The list of professional athletes who are also vegan has grown steadily, if slowly, over the years. Still, it’s not too often that you come across a 6’5, 110kg (243-pound) rugby player who swears by his vegan regime. The Toronto Wolfpack’s newest recruit, Anthony Mullally transitioned to veganism gradually over a two-year period and says the lifestyle choice has only had a positive impact on his training.
A 10-year veteran of professional rugby, Mullally joins the Wolfpack in their third season. He most recently played for Leeds, where he co-owns a vegan restaurant, The Vital Cafe, with plans to open a second this year. We spoke to Mullally about how he makes veganism work for him.
You transitioned to veganism gradually. How long did that take?
It took around two years.
What inspired you to do that?
When you look at things like processed red meat, now it’s classed as a carcinogenic. The same as smoking and alcohol. When I saw stuff like that I was thinking, well, how’s that? I thought meat was good for us. Then you start delving into it and you see the environmental impact that agriculture is having on the planet and the ethical side of things. After I put all these together, I felt personally I couldn’t contribute to the industry anymore.
Tell us how you transitioned to being vegan and what that process looked like over that two-year period.
I stopped eating red meat initially, then cut chicken off, then I was pescatarian. Then I cut fish off and I was vegetarian. Then I went vegan. I just did it step by step because it’s a big decision, especially being a professional sportsman. I didn’t want to do anything that would be a detriment to my career so that’s why I took it slowly. But each time I cut something out, I realized it wasn’t making a difference and if anything, I felt better.
What does your training require in terms of nutrition and how does a vegan diet provide that?
To maintain my body weight – I’m 110 kilos [243 pounds] – I need to eat, on a training day, around 5,000 calories. So it’s just getting a balance between beans, legumes, whole grains, and protein powders. It’s just being conscious in your diet choices and making sure you’re prepared leading into your training week.
What does that look like on a training day in terms of the actual meals you might eat?
For breakfast, I’ll have some oats with hemp milk or oat milk and in the oats, I’ll have protein powder, flax seeds, chia seeds, peanut butter, berries, banana. That’s around 30, 40 grams of protein. Then I will train, [then] I’ll have a protein shake.
For lunch, I’ll probably have brought with me to training quinoa, beans, greens in tupperware. And then maybe some snacks: peanut butter and oatcakes. Dinner will look similar. It will be pretty whole-grains based, beans. Sometimes I have meat replacements. It just mixes it up a bit. I don’t have that all the time but I’ve put in every now and then.
To be fair, after all athletes train, they have a protein shake, they have some creatine. And it’s the same with being vegan. You can still have a protein shake, you can still have creatine. So it’s not much different.
The popular thinking is that you need lots of protein to maintain your muscle but also to put on muscle. If people are vegan it might be trickier for them if they’re looking to gain muscle.
Yeah, that’s right […] I did get to my size eating meat. Cutting it out – there’s been no detrimental effect. But I agree, It’s probably a little bit harder [to gain or maintain muscle]. If you do the due diligence and find out what you need to do then it will be fine.
As long as you have -adequate protein and the right amino acids to maintain, or to build muscle, you don’t need to go overboard.
What are some of the other misconceptions about being vegan?
Well, a lot of people think we’re hungry all the time. They think you can’t build muscle. They think you’re going to go skinny. There’s a lot of misconceptions that they’re militant in their views. To be fair there are some vegans like that, but I think the majority just want to let people know because they care about animals.
A lot of people perhaps think that just because something is vegan, it’s healthy. You can still be an unhealthy vegan right?
A hundred percent. You could eat white bread and Oreos all day. It doesn’t mean you’re healthy because you’re vegan. I feel personally [you should] eat 80% whole foods, 20% whatever you like.
How do you feel physically after having made this change?
It’s been quite a while now, so I’m just used to how I feel but I remember at the start I felt more energetic, especially in the mornings. I didn’t have to consume as much coffee to get me going. I felt I was recovering a little bit better after weight sessions. You feel the same after a game, in general, because it’s such a taxing high-collision sport, but in terms of soft tissue things, I’ve been feeling great.
And how have your teammates responded to this lifestyle?
They’re more interested than anything. They can’t really get their heads around it so they ask a lot of questions, they make some jokes. But that’s cool, that’s fine. I don’t mind one bit.
How do you deal with travelling? You’re on the road a lot, that must be hard for finding vegan food.
Yeah, so I either take it with me or the club are really good with speaking to the hotel, making sure they’ve got a vegan option for me.
Do you have any recommended resources people can check out if they want to go vegan or even vegetarian?
Honestly, I looked at a lot of stuff on YouTube.There’s a couple of Irish guys called The Happy Pear, they do some really good stuff. There’s a guy on Instagram called @epivegan. He’s really good. And there’s the pretty commercialized grocery documentaries What the Health and Cowspiracy. I was already vegan before I watched them, but I think as controversial as it is, it’s got some really good points.