Five elite athletes who thrive on a plant-based diet – in soccer, tennis, ice hockey, bodybuilding and mixed martial arts

When the Boston Bruins ice hockey team takes on the Calgary Flames for two games in China (Shenzhen on September 15 and Beijing on September 19), one player literally will be head and shoulders above the rest.

That will be Bruins defenceman and captain Zdeno Chara, a hulking Slovak who stands 2.05 metres (6 feet 9 inches) tall and weighs 116kg (255 pounds). What many people may not know is that the 41-year-old recently changed his diet in a bid to prolong his career.

How vegan diet went mainstream, and its Hong Kong advocates

Chara switched to an almost entirely plant-based diet before the start of the 2017-18 season, and had a resurgence on the ice. Chara relies heavily on new diet staples, including oatmeal, tofu and blended smoothies, while still occasionally eating salmon and eggs.

The move took many by surprise, given Chara’s size, and that his homeland is Slovakia, known for its meat and dairy production.

He isn’t the only elite athlete to have largely or fully given up eating animal products to raise his game. Here are four others:

1. American tennis ace Venus Williams

Williams adopted a raw vegan diet in 2011 after being diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome (an autoimmune disease). After the switch she regained her form, winning the doubles gold with her sister at the 2012 Olympics in London.

In an interview talking about her illness, she said she fell in love with the diet after seeing results, and still adheres to it to this day.

2. Soccer player Jermain Defoe 

The 35-year-old striker for English Premier League club AFC Bournemouth went vegan last year in a bid to regain his scoring touch. He ended up making his first appearance for the English national team in three-and-a-half years, and saw his goalscoring prowess return.

Defoe, who also does cryotherapy – sitting in a controlled chilled chamber to aid muscle recovery – added daily spinach, kale and nettle smoothies to his diet, cut out chocolate, limited his caffeine intake and eliminated eggs, dairy products and honey from his diet.

3. Professional bodybuilder Barny du Plessis 

This one might come as a surprise, given du Plessis is ripped and muscular, and looks like he must graze on mounds of chicken breasts and multiple steaks a day. But the former Mr Universe, who is in his mid-40s, has been vegan for years. (He is now a sought-after tattoo artist in London.)

So how does he stay so big without all that meat in his diet? Du Plessis said in a recent interview that he drinks a lot of vegan protein shakes, and eats a lot of lentils, beans and chickpeas.

How a Hong Kong raw vegan marathon runner prepares for a race

4. American mixed martial arts fighter Nate Diaz

The 33-year-old cage fighter is known for his association with one plant in particular: marijuana. He is a regular user of the drug. But what many might not know is that the Californian has been vegan since he was 18.

After beating Conor McGregor in 2016, Diaz’s older brother Nick boasted on Twitter that McGregor was beaten by a vegan. In all seriousness, Nate’s veganism has been a point of contention in the UFC, as the ultra-masculine sport is known for promoting a narrow image of what it means to be tough and a fighter.

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