In the professional footballing world, most players are done before they reach their mid-30s. But not Jermain Defoe, 35, who was recalled to the national squad last year.
Not only that, but Defoe even scored the first goal in his return to England football, 13 years after first joining the team.
So, what’s his secret? Other than a superhuman ability to get the ball in the net, Defoe puts the longevity of his career down to one thing: His recent adoption of a plant-based diet.
Defoe is refreshingly honest about why he started exploring the options in his diet. “When you come into the later stages of your career, you always try to find anything you can do to prolong it,” he explains, showing his steely dedication to football.
It was documentaries like Netflix’s What The Health that convinced Defoe to cut meat out of his diet, showing him the benefits and alternatives that were on offer. “I wanted to try something different to prolong my career, and that’s how I was inspired,” he says.
In his drive to continue to play football at a top level, Defoe has now cut meat out altogether, but he still eats some fish.
No matter how in vogue the vegan diet is, for most people, the transition is still a pretty tricky one.
Even though Defoe hasn’t gone fully vegan, cutting meat out of his diet was still tough, because of the culture he grew up with. “At first it wasn’t easy,” he admits. “It’s something completely different to what I’ve done before, especially coming from a West Indian background.”
Defoe is close to his family, and says: “When I first started, it was difficult. I used to go to my mum’s on a Sunday and she’d make lamb, beef, all this kind of stuff.”
Admittedly, Defoe has it easier than most people. He works closely with a nutritionist who helps shape his diet to make sure it’s balanced. In fact, it doesn’t seem like Defoe does that much cooking at all. “I don’t mind cooking,” he says, sounding very unconvinced. “My girlfriend does most of it, but I help her.”
Now, Defoe’s diet has settled into a pretty consistent rhythm. “I try to stick to vegan meals at home, but after training at the ground, I’ll have a bit of fish, like tuna or salmon, to get some energy back into my system,” he says.
And don’t worry, because his mum has also managed to adapt – he was at her house the night before we spoke, and she made him a lovely vegetable curry.
For Defoe, changing his diet so significantly has undoubtedly been worth it.
“It wasn’t easy, but as I was doing it, I noticed the difference,” he says. “I didn’t get one muscle injury last season, and in your 30s, that’s quite unusual.
“I thought it must be down to my diet – cutting meat out and really understanding what I’m actually putting into my body.”
His muscles aren’t the only thing that have benefited from a meat-free lifestyle. “I’ve always had energy, but sometimes you feel a little bit lethargic and bloated,” he says.
“Now I feel like I’ve got more energy. I feel completely different – I’m able to train every day, I don’t get any injuries, it’s helped with my game. That, for me, is the most important thing.”
Veganism isn’t exactly seen as a macho lifestyle choice, which seems at odds with the lads-centric nature of football.
However, Defoe says his teammates are really receptive to his diet. “A lot of the younger players look at me and they’re like ‘Wow, how can he still be playing at that sort of level at 35?’ I think they wanted to know what the secret is,” Defoe says. The answer he always gives them? His diet.
“I think they look at me and think they should try it themselves – and they should, because the earlier you try it, the better it will be,” Defoe says.
With top sportspeople like Serena Williams and David Haye adopting veganism, plant-based diets are shedding the image of being wishy-washy and unbalanced. If a 23-times Grand Slam winner can succeed without getting her protein from meat, then there’s got to be something in that.
For Defoe, his journey away from a meat-focused diet has been an eye-opening one.
“When I was younger, I didn’t understand much about food, I just ate what was in front of me,” he says in disbelief. “Even at the training ground I just ate like everyone else.”
It was education that showed Defoe that there are so many alternatives to meat. That’s why he did a film with Quorn and Ben Fogle about how reducing your meat intake can be so much healthier and better for the environment.
“It encourages kids to understand what they’re putting in their bodies,” Defoe says. “It shows you can be healthy and fit without eating meat.”
For now, you won’t see Defoe reaching for grilled chicken breast to get his #gains. Instead, he’ll be opting for tofu – which will probably help power his professional career for a few extra years.
Jermain Defoe has partnered with Ben Fogle and Quorn to explore how meat reduction can be healthier for you and the planet. Watch their film here.