Vegan footballer Calum Ferguson is rewriting the narrative around plant-based diets as he reveals how going vegan transformed his health and improved his performance.
Calum Ferguson is a vegan footballer who has previously played for Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Valour FC, and has also represented Canada at Youth Level.
I was fortunate enough to speak to him about a huge transition many elite athletes are now making in their sporting life: turning vegan.
Being a sportsperson and not eating meat probably doesn’t sit right with many traditionalists, so I was keen to understand how this change came about in his career, what difficulties he faced, and how he aims to inspire others through his lifestyle.
Calum’s shift towards a plant-based diet came after experiencing multiple injuries and setbacks in his career. “My body was in a terrible place – it was failing me time after time. I’d make a comeback, get injured, in a repeating cycle. That eventually resulted in a back operation to solve this problem, because my career was taking a nosedive, and so was my health,” he said.
“The back operation was the turning point for me. It allowed me a lot of time for self-reflection. I viewed it as a ‘comeback’ opportunity – a new chapter.”
With a newfound determination to regain his fitness and get back into professional football, Calum also became more open-minded about different approaches to diet and health. “I’ll do anything, I’ll take on anything to get back to where I was. I went from a close-minded individual to a very open-minded individual,” he said.
During his recovery, he began to reflect on his health and lifestyle choices, which led him to change his diet to remove animal products.
Sharing how his perspective on diet and health has evolved over time, he explained: “The norm for me was – you need to get your protein in – there’s no protein in plants – that’s what I believed.
“You eat chicken, eggs, salmon, lean and clean meat – that was my diet that I went into professional football with, and it stuck with me for a long time. I’m a totally different person now from when I went into professional football. Now I can totally respect where people come from when they talk about the environment and the damage to animals.”
“If you told me 10 years ago when I first went into professional football that I was going to be a vegan, I would have laughed at you.” Photo © Jonah Holmes
Healing injuries and improving performance with a plant-based diet
Calum signed for Valour FC in Canada in 2019, where he discovered a different approach to football from what he had experienced in Scotland.
With an open mind, he thrived on the new training methods and was exposed to the plant-based diet that some of his teammates had already adopted and had experienced “proper results” from.
“I was exposed to a totally different approach to football than what I had experienced in Scotland. Because of my open mindset, I thrived on it. I discovered new ways to train in the gym – mobility-based training instead of strength-based training, which really helped my body perform more athletically, and at the same time I was exposed to the vegan diet – the plant-based diet,” he explained.
Calum was intrigued and decided to give it a try. He slowly faded out red and white meat, then fish, and eventually eggs, fully transitioning to a plant-based, vegan diet over the course of 3-4 months.
With the support of his teammates, sports science team, and physios, Calum began to see instant gains in his performance both in training and during games. He ran more kilometers and put on more muscle mass, feeling lean, clean, powerful, and energised.
As Calum explains, “I started to see instant gains in how many kilometres I was running in training and in games, but I was also improving in the gym. I’d put on so much muscle mass, I felt clean, lean, more powerful and far more energised. That was what sold me on the process – I not only saw it in statistics but also physically how much I was benefiting from it.”
"I felt clean, lean, more powerful and far more energised." Photo © Jonah Holmes
When asked whether he had any worries about making the transition, Calum said: “Of course there was an initial fear, that’s probably what resulted in me gradually transitioning. As an athlete you worry that if you’re not getting enough protein in your diet then it’s going to negatively affect your career.
“Most people aren’t as lucky as I was to have that supportive environment around me where I was able to go up and ask: ‘If I’m not eating chicken, where am I getting protein from?’ Now, that sounds like such a silly question, but at the time that was a genuine concern of mine.
“A good one that always sticks with me is that there’s more protein in a crown of broccoli than in two eggs. Simple statistics like that help you appreciate how you can change your diet entirely and actually understand what benefits come from certain foods as well.”
“When I was playing at Canterbury United in New Zealand, the management team there had some slight concerns around my performance. They were supportive, but it was them thinking: ‘how is this going to work?’”.
However, Calum’s management team weren’t the only ones concerned about the impact a plant-based diet might have on his performance…
“Even with my family, I’ve had my mum and dad looking at me like I had two heads. My mum made me a meal once and I said, mum I can’t have that it’s got meat in it, and she said: “Don’t be so ridiculous, you’re not living in New Zealand or Canada anymore”. And I was like, no mum, I don’t think you understand, this is important to me, this is who I am now. That was a difficult process in itself.”
“Your friends and family have to accept that you’ve changed as an individual. It heavily affects your social dynamic off the pitch as well. People do warm to it; my mother went from that extreme to now eating I would say an 80% plant-based diet and totally changing.”
