Can a Plant-Based Diet Improve Your Surfing?

Tony Butt

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Updated 18d ago

Want to improve your surfing performance, stay healthy for the rest of your life? And, in the bargain, make sure there is a liveable planet for your kids and grandkids? Switching to a plant-based diet or even just eating less meat could be a good start.

In a previous article (HERE) I pointed out that surfing isn’t quite as environmentally innocent as it should be. Even though the pure act of riding a wave is almost totally innocuous, all the paraphernalia that comes with it makes the whole package anything but environmentally friendly. This includes the stuff we buy, the travelling we do and the food we eat. But then I went on to explain that if we change the way we do these things, we can end up being kinder to the planet and kinder to ourselves at the same time. In other words, a win-win situation.

Surfers like Matt Smith have been vegan for some time. Also, Matt's one of the original Finisterre wetsuit testers, as soon here from a few moons ago.

The third one on the list – the food we eat – is something over which we have a lot more control than the other two. It is something that will have a profound effect on the environment and an immediate effect on our health, and is something we can easily change, right now. In fact, even if you don’t care about the environment and all you really care about is doing better aerials, changing your diet is still one of the best things you can do.

Modern, industrial-scale animal agriculture is a massive, if not the biggest, contributor to planetary destruction by humans. If we want to avoid climate catastrophe, water shortage and starvation, we need to seriously cut down on animal agriculture. Or get rid of it altogether. Below are a few facts and figures. If you want more evidence, there are plenty of peer-reviewed papers out there (like this one).

*Animal agriculture is the world’s biggest single cause of habitat destruction and the biggest driver of deforestation;

*It uses around 80 percent of all arable land on the planet to produce less than 20 percent of our food;

*It causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport put together;

*It uses around a quarter of all freshwater production, wasting vast amounts of water that could otherwise be given to us to drink. For example, a single burger takes over 2,000 litres of water to produce;

*It is an incredibly inefficient way to produce food and wastes vast amounts of food that could otherwise be fed directly to us. For example, for every calorie produced, beef needs about 100 times more land and emits about 450 times as much greenhouse gas as chickpeas or lentils; and for every 30 calories you feed into a cow, you get one calorie of edible meat out.

Belinda Baggs

Belinda Baggs

© 2020 - Jarrah Lynch.

So, if we ‘cut out the middle man’ and used all that food and water to feed ourselves instead of farm animals, we would be much better off. And if we didn’t need to grow those farm animals in the first place, we would drastically reduce all the habitat destruction, deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions that goes on behind the scenes of modern agriculture. I’m not just talking about the resources needed to grow, keep and slaughter all those animals, but also all the infrastructure needed to produce, store and transport all the food we give to those animals. But that, of course, would mean we would all have to eat less meat. Which, perhaps, is something you feel a bit reluctant to do.

I understand if you think that eating less meat is too big a sacrifice. After all, most of us have been led to believe all our lives that meat contains protein and nutrients that you can’t get from plants. And so, what’s the point in saving the planet if we make ourselves ill or compromise our surfing performance?

That’s what they tell us, anyway.

But things are not quite what they tell us. Until recently, people thought that it was very difficult to get the same protein, vitamins and minerals from plant foods as you get from animal products. But recent research has shown otherwise. If you want to help save the planet by eating less meat, you can do so without losing your paddling power or big-wave cojones. If you want to dig deeper, there are many peer-reviewed papers available (like this one).

In fact, without even thinking about the planet, eating less meat is still one of the best decisions you can make. Because if you eat less meat, you will live longer and stay healthier. You will be less likely to die of all the diseases that are so prevalent in the western world. For example;

*People who eat a diet high in animal protein have up to 500 percent increased risk of dying prematurely of most forms of cancer and of type-2 diabetes;

*Changing to a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) by up to 55 percent;

*Animal fat and animal protein leads to plaque build-up in the arteries (and hence CHD), but this can be reversed by switching to a plant-based diet;

*Plant foods have up to 60 times more antioxidants than animal foods. Antioxidants help to ‘clean up’ cell-damaging molecules called free radicals, which can reduce our ability to fight disease.

Now, let’s go a stage even further. Assume that you don’t even care whether you die of those diseases. After all, you’ve got to die of something, right? Well, even if you are not worried about getting cancer, CHD or diabetes when you reach 50, a plant-based diet is still a no-brainer.

