WILF THORNE/ISI PHOTOS

Veganism saved me. I know what you’re thinking—veganism saved you? 

It sounds dramatic, sure, or maybe like I’m joking. But I promise you it’s the truth.

I’ve been a professional soccer player for eight years now, going all the way back to 2012. In 2016, I had my worst professional season.

There were personal struggles off the field that were affecting my on field performance, and, long story short, I just didn’t feel like myself anymore. It felt like I was sleepwalking through someone else’s life. I no longer felt confident on the pitch, which had always been a source of energy for me.

I knew something needed to change.

I didn’t know it was my diet.

But after that season, I took a hard look in the mirror and promised myself that I would turn it around in the offseason. I wanted to re-examine every part of my approach—my mentality, my fitness, and yes, my diet. Everything was on the table, because I needed to get back to feeling like myself.

And then I found veganism. Or I guess veganism found me.

I had already been cooking mostly vegetarian meals for a month or so before I made the full transition. Initially, I was just curious. Because it was the offseason, I knew I had some leeway to experiment. Though I’d read some accounts from players raving about the vegan lifestyle, never in a million years would I have guessed that taking animal protein out of my diet was just what I needed to turn my life around.

Right away, I noticed positive changes. I wasn’t as tired between workouts. I was quickly getting leaner, and sleeping a whole lot better. I started knocking off my fitness goals with ease. I dropped 20lbs, which made long-distance running much less of a struggle. My endurance improved, and I was able to run at a faster clip without feeling fatigued.

At 5’10”, I’m already on the bigger side for a soccer player, so changing my physical composition was a huge positive for my game. And people noticed. As the offseason went on, I’d have friends and teammates approach me and ask about how I’d managed to so quickly change my physique. Of course, running six days a week and lifting for three helped. But it was my diet that allowed me to train as hard as I was training during that time. I had always spent the offseason running and lifting, but I’d never gotten these results.

Now, I’ve come to genuinely believe that veganism isn’t just a nice alternative, but truly the optimal diet for an elite athlete. I can tell you right now that I’m not going back. As a professional, I’m always looking for habits that give me the best chance to succeed. And after seeing what a plant-based diet has done for me over these past few years, I know that it’s the cleanest way to eat, and that if I want to compete, it only makes sense for me to continue giving my body the proper fuel it needs to function.

Of course, if you’re serious about making the transition, I would recommend talking with a nutritionist to make sure you have a plan to support your needs. You can’t just cut out meat and not add protein elsewhere. When I was making the switch, I talked to my club’s nutritionist in order to ensure that I was still getting the proper nutrition. We talked about supplements, like iron and b12, and went over which plant foods contained the proteins I needed for gaining mass and helping my muscles repair.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that pretty much all plant foods contain protein. Some even have a higher protein-per-calorie count than meat.

Another underrated aspect of going vegan is just how fun it can be. Seriously. It forces you to focus on what you’re putting into your body in a way that you never have. People aren’t just being cutesy when they call it a lifestyle. It really does change the way you relate to your body, which impacts every single aspect of your life.

Plus, if you like to cook like I do, discovering substitutes for dairy and meat can be an enlightening experience. I routinely make meals for family members, friends, and teammates, and more often than not, they are shocked that what they are eating is both vegan and delicious.

To say veganism saved me might sound over-the-top, but the truth is that transitioning to a plant-based diet gave me the opportunity to really take ownership over a central part of my everyday life. It helped me re-discover the confidence and sense of self that I thought I had lost. It meant I was healthy and happy and focused, which helped me pull myself out of the rut I’d been in.

I can, without even a sliver of doubt, say that I will continue on this path for the rest of my life. I already know how much it has helped me, and that’s not even taking into account the good it does for both the environment and the welfare of the animals who we share this planet with.

My recommendation? Give it a try. You might just surprise yourself.