Calum believes that leading by example is one of the best ways to get people on board with plant-based diets. Although initially sceptical, his mum now enjoys eating more plant-based meals after seeing the postive changes in her son. Photo © Jonah Holmes
Benefits of a plant-based diet
Despite the worries of his managers and family, Calum says he’s never felt better since going vegan.
“I’m now the healthiest and feel the best I’ve ever felt playing professional football. People have this written narrative around athletes that you are always this glowing image of health – that you are a prime human specimen. Actually, it’s the opposite. Your body is always sore, you’re always carrying knocks, you struggle to get out of bed in the morning,” he explained.
“For me, transitioning to a plant-based diet, one of the biggest benefits was seeing my inflammation levels go down because of the increased exposure to a lot of antioxidants and a lot of high-density food – it allows your body to recover quicker; to flush out inflammation, to increase the blood flow to your muscles.
“Now I wake up feeling a lot more recovered and rested. When you listen to top level vegan athletes across the board, it’s the same message people are saying: it’s recovery, it’s feeling lighter, more energised, and cleaner, and it’s the same experience that I’ve had first-hand.”
"One of the biggest benefits was seeing my inflammation levels go down because of the increased exposure to a lot of antioxidants and a lot of high-density food - it allows your body to recover quicker; to flush out inflammation, to increase the blood flow to your muscles." Photo © Jonah Holmes
Healthy and delicious
Calum is keen to show that a plant-based diet can be both healthy and delicious. As he explains, “My diet is a whole food plant-based diet. You can actually be a vegan and be extremely unhealthy – you can eat lots of processed foods. That’s not what I represent – I want to eat foods as close to their natural source as possible; they’re better for you and your body.”
His approach to veganism involves consuming whole foods as close to their natural source as possible, and he appreciates and enjoys food more now than ever before. As he puts it, “Before I viewed food as fuel, getting in as many calories in as possible to perform better.
“Now I’ve learned to cook differently, I understand foods better. I now know where to look to find foods that will get certain nutrients and minerals into my diet. You appreciate food more because you’re forced to understand the value of a diverse diet.”
As an athlete, Calum has a deep understanding of how different foods impact his performance and overall health. He explains, “From an athlete’s perspective, you know exactly what benefits certain foods have and exactly why you’re eating certain things, so it makes you not only enjoy the process but also thrive on it as well.”
Calum is not the only athlete to sing the praises of a plant-based diet, as many leading athletes including Novak Djokovic, Nick Kyrgios, Lewis Hamilton, Chris Smalling and Héctor Bellerín also follow a plant-based diet.
"This myth that you’re depriving yourself of enjoying food - it’s the entire opposite experience." Photo © Jonah Holmes
Thriving, not depriving
Contrary to popular belief, he found the experience of exploring plant-based alternatives to be an enriching and fulfilling one.
From soups and curries to burritos and even pizzas, Calum has learned to replace meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives.
“Gone are the recipes that you had in your head as a child. Now you have to be creative. The cores are still there though – I still have porridge in the morning which is a big one for me being Scottish! You’re still eating soups, curries, burritos, even pizzas, you just learn how to replace the meat sources and dairy with plant-based alternatives.”
“So, this myth that you’re depriving yourself of enjoying food – it’s the entire opposite experience, it opens your eyes to a new world, and makes you appreciate food more than ever before.”
Breaking the stigma
Calum is not interested in preaching or forcing his opinions on others, but he believes that leading by example is a powerful way to challenge the stigma around veganism.
He acknowledges that many people hold a negative impression of plant-based diets, but he hopes that his success as a vegan athlete will change their minds and inspire others to consider making the switch as well.
As he says, “Proving that you can perform at a high level as a vegan athlete I think rewrites the narrative around the belief that a lot of people hold in their heads about people who are on a plant-based diet. That ‘hippie’ impression is flipped on its head.”
Speaking about the impact being a vegan sportsperson has on people’s perceptions, he said: “If you’re an athlete on a plant-based diet, performing to a high level and being open about it as well, you start to be a lighthouse. You thriving and living your best life naturally attracts curiosity and interest in you.”
Calum’s message is clear: a plant-based diet may not be a golden fix, but it can be a powerful tool for improving physical and mental health. As he puts it, “If it works for you, one fact that is universal is that eating more whole foods, fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods, high in sugar, high in salt is gonna help anyone to feel better and to live a better life.
“Everyone’s different, but if it works for you, then it can maybe be that missing piece that allows you to function and thrive as a human, instead of just surviving.”
Ultimately, Calum hopes that his example will encourage others to explore the benefits of a plant-based diet and find what works best for them.
Feeling inspired but need an extra push? Check out the benefits of a plant-based diet.