Players such as Denis Suárez, Sergio Agüero, Héctor Bellerín and Franco Russo are working with their club nutritionists to build diets free from meat.
RC Celta’s and Real Madrid are among the LaLiga clubs working to promote healthier eating habits in society.
More and more footballers are reducing their consumption of meat and turning to vegetarian or fully plant-based diets. Even RCD Mallorca’s Argentine defender Franco Russo, who comes from a country where the ‘asado’ of barbecued meat is an institution, has made this change and he feels it is helping his performances on the pitch. “To tell you the truth, since I quit meat to become vegetarian I feel lighter,” the centre-back explained.
Russo isn’t the only player to have made this change, with RC Celta’s Denis Suárez, FC Barcelona’s Sergio Agüero, Elche’s CF Edgar Badía and Real Betis’ Borja Iglesias and Héctor Bellerín among the other current LaLiga Santander stars to have switched in recent years to diets that are vegan, vegetarian or that involve a significant reduction in meat products.
“There has been increasing interest in quality nutrition among top-level athletes,” explained RC Celta’s lead nutritionist Bertina Ferrández. “It’s true that there is a growing interest in the consumption of high-quality lean proteins and more and more players are choosing a diet that is rich in vegetables and fruits, preferring to avoid the consumption of fatty meats and processed foods.”
Players are learning that it’s a complete myth that meat is required for optimal sporting performance. As Ferrández continued: “A vegetarian diet can be just as balanced as a non-vegetarian one. It’s more so about planning the diet correctly, just as it is with non-vegetarians. It’s about including the necessary macronutrients, vitamins and minerals so that the diet is a complete one. An elite vegetarian sportsperson can reach the same optimal weight, with the same percentage of muscle mass and fat mass, as any non-vegetarian. So, this diet doesn’t affect performance in the slightest.”
Lorena Luján, the dietitian and nutritionist at LaLiga SmartBank club FC Cartagena, echoed this point. “There is no disadvantage or advantage,” she stated. “Following an adequate diet is a plus in any sport, compared to those who don’t follow good eating, hydration and supplementation habits. In LaLiga, there are more and more clubs that are integrating [vegetarian meals] into their daily menus.” For example, Luján explained that clubs might offer all their players a vegan smoothie after training, to help them take on extra nutrients.
It has even been scientifically proven that sportspeople don’t suffer any adverse effects from switching to a diet with less meat, so long as the transition is properly managed. As the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has concluded: “Appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and for athletes.”
The players investing in healthier and more sustainable living
There are many footballers who are not only switching to vegetarian and vegan diets, but who are becoming investors in this growing field. For example, current Atlético Madrid star Marcos Llorente has opened a healthy living restaurant in Madrid, launching it in partnership with his former Deportivo Alavés teammate Ibai Gómez. Retired goalkeeper Miguel Ángel Moyá, who played for Real Sociedad, Getafe CF and Atlético Madrid during his career, also opened a restaurant in the capital that focuses on vegetarian and vegan options.
Real Betis’ Héctor Bellerín, who has followed a vegan lifestyle since 2015, became the second largest shareholder in English club Forest Green Rovers in 2020. This club has been recognised by FIFA as “the greenest football club in the world” thanks to their environmentally friendly initiatives, while the club have a 100 percent vegan policy at the stadium and facilities.
In Spain, Real Betis’ Borja Iglesias, FC Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto and Atlético Madrid’s Saúl Ñíguez, who is currently on loan at Chelsea FC, have all invested in the company Heura Foods, which sells meat substitutes and other dishes that are 100 percent plant-based and sustainable, using a variety of natural Mediterranean ingredients.
It is thanks to Heura Foods that Franco Russo can still enjoy the Argentine barbecue experience. “We have put all of our Mediterranean culinary heritage into our products,” said the company’s CEO Marc Coloma, when explaining how they have collaborated with players like Russo. “We want to make products that protect what we most value, which is our health, our planet, our animals and our traditions. If you can enjoy all of the good of a meat dish without all the consequences, why wouldn’t you change?”
Coloma continued: “The food sector is experiencing a global transition towards 100 percent vegetable diets and athletes are pioneers in this sense. Following an elite sporting lifestyle with a diet that is 100 percent plant-based is more than just possible, it’s recommended.”
Professionals at LaLiga clubs to oversee the transition
Coloma and other experts point out that there is always a need for athletes to follow a well-thought-out transition towards 100 percent plant-based diets. To help, there are various protein supplements that athletes can turn to.
As explained by Ana García, the nutritionist at LaLiga Santander club Levante UD: “When it comes to the protein sources with which people replace the consumption of meat and fish, we should differentiate between vegetarian players and vegan players. The vegetarians can replace this through eggs, with the protein of the egg white holding the most biological value, or through dairy or dairy derivatives or legumes and derivatives. As for vegan athletes, the sources available are legumes and derivatives, such as tofu, seitan or tempeh. The protein sources for vegetarians and vegans are reduced, so it can be more difficult to ensure they are taken on board, but it is possible if following a diet that is adequate and adapted to the person’s needs.”
FC Cartagena’s Luján underscored the importance of having dietary specialists at each football club, stating: “There’s always a need for a specialised professional to adjust the nutritional needs for professional players, yet it’s even more essential for vegetarian and vegan players. That’s because it’s even more specific and there isn’t as much information out there in society, even if that is slowly changing. In these cases, it’s not only about adjusting nutrients, but it’s also about finding the right sources for these nutrients.”
Fortunately, LaLiga footballers have the support of these club nutritionists, who can arrange specific plans to ensure a proper vegetarian or vegan diet is followed. As RC Celta’s Ferrández outlined: “Our mission is to design for each player a tailored diet and we set clear objectives for each case. We plan a balanced diet in calories, nutrients and, of course, tastes, as we always try to include recipes that the players enjoy.”
At every Spanish professional clubs, professionals of the highest level are employed across departments and this includes in the kitchen, ensuring every player is looked after properly, according to their needs. LaLiga clubs are always at the forefront when it comes to such issues and there is even an understanding that the best practices for healthy eating and healthy living should be shared with the general public where possible.
At RC Celta, for example, Ferrández and her colleagues make the menu that the players are eating each day available on the club’s website, so that fans can eat like their favourite players too. All of the players in the RC Celta academy are also offered these dishes, as the club believe good nutrition is just as important for youngsters as for the senior players.
Many other LaLiga clubs have launched initiatives to help inspire healthy and sustainable eating, with Real Madrid doing so through a collaboration with Meatless Farm, another enterprise that specialises in plant-based products and that has set a ‘Meatless Consumption Target’. The two parties joining forces to make Meatless Farm an official global partner of the club and to work together to raise awareness of the benefits of reducing meat consumption.
Explaining the reasons for working with such an enterprise, Real Madrid’s director of institutional relations Emilio Butragueño said at the time of the agreement: “Meatless Farm embraces both sustainability and nutrition, two fundamental components of Real Madrid and our business strategy. We as a global team have an important role to play in engaging with society to make real changes that will help create a more sustainable world and improve personal health and performance.”
It is clear that the trend of footballers turning to vegetarian and vegan options is only going to grow, with LaLiga clubs supporting their players in this process and considering various initiatives to make positive societal change at the same time.
“We hope to bring people closer to different types of cuisines with a variety of ingredients from different parts of the world, from the best traditional recipes to the most innovative ones,” Ferrández of RC Celta concluded. If footballers are at the forefront of this societal change, the evolution in healthy eating habits will be even quicker.