Eight years ago. 2004. Mac Danzig remembers grabbing some chicken breasts from the freezer, cooking them up and chowing them down. It was a milestone moment, signifying the last time the conscientious consumer would taste any meat or fish.
The animal rights advocate had already stopped eating dairy products; he was now full-fledged vegan.
No big deal, except Danzig’s diet made him a glaring anomaly in the MMA and society in general, where carnivores are widely presumed to have a huge edge in the all-important strength department. So for years the Cleveland-born, California-based fighter shouldered plenty of criticism and battled misperceptions about his eating habits. But Danzig, winner of season six of The Ultimate Fighter and single father to a three-year-old daughter, has noticed a gradual shift in attitudes over the past few years as the fight game evolved and ever more attention is paid to the cleanest diet possible.
Weeks before his UFC 145 showdown with fellow lightweight Efrain Escudero, 32-year-old Danzig opened up about his food philosophies and recently being featured in the acclaimed “Forks Over Knives” documentary that is related to a book of the same name that climbed to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Once, the fight world virtually scoffed at Danzig’s fringe diet. More and more, however, he is looking like a pioneer who was ahead of the times.
Frank Curreri: Some people might think, five or six years ago especially, that your diet is extreme or wacky. That you are a tree-hugging pacifist. So many stereotypes are attached to vegans and vegetarian athletes in “manly” sports. Has that perception of your diet as extreme or radical changed?
Mac Danzig: “Yeah! Over the last few years there have been a lot of changes in perception. When people first start realizing that I was Vegan, I was the odd man out. I was the only person in combat sports doing it. You know, there was one other random professional boxer who happened to be vegetarian, but his diet was filled up with cheese and whey protein, so that doesn’t really count. So I was the only guy. It didn’t matter how many fights I won, whenever I’d lose people would always criticize my diet. ‘Oh he doesn’t get enough meat and protein in his diet, that’s why he lost!’
But now you have fighters turning to similar diets for health reasons – guys like Jon Fitch, who use those diets for their training camps but not necessarily for moral or ethical reasons. So people see him doing well and they think, ‘Ok.’
Jake Shields has been a longtime vegetarian and he eliminates dairy and goes Vegan and people go, ‘Oh .’ And more and more people started doing it, so I don’t find myself getting criticized as much. I’ve been getting more and more positive feedback. People do seem more curious about the diet and more accepting.”
Curreri: Talk a little more about being a vegan pro athlete and getting enough protein.
Danzig: “I used to always get that, ‘Well what do you eat?’ ‘Where do you get your protein?’ I get that all the time.
The truth of the matter is that protein requirements are blown all out of proportion. We are led to believe that we need huge of amounts of protein for physical activity. People have been saying that for so long. The fact of the matter is, even if I did eat meat I wouldn’t be so focused on my protein intake. I wouldn’t worry that much about it because you get enough protein if you have a balanced diet. But so much of our society is based on what is printed in magazines and publications. All of that knowledge was handed down, literally, by the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno days … people who looked at bodybuilding as the ultimate way for Joe Schmoe to get in shape and be five percent closer to looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger. And that’s been going on for a long time. It goes hand in hand with this whole fitness mindset that has been going on for decades.
You don’t need one gram of protein per pound of body weight. You don’t need that at all. If you are regularly active and at a good weight, if you get more than 80 grams of protein a day then you are fine. The body can’t even process more than that, your liver can’t process more than that. If you give your body too much protein then it’s either going to turn it into energy or to fat. And your liver has to do all that.”
Curreri: Talk about your education as a vegan. What convinced you that this way of eating was ideal for you? What spurred you to go Vegan?
Danzig: “I’ve been researching nutrition for years and years, and not just being vegan, but nutrition in general. I’ve asked a lot of questions from knowledgeable people over the years, read books, read medical journals and stuff like that online. So I’ve been educating myself as much as possible for years and then using trial and error.
For years I didn’t do the Vegan diet even though personally, morally and ethically I wanted to. But I believed in what everyone else was saying, ‘You need meat! You need some kind of animal product, fish or chicken … to maintain your strength and muscle mass. As an athlete you need that.’ And I believed all of that.
Then I saw some examples of athletes that were Vegan and were getting good results and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to try it.’
