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Veganuary: Life as a plant-based athlete in Chile

January 5, 2024

The number of athletes who follow plant-based diets has grown in recent years, but a decade since Veganuary began, what is life like for Pablo Nunez, one of South America’s leading vegan athletes?

Pablo Nunez on the podium to receive a fencing medal
Chile's Pablo Nunez is one of the leading faces of plant-based athletes in South AmericaImage: Matias Delacroix/AP/picture alliance

Plant-based athletes are not a new phenomenon, but a decade on from UK charity Veganuary'sidea of trying to get people to pledge to one month of a plant-based diet, what has the impact been in the world of sports?

Pablo Nunez is one of the best fencers in Chile and recently won silver at the Pan American Games in his home country. Nunez, 30, has only been fully plant-based for the last four months but became vegetarian in 2020, inspired to make gradual changes after watching the documentary Game Changers.

"When I started to stop eating red meat and then white meat, we had a preseason in early 2020," Nunez told DW.

"We have a one-month break and then come back and have three sessions every day from Monday to Friday with weightlifting and specific fencing lessons and everything. So that was really tough. By the fifth day, I immediately saw changes in my recovery. On the fourth day, I said to my teammates: 'Yo what's up? Let's keep going. This is easy.' My teammates were like: 'No, man, I'm dead. I can do nothing.' They mocked me because I stopped eating red meat. I was like, this is the benefit."

At the time of his change, Nunez was in his mid-20s and coming off a disappointing Pan Am Games. He wanted to resurrect his career, and so month by month, he stopped eating red meat, then white meat, then fish, and so on. Recently, his girlfriend, who is also vegan, set up a plan for him to follow to become a vegan Olympic athlete.

He acknowledges that there might have been a placebo effect in the impact he felt, but there is lots of evidence to show there is more to it than just a change of mindset.

Recovery benefit

Plenty of reviews and studies in recent years show that plant-based diets reduce cardiovascular risks and blood pressure and that plants' antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties actually help to reduce recovery times. And this is one impact Nunez, a big tofu fan, can speak to personally.

"My injuries were reduced by, I don't know, from 60-70% to 5% per year," Nunez said.

"In the four years since I have only one or two issues, and the two issues showed up only this year because I trained a little bit extra," Nunez explained.

"I was like, man, this is heaven. I can train, I can over train. And the next day, I started fresh like lettuce."

For all the benefits it has brought his fencing, the approach has not come without challenges.

"We are 15, 20 people in the whole country in high performance. So, we're a few, but we try to fight (for our) goals. But in South America, it's really hard."

Cultural challenges

Beyond the mocking of his teammates lie the social barriers of both the continent and the country. While a 2018 Chile Environmental Survey showed that approximately 1.5 million Chileans said they abstain from eating meat in their daily diet, the overriding majority of the country of almost 20 million people favors meat.

"In Chile, people like red meat. They're red-meat people. People do barbecues. It's almost like a cult," Nunez said jokingly.

"It's crazy. When we see one, we want to meet up and do a barbecue. And I was like, with vegetables? I can bring zucchini."

In fact, Nunez recalls at the Santiago Pan Am Games last year, at which he won silver, only two of the 25 meals available for athletes were vegan — one protein-based, the other a salad.

Pablo Nunez celebrates his silver medal at the Pan Am Games
Pablo Nunez is making an impact in his home country by being a plant-based athleteImage: IMAGO/Photosport

Even though Nunez says some people have told him his decision to go veganis a sign of weaknesses, the 30-year-old has only been spurred on to show people the benefits of the approach as well as become an activist for minority groups.

"The whole story is to try to break this pattern of black or white. It's not the view of 'don't eat meat because it's bad,' it's 'eat less meat because it's better,'" explained Nunez. 

"Eat less animal products because it's cheaper, it's healthy  and because the benefits are worldwide, not only for the people around you but also for the future generation.

"Many friends told me,'But only you are doing this, do you really think if you eat less meat, you're going to be a big change in the world?' And I was like, no, but I'm a little grain of rice. And if you have another grain of rice and another, another, another, you have a whole plate. So I'm doing my part."

Veganuary's 2023 report showed that more than 700,000 people signed up worldwide, and even though there is no clear overview of how many athletes are plant-based, the approach has moved from niche to a steadily growing minority. And while Pablo Nunez hopes this approach can help him reach the Olympics in Paris this year, he's also keen to show the value of being plant-based to his sport, his country, and the world.

Changing South Africa's meat-based diet

Edited by: Chuck Penfold