Since time immemorial, human history and mythology abound with stories of legendary strongmen. In ancient Greece there is the story of the famed wrestler Milo of Croton who could pick up an Ox on his back and walk away with it. Then there were also Hercules in Greece and Bheema in India. In modern times we have heard of the Great Gama and his immense strength. What made these men so strong? Traditionally the theory was that one must consume enormous quantities 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 based on mutton and bones and tendons that is supposed to be very nutritious. India’s most successful wrestler Sushil Kumar who has won two Olympic medals was initially a vegetarian but switched to eating eggs and protein supplements on the advice of dieticians.
However modern scientific findings are increasingly indicating that animal flesh may not be the ideal source of strength and energy. For the last three decades or so, a debate has been going on among experts from different fields about which kind of food product is best for champions. The debate and research on healthy food is important not just for athletes but also for the world’s youth. According to some critics, the popularity of meat and poultry has been reinforced and supported by companies such as KFC, McDonalds, Burger King and other multinational companies to sell their own products.
No doubt marketing gimmicks have played a role in pushing ordinary people as well as athletes towards meat based food. For several decades fast food has been criticized for its links to obesity and ill health. Several books and articles have been written on the subject.
In recent times even Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the debate and to everyone’s surprise he is now advocating a vegan diet for ‘strength athletes’. Strength athletes include weightlifters, bodybuilders, shot putters and discus throwers and those who take part in strongman feats. There are other champions too who are vegan. Some of them are tennis star Venus Williams, MMA fighter Nate Diaz, F1 race driver Lewis Hamilton and the famous Olympic star Carl Lewis who was among the first great athletes to turn vegan in the 1980s.
As is well known Arnold grew up on meat products. Through most of his career as a champion bodybuilder, he ate meat and also protein supplements just like other strongmen of his days. But now he says that he had made a mistake which he did not realise then. The seven-time Mr. Olympia title holder is now an outspoken supporter of a vegan diet for health and fitness and is inspiring a new generation of bodybuilders to follow a vegan diet.
“I am not saying give it all up. I am saying do continue with clean whey protein supplements. Do not touch drugs and steroids. But reduce intake of animal products. Maybe once in a while it is okay to eat meat. But the major chunk of the protein intake should come from vegetables. Many successful sportsmen are now vegetarian or vegan,” said Arnold in a documentary titled The Game Changers which he co-produced with MMA fighter James Wilks.
From Iran there is a famous strongman by the name of Patrick Baboumian. He was born in the town of Abadan in Iran to Armenian parents in the year 1979. When he was 7 years old his family moved to Germany and he grew up there. He went on to become one of the most well known strength athletes in Germany. Baboumian held the world log lift record in the 105kg category with 165 kg as well as the German heavyweight loglift record 180 kg and the title of “Strongest Man of Germany.”
Now the surprising thing is that the massively built Patrick Babumian is a hard core vegan athlete who has been successful across many platforms in strength sports for several years. He was named Germany’s Strongest Man in 2011, the same year he decided to go from a vegetarian diet to a completely plant-based vegan one. Since then he has also racked up victories in power lifting and also set four world records. “When I stopped eating meat I got stronger and bigger,” said Baboumian.
But there are others who continue to follow traditional ideas on food. Brian Shaw of the USA is one such example. He has won the World’s Strongest Man competition four times. He consumes about 10,000 calories each day and most of his diet is based on meat, poultry, fish, milk products and whey protein. Brian Shaw is 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighs about 200 kg. He continues to have faith in non-vegetarian food and has challenged Patrick Baboumian to a one-on-one competition to settle the Vegan vs Non-Vegan question.
So opinions are divided and the debate continues to rage. Scientific research is throwing up facts that are inclined to favour vegetarian or even pure vegan food for champion athletes. The matter is not settled beyond doubt but it is important that the debate goes on. It will provoke more research on this subject and the general public will become better informed about the two sides of the story. Better information will lead to a better choice and a healthier lifestyle.