recovering from injury, to observe how some of the most elite sportspeople have redefined the idea of strength and recovery and its relation to meat and protein.

In recent times, cricketer and captain of the Indian national team, 31-year-old Virat Kohli has also spoken about adopting a plant-based diet. In conversation with a national newspaper last year, he said he isn't missing meat or dairy, and has substituted them by eating a rich supply of veggies, soya and drinking protein shakes. While feeling stronger, he has also noticed its calming mental effects. But he has stated in several instances that he still consumes ghee occasionally. Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri has also given up meat and dairy to get fitter. For him, it's more about being aware of what goes into his body and understanding what works best. He says that at his age, 35, it helps with recovery.

James Wilks, former UFC fighter, host of The Game Changers
James Wilks, former UFC fighter, host of The Game Changers

Martial artist and calisthenics athlete Gunjan Sharma stopped consuming meat and dairy in 2014 after observing how the food industry functions. "A chicken, which takes 70 to 80 days to fully grow, is pumped with medicines to become four kilograms in 20 days. That's not right." His diet since then has changed from being an "all-round non-vegetarian" one, to a breakfast of two coconuts with its meat, along with banana, papaya or orange; mixed-veggie juice and root vegetable patties with hummus or cashew dip and sprouts for lunch; and nut milk for dinner. For snacks, he munches on fresh fruit or roasted nuts. He prefers this over dal, sabzi and rice, since eating these foods made him sluggish.

If Shukla and Sharma noticed more energy in their body post the switch, Matt Frazier, co-author of the book, No Meat Athlete, shaved off a full 10 minutes from his marathon time after he switched in 2009. The US-based author's book is filled with information and recipes for people who are active (they don't have to be athletes) and interested in eating a plant-based diet, which specifically means no dairy or dairy products.

Sunil Chhetri and Virat Kohli say they have turned vegan
Sunil Chhetri and Virat Kohli say they have turned vegan

Frazier, much like the experts Wilks spoke to, argues that humans can get all the protein they need from whole foods, even when those foods are derived from plants. Co-author Stepfanie Romine explains, "Digestion takes a lot of energy. The more calories you eat, the more energy your body has to devote to the digestion process. The idea behind a plant-based diet for athletes is that, if you can get all the nutrients you need to repair your muscles and cardiovascular system in fewer total calories, then you can recover more efficiently. The energy that is not used for digestion can help with rebuilding, leading to faster recovery after workouts."

Sports scientist Karishma Boolani explains that the protein debate isn't clear cut. "Eating protein doesn't build muscle—you need to exercise to tear and condition your muscles, and protein helps rebuild it. So what's important is how you are incorporating your proteins." Our bodies run like engines, with carbohydrates being the primary source of energy and fats, the secondary. "If you eat more protein, the body will adapt and convert it into carbs for energy. But these cover only macronutrients, which you can source from meat or plants. However, micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are best found in plants. So in a sense, you can survive without meat, but you definitely can't thrive without plants."

Dr Anant Joshi, founder, Sportsmed Mumbai
Dr Anant Joshi, founder, Sportsmed Mumbai

And, the believers of veganism are a tribe that's growing a taste that goes beyond kale juice and avocado salads. Take for instance, footballer Nikhil Bhushan, who is currently playing for Manises Club de Futbol in Spain. The 27-year-old goalkeeper started suffering from fainting spells and breathlessness, which his doctors attributed to high acidity due to excessive meat consumption. He needed to switch his nutritional intake immediately to balance his body's pH levels. "With six-nine hours of daily rigorous training, my body wasn't able to keep up and was vulnerable to injuries and mental collapse," he says. He weaned himself off meat slowly, eating fish or chicken twice a month initially. But, it's been 21 months that he has been completely vegan. His speed and reaction timings have improved and he says he can focus better. His body fat has dropped to seven per cent from 11; and though he looks leaner, his muscle volume has increased. His heart rate rests at 39 bpm compared to 55 bpm.

Yet, if the difference is between meat and plants, why should milk-loving Indians give up their morning chai or coffee? "We've grown up learning that milk is good for you, makes your bones stronger, and is the best source of calcium. But contrary to the fact, milk has been found to suck out the calcium from your bones," says Sharma.

Stepfanie Romine
Stepfanie Romine

Kuntal Joisher, a professional mountaineer who has scaled Mount Everest twice, gave up dairy in 2002 after seeing the atrocities of the dairy industry. "Dairy farming also has the same cycle of suffering for animals as the meat industry. As a consumer, I felt like I had to take a stand—we can control the market with our choices." About his climb, he recalls, "Out of the eight of us who were scaling the mountain, I was the only vegan. The rest were all-round meat eaters. Through the journey, as the climb got tougher, the rest suffered severe bouts of diarrhoea and exhaustion, which I thankfully didn't take to."

If Joisher and Sharma argue that it's the production of dairy and meat that made them switch, Wilks, who we connected with over email, says, "As the evidence presented in the film shows, it isn't so much the source of the meat, but the fact that we aren't biologically equipped for an animal-based diet, that lays the foundation for the argument. In fact, for the two blood flow experiments we featured in the film, we intentionally chose organic, grass-fed, free-range beef, pork and chicken to show that plant-based sources of protein and fat still yielded far superior results."

Matt Frazier
Matt Frazier

But, not everyone agrees that a wholly plant-based diet is the panacea humans are looking for. Dr Anant Joshi, founder of Sportsmed Mumbai, also a competitive cyclist, says Wilks' documentary can be chalked down to just another food fad. "I believe in enjoying your food to benefit from it. If you eat something you don't like, you're not going to be healthy—definitely not mentally healthy," he laughs, adding, "The importance is a well-balanced meal. Most vegetarians or vegans don't seem to be eating the right vegetables to get all the nutrition they need.

And consuming protein powders and whey shakes over a prolonged period as a substitute has led to an increase in uric acid levels in patients." Professional cyclist Kiran Kumar Raju, who trains for 18-22 hours per week, warns that what works for Djokovic may not work for the average person. "A lot of the international sportsmen featured in this documentary have a team of food managers catering to every dietary need and this comes at a high cost. Most people, even the most elite athletes, can't afford that."

No Meat Athlete
No Meat Athlete

And, just so you don't think a vegan switch will make you healthy, electronics engineer Chandi Das who specialises in diagnostic medical imaging and is a lifelong mountaineer and cyclist, points out: "Overall, your food won't make you healthy. You need to focus on regular exercise to target a healthy heart rate while working out for circulation."

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