By Chuck Carroll
Austin Aries, one of the biggest names in WWE’s cruiserweight division, has been squaring off in the squared circle for nearly 20 years. It’s a career that began from the humblest beginnings in front of a crowd of just a couple dozen people. These days, he goes for the gold in front of tens of thousands every night. It’s a journey made by many of WWE’s elite, but Aries’ tale has a surprising plot twist that sets him apart from nearly everyone else in the locker room.
Aries was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where beer and bratwursts are plentiful. And cheese. So much cheese. He grew up eating copious amounts of meat and heavy doses of dairy. How could he not? In fact, some of his most vivid childhood memories are of traditional Midwest dinners and greasy, gooey, freshly made chocolate chip cookies from the school lunch line. And what 20-something hasn’t lived off of pizza? When times were tight, he could stretch his wallet with boxes of macaroni and cheese that were three for a dollar.
But as he got older and his career progressed, something happened. A light went on inside his head; he began to equate the health risks of the All-American diet with the dangers he encountered in the ring. Meat was body slammed out of his diet, and dairy got a Death Valley Driver right out of his life. Aries is now the pillar of health.
The title of his new book sums up 17 years of suplexes in 14 words, Food Fight: My Plant-Powered Journey from the Bingo Halls to the Big Time.
As a former 420-pound guy, I understand his journey and insatiable appetite for knowledge. For eight years I’ve managed to keep off the 265 pounds I lost, and a large part of that is due to studying what I’m actually eating. Admittedly, I’m not vegan, but in the same way Aries sweats nutrition labels under the bright light, I interrogate the ingredients list until it spills all of its dirty secrets.
That philosophy doesn’t really jibe with a lot of people’s lifestyles, especially those who follow wrestling. Let’s face it, outside of Aries and Daniel Bryan, sports entertainment and healthy eating aren’t synonymous with one another. When I dabbled in the business, my diet consisted of gas station mini-mart and late night drive-thru fare. For a true indulgence, we’d stop at Waffle House. Grab what you could from wherever was open and then get back on the road.
Anyway, the whole idea of such a clean-eating lifestyle is foreign to many of us. Moreover, the thought of giving up the foods we cherish is terrifying. But Aries is quick to remind anyone who asks that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Aries doesn’t expect that everyone who reads his book will become a vegan or even a vegetarian. His real goal is just to enlighten fans and readers about how they’re fueling their body. The same goes for the other wrestlers in the locker room. He won’t push his lifestyle on anyone, but will gladly talk about it when asked.
When your book crossed my desk it got me to thinking about the WWE Performance Center. I’m wondering as part of this whole robust training system that they have in Florida, how much of an emphasis is being placed on nutrition?
I do know that when people come in there as part of their initial training and acclimation they’ll spend some time on nutrition. There are some classes on nutrition. The cool thing is that with the resources there, even beyond the classes that they have, if people have a question about certain areas that they are interested in or maybe want a little extra assistance, WWE is really good about going out and helping facilitate that.
At the end of the day everyone has different goals. Some people, like myself, are trying to keep size on. Some people might come in and have the opposite. So, one size doesn’t fit all for nutrition. Also, one person’s idea of what nutrition and a healthy lifestyle are can be completely different from someone else’s.
What about the other wrestlers in the locker room? Are there people who are approaching you now and starting to pick your brain?
Honestly, going back for years, the most success I’ve had for being influential is just by letting people come and being inquