Cam Newton and Hannibal Buress walk into a vegan restaurant, and leave with a Ziploc bag of magic mushrooms and new perspectives.
It’s true. Newton and his friend, Buress, a comedian, shot an episode of the quarterback’s vlog over lunch one afternoon this past offseason, live from the patio of Los Angeles vegan restaurant Gracias Madre. The episode — appropriately titled ‘Yo! This Vegan?’ — features the pair trying flash-fried cauliflower in a cashew cheese sauce, with barbecue jackfruit carnitas tacos that easily could pass for pulled pork.
Only, Newton doesn’t eat pork — or any kind of animal byproduct. He has been vegan since February, his latest attempt at maximizing his physical performance and honing his body. Or, as he said in a recent news conference, getting “vegan strong.”
While Buress jokingly gave Newton a baggie of psychedelic mushrooms at the start of the episode, it’s Newton’s response to that “gift” that bears a little more analysis. The encounter is hilarious, but months later, Newton’s words carry more significance:
“Every time a person thinks a person is vegan,” he said, shaking the bag, “they just think that you eat stuff like this all day.”
Newton’s diet would normally be his business. But after two underwhelming performances to begin the 2019 season, coupled with a lingering mid-left foot sprain that will cost him at least two games, it bears further examination.
The Observer spoke to several sports nutritionists, dietitians and trainers about Newton’s plant-based diet, and they all came to the same conclusion:
What Newton is eating — or rather, isn’t — may be contributing to his on-field struggles and his body’s ability to recovery from injury.
“Go back to 2015 Cam, badass Cam. He was a pescatarian,” said Chris Howard, a certified nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach from Waxhaw. “Salmon, shrimp, you get a lot of good fats and complete proteins. In fact, (fish) is one of the best protein sources there is.
“Now you take away the most valuable part of that (diet), and ... there’s just no way around it: He can’t recover as well with less nutrients, with less calories and with less muscle mass. It’s just not going to happen.”
An intro to veganism
Newton first went vegan in February, according to a March episode of his vlog, moving on from the pescatarian diet he had maintained since the spring of 2013.
Vegans differ from vegetarians in that they eat no animal products, while vegetarians may eat eggs and dairy products. Pescatarians do not eat meat, with the exception of seafood.
“I’m a constant work in progress. I always try to tap into something that’s going to better me, whether as an athlete, as a parent, as a person. So this offseason, I was like man, I want to try something different,” Newton said in the episode. “I’m loving how I’m feeling.”
Nancy Clark, a Boston-based sports nutritionist and the author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, said it absolutely is possible for professional athletes to perform at a high level as vegans, but it takes extensive overcompensating.
“The question is: Can you be a vegan athlete and be successful? Of course you can. And if you Google vegan athletes, you’ll see a whole bunch of Olympians and names in every sport,” Clark said. “The concern is: Is he consuming enough protein and enough calories? When you’re in calorie deficit, which he obviously has been because he’s been losing weight, some of the protein that you eat gets burned for gas in the car instead of getting used to build muscle.”
Vegan athletes typically experience deficiencies in vitamin B6 and B12, which can contribute to weakness and fatigue. The primary issue for a vegan athlete, especially one with the listed size Newton has at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, is simply not eating enough calories.
“Every human body has what used to be called a set point,” said John Howie, a former champion body builder who’s now a strength trainer with a master’s in nutrition. “That’s a percent of body fat that’s comfortable for that physiology, that it’s going to fight to maintain even if you try to diet beyond that.
“If you get any heavier, you’re adding fat, and if you get any lighter, you’re losing muscle.”
Howie also refers to the set point as a person’s “fighting weight,” but it means the same thing: That the body becomes comfortable at a certain weight, and losing weight beyond that can lead to negative consequences.
Coach Ron Rivera previously said Newton had gotten up to 260-265 pounds during the 2016 season. In the same vlog that Newton announced he had gone vegan, he said his goal was to get down to 235-238 pounds this offseason.
“Some people think that if you lose a little weight, you become a little lighter on your feet, and that might be true in that you don’t have to propel quite as much weight going forward,” Howard said. “But when you’re a guy that’s used to operating at 250 or whatever he really was, his body’s not behaving the way it used to. Certainly, he’s not going to be willing to lower a shoulder and make contact as much at that weight, and it’s going to feel differently.”
Howard and Howie said they saw a noticeably slimmer Newton in the Panthers’ Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Even losing 10 pounds, they said, could result in less energy during athletic competition, as well as an increased susceptibility to injury.
