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“From the Ground Up”: Athletes and Activism (By Traci Nigg)

In considering this quote from one of the most admired and influential activists of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke his truth and encouraged us to live our values. As a plant-based athlete I have changed my daily habits to fuel my body and soul so I can continue to strive to be the best version of myself. I originally changed my diet after reading Scott Jurek’s book, Eat and Run, in hopes to be a better, stronger endurance runner. I immediately felt the effects of being lighter, having quicker recovery, no acid reflux, fewer unexpected bathroom breaks, decreased soreness, clearer skin, and increased lean muscle. I feel better and can run longer and faster than I ever have in my life, even compared to when I competed in college soccer at the Division II level. As I continued to research veganism and the benefits of being plant-based, I came across many documentaries such as “Forks Over Knives”, “Cowspiracy”, “What the Health”, “Food Matters”, and most recently, “From the Ground Up.” This documentary has been the one that related most to how I define myself: a plant-based athlete.

Interviewed in this film are MMA fighters, ultramarathoners, a dancer, a climber, an Ironman triathlete, body builder, surfer, skateboarder, NFL player, MLS player, NWSL player, and an Olympic wrestler all the while the narrator tells his story of being a collegiate football player now training for a marathon on a vegan diet. I highly recommend watching this!

The following lists some take aways from this documentary along with insights from my plant based, athletic journey as well.

Admittedly, I believe my parents, along with many others today, raised me to love animals and be a strong woman despite their ignorance of not knowing what kids need to be healthy, growing athletes. We are told to consume protein and we are told from all media outlets that it comes from animal products. Consequently we find ways to add meat into every meal. How do you get your kid to grow healthy and strong? Drink cow’s milk. It does a body good. It has protein, calcium, fat, vitamin D, and puts weight on your child. I was a poster child for the milk industry. I drank 2-3 glasses of milk a day growing up. I didn’t eat much of anything else as I was an extremely picky eater, but I was gaining strength and playing soccer at a competitive level. So why change what was working?

The documentary explores the cultural implications in the United States of eating meat by explaining how meat is linked with strength and masculinity. To go vegan or not eat meat contradicts the familial constructs we have been raised to understand are the norm and demonstrate the values of family, community, gathering, and gratitude. When I explained to my family that I am plant based, I challenged our traditions along with Western societal norms which have been that we gather around a stuffed bird, a smoked ham, or trays of grilled burgers and hot dogs. Immediately they became concerned about my health and well-being which had never been questioned before.

“Where do you get your protein?” To which I explain that protein is in nearly all of our food. It is best worded in the film, “I get my protein from the same source that the animal gets its protein.” Instead of getting it second hand by eating plants you go straight to the source. Honestly, I believe I get more nutrients to fuel my body now that I am plant based compared to eating more processed foods and meats in what has been considered a well-balanced meal by the infamous food pyramid. I recall the image below being posted on our fridge at home in the 90’s.

And yes, I encourage and add in physical activity which should be in any well-balanced lifestyle!

So after explaining what my food intake looks like, the next stereotype that I frequently address is: “You’re a liberal so it makes sense why you would eat this way. Men hunt and there’s no way a man is giving up meat.” Rooted in this is a political belief along with the assumption that eating plants calls to question someone’s manhood. First of all, I don’t get into my political beliefs because I believe political stances are guided by our values. I explain simply that I am choosing to live my values of compassion, dignity, and integrity despite my political affiliation. Secondly, the documentary best addresses masculinity and it’s role in the culture of sports.

Masculinity is called into questioned once an athlete reveals they don’t eat meat. The documentary responds, “To be tough, do ethics need to be compromised?” To be a man, there is an assumed link in our society between eating meat and being a provider, strong, and dominant. By domesticating animals, a man asserted his manhood so he didn’t have to hunt while demonstrating control of animals to provide food on his family’s table. Also explained in the documentary is that meat has been linked to male privilege throughout history. It is assumed that if a man gives up his “right” to eat meat then he is giving up his right to masculinity and male privilege. However, we don’t live in a time where we have to hunt and gather or even domesticate our own animals for consumption. Now we rely on factory farms, domestic and foreign trade, and restaurants to provide us with access to meat, dairy, and eggs. In my opinion, the origination of this belief is not applicable in today’s society.

Ultimately what drives me to be plant based is the value of compassion. This is shared by all of the athletes that were featured in the documentary. An MMA fighter commented that he “was sold a myth that in order to be a high performance athlete I had to eat meat.” Eating meat it is a learned habit. It depends on what we are taught and when you understand why you don’t eat meat, then you learn about the suffering and slaughtering of animals. This is when you reflect on your own ethics and values. This ethical juncture in my life is when I felt that I truly began to live the values of being compassionate and kind. This is not the only way to live these values, but this is when I felt that my daily actions and habits contributed most to these feelings. The athletes in this film found that true strength and masculinity lies within someone’s compassion. They all are united in desire to stand up for the weak and the voiceless. This extends to the environmental effects of factory farming, waste, carbon dioxide emissions, plastic pollutants, excessive water consumption, and destruction of rainforests.

As a former collegiate athlete and now distance runner, I continue to strive to be competitive and healthy. Discipline is integral to marathon training as well as commitment to a plan. This plan is all inclusive from diet, to strength training, to cross training, to running, and to balancing my work and personal life. In the same way, eating plant based teaches discipline and many attest to feeling stronger, recovering faster, and having longevity in their sport.

As a social worker and athlete I frequently come back to the quote “Control the only person you can control; yourself.” Many go into social work with the hope of making profound change in the world and overcoming gross injustices. In realizing I am just one small speck in the grand scheme of things, I took a look at what I am able to control. I can control what I eat, what I purchase, and what I stand for. I strive to live my values and being plant based is how I put my values into action. Be the voice to the voiceless. Take action. Be the change.

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