Jermain Defoe on his virtually vegan diet, the benefits of beetroot and living to 150

PUBLISHED: 15:34 15 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:37 10 September 2018

AFC Bournemouth's Jermain Defoe © Amy Maidment/AFCB/Digital South

AFC Bournemouth's Jermain Defoe © Amy Maidment/AFCB/Digital South

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AFC Bournemouth’s Jermain Defoe tells Andy Greeves how having a virtually vegan diet has helped to keep him at the top of his game and why beetroot helps him run faster

During his fourth Formula One World Championship title-winning season in 2017, Lewis Hamilton revealed that he had become a vegan. “I stopped eating red meat two years ago,” the motorsport star told BBC Sport. “I’ve generally been pescatarian for the majority of the last year and now I’ve cut out fish,” he declared.

“I feel the best I have ever felt, physically and mentally,” he added, in another interview on the subject of his veganism with “All year I have felt strong mentally, but physically I have taken a big step and that is with the decision I have taken to change my diet.”

Hamilton is the latest in a long line of elite athletes to adopt veganism, with boxer David Haye, tennis players Serena and Venus Williams and the UFC’s (Ultimate Fighting Championships) Nate Diaz all following a largely or totally meat, fish and dairy-free diet. AFC Bournemouth’s Jermain Defoe – amongst the top ten Premier League goal scorers of all-time – is another virtually vegan convert. He credits it as the major reason why he is still performing at the top level for club and country aged 35.

“I made changes to my diet last season and instantly felt better for it,” Defoe tells me. “My girlfriend is a dedicated vegan and seeing what she was doing inspired me. I started reading up on the subject and discovered the benefits it could have for me.

“One of the big things for me over the past few years has been thinking of ways I can carry on playing for as long as possible. Cutting certain things out of my diet made sense to me. Why continue eating foods my body doesn’t really need?”

Like a number of the athletes mentioned above, Defoe isn’t fully vegan. He still eats fish a few times a week, but he has cut meat and dairy out of his diet entirely.

“I’d say maybe four days a week, I eat an entirely vegan diet,” says Defoe. “I can’t remember the last time I ate meat, it wasn’t something I really ate that much throughout my career. I’ve also cut out dairy products in recent years. Other changes include using only gluten-free or wholewheat pasta as I felt bloated and lethargic after eating white pasta.”

Defoe defines veganism as ‘clean living’ and in keeping with that philosophy he has always been teetotal. His dedication to remaining in the best physical condition possible extends to his use of cryotherapy – the extreme-cold treatment that proponents say can speed up and improve recovery from tissue damage – and other “1% factors” that give him the edge on match day.

“We have a cryotherapy unit at the club,” comments Defoe. “It really helps with blood flow around the body so it can heal muscle injuries much quicker, for me it’s all about getting that 100% recovery. It also aids your sleep, so the benefits are massive.”

For Defoe, as with many other professional sportsmen and women, he is using cutting-edge nutrition and science to help him perform at the very best of his ability.

“With my explosive style of play, another 1% for me is making sure I get plenty of beta-alanines. You find these in beetroot. Beta-alanines are known to aid more oxygen getting into the muscles and hence they help with sprints.

“If someone had told me about the benefits of beetroot when I was a young lad at West Ham, I wouldn’t have given it any thought. But now I realise that knowledge is power. If you know you’re going into a game having looked into every possible option for being in the best shape, then in your head you know that you are ready.”

To help with his regime Defoe has an app on his phone that outlines what he needs to eat, even on days off. He also regularly meets with the club nutritionist to plan his finely tuned diet.

“I understand my body a lot better now. I know what I need to eat and when, as well as how to prepare and recover.”

The main thing, he says, is to understand what food types you need on any particular day. “In the early 2000s, professional footballers were told ‘just eat pasta’ every day. Now you think, ‘do I really need lots of carbs at the start of a week?’”

Defoe isn’t the only footballer to embrace plant power. League Two team Forest Green Rovers hit the headlines in 2015 as the world’s first ‘vegan football club’. Owned by Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, Rovers’ players and staff follow a strict vegan diet, and no animal products of any description are on sale at their New Lawn stadium on a match day.

So, what are Defoe’s thoughts of Forest Green’s efforts? “Well it will certainly get people thinking about what they are eating, after all there must be a reason the club is choosing to do something like that,” responds Defoe. “A number of players have asked me about my veganism, so I definitely think there’s a curiosity within football and beyond about it.

“If someone wants to give it a try I would say start by eating purely vegan food a few days a week. The principals behind veganism, the clean living, lots of fresh fruit and veg, nuts, seeds and so on are fantastic. So many people could benefit from it, even if they aren’t fully vegan.”

Defoe says he is aiming to continue his virtually vegan regime into his retirement. “It’s all about caring about what you put in your body. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the first person to live until I’m 150!” 

My Match Day Diet

“The night before a game, I’ll probably have some salmon, maybe with wholewheat pasta or brown rice and steamed vegetables - typically spinach and broccoli. If I have pasta I’ll have a nice vegan pesto sauce to go with it, I like pesto in rice too. I’ll sometimes have a small amount of rice pudding made with almond milk, cinnamon and strawberry jam. All of that definitely means I’m fully loaded the night before the game! On the morning of the match I have porridge with almond milk, some berries and a tiny bit of honey. Later, I’ll have some toast with cashew nut butter and then pre-match, perhaps salmon or maybe baked beans or pasta on a small plate.

After the game, I always crave something like a pizza or a dessert. While I could just get a ‘normal’ pizza, if you’re going to do something, it’s worth doing properly so I’ll stick to a vegan pizza or vegan dessert. I keep a number of dairy substitutes at home, including vegan cheese.”

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