Since time immemorial, human history and mythology have been replete with stories of legendary strongmen. In ancient Greece, there is the story of the famous wrestler Milo of Croton who could take an ox on his back and walk away with it. Then there was also Hercules in Greece and Bhima in India. In modern times we have heard of the Grand Gama and its immense strength. What made these men so strong? Traditionally, the theory was that you had to eat huge amounts of meat to gain strength.
It is said that Gama’s daily food intake consisted of six chickens, 2 kilos of mutton, almonds, butter and ghee and large amounts of yakhni which is a broth made from mutton and bones and tendons believed to be very nutritious. India’s most successful wrestler, Sushil Kumar, who won two Olympic medals, was initially a vegetarian but turned to eating eggs and protein supplements on the advice of dieticians.
However, modern scientific findings increasingly indicate that animal flesh may not be the ideal source of strength and energy. For the past three decades or so, there has been a debate among experts in different fields about what type of food product is best suited for champions. The debate and research on healthy eating is important not only for athletes but also for the youth of the world. According to some critics, the popularity of meat and poultry has been boosted and supported by companies such as KFC, McDonalds, Burger King and other multinationals to sell their own products.
There is no doubt that marketing gimmicks have played a role in pushing ordinary people as well as athletes towards meat-based foods. For several decades, fast food has been criticized for its links to obesity and poor health. Several books and articles have been written on the subject.
Lately, even Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the debate and, to everyone’s surprise, he now advocates a vegan diet for “strength athletes”. Strength athletes include weight lifters, bodybuilders, shot putters and discus throwers and those who participate in strongman feats. There are also other champions who are vegan. Some of them are tennis star Venus Williams, MMA fighter Nate Diaz, F1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton and famous Olympic star Carl Lewis who was among the first major athletes to go vegan in the 1980s.
As we know, Arnold grew up on meat products. For most of his career as a champion bodybuilder, he ate meat and also protein supplements just like other strongmen of his time. But now he says he made a mistake he didn’t realize at the time. The seven-time Mr. Olympia title holder is now a strong proponent of a vegan diet for health and fitness and is inspiring a new generation of bodybuilders to follow a vegan diet.
“I’m not saying give up everything. I say continue with clean whey protein supplements. Do not touch drugs and steroids. But reduce the consumption of animal products. Maybe once in a while it’s okay to eat meat. But most of the protein intake should come from vegetables. Many successful athletes are now vegetarians or vegans,” Arnold said in a documentary called The Game Changers that he co-produced with MMA fighter James Wilks.
From Iran, there is a very famous man by the name of Patrick Baboumian. He was born in the city of Abadan in Iran to Armenian parents in 1979. When he was 7 years old, his family moved to Germany and he grew up there. He became one of Germany’s best-known strength athletes. Baboumian held the world log lifting record in the 105 kg class with 165 kg as well as the German heavyweight log lifting record of 180 kg and the title of “Germany’s strongest man”.
Now, what is surprising is that the massively built Patrick Babumian is a hardened vegan athlete who has been successful on many platforms in strength sports for several years. He was named Germany’s strongest man in 2011, the same year he decided to switch from a vegetarian diet to an all-vegan diet. Since then, he has also racked up victories in powerlifting and also set four world records. “When I stopped eating meat, I got stronger and bigger,” Baboumian said.
But there are others who continue to follow traditional ideas about food. Brian Shaw from the United States is an example. He has won the World’s Strongest Man contest four times. He consumes around 10,000 calories a day and most of his diet is based on meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and whey protein. Brian Shaw is 6ft 8in tall and weighs around 200kg. He continues to believe in non-vegetarian food and challenged Patrick Baboumian to a one-on-one competition to settle the Vegan vs. Non-Vegan issue.
Opinions are therefore divided and the debate continues to rage. Scientific research uncovers facts that tend to favor vegetarian or even pure vegan food for champion athletes. The issue is not settled beyond doubt, but it is important that the debate continue. This will cause more research on this topic and the general public will be better informed on both sides of the story. Better information will lead to a better choice and a healthier lifestyle.