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Beyond the skills and talent required for a professional athlete, maintaining a strong and healthy bod is the name of the game.

It’s probably not a big surprise to hear that one of the most important jobs of a stunt performer is to stay healthy and strong. Duh. After all, a typical work day consists of contorting our bodies as we fly through the air before getting slammed to the ground. It takes tremendous strength and agility to pull off the many physical requirements of the average stunt.

However, what most people don’t realize is that we don’t always get to land on big squishy mats or have the luxury of protecting our bodies with pads. On a rare occasion, Lady Luck smiles on us and there is a long sleeved parka with baggy pants waiting for us in the dressing room. And on this rarer than rare occasion we can break out the gator-back, hard shelled elbows and knees and we can hit the cement all day without a bruise. But more often than not, it’s a skimpy outfit that awaits. And while it may look sexy on screen, it’s not so glamorous when it’s time to get pushed down a flight of stairs. And so, I have found that building muscle is the best way to protect our bones.

So let’s talk about Building Muscle.

We have all been told over and over again that we need lots of protein to build muscle and maintain a healthy diet and we have believed that the source of that protein comes only from meat. BUT what if I told you that we do NOT need meat to obtain the proper levels of protein? That in fact, that form of protein does our bodies more harm than good? Hmmm.

Last year, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published research that showed that plant protein builds muscles as well as meat sources and points out that animal protein is harmful to long term health, increasing inflammation and promoting various other diseases (such as endometrial, pancreatic, and prostate cancer as well as cardiovascular disease). Whereas plant plant foods contain healthy fiber and complex carbohydrates, are rich in antioxidants and provide a wide spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting nutrients. And have been proven to actually prevent cancer and heart disease.

I was early on my journey to move away from animal products and learn more about a plant-based diet when I met Kieran Gallagher, Leo’s double in The Revenant. If you don’t know him, he is a powerhouse of a stuntman with a lean, muscular body (and a beautiful soul). It was a sunny day on the beach in Malibu, where we were shooting pick up shots for Father Figures. Dressed in bathing suits (no room for pads), my job was to come in fast and low, tackle style and get Kieran up and over my shoulder. But the hard work was on him, he needed to perfectly launch is body over mine and slam it hard into the sand (ok, sand is better than cement but trust me when I say, there was nothing comfy about this gag). And of course we had to do it over and over and over again….for 2 days in a row. I’ve met a lot of great stuntmen but I was impressed with this guy. Since there’s not a lot to hide when you’re working in bathing suits, it was clear that his body is a well maintained instrument. He was so strong and agile and had unlimited energy to keep going with no complaints.

When it was time for lunch, I realized Kieran is vegan and I was full of questions. The first one, “Where do you get your protein?” He informed me that all protein actually comes from plants. “Animals eat plants to get their protein, and then we eat them.” He went on to explain, the human body can only use about 15-20 grams of protein in a 2hr period. Any protein eaten over that is just waste. Even high level Olympic athletes only consume 60-70 grams of protein a day…and that’s overkill for the likes of you and me.

This was huge news to me. My entire life I had been told that we get protein from meat!

He runs into the misconception every day when people hear he’s vegan and say he must need more protein. His response, “I say, tell that to mister Gorilla, who is a vegetarian that can snatch you car off the ground like a rag doll!” Well that hits home for me. I did a Gorilla trek a few months ago and spent some time face to face with these powerful creatures. We were fortunate to get the rare experience of 2 families in a turf war where the Silverbacks literally were throwing each other like rag dolls. So I can confirm first hand that these bad boys (and girls) get plenty big and strong off of nothing but plants!

Kieran grew up a Irish kid on a classic Irish/English diet, meat and potatoes 3 times a day until he was 22 yrs old and learned the truth about the dangers of ingesting animal products. He made the switch immediately. “I only have to hit myself in the face with a hammer once to know it’s not a good idea.” He goes on to say, “For me, eating meat is like smoking cigarettes, once you know it’s not good for you why would you eat it?”