Why? Because switching to a mostly plant-based diet can lead to better performance as an athlete. The same biological mechanisms in our bodies that affect our health and our resistance to disease, also affect our fitness and athletic performance. For example;

*Diets high in animal products often provide fat at the expense of carbohydrates. This can impair performance because carbohydrates are a much more efficient way to supply our body with energy.

*Plant-based diets are naturally high in carbohydrates. Before you ask, plants can provide us with more than enough protein, even if you are a bodybuilder or a gorilla.

*Animal fat has been shown to impede the endothelial function. This is where our blood vessels adjust themselves according to what we are doing. For example, if we are doing exercise, they expand to increase blood flow. More blood flow means more oxygen getting to the muscles and more nutrients getting to where they should be. Plant foods do not interfere with the endothelial function in the same way that animal products do.

*Animal protein comes packaged with inflammatory agents, which impede muscle recovery after exercise and hinder recovery from injury. They also cause the blood vessels to swell up, which reduces blood flow. Plant foods don’t contain these inflammatory agents; instead they contain high levels of antioxidants which actively reduce inflammation. A double-whammy that leads to reduced muscle soreness, quicker recovery after heavy workouts, fewer tendon and muscle injuries, and shorter rehab times if you do get injured.

There are plenty of high-profile plant-based athletes out there to show that eating less meat or no meat can lead to amazing performances. These including record-breaking ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, and one of the strongest men in the world, Patrik Baboumian.

But what about surfers? Well, there are quite a few plant-based surfers who are at the top of their game. Recently I caught up with surfer, photographer, shaper and environmentalist Jarrah Lynch, and with stylemasters Matt Smith and Belinda Baggs.

How old are you and how long have you been surfing?
MS: I’m 34 and have been surfing for 27 years. I started at Porthgwidden Beach in Cornwall, where my dad owned a seafood restaurant.

BB: I’m 39 and have been surfing for 24 years.

JL: I’m 30 and have been surfing for about 18 years. I grew up in the coastal forests of Victoria, Australia, where I developed a strong connection to the natural world. My father [Wayne Lynch] taught me what it really means to be a surfer and to protect the places you love.

What do you not eat (red meat, all meat, all meat and fish, all animal products etc.)?
MS: I am 99.99 percent vegan.

BB: I don’t eat any meat (red, white or seafood) in 99 percent of my meals, and I don’t eat any dairy products. However, on occasion, under the right circumstances I will eat sustainably-caught fish or eggs from the neighbours' free roaming chickens a few times a year. I would consider myself to eat a ‘plant based’ diet over a strict vegan one.

JL: The only animal product I eat is raw honey. I try to make sure it is from local and organic farmers who do it as naturally as possible.

When was the last time you ate those things?
MS: I went vegetarian 15 years ago. I had wanted to stop eating meat for a long time, but it just wasn’t part of my home culture. My partner at the time was a vegetarian and it was she who gave me the motivation to do it. About a year later, after being at sea and seeing how there were so few fish, I gave up eating fish. Not long after that I went vegan. I tried eating meat again a few years later, but it just didn’t seem right, so I went back to being a vegan and have been ever since.

BB: Last time I ate a meal of meat or dairy was two and a half years ago.

JL: I’ve been plant based for the majority of my life. I was raised vegetarian till my teens where I had a meat-eating phase which lasted for about six years. Now, for the last seven years I’ve been very strict about what goes into my body.

Belinda Baggs is fully plant-based.

Belinda Baggs is fully plant-based.

© 2020 - Jarrah Lynch.

Why don’t you eat those things?
MS: For me it started as a decision I made for environmental and political reasons. But now I would say it is more spiritual – half from the head and half from the heart, as it were.

BB: My initial reason was environmental. I had been looking into my individual carbon footprint created by living choices. Some options were really easy to improve such as switching to purchasing solar energy, car-pooling, riding a bike, and choosing a bank that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels. But one thing that was difficult to dismiss was air travel, mostly essential for my work. After calculations I realised that my diet was more harmful than my transport, so the decision to stop eating animal products was an easy way forward. After a few months I started learning more and more about the inhumane farming practices and felt even happier about my decision. Furthermore, I was introduced to the scientifically proven effects many of these animal products have on our health.

