Paul Landini remembers when people used to mock his food choices. How could he forget? It was only 13 years ago, and it would happen while he was lifting weights at the gym, after sparring in the boxing ring or really anywhere else where food was a topic of conversation.
—By Braydon Holmyard
A decade ago, the words “plant-based diet” were taboo in the fitness and athletic communities. Claiming allegiance to a vegan or plant-based lifestyle would automatically generate a groan and an eye roll from anyone who was listening. But Landini, a personal trainer from Ajax, Ontario, didn’t let the negative reactions to his choices stop him from being conscious of what he was putting into his body.
“No one was actively discouraging me from my choices, but you get the comments,” Landini says. “You get the people talking crap. And it’s all misinformation.”
Landini, who owns and operates his personal training business Paul Landini Strength Training in Toronto and is a contributing fitness columnist to The Globe and Mail, was never one to puff out his chest and respond to criticism of his diet by trying to change someone’s views. He would typically clap back with reasonable explanations and health facts in an effort to better inform those who were dismissing his diet, which in the fitness world was well outside the norm.
“2007 was a vastly different world in terms of awareness. We’ve learned a lot over the last 13 years about what a healthy diet can look like,” Landini says. He feels grateful for how fortunate he was to grow up in a household that was extremely health conscious. “And when it comes to performance, there weren’t really a lot of examples to draw upon — to look up and say, ‘hey, look at this guy, he’s doing it. Look at this woman, she’s excelling at her sport and she’s on a strictly plant-based diet too.’”
Times have certainly changed. The conversation surrounding the plant-based lifestyle has evolved rapidly since Landini first dabbled with it 13 years ago. These days, all he needs to do to defend his decisions is point to a television screen.
“Now there are so many more examples of powerful individuals from every sport,” Landini says. “You can get examples of plant-based athletes who are excelling, and that’s something that’s changed quite a bit.”
The plant-based craze has grabbed a firm hold on the sports world in recent years, with some of the most dominant athletes of this era proudly touting the diet, which consists mostly or entirely of foods derived from plants, including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits, and with few or no animal products.
One of the most recent additions to the long list of elite athletes to consume mostly plant-based foods is 10-time NBA all-star Chris Paul. Paul took to Instagram last year to share with his nearly 10 million Instagram followers that he was feeling “pretty damn good” since adopting a plant-based diet. The caption supporting his new food habits was posted alongside photos from his appearance in last year’s ESPN Body Issue.
As more and more elite athletes reduce meat consumption — something that studies say can lead to better cardiovascular health and recovery time — the more we see their stories being shared with the world. Just a decade ago, Landini says it was difficult for him to find answers to even the simplest questions on the internet. Today, plant-based athletes are plastered on the front covers of health magazines, appearing on talk shows, and starring in Netflix documentaries.
One film in particular has garnered major international attention, and like most productions that push plant-based foods, has come with its fair share of controversy. The Game Changers, a film released in 2018, in which American basketball player Paul was an executive producer, showcased elite athletes, special ops soldiers, and visionary scientists in an effort to change the way people eat and live.
Plant-based fitness and health advocates like Landini used to look up to lesser known public figures like mixed martial artist Mac Danzig in the early 2000s. Despite being one of the original vegan public personas to make it in one of the world’s toughest sports, Danzig has just a few thousand followers on social media. There’s no understating the impact he’s had as one of the trailblazers of this movement, but it’s also an indication of just how much plant-based role models have blossomed into a star-studded cast.
Seventeen-time Grand Slam tennis champion Novak Djokovic, five-time Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, six-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady, 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup champ Alex Morgan, MMA star Nate Diaz and power-lifting record holder Patrik Baboumian are on that list. Landini has had a front row seat to watch them climb aboard the plant-based train.
“It’s just growing and growing. People are trying it,” he says. “It’s not as hard as maybe it looks on the surface, and there are so many resources on how to do it right. Before it was very hard to find out how to get this done. What do you eat for breakfast? What should you avoid? You can find all that now within five minutes of being on the internet, whereas it took a lot more effort before.”
Making the switch to a plant-based diet can be intimidating, and Landini says that as a personal trainer who has clients with all types of diets, he never tries to force his personal choices on anyone. If a client is interested, it’s something he will help them ease into at their own pace.
“Whenever people ask me about this stuff, I always say just take baby steps. Take it slow. Enjoy the process and ask yourself why you’re doing it, what are your values, and why does this matter to you?” he says. “There’s the stereotype, ‘how do you know someone’s vegan? Because they’ll tell you in five minutes.’ People get excited. People get stoked. It’s a new journey and they come into contact with like-minded people. They hear facts about the good they are doing for the environment, the animals and their health, and they want to share it. I’ve been there too.”
The plant-based diet is not for everyone, but the misconception that plants can’t produce power is fading away. The accessibility of plant-based alternatives in restaurants, grocery stores and even fast-food chains has at least given people an easy way to try it. Many who do don’t go back.
“My dad is an Italian immigrant pushing 80-years-old who loves lamb. I got him on these meat-free Gardein chicken fingers, and he eats them all the time now,” Landini says.
Does he still eat lamb?
Landini laughs. “Lamb doesn’t come into our house very much anymore.”