With its intense physicality, big, brooding and often bloodied players and their antics on and off the field, rugby has gained a reputation as a red-blooded, hypermasculine sport fuelled by protein and pumping iron. But one player redefining the landscape is All Blacks half-back TJ Perenara, who says he has never felt better after adopting a vegan diet.
The international rugby player, 30, is now a committed vegan after transitioning from a vegetarian diet in 2019. Passionate about sustainability and playing his part to help the planet, the athlete has been named as a new ambassador for Kiwi plant-based protein brand, plan*t. He has also invested in plan*t's parent company Sustainable Foods, which is currently raising capital to expand its operations locally and preparing to export later this year.
According to a study in 2019, one in three Kiwis are consciously reducing their meat consumption, a number that's increasing every year. To capitalise on the growing demand for alternative proteins, Sustainable Foods was founded in 2019 with a goal to provide delicious, nutrient-rich, plant-based proteins to help people eat more sustainably.
Two years later, plan*t was born, adding its range of New Zealand-made burger patties, mince, chicken and sausages to New Zealand's plant-based market. Developed with high-protein, plant-based ingredients such as soy protein, pea protein, grains and locally grown hemp protein, the products are designed to deliver a similar taste, texture and eating experience as animal-based protein.
And getting enough protein certainly doesn't appear to be a problem for Perenara. The 30-year-old, who made his debut for the All Blacks in 2014, has enjoyed an illustrious career as a high-performance athlete without touching chicken breast or lean mince since 2016.
Following the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and three years as a vegetarian, Perenara decided it was time to transition to a fully vegan diet.
"It just felt right to make the switch as milk was the only dairy I was consuming anyway," he told Newshub.
"Plan*t has some amazing products that we put into a lot of our meals. People seem to think that the change in diet means all traditional foods are off limits, but it's not the case - you don't need to miss out on anything.
"We love spag bol, burgers, cottage pie, ramen, fried rice. There are so many good options that we pretty much still eat all our old faves too. Plan*t hemp chick*n hits with 35g of protein per 100g - definitely not missing protein there. I feel better than I ever have at the moment."
Despite the health benefits associated with a plant-based way of eating, Perenera was initially persuaded to adopt the diet due to ethical reasons and sustainability concerns. Speaking to Newshub, Perenara said he was first attracted to the diet as he was passionate about pursuing a more sustainable way of life. Although veganism currently doesn't extend to all facets of his life, a fully vegan lifestyle could be on the cards in the future.
"Sustainability was the driving reason for me. I've added reasons to why I switched but sustainability was the major one," he said. "I do admire people who adopt the full way of living and would love to explore it more."
Instead, Perenara is doing his bit to help the planet by putting his money where his mouth is and investing in a local plant-based enterprise, with the hopes of increasing awareness around the benefits of a vegan or plant-based diet.
"There is incredible potential for New Zealand to be at the leading edge of alternative proteins that not only help people easily incorporate more plants into their diets, but is also better for the planet too," Perenara said.
"Being vegetarian and vegan for more than five years, I wanted to be part of a project that enables me to have an impact in this space. When the opportunity to invest and be part of the team came up, I jumped at it."
According to a report commissioned by the United Nations in 2019, adopting a plant-based diet provides a "major opportunity" for individuals to reduce their impacts on climate change. Another study published in 2018 found that eating a vegan diet could be the "single biggest way" to reduce your environmental impact on earth. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting out meat and dairy products could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent.
The researchers also found that if everyone stopped eating meat and dairy products, the use of global farmland could be reduced by 75 percent - an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined. Not only would this contribute to a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up land lost to agriculture, one of the main causes for mass wildlife extinction.
The findings also revealed that meat and dairy production is responsible for 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture, while the products themselves provide just 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein levels worldwide.
With the ever-increasing demand for plant-based products in Aotearoa and abroad, Perenara says vegan diets are becoming more and more maintainable and convenient - no harder than his previous meat-eating ways. And that also goes for other elite athletes who may be considering making the switch - as long as they are planning ahead to ensure they're consuming enough of the right nutrients to perform at a high level.
"A lot of people are becoming more open to trying plant-based alternatives. You don't need to miss out on anything - I'm a big fan of burritos after a big game," he said.
"I do think it's sustainable. There are many world-leading athletes who are on plant-based diets. I think everyone needs to make the choice for themselves on their own diet, but there are a growing number of environmental and nutritional reasons why it's a positive choice."
Plus, plan*t isn't the only brand putting plant-based protein alternatives on our plates. With the growing demand for plant-based products, major supermarkets now stock a range of 'meat-free meats', with the likes of Sunfed, Bean Supreme and Tonzu offering vegan sausages, vegetable-based minces and chicken made with pea protein.
And yes, the rugby legend admits he has endured some ribbing from his steak-chomping teammates, but it's all good-natured banter, he says. However, his vegan diet as a high-performance athlete has raised some eyebrows.
"People are genuinely surprised when they find out I'm vegan because it goes against everything they've been taught," he said.
"There has definitely been some banter, especially early on, but as a whole people in the environment are supportive."
As for his advice to newly minted vegans, Perenera says it's imperative to identify your 'why' and remember what encouraged you to take up the diet in the first place. In order to be consistent and maintain the way of eating, he says it's important to have driving factors behind the decision that motivate you to keep it up long-term.
"I think knowledge and understanding your 'why' is important. If you have something that drives you and can be the thing you lean on, it makes it a lot easier to be consistent long-term."
Justin Lemmens, the CEO of Sustainable Foods, says the company is thrilled to have Perenara onboard and hopes his association with the brand will build further awareness and education around the benefits of adopting a more plant-based diet.
"This is one of the fastest-growing global markets. While it's relatively new, it's estimated it will be worth more than $35 billion by 2027," Lemmens told Newshub.
"We're already seeing this growth in New Zealand: In the last three years we've experienced 800 percent growth. To work with TJ as an ambassador and investor as we take our business to the next level is incredibly exciting, as we look to scale up local capability and export."
So far this year, the brand has secured a national contract with the country's largest meal kit provider, My Food Bag, and will soon release its world-first hemp chicken product - a chicken alternative made with hemp seeds and hearts locally grown in Taranaki.
A typical day on TJ Perenara's plate as a vegan athlete
Breakfast: Oats with jam
Lunch: A high-protein plant-based product like plan*t's Smoky Chipotle Burger Patties with rice and vegetables
Dinner: Either a curry or a stir-fry - his family's favourites!
Snacks: Smoothies or handfuls of nuts.