By Jason W. M. Ellsworth
After the New England Patriots’ astonishing comeback win last Sunday in Super Bowl LI, one question remains- how does Tom Brady do it? Despite being the oldest starting quarterback in the game, he continues to stay at the top of the league. His practice regime was summed up in a recent article “In Better Shape Than Ever at Age 39: Here’s How Tom Brady Does It.” It details Brady’s predominately plant-based diet and has sparked strident debates over how to label him and his eating habits:
For most of the year, Brady is a vegan. In the cold winter months, he adds some lean meat to his diet. A typical day’s menu this time of year might include a breakfast smoothie—made with almond milk, a scoop of protein, seeds, nuts and a banana—a midmorning homemade protein bar, sliced up chicken breast on a salad with whole grains and legumes for lunch, a second smoothie as a snack and a dinner of quinoa with greens.
Prominent animal rights activist, author, and the President of Farm Sanctuary Gene Baur shared this in a post on Facebook:
By attributing Brady’s on the field performance to the nutritional benefits of veganism, Baur is using this professional athlete to promote plant-based living. While diet and performance may be closely linked, I find myself most interested in the very contested nature of categories such as vegan. These categories are often taken for granted as descriptors to define a monolithic category or movement. However when conflicts inevitably arise, they demonstrate how identities are continually being constituted, constructed, and challenged.
In response to the above article addressing Brady, many comment sections give praise to the four-time Super Bowl MVP, seeing Brady’s lifestyle as positive PR for the vegan and vegetarian movements. However, others challenge Brady being labeled vegan — “He’s plant based most of the year. Not vegan.” Or “If you’re not ‘vegan’ all year, you’re not vegan.” Or “Plant strong! Not Vegan! Being Vegan is more than just food.” He is also called out for his choice to wear and be an advocate for Ugg boots, which are made of sheepskin. These statements are meant to challenge the notion that Brady is vegan, insinuating that there is a universally accepted definition of what it means to be one.
In turn, another category of commenters arise who attempt to delegitimize the former by labelling them “militant vegans,” a derogatory term for those with a rigid definition of veganism. Here they are advocating for a more pliable category that allows a greater number of people to be included in the movement. One can begin to see what is at stake for the parties involved when the category of vegan is continually reconstructed for diverse interests.
The very utility of terms such as vegan is called into question when there is no consensus on what is to be included in the definition. In a previous post on Culture on the Edge “Who Are You? I’m a Vegetarian“ Steven Ramey offers valuable insights that I find to be applicable in these examples.
Yet, even in those regions with a long history of vegetarian cuisine, what a person means when they identify as a vegetarian varies, as the label cloaks significant diversity. Some vegetarians consider seafood to be acceptable (and they have a separate subgroup, pescatarians). Some vegetarians do not want to eat anything, such as fish sauce or animal-derived gelatin, that has required the death of a sentient creature to produce. Others refrain from eating meat but are more lenient on other animal-derived foods. Some refrain from consuming meat simply because they do not like meat; for others it is a sacrifice that they take on out of an ethical question of violence or an environmental concern about the allocation of resources to meat production. For some, being vegetarian correlates with their identification as an “animal lover,” while others consider vegetarianism to be a requirement to remain pure from a pollution that they associate with meat consumption.
The varying forms of vegetarian are also found in other articles addressing Tom Brady. Brady’s chef, Allen Campbell, once stated “So, 80 percent of what they eat is vegetables. [I buy] the freshest vegetables.” This does not say anything of vegetarianism but was used for the base of a Huffington Post article titled “Tom Brady And Gisele Bundchen’s Diet Is 80% Vegetarian.” Based on this rational, anyone who eats vegetables in some fashion is some percentage vegetarian. This leads in part to hierarchies of vegetarians where one can claim a higher level of purity. As one commenter noted “Call me when Brady achieves 100%, until then, meh.”
Like many other designators such as “religion,” we find that “veganism” does not contain an essence that is easily analyzed. Instead what I find of most interest is the value that a flexible category such as vegan or vegetarian has for varying parties involved in deploying it. On the one hand the terms may be deployed and used to include a celebrity such as Tom Brady to help promote a movement and propel it forward. For those who do not see Brady as a pure vegan, they see their movement being watered down. In the end, these terms may be best examined in regards to the sets of social relations that are often pervaded by contested ideologies.
Jason W. M. Ellsworth is a doctoral student in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at Dalhousie University and is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Prince Edward Island in both the Religious Studies and Sociology & Anthropology Departments. His research interests include the anthropology of religion, Buddhism in North America, marketing & economy, the anthropology of food, and transnationalism.