At the very beginning for me it was moral and ethical. In this day and age, buying animal and dairy products causes way more suffering and harm than it does good. Don’t get me wrong, yes, I love animals … but if we were in a different day and age like 100 or 200 years ago then, sure, I would do whatever I had to do to live. If I had to be a hunter-gatherer then I would. I might feel bad about it, but I would respect the animals that I killed and I would eat meat. But things are different. We don’t live in that day and age anymore. Today you have processed meats and a lot of animals suffering unnecessarily for it. Now, some people just blow that off and don’t have a conscience about it or they just don’t care. They wouldn’t eat their dog but they feel that way about other animals. But for me, I just decided to stop eating meat. I didn’t want to contribute to all of that. I’m not trying to change the world or wear that on my sleeve or make a political statement, because that just turns people away. I only have control over one person and that’s myself. And I feel good about it.
Curreri: Give us a day in the life of Mac Danzig grubbing.
Danzig: “It depends whether I’m in hard training. When I’m in hard training, like right now, I wake up in the morning, get some stuff done and I go train. I skip breakfast and the reason I do that is because if you train before you eat you will burn off the glycogen stores and the immediate fat sources that you have accumulated a lot quicker. So if you eat breakfast before you workout, then you are burning off some of what you just ate. I like to start with a clean slate for weight-cutting purposes.
So I go work out. After I work out I have a Vegan protein shake and mix that in a blender with mangoes, banana, coconut for the good fats, and some cashews. Then a little bit later I will have some sort of carbs … usually quinoa, because it has complex carbs and a lot of protein. I’ll add steamed vegetables and some kind of fruit. I snack throughout the day with fresh fruit. I try to only eat organic fruit and that’s where I get my sugar intake from. I stay as far away as possible from refined and processed sugars.
I go train and then when I’m done I’ll have a salad, usually with spinach and kale, with beans and legumes as the main source of protein. Sometimes I might eat Tofu or Tempeh. Tempeh is a little better because the processing and fermentation process that the soybean goes through is not as intense. Or I might add lima beans to my salad.
Later on at night I eat more fresh fruit, as always.”
Curreri: Tell us about the last time you ate meat.
Danzig: “The last time I remember eating meat was sometime in 2004. There was a guy who had a journal online and he offered examples of his diet alone. I had a boxing match coming up – this was before I started fighting in the UFC. So before the boxing match I decided to cut out animal products … At that point I had already cut out dairy and the only animals I was eating were chicken and fish. So I just cut them out and I was Vegan. So I ate some chicken breasts in my freezer because I didn’t want to waste it. It wasn’t good or bad. It didn’t make me want to eat any other meat or miss meat. That was just the last time I ate meat.
Curreri: Let’s harken back to your childhood days. What kind of diet did you have growing up?
Danzig: “Me and my mom didn’t have a whole lot of money. We both cared a lot about animals and hypothetically wanted to go vegetarian but we didn’t know how to do it. This is like the (1980s) and when you grow up in the Midwest or the East there was not a lot of information about it.
We just got by on what we could. I think I drank more 2 percent milk than any other liquid because we didn’t know any better and there were so many commercials about milk – like the milk campaigns that they are still doing. I drank so much milk that I ended up with an allergy to it.
A typical meal for me was white bread, baked potato, a side of lunch meat and milk. That was what I had a lot. It wasn’t good for me but when you’re a young kid you can process that. But if you go vegetarian or vegan you’re going to be making yourself so much healthier.”
Curreri: What is one of your Go-To meals, something that might be appetizing even to a non-vegan.
Danzig: “I eat a lot of vegan energy bars from Whole Foods. I’m really into Coconut milk to make curry, so I’ll make a yellow curry powder and mix it with coconut milk, put that over organic brown rice and add some stir fried vegetables with snow peas. If I have 20 minutes to prepare something, that’s something I might make.”
Curreri: You are featured in the relatively popular documentary “Forks Over Knives” and the film highlights your diet and profession, seemingly to show viewers that those who exclusively eat plants and fruits can still be tough guys and elite athletes. What was that experience like and what kind of feedback have you received?
Danzig: “Yeah, it was a short thing. They followed me for a day and then threw it in there. They don’t mention me too much, but it was good. That documentary was a big eye-opener for a lot of people, so it was good. I didn’t know it would be that successful because there are a lot of documentaries out there, and lots of times when you’re interviewed and videoed it never even gets off the ground so I never hold my breath. So I didn’t realize that documentary would have the impact that it did. I’ve had lots of feedback from different fighters, coaches and training partners that have seen it. All sorts of people hit me up by e-mail or Twitter to tell me they saw me in the film. A lot of times people were just watching and had no idea I was in it until they saw me in it.”
Mac Danzig's Diet - The Truth About Vegan
Read on for the latest installment in UFC.com's weekly series of articles on proper nutrition from the top athletes in the UFC...this week, lightweight contender Mac Danzig