“If he’s in a state of starvation, although minimal and self-imposed, you can overtrain a lot easier,” Howie said. “If he is operating in starvation mode, your body will fight to protect organs. It’ll take muscle after the fat’s gone — the next choice is muscle because that’s all that’s left to burn.
“At 250 pounds, he’d need about 3,800 calories a day to maintain that weight. You almost can’t eat enough beans and vegetables to eat that many calories.”
Some vegan NFL players succeed. Others struggle
Newton is far from the only vegan to ever play in the NFL.
Some have done it with terrific success. In 2017, at least 11 members of the Tennessee Titans, including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, adopted a vegan diet with help from linebacker Derrick Morgan’s wife, Charity, a vegan chef. The Titans made the playoffs that season.
But bodies are different, and not every player who made the change to a plant-based diet has seen positive results. Perhaps most notably, back in 2007, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez went vegan in an attempt to live a healthier lifestyle. According to the Wall Street Journal, three weeks after adopting the diet, he walked into the Kansas City Chiefs training facility and was met with a shock:
“The 100-pound dumbbells he used to easily throw around felt like lead weights,” the article says. “’I was scared out of my mind,’ (Gonzalez) says. Standing on the scale, he learned he’d lost 10 pounds.”
Gonzalez ended up adding small amounts of animal protein back to his diet, which helped him re-gain his strength while maintaining the additional energy his vegan diet provided. (Gonzalez declined to comment for this story. The Chiefs’ team nutritionist at the time, Mitzi Dulan, did not return phone or email requests from the Observer.)
“If Tony Gonzalez is telling you that the hundreds he used to throw around felt like lead, and if Cam lost 20 pounds,” Howard said, “what do you think a linebacker is going to feel like?”
Newton’s teammate Gerald McCoy, who also went vegan earlier this year, said he had a similar experience to Gonzalez.
“Realistically for me, what I’ve had to do is I’m not fully vegan anymore,” McCoy told the Observer. “What I found out is, a guy of my size, my stature, I was dropping body fat at a rapid rate. I was building muscle at a rapid rate, but it wasn’t sustainable for me.
“So I had to add some type of animal protein in, like now I eat eggs and I may throw one animal protein in during the week. Because being a vegan at my size, and the mass that I carry around, it just wasn’t sustainable.”
Like Gonzalez, McCoy said reintegrating small portions of lean animal protein, like fish and chicken, into his diet has immediately paid dividends.
“The explosiveness wasn’t sustainable because I didn’t have that extra oomph that I needed, because of the lack of the type of protein I was taking in, so I just added a little bit of animal protein back in my diet and it’s given me that oomph back,” McCoy said. “Now week to week, I’m getting more and more explosive, and I can feel it. I can literally feel the change.
“Even in the weight room, I can feel when I put weight on, I’m holding it up. Before, I was getting it off me and I was moving the weight, but it was like pushing through. Now it’s just like boom!
“It’s not that being a vegan is bad, but when you’ve got mass like me (6-4, 300 pounds), you’ve gotta have a healthy balance.”
How do vegans get enough protein, and what happens if they don’t?
Caloric deficit isn’t the only potential issue vegan athletes face.
Reduced protein intake can also lead to muscular issues and an inability to properly rehab from injuries.
And simply put, animal and plant proteins aren’t the same.
The human body uses protein for thousands of purposes, everything from growing hair and fingernails to creating essential hormones. Proteins, as well as fats and carbohydrates, are the macronutrients used to perform the majority of bodily functions.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, some of which the body naturally creates, others of which we must take from food. The body can store protein in your muscles, but it cannot store the amino acids needed to build them. Animal meat contains all the amino acids needed to produce what are called “complete” proteins; plants can have more or less of certain amino acids, and so there can be imbalances.
As such, any person on a strict plant-based diet would need to eat the proper mix of plants to gain sufficient amino acids required to create “complete” proteins.
“You look at corn, it’s got two of them. Green beans have got another one. You look at wheat, it’s got two others,” Howie said. “You’ve got to put them all together in one stomachful of food basically to get what’s called a complete protein.”
But even a well-structured vegan diet won’t give the body every amino acid it needs.
The key to building muscle on a vegan diet
One amino acid in particular, Clark said, is particularly important for muscle growth: leucine.
“That triggers muscles to grow,” Clark said. “So when you exercise, you stimulate muscle growth, and you want to make sure that you’ve got adequate leucine in your diet to support muscular growth.”
