In his new book, “Food Fight: My Plant-Powered Journey From the Bingo Halls to the Big Time,” professional WWE wrestler Austin Aries questions everything, especially what’s on our plates.
It’s easy now to look back and see that Aries was destined for the spotlight. Athletic all through school, Aries (born Daniel Healy Solwold Jr.) also loved performing – singing and dancing. He also didn’t subscribe to the traditional rules of success. Aries felt there was another way to be successful, that there might be “something cooler” than working a traditional 9-to-5 desk job once out of school.
He was right, of course, and his career as pro wrestler and colorful commentator is proof that his charisma and athleticism have outlasted the pressures of the structured school-work-family dogma. Aries, known as “The Vascular Vegetarian” and "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” is the longest reigning Ring of Honour World Champion and Tag Team World Champion, as well as the TNA (Total Nonstop Action) World Heavyweight Champion. He is one of only five wrestlers to have won the Wrestling Triple Crown (world champion, tag team, and secondary singles championship). And, he’s vegan.
Rules don’t apply to Aries, at least, not when it comes to how he looks at the world. This unwavering self-inquiry and propensity to question “the system” not only led Aries to look deeper into his career options and design the perfect career for himself, but it also led him to something we often take for granted: food. But for Aries, it was a tipping point -- the ultimate system to question.
“Food kind of intersected with that for me,” Aries says.
While many people who adopt a vegan lifestyle had special bonds with pets as a child, that wasn’t the case for Aries. It was more the typical midwest lifestyle that rubbed him wrong -- Aries grew up in Wisconsin where hunting and fishing were the norm. And that is where Aries felt a disconnect.
“It just seemed wrong to take a life when you didn’t have to,” he says. “It’s a learned behavior. I don’t need to do that.”
But, of course, as a professional athlete, Aries ate the way athletes are supposed to eat: whey protein shakes, steaks, and chicken. Lots and lots of chicken. That is, until he had a wake-up call early on in his wrestling career.
“I was subscribing to conventional wisdom – meat for protein to build muscle, and that chicken is ‘better’ for me than red meat,” he says. “I remember the day when I looked at it all and said, ‘This is disgusting. I’m done.’”
It all became clear in that moment in 2000 he says, that the cruelty, the effects on the planet, and the health risks, were inseparable from eating animals. It would be another few years before Aries went from vegetarian to vegan, but he says living this way now is a “no-brainer.”
“We live in a corporate food system that does not have our best interest at heart whatsoever,” he says. “We need to wake up and educate ourselves.”
In his memoir, Aries sheds a lot of light about his own transformation, how he started to ask and find answers to the questions we've been discouraged by the corporatization of our food system from asking.
"Why would you give corporations and the government the benefit of the doubt? What have they done to earn that trust?" he ponders in the book.
Aries is specifically passionate about not just eating a cruelty-free diet, but also one focused on whole foods – he snacks on lentils, makes smoothies with bananas, berries, and greens. Like any vegan these days, he enjoys his fair share of pizzas, mac and cheese, and the abundance of delicious plant-based comfort foods, but he says even when indulging in those vegan junk foods, that his diet is rounded out with plenty of whole foods, and he’s more likely better off than the meat-egg-and-milk-eater who avoids junk food. That's because the benefits of veganism are a lot like a get out of jail free card. Despite the pressures from our corporate food system to eat animals, loads of sugar, and artificial ingredients, boosting your intake of nutritious plant-based ingredients is the ultimate antidote to those unhealthy foods.
"If you’re going to navigate your way through all the misinformation being thrown your way as a consumer, you have to learn to see past all the dirty tricks," he writes in the book. "And to do that, you need to get a real education about nutrition—the one you should have gotten in school."
Aries' adherence to a vegan diet puts him in some excellent company. Some of the world’s best athletes have shifted to a plant-based diet, including David Carter, the former Chicago Bears defensive lineman best known these days as the 300 Pound Vegan; nine-time Olympic gold medalist track athlete Carl Lewis; there’s Heavyweight Boxing Champion Mike Tyson; and Venus Williams, winner of seven Grand Slam singles tournaments, and one of only four women to have won five or more Wimbledon singles titles.
“There’s enough data that supports the short and long-term health benefits of a plant-based diet,” says Aries. And, it’s worth it, he says, even if it requires extra effort, “the trade-off is pretty clear, and I’m performing at every bit the level of the meat-eaters.”
Most any professional athlete is paying way more attention to their food intake than the rest of us. Whether they’re boosting protein or fat, or even trimming calories down to shed some weight, they’re tracking and monitoring how -- and how much -- food affects their bodies both during competition and in recovery.
“All protein comes from plants in its original form,” says Aries, “and it makes sense the body breaks down amino acids and rebuilds them just the same.”
One of the biggest criticisms of the meat industry is just that—that we’re routing the vital plant protein through animals at the expense of not just the animal (some 56 billion annually), but our planet and our health. If the goal is to break down and rebuild amino acids that originated from plants, why not just go to the source?
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Aries says.
The nation’s leading physicians, including the AMA itself, have begun publicly recommending a move away from meat (and eggs and dairy), and focusing more on plant-based options, largely because of the long-term health benefits. Studies have linked vegetarian and vegan diets with increased longevity, reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
Mitigation of climate change is also a significant factor in our health moving forward. A planet in the throes of rising oceans and warming temperatures will not only have devastating effects on our food supply, but also on the quality of the food. Some experts predict climate change could make food less nutritious and more prone to blights and diseases. Livestock production is responsible for at least 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, and a reduction in animal products now is vital to ensuring a safe and abundant food supply in the not-so-distant future.
As Aries travels the world, he sees just how unhealthy the American food system is in comparison to other nations, and also how it’s influencing the rest of the world to devastating degrees. He worries about kids developing obesity and type-2 diabetes at the hands of a corrupt system pushing them away from real food.
“I’m just a guy who loves vegetables and loves figuring things out for myself,” Aries writes in the disclaimer for “Food Fight.” It’s what pushed him to write the book in the first place, noting that his status as a public figure and the nature of his lifestyle brings a common cluster of questions he once had himself, like, “Where do I get my protein? Will I miss bacon? Is it expensive [to be vegan]?”
“Questioning all that opens your eyes,” he says. “We say this food that’s everywhere is okay; this is good for me. But it isn’t.”
Check out Aries' new book "Food Fight" here.
photos by Lee South
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