David Carter, 30, was a defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys when he made what he calls the "life-changing decision" to go vegan and eliminate meat, seafood and dairy from his diet.
He grew up in South Los Angeles, where his family owned a barbecue restaurant. He was a "straight-up meat eater, allergic to vegetables. I never thought about what I was eating." For dinner, he and a fellow player would typically hit the drive-through, splitting an order of eight double-doubles and four packs of fries. At 6-feet-5-inches, he weighed 305 pounds.
But after suffering painful tendinitis and being told he had high blood pressure, Carter, who now lives in New York, had enough. He recalled a daily regimen of painkillers and anti-inflammatories, and said he was drinking a milkshake and watching the food documentary "Forks Over Knives" when it triggered something in him. After he heard experts talk about dairy and animal products contributing to inflammation in the body, Carter hit the pause button.
"I went into the kitchen, poured the milkshake down the sink and then emptied out the refrigerator. My [then]-wife asked me, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm going vegan. Right now. A hundred percent.' I did it in a day and I haven't gone back."
He added: "I realized I was causing my old-man illnesses. I was in my 20s and on all this medication. I was feeding these problems with the diet I was sustaining."
Carter was in Los Angeles over the NBA All-Star weekend to shoot a Levi's campaign — he began modeling after he retired from football — and is now a regular on the speaking circuit as a food activist. Sipping from a cup of black tea at a downtown hotel, he talked about the benefits of a vegan diet, the injustice of food deserts, and why few foods are better than beans.
Avoid the boredom trap
I already knew, going into [a vegan diet], that I needed to give myself a fighting chance. Sometimes people who try and switch to a plant-based diet get bored of foods quickly, and don't know what to eat. I basically vegan-ized my regular menu — pizza, tacos, hamburgers, taquitos… I made vegan versions of all of those.
The results are motivation enough
Within six weeks, I had lost 40 pounds. My stamina increased tremendously; I could bench-press 100 pounds more than I could previously. My recovery time was less and I was sleeping better. But not only was the quality of my life increasing, I didn't need to take painkillers to get through the day. The tendinitis disappeared almost instantly. But I didn't want to lose too much weight because my job as a defensive lineman is to not be moved. I am the wall on that field. I had to eat 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day. I did it by doing protein shakes with fruit, vegetables, a can of cannellini beans, flax, four bananas, dates. That's 1,000 calories right there, and I would do that a couple of times a day. Now that I'm not playing, I don't count calories anymore but have maintained my weight at 265 pounds.
Hemp seeds are your friend
I put it in everything -- in my shakes, sprinkled on a salad, or on their own. They have all these amino acids and help repair the body's DNA.
I was giving a presentation and someone stood up and said, 'It's all good that you're plant-based. But I live in an area where we don't have access to healthy food.' That hit me so hard. I grew up in a food desert. I know what it's like when the only thing you can get to eat is at the liquor store or down the street at a fast food place. That prompted me to change my presentations dramatically and delve into food deserts.
Eating healthy doesn't have to be expensive
For people on a budget, I tell them it doesn't have to be organic. I got a lot of tips from Toni Okamoto, who has a blog called Plant Based on a Budget. She shows how you can eat well for $25 a week. Beans and rice are my staple. And I put lentils in everything -- burritos, burgers. You can buy a bag of lentils for a dollar. You do what you can. I was at a team dinner at a steakhouse and everyone was eating lobster rolls and 84-ounce steaks and I had a plate of string beans and a salad because that's all the restaurant had and I didn't want to mess up the vibe.
The hotel room workout
I try and hit the gym once a day, or sometimes I'll do a yoga class. But if I'm traveling and can't get to the gym, I'll do 500 push-ups in my room, 50 at a time, just knock them out. It's all I need.
Fighting the dollar menu temptation
It's not always easy. People were saying to me, 'You're a football player. You're tough and strong and need to eat meat.' But what's the point if you're dying at 50? Is it worth it?
"But... what do you eat?"
It's a question vegans get asked all the time. David Carter happily indulged when we asked the same. The answer? Lots of Mexican food, and more. Here's what a typical day of eating looks like for him:
Oatmeal or a seven-grain hot cereal, with hemp seeds sprinkled on top, and fruit
Lentil tacos made with corn tortillas, tomatoes, onion, avocado, cilantro and cashew cheese
Vegan nachos made with black rice, black beans, cashew cheese, onions, cilantro and guacamole
If he's still hungry?
Carter turns to fruit smoothies between meals.