Leucine is not produced by humans. It is found naturally in animal and plant proteins, but in dramatically different quantities. According to an article by Clark, people who exchange beef for beans and other plant proteins typically experience about a 50 percent reduction in leucine.
That ties directly into something Howard explained: That when a person works out, that exercise in itself doesn’t support muscular growth — muscle building comes in the recovery thereafter.
“When you work out, you’re causing muscle damage. The recovery is where you build and repair. So whenever you’re working out, you’re just setting the table for recovery,” he said. “You’re not actually doing anything but hurting yourself when you’re working out, on a small scale, in a very specific fashion, for specific growth.
“If you don’t give yourself the building blocks to grow back, you’re not going to be able to grow.”
Essentially, working out conditions human muscles to absorb leucine. But a vegan diet naturally leads to a leucine deficiency; vegan athletes must eat enough leucine-rich plant proteins — soy, beans, legumes, seeds and nuts are good sources — to overcompensate.
If they don’t, they risk not providing their muscles with the necessary fuel to grow — and in that case, sometimes the body can turn to pre-existing muscle as a last-resort source of protein.
Not enough protein? In athletes, it can lead to ...
So while a caloric deficit can lead to a person losing body fat, a protein deficit on top of that can lead to the body using muscle for fuel instead of as a platform for building strength and more muscle.
“You’re just talking about losing 10 pounds. So, of course, you’re going to have less muscle to work with, so there’s no way you can be strong,” Howard said. “At the same time, the way you’ve lost that muscle is by depriving the body of the ability to rebuild the muscle. That’s as simple as that. He only lost muscle mass because he hasn’t been feeding that muscle as much as he was.”
In Newton’s case, where he is recovering from a mid-left foot sprain, losing muscle mass can also mean hurting the body’s ability to rehab.
“(Muscles) all work in concert, powerfully and in a seamless fashion, to turn and look somewhere,” Howie said. “When your energy is down and your muscles don’t contract as fast, you lose that coordination. You lose that body’s ability to make that power wave go from your foot to your fingertips.
“Even in the foot, in the muscles between the metacarpals, they’re smaller, and so when he stepped — whatever he did — he just didn’t step with enough authority to hold his position, and it moved a little extra and he got hurt.”
Why might that be problematic in Newton’s situation?
“If he’s losing muscle mass while trying to recover … that’s not a conducive environment at all,” Howard said. “You want all hands on deck, nutritionally, to repair that muscle. I understand how much rehab he’s doing, but when you have less nutrients — specifically protein — to rebuild that, you’re putting yourself behind the eight ball.”
One small change can reverse the damage
There is no way to know what exactly Newton is eating, which makes assessing the specific impact of his diet difficult. Newton has been unavailable to reporters since the team’s loss to Tampa on Sept. 12 while he recovers from the mid-left foot sprain.
Panthers team nutritionist Jennifer Brunelli also declined an interview request for this story through a team spokesman.
“It’s a disadvantage not knowing what he’s actually eating,” Clark said. “How well-educated is he in a vegan diet? If you have lots of whole wheat bread and brown rice, lots of fruits and lots of vegetables, you can fill yourself up. But are you getting enough hummus, enough beans, enough nuts to give you enough protein?”
Even without knowing what Newton is eating, though, McCoy’s experience validates what Clark, Howard and Howie all agreed upon:
Re-introducing small amounts of animal protein — i.e. returning to a pescatarian diet — could help Newton with both his performance and his ability to recover from injury.
“If he gets his calories up and if he gets his protein up, if he would return to having fish and include either dairy milk or soy milk … those are really high-quality proteins that would give him what he needs effortlessly,” Clark said. “He’d start feeling a lot better.”
Asked how long it would take for Newton to feel better after eating small amounts of animal protein, Clark was clear: “Immediately.”
Howard stressed that a vegan diet, for the majority of people, can be a healthy lifestyle that contributes to reduced chance of chronic disease and increased energy. But for Newton — who is dealing not just with violent hits on his body every Sunday, but recovering from injury — the diet doesn’t make sense.
“The last thing I want to do is knock a vegan diet because I think most people could really benefit from that, but someone who has the amount of abuse of their body that he does, that’s just not a normal occupation,” Howard said. “You hear about veganism as a lifestyle, and I think that’s what you hear from Cam.
“He’s adopted a healthier lifestyle — and kudos for trying to do that — but I just think this really is the wrong choice.”