How one vegan footballer believes a change in diet is helping to keep injury at bay

Interview: Scotland and Birmingham City Women midfielder Chloe Arthur opens up on the benefits which have led her to join a growing number of footballers turning to a vegan diet

Louis Mitchell
Wednesday 20 February 2019 17:11 GMT
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Meat and team may share the same letters, but an increasing number of footballers are trading chicken for chickpeas in the push for perfect performance.

“Don’t worry, I used to love bacon,” admits vegan Chloe Arthur, the Scotland and Birmingham City Women defensive midfielder.

Plant-based for almost a year, she sings the praises of the in-season diet that has converted footballers such as Chris Smalling, in an endeavour to stay fit. The Manchester United defender says he no longer feels his tendinitis thanks to veganism.

Not to mention the world’s first all-vegan football club, League Two’s Forest Green Rovers, who have been vegan since 2014. Chairman Dale Vince oversaw Rovers’ promotion to the Football League under the adopted diet.

Cutting out all animal products is a growing craze. According to Compare the Market, 3.5million Brits share this budding plant passion.

Reaching their highest point in history, worldwide online searches for the word ‘vegan’ have skyrocketed over recent years. What used to be a niche lifestyle choice is now a mass-market reality.

However, the 24-year-old Scotland international laughs off suggestions that she is one who followed the crowd.

“I feel like it’s becoming more of a trend, or a fashion, or whatever you want to call it to be vegan now. Over the last six months or so it has become easier to change your diet,” Arthur explains.

“Why slaughter animals when you can get all the nutritious meals without having to do that?”

Concerns over sustainability and animal cruelty are common reasons for turning plant-based.

“There are not really any downsides to it… I feel better for doing it [going vegan]. I would recommend it to anyone.”

Forest Green Rovers head chef, Em Franklin (Getty)

The versatile midfielder says she found changing to veganism smoother than expected because Birmingham’s strength and conditioning coach, Carl Green, happened to be a vegan.

A summer transfer from Bristol City, Arthur tells us that, surprisingly, Blues Women do not provide any meals, therefore preparation is key in sticking to her vegan diet.

“For breakfast I would have either porridge or toast with peanut butter or avocado or something like that. Nothing extravagant.

“If I have a double or hard session, I would just have some rice with tofu or pasta… loads of soup, lentils. There is obviously loads of proteins in there. For dinner it may be fajitas or curries. Chickpea curries.”

Arthur’s vegan cooking regularly tempts teammates, asking to sample spoonfuls and inducting them into plant-based living.

Although greatly reduced, some stigma still exists around the diet.

Chris Smalling swears by the benefits of veganism (Getty)

“I will often get asked the question, ‘what can you have?’ like ‘oh my god you can’t have anything. You can just have broccoli for your meals.’

“Whatever you have I will probably eat the same, just I replace the meat with a different protein.”

Traditional myths surrounding veganism include muscle weaknesses and deficiencies in protein compared to an omnivorous diet. These are complete misconceptions.

Joanna Blythman, author of What To Eat, says that Tahini, a nutty paste made from sesame seeds, has more protein than milk. Beans, chickpeas, hummus, lentils, soya foods, nuts, quorn and quinoa are all effective sources of essential amino acids, and the list goes on.

Converting an ever-increasing number of footballers and athletes, veganism incites widespread claims of quickened recovery and reduced injury.

Some athletes believe veganism can quicken recovery or reduce risk of injury in the first place.

Arthur’s 19 starts in 21 games for Blues this season suggests how beneficial the diet can be for players and puts her improved fitness – which has seen her announced in the Scotland squad for the upcoming Algarve Cup – down to plant-based nutrition.

“I feel better in myself and recover better as an athlete, whether that is psychological or not.

“Definitely this year, I have had less issues with injuries.”

It is a sentiment mirrored by Smalling.

Arthur adds: “I just believe that the more natural the products that you put into your body, the better.”

Footballers crediting their improved fitness to the diet is all well and good, but what is the science behind it?

Most recently, a study at Arizona State University of aerobic fitness performance between omnivores and vegetarians found no negative effects on athlete performance under a plant-based diet.

‘The more natural the products that you put into your body, the better’ (Getty)

Evidence derived from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, compared muscle mass and strength of people who consumed a plant-based diet against meat-eaters. Again, results discovered no weaknesses.

Surrey-based sports nutritionist and author of The Vegetarian Athletes Cookbook, Anita Bean, expounds the virtues of a vegan diet on sporting performance, translating the scientific jargon behind numerous athlete’s claims of improved performance after turning vegan.

“It is not simply the cutting out of meat. It is partly to do with what they’re adding to their diet as well as what they’re subtracting.

“Their diet being vegan… they [athletes] will be lower in saturated fat and lower in sugar because they are going to be eating fewer ultra-processed foods.”

Former bodybuilding champion Bean explains further: “The more diverse your diet is, you will create a more diverse gut microbiome (array of bacteria). Having a more diverse gut microbiome is associated with better health and better performance.

“It really impacts so many things that are relevant to sports performance and that includes recovery, so we do know there is a link between recovery and a diverse microbiome.

“If you are having loads of fruit and vegetables, pulses, you are literally feeding the good bacteria, and these are the ones that will produce chemicals that will affect your recovery.”

Therefore, it is understandable that players may claim to stay injury-free since going vegan.

Chloe Arthur, right, playing for Scotland (Getty)

In essence, a vegan diet strong-arms footballers such as Arthur into a search for healthier foods that give improved nutrients. These improved nutrients, in turn, create a more diverse microbiome of healthy bacteria in the gut which is concurrent with enhanced performance, fewer injuries and faster recovery.

“A healthy gut microbiome means there is less chronic inflammation and less oxidative stress, and that will speed recovery,” Bean says.

“By reducing these things, you will be able to get better muscle adaptation between your training sessions and between your matches.

“It will be better for the muscles to recover and [give the footballer] less risk of injury and less risk of illness,” Bean adds.

It is no secret that giving additional care to our guts and the food we intake has an impact on health. Having a vegan diet is also likely to reduce acne and improve mental health. Around 70 per cent of human immune systems are housed in the gut.

Perhaps this is an explanation as to why the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews was able to play until he was 50 years old.

Terry Paine, World Cup winner with England in 1966, says that although his generation of players “never” received dietary guidance, the longevity of Matthews’ career owes to the outside right’s forward-thinking outlook on nutrition.

Stanley Matthews had a near-vegetarian diet (Getty Images)

“When you look at people like Sir Stanley Matthews, he was very much a dietician in the way he played and how he went about it.

“There were certain players thinking way ahead of everybody else. He was probably the first one to think about what he was putting inside himself and what he was eating.

“I remember him telling me he went 24 hours without really drinking or eating just to let whatever it was in the system come out.”

Almost like a boxer cutting for a weigh-in.

Although Paine confesses that he was “more of a salad man”, dietary advice was non-existent 50 years ago.

“We always had steak. Steak, toast and a cup of tea. That was our pre-match meal.”

A far-cry from falafel and quinoa salad with tahini dressing. Sustainable and nutritious. Conceivably, veganism is the athlete’s diet of the future.

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