The hardest part of Wright-Phillips' switch to veganism? Watching a Chick-fil-A open near his home
Once an unheralded striker who played the majority of his matches in the second and third tiers of English football, Bradley Wright-Phillips is hoping a reinvention will extend his career. At 34 years old, the MLS veteran's offseason shake-up to his lifestyle might extend his foray into Major League Soccer's record books.
Last winter, Wright-Phillips made the decision to become a vegan.
The New York Red Bulls forward initially raised eyebrows in the dressing room with his choice, challenging long-held beliefs of how an athlete should eat. He feels no different, Wright-Phillips says, even as his diet has significantly changed. And don't call him an apostle of veganism. He made this choice for himself and his health, and could very easily "go back to [his] old diet tomorrow."
After watching a documentary called "What the Health," about the food industry, Wright-Phillips was spurred on to research more about his diet and the fallout from certain food choices. There was no moral compass pointing him in this direction; just a desire to make healthier, wiser decisions. After 15 years in professional soccer and 108 goals for the Red Bulls over 191 games, the striker felt a conviction of sorts to fuel his body in a better, deeper way.
Wright-Phillips went vegan almost immediately after the research began and following a visit back home to England. He didn't even dip his toe in the water to try the lifestyle first. He jumped straight into the deep end, foregoing the meat and dairy that are often staples of so many athletes.
"For me, it's just a decision I made at home with my wife that I'm not eating meat," Wright-Phillips told ESPN FC.
"When I got [to preseason camp] and started telling people that I'm not eating meat, they were making it out that it was a bigger deal. 'How do you feel? How are you waking up? What's your energy?' And I'm like, 'I'm good, I'm waking up well, I feel good.' Then the menu [at the club] started changing and they're getting separate meals; if I had thought about all that before, I may have taken a little more time to make up my mind."
The history of athletes who are also vegan is often complicated by the perception of the diet. Many current and former players who spoke to ESPN FC abide by the narrative that footballers need not just protein, but a certain level of fat in their diet to maintain peak physical performance. The assumption is that a vegetarian or a vegan diet simply can't handle this burden.
Track star Carl Lewis was one of the first, and perhaps the most prominent, athlete to turn to veganism without any significant drop in performance. In 2005, NFL player Ricky Williams said he embraced a plant-based diet. Despite the growing acceptance of veganism in greater society, few MLS players have publicly embraced it.
Neither the Red Bulls coaching staff nor the trainers tried to change Wright-Phillips' mind, but his dietary restrictions meant that the team had to provide more vegan options, whether in the cafeteria at the training facility or on the road during the team's travels. He has a post-training protein drink that is different than the one his teammates receive, one that is not only vegan but also organic.
Other Red Bulls players roll their eyes in the cafeteria when some of their favorite items are veganized, like the Bolognese -- a traditional Italian meat-based sauce -- that was served at the buffet following training. Wright-Phillips got some ribbing for that, he admits. None of his teammates have converted, although he is happy to see some players choosing those options at the buffet over the more traditional offerings.
The first test for his new diet came in preseason, shortly after Wright-Phillips revealed his big change. The team's head trainer, Russ Steves, said the switch from Wright-Phillips' old diet to being a vegan posed some things for the staff to work through, as "the challenging part is consuming enough and the right types of protein." Steves, head coach Chris Armas, the team's two doctors, the dietician and others from the training and conditioning staff soon developed a strategy for their star forward's switch.
"During the preseason we talked a lot with Brad to make sure he was getting what he needed and even adjusted some of our team menus to ensure they contained more plant-based protein than in previous years," Steves said. "Each meal, we tried to monitor how he felt about the food and was it appealing enough to him.
"Lastly, we had [Wright-Phillips] weigh in once per week to monitor the changes from the new diet. We wanted to make sure that [any changes were] never too drastic and correlate that with how he felt and his daily training workloads."
