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If these insanely good athletes can give up meat, so can you

Bulls center Lauri Markkanen is the star of a new campaign spot asking people to take personal steps to stop climate change. His first pledge: giving up red meat. He’s not the only one.

If these insanely good athletes can give up meat, so can you
Lauri Markkanen [Photo: VCG/Getty Images]

Chicago Bulls big man Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old and seven feet tall, and according to a new campaign video he made with the Finnish renewable energy company Neste, very concerned about the future of the planet. In the video, Markkanen, who is from Finland, is shown floating in a lake and exploring forests in his home country. He describes how when he became a father earlier this year, he began thinking back to his own childhood and the environment he grew up in–he’s concerned that climate change will create a very different world for his child.

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The whole point of Markkanen’s campaign with Neste, called #DontChoke, is to ask people to pledge to take simple actions to decrease their personal carbon footprint. The day after the #DontChoke campaign dropped, Markkanen made his first pledge: He would give up red meat. “Every move counts, play your part,” he wrote on Instagram.

[Photo: Neste]

Markkanen (or his team) has done his research. Just after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its horrifying report on the climate disaster that we’ll face unless we keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the World Resources Institute found that our meat consumption alone would be enough to blow right past that goal. Taking into account population growth and dietary trends, WRI found that in the next several decades, animal agriculture alone could account for most of the emissions budget needed to keep devastating climate change in check. According to WRI, one of the best individual actions to curb climate change people can do is to stop eating red meat.

While Markkanen is already getting some blowback on social media–mostly Bulls fans expressing concern that the loss of red meat and its associated protein will make their center less strong–many people are supportive, and some commenters have said they’ll follow his lead. Some have even taken to rattling off the negative effects of beef consumption: Methane emissions from cows are extremely environmentally damaging, and beef is one of the most resource-intensive foods to produce. It’s not the typical commentary on an athlete’s social media account.

Markkanen’s pledge to stop eating red meat is important because it’s linked to climate change, but he’s far from the first athlete to show that it’s possible to excel at sports while cutting out red meat–or all meat. In making this pledge, Markkanen is joining some pretty good company, and furthering the case for swapping out environmentally ruinous beef for other foods that are better for your body and the planet. Here are a few other athletes who’ve bidden farewell to beef:

JaVale McGee, Los Angeles Lakers center: The former Golden State Warrior went vegan around a month before the 2017-2018 season as a quick way to drop weight and relieve some pressure off his legs. That worked pretty well, he told GQ, and it ended up making him feel much better and stronger. McGee took to the internet to research the pros and cons veganism before making his decision, and found the pros outweighed the cons. “It’s an adjustment, but it’s really not that big of one once you stop thinking of all the things you won’t be able to eat,” he said.

Venus Williams, tennis star: Since 2011, Williams has eaten a raw vegan diet to help ease the symptoms of her autoimmune disease (she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, which causes eye and mouth dryness, fatigue, and joint pain, that same year). She continues to rake in wins in her sport, including a victory in the Grand Slam Doubles category at Wimbledon in 2016.

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Scott Jurek, ultrarunner: Scott Jurek once ran 165.7 miles in a 24-hour period, averaging 8:24 per mile, and the 45-year-old has not eaten animal products since he was in college. He stopped eating meat and dairy, similar to Williams, as a way to head off his family’s history of chronic diseases, but doing so clearly hasn’t prevented him from running insanely long distances. He’s even written a book about it.

Hannah Teter, snowboarder: The three-time Olympic medalist went vegetarian after watching the documentary Earthlings, which explores horrific conditions at factory farms. As someone whose sport is contingent on the existence of seasons and consistent snow, Teter is very engaged in advocacy around climate change and aims to use her sport and her lifestyle as a way to raise awareness around the issue.

John Salley, four-time NBA champion: He retired in 2000, but Salley is now one of the leading advocates for players cutting out meat (apart from McGee, NBA players like Kyrie Irving, Jahlil Okafor, Enes Kanter, and Damian Lillard have also gone vegan or vegetarian). He went vegetarian himself at age 27, after a doctor told him it would help blood flow better to his legs. In 2015, he even encouraged Michelle Obama to go vegan, writing in a letter: “Vegan eating is not just a slam dunk for human health; it’s also the most effective way to combat climate change.”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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