JL: In short, moral, environmental and the health benefits. Like many people, I was quite ignorant as to where my food came from. After learning about the health benefits of growing my own food, I began to look at everything I was eating and what impact it had on me and on the environment. Learning in depth about how the meat, dairy and egg industries function, I was appalled to be contributing to the suffering of others for nothing other than taste. As surfers, we are connected to the environment, and, knowing the impact animal agriculture has on the natural world, I felt like a complete hypocrite if I preached about certain environmental problems but refused to change my own behaviour.

What changes have you noticed in your general health, and in your performance as a surfer?
MS: I think I’m a better surfer each and every year, so you could conclude that I’m better because of my diet, but there is so much more to it. To be honest, my connection with my inner body has only been deepening more in the past five years. I’ve been practicing connecting with how I feel after each meal – ‘yoga for eating’ as some people call it.

BB: When I stopped eating meat I lost weight (in a good way), and felt more energetic. In the past I was constantly suffering from ear infections. Once I completely cut out dairy I stopped having earaches. My skin is brighter and clearer, I have way less stomach aches and no bloating.

I suffer from colds and flu much less now than I did in my animal-consuming past, and, if I do get sick I have much less mucus than before. I also recover a lot quicker from illness and from injuries. When I recently had a broken nose and torn septum, the doctor told me that I was a “super healer” and I’d say this is probably due to my clean diet. In the surf, I’d say I feel lighter and more agile, and I have way fewer down days.

JL: Once I switched to a plant-based diet I felt clearer, happier and had more energy, so I could surf for longer. I also recovered a lot faster after workouts, surfing or injuries. I learned all I could about nutrition and fasting, which has also helped with my immune system, resulting in me almost never getting sick.

Have you had any problems?
MS: My first year as a vegan I lost a lot of weight. But I was living on sailing boats at the time and my diet was basically just veggies and rice. And rum. Also, I was in my 20’s, and so fit it that it was hard to tell.

BB: I probably get colder now I’m not eating meat, which seems to be the only down side.

JL: I used to have stomach and skin problems, but it all cleared up once I changed my diet. Since then I’ve not had any diet related issues. After I stopped eating certain things it became clear I’m somewhat allergic to dairy, and gluten doesn’t really agree with me either. I used to eat these all the time, so I was surprised when I learnt it was affecting me so much.

Why do you think everybody doesn’t stop eating meat?
MS: I think that some people who eat meat are really connected to what their body needs, and I fully respect them. There are so many different circumstances that seemingly dictate our choices, and everyone is on their own path. I’m grateful that food has been part mine. Going veggie and vegan has been about exploring my authenticity. I’m obviously not from a medical background, but loads of scientific studies now show that meat and dairy are actually not so good. In the end, to not consider altering our diet amounts to sheer ignorance of the facts

BB: Habit is a hard thing to break: meat tastes good, and is in most foods that you get at restaurants and cafés. Despite there being many easy and cost-effective alternatives, meat eaters are under the delusion that there isn’t much variation or that they will be deprived of flavour. Most of us were raised with the misconception that meat and dairy would make us strong and healthy. However, in 2020 our species is rampant with disease that is partly caused by a poor diet and overconsumption of animal products.

Even so, most of our traditional western doctors don’t consider the importance of food – the one thing that fuels our bodies every day. I’m obviously not from a medical background, but loads of scientific studies now show that meat and dairy are actually not so good. In the end, to not consider altering our diet amounts to sheer ignorance of the facts.

JL: I think it’s a mix of reasons, mostly ignorance and selfishness, with misinformation and laziness also playing a role. At first it might seem difficult to change habits, but you will realise how simple it is to avoid certain things or substitute with an alternative. I still struggle to understand how anyone could continue as normal when it is so clear to see how that food is made, what it does to our health and the devastation it is causing around the globe.

People are starving to death while we feed the food we grow to the livestock we eat, while continuing to support the destruction of our children’s future by accelerating climate change. Only greed and selfishness can be the causes of people not changing.

Because they can’t see or feel the direct effects of their actions they don't care; most people only change when they are forced to. Changing your diet is the single easiest and greatest thing you can do for your health, for the environment and for rest of the world.