I asked if when he made the switch, he noticed a difference in his body. He said his cardio went to the next level. “Vegetarians produces less lactic acid then meat eater under stress, and that lead me to change my competition game. I started to drag guys that I shouldn’t have been able to beat into deep water, with a fast pace and just exhaust them. That changed me from a top 10 guy, to a world, national, and state champion in 3 different sports.”

WOW. I left that set so inspired and did a little more research of my own. And here’s what I learned…
The truth of the matter is that virtually all vegan food contains protein (especially soybeans, legumes, nuts and seeds). Broccoli actually has more protein that steak!

We only need .8 grams of protein per kilogram of our weight. One study showed vegans typically consume over 70% more protein than they actually need. Another showed the average person consumes 70 – 120 grams of protein per day, which would be a healthy number for someone weighing between 200-330 lbs. Extra animal protein turns to fat. Do the math…are you eating too much?

Another great tidbit I picked up is that protein is something our bodies DO NOT crave, what we are actually craving is Iron. So next time you think you have a craving for ‘meat’, try reaching for a Kale salad and see how you feel after.

Thankfully, LA is on the cutting edge of the movement and there are more and more quick and yummy options for herbivores. Even the entertainment industry has begun to accommodate the variety of diets on set and it’s easier and easier to get your fill of veggies when it’s time to break for lunch. Have a look around the craft service table and notice how many of our most successful and talented stunt performers are taking better care of their bodies through proper nutrition.

Lauren Mary Kim (Electra stunt double on Netflix’s Daredevil) was inspired by the recent documentary What The Health and traded her chicken and beef for a healthier diet and it’s definitely not slowing her down. In fact, she immediately noticed a significant, positive difference in her digestion system and commented that the switch was much easier than she had anticipated. When asked about her protein, she says she gets plenty of protein from quinoa and other veggies like broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts and beans. If you have seen the amazing things this girl can do, you know her body is a well oiled machine.

Samuel Le also made the leap after being inspired by similar documentaries (if you haven’t watched any of the awesome food films out there, do yourself a favor) and says especially now that he’s a new dad, it’s important to him to invest more in his health. And as Jet Li’s double, I’d say he’s got the muscle it takes to to get the job done.

Stacey Carino (Transformer double for Meagan Fox) recently made the switch to veganism in an effort to accommodate her children’s allergies. She told me the most noticeable difference is her increased energy level (and a lower grocery bill). She has easily maintained her already fit physique but in 2 months, her husband lost 18 lbs and in just 2 weeks her boy’s medical issues fully cleared up. They power up with quinoa, broccoli, lentils and lots of veggies!

For me it was my gal pal, Tiffany Lonsdale (kickass marathon runner) who was one of my greatest inspirations for opting for an Impossible Burger over any other. (Have you tried it yet? Seriously, what are you waiting for?) When I asked her how she fuels for a big run she replied, “For runs longer than 8 miles and less than 15, I’ll usually have some coconut water blended with a couple of dates and this helps to keep my sugar levels up. For a half marathon or full marathon I enjoy having some date paste with me which is easy to chew whilst running and I always look forward to a nutritious buddha bowl after a race to restore my levels.”

Every person is different and I encourage you to listen to your body but also to educate yourself. I’m personally a big fan of the ‘baby step’ technique. If you’re inspired by this article and want to make some changes but don’t know how to start, try starting with more greens and less meat for just a meal or two a week and see how great you look and feel.

And just in case you still don’t believe that plants are the best way to build muscle? Take it from these vegans….Professional bodybuilder Mr Universe; Barny Du Plessis, multiple world-record holding strongman Patrik Baboumian, Icelandic weightlifting champion Hulda B Waage. Just google these dudes and have a gasp at their bulging muscles!

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MS. DANIELLE BURGIO, Actress, Stuntwoman, Filmmaker

Danielle's author page and articles