Barbara Lewin, one of the nation's foremost dieticians who has worked with clients in the NFL, NBA and NHL, doesn't have an issue with the decision. In fact, she thinks an athlete Wright-Phillips' stage in his career might find a benefit in veganism.
"Thinking that you can't get enough protein from a vegan diet is just untrue," Lewin told ESPN FC.
With higher levels of exercise intensity, you produce more free radicals and byproducts that can cause inflammation in the body. A vegan, plant-based diet being rich in antioxidants can have an enormous impact on reducing inflammation. For some, it's the perfect combination.
"A vegan, plant-based diet can give the elite athlete what they need to perform at their top potential," Lewin said. "We have seen many examples of this in pro sports. We're also seeing older athletes that continue to excel and I believe that this gives them an added advantage.
"You're getting the nutrients without the cholesterol, saturated fat and other inflammatory components, and with what we're learning now, inflammation is everything. Of course, a vegan diet needs to contain the right choices. If you're living on crackers, vegan cheese and other processed foods, it's not a good choice. For a vegan diet to be healthy and work for the elite athlete, it has to have a strong foundation in vegetables and fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds."
From the outside looking in, becoming vegan is an uncommon move for a 34-year-old who plays a physically demanding sport. On a team like the Red Bulls, who press and counter-press opponents with relentless energy, the decision to drastically alter his diet may appear puzzling, but Wright-Phillips doesn't see his decision as a gamble or a risk. In fact, a vegan diet can be advantageous in Lewin's eyes, and she would never discourage a professional athlete from pursuing this path.
"Most of us don't get enough fiber, which can cause diverticulitis and problems with obesity. On a vegan plant-based diet, this is not an issue," she said. "There's also lower risk of heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, to name a few. A meat-based diet is harder to digest and certainly not the foods I want my athletes eating right before competition.
"For an athlete who is routinely running 8-10 miles [a] day, or in any sport for that matter, the goal is adequate calories with the right breakdown of protein, carbs and fat along with adequate micronutrients. The absence of animal products is a plus as long as you're eating a variety of foods to get needed nutrients. And you get to eat more, which my athletes love. So it's much easier to keep body fat to an optimal level."
Wright-Phillips says he doesn't feel any adverse effects and that his recovery from training and matches is the same as it has been in the past. The impact on him hasn't been just physical, but also mental.
"I get my protein, I get everything I need, I don't feel like I'm missing on anything," Wright-Phillips said. "I'm good. ... Before, I'd just eat and not really think about it."
All that has changed is that he is thinking more about what he puts into his body.
If there is one takeaway from Wright-Phillips' veganism, it is a growing awareness of the foods he eats. It's a reminder with each meal to eat for health and sustenance and not out of habit. Poor choices were made in the past in terms of his diet when he didn't consciously pursue smart, healthy decisions.
It wasn't easy at first, but he's glad that he jumped right in and didn't test it out. The mentality of being a vegan and pursuing a certain pathway to health doesn't have to be bland or a sacrifice. He was able to find a substitute for nearly everything he used to enjoy.
Someday, Wright-Phillips might go back to being a carnivore, he says with a laugh, but right now he's enjoying his new diet. He doesn't miss favorites like chicken or steak and could have them if he wanted; he just doesn't feel the desire. Pork is a different story, a food that he says he likely will never have again following his research.
"Right now, I don't miss it," he said. "You know what's hard? Let's say I went somewhere and, let's say I'm out for a day in the city with like a few of the boys from the team, it's a day off. 'Let's go into Chick-fil-A.' That's the only time I'd be like, 'Shoot, there's nothing I can get here.'
"That's the only time it's hard: If they want to go someplace and you know there may not be an option for you. But most places you go, nine out of 10, there's an option."
Ironically, a Chick-fil-A opened just minutes away from his home in northern New Jersey. He watched the construction last fall whenever he drove by the location in Morris Plains.
"I remember looking forward to it," Wright-Phillips said. "The timing of this vegan diet is terrible luck."