Q & A with Tony Gonzalez: All-Pro Football Player on Plant-Based Diet, Slow Food + More!
Tony Gonzalez is considered by many (including me) to be the greatest tight end ever to play in the NFL. He attributes his success and his ability to perform at such a high-level for so long (it's his fourteenth season) to his mostly plant-based diet. In fact, in 2007 Tony went completely vegan after reading The China Study, but after losing too much weight he incorporated some clean meat back into his diet to maintain his strength and weight.
Tony is now on a mission to educate people about their health and wellness, and the benefits of eating a more plant-based diet. He recently launched a line of protein powder, called All Pro Science, which he created from his own personal protein batch (pea, brown rice, and hemp protein with flax seed).
I talked to Tony about everything from the fateful flight where the passenger next to him first told him about The China Study, his philosophy on food, and even Otis Spunkmeyer cookies. Yes, back in 1994 as a freshman basketball player at Columbia University, I guarded Tony (he also played basketball in addition to football at Cal) in the Otis Spunkmeyer classic at the Oakland Coliseum.
MBG: Is it true that you first got exposed to eating a more plant-based diet after sitting next to someone on a flight reading The China Study?
TG: Well, it’s sort of true. The meal service came around and I ordered the shrimp salad for an appetizer. The guy sitting next to me said he’d have the shrimp salad but without shrimp. Then when the entrees came around he opted for the vegetarian dish. Then the dessert tray came with cookies and milk, and he opted for the fruit. So after that I asked him if he was a vegetarian and he said he was a vegan. I had no idea what a ‘vegan’ was at the time, but then we started talking and he mentioned The China Study and suggested I pick up the book. I like to read and since he said the book changed his life, I figured it’d definitely be worth reading. So I went out and read it.
With all the scary statistics on the short life spans of pro football players, and your bout with Bell’s Palsy, was choosing to eat a more plant-based diet completely a health choice for you?
Absolutely. This was completely a decision about health. For me it was finding an edge – becoming as healthy as I could be. At the time I was going on my tenth year in the NFL, so in NFL-terms, I was getting up there in age. I was hurting so bad physically and I remember saying to myself, if I could just play more two more years it would be awesome. Now I’m going on year fourteen so it definitely worked. At first, I tried going vegan but I lost a lot of weight – I lost ten pounds immediately. I wasn’t getting enough protein, I wasn’t doing it the right way. I then reached out to Colin Campbell, the author of The China Study, who got me in touch with Jon Hinds, a bodybuilder who is a vegan (or pretty close to being vegan – he might eat some wild fish). Jon and Colin were extremely helpful and helped get my diet on track. Also, the more I read about eating healthy -- the more you eat organic, local, cutting down your meat intake – it’s also better for the environment.
Going 100% vegan is hard…. What was the hardest/easiest thing for you once you went for it?
I’m one of those people, if I decide to do something, I do it, so it was pretty easy for me to get started. I felt so great, I had so much energy, I felt like my body went through almost a detox stage.
It was difficult from the standpoint of losing weight and losing strength. Football is my livelihood and maintaining weight is important, so that was pretty scary. Once I started to really educate myself about eating a more plant-based diet, but incorporating some clean meat into it – some wild fish, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef (I rarely eat beef, if at all) – I was able to get back that strength.
So what do you eat now to get protein?
I wrote a book, The All Pro Diet, with Mitzi Dulan, who’s the trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs, which explains exactly how I eat. I’d say right now it’s mostly from clean fish. I don’t really eat dairy. I’ll have free-range chicken about 3-4 times a week. I’ll have some organic free-range egg whites every once in a while. As far as beef goes, maybe once a month I’ll have a petite grass-fed filet. I’ll split it with someone typically so it’s more like a side dish.
So what’s it like eating the way you do in the NFL?
For example, we’re at training camp right now so they have training table where we all eat together. They have vegetables but there are a lot of meat and dairy choices. Everyone knows how I eat, and guys are so curious about it which is great. They’ll often come up to me and ask if something is alright to eat. Just the other day one of the coaches came up to me and handed me a plate and asked me to go fill it with good food so he would know what’s good to eat. Everyone knows that we need to make better choices with what we eat. Football players are no different – and they’ve seen me, coming in at year fourteen, which I completely attribute to the dramatic change in my diet. Eating a more plant-based diet has allowed me to bounce back quicker, it’s helped me to stay around the NFL and still play at the high-level I play at – at a physically demanding position. I attribute everything to my diet.
It’s great that other NFL players are looking to you to make better choices...
Yes, for a lot of guys it’s taking baby steps like staying away from the white sauces, going with the wheat pasta instead of the white pasta. Maybe throw some vegetables in there and use the veggies as a sauce. If they MUST have chicken, go with a half-chicken, not a full chicken or fried chicken. Then instead of getting a ham and cheese omelet every day for breakfast, have some oatmeal and some fresh fruit. And I always tell them to see how they feel after they eat better, see how you practice.
So what do you have for breakfast?
Oatmeal, I eat it every day. I’ll add some fruit, some blueberries, strawberries, and I’ll make a smoothie with my veggie protein powder. I’ll throw some blueberries, carrots, some spinach in my smoothie. Sometimes I’ll have some cereal. Nature’s Path is a very good cereal that I like. I’ll use rice milk instead of milk. I’ll have some toast and use Earth Balance butter, it’s a vegan butter that tastes just like butter.
My point is that going vegan is a tough thing to do – and if you don’t want to become vegan that’s OK - just try to eat clean. Stay away from food in a box, stay away from foods that you need to throw in the microwave, try to eat whole foods.
Did needing more protein lead you to start All Pro Science?
It just kind of happened. It wasn’t really a planned business. I met my partner through a mutual friend and he mentioned that he was a manufacturer of protein supplements. He asked me if I took any protein and said that I’d go to the store and buy hemp protein, brown rice protein, pea protein, flax seeds, and then grind them all up and make my own batches. He then told me that he could take all of what I did and make it one protein powder if I wanted. And our protein is grass-fed weigh protein – no other company has that.
If I’m going to be eating clean, I want to be supplementing clean. I had never really thought about supplements this way before, which is unlike me because I’m such a stickler for ingredients and reading labels. The less ingredients on a label that you can’t understand, the better. So I wanted to create the same thing with my protein line.
Omega-3s is a big subject - where do you get Omega-3s?
I take a fish oil, I eat clean fish. A lot of cereals, and oatmeal – like Nature’s Path oatmeal, or flax seed – all have omegas.
How many calories do you consume in a day?
I’m not a big believer in calorie counting. I don’t have the time or the patience, and I don’t really recommend it unless you’re on a strict diet trying to lose weight. For me personally, I eat until I’m full.
Eating until you feel full is a good philosophy?
Absolutely. The way to do that is to make sure that you’re taking time to eat. I love the Slow Food philosophy. I try to really take my time when I’m eating and never eat when I’m in a rush. It takes twenty minutes for your stomach to send a signal to your brain to say that it's full. Spending quality time with your family at the dinner table, talking, eating healthy, is what it’s all about.
You mentioned you’re a book guy. Any favorites come to mind?
I love biographies, psychology/philosophy books. There’s a great book called Power vs Force by David Hawkins.
Power vs Force – one of my favorites! I love his focus on positive and negative energy.
Yes, I love Hawkin’s whole conscious scale: The conscious that you dwell on determines your quality of life – and staying on that higher level of consciousness is so crucial. Also, Anticancer was written by a doctor who was told he was going to die of cancer. His whole alternative approach to cancer I thought was great. He’s a big believer of putting good foods in your body that will help you heal. It’s such a great book.
I also love Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma -- such a great way to really learn where your food comes from. Michael Pollan isn’t vegan, and I love his message of getting food from clean sources. I also love Colin Campbell’s China Study, and have talked to him a lot about eating – and he’s 100% vegan, although he hates the word vegan. Colin eats a plant-based, whole foods diet. A vegan diet is without question the A+ diet. I’m more interested in getting to that B+, A- diet. Every once in a while, I will have a chocolate chip cookie.
Not an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie?
You’re the greatest TE ever to play, but you’re much more than a football player. What’s next?
I love spreading the message of health and wellness. I love going around and talking to people and inspiring them to get healthier. I use football as a platform to get out there and talk about health, wellness, and the nutrition focus we all need to have. Childhood obesity is something that I want to get more involved in. Michelle Obama is doing some great things there.
For more on Tony Gonzales and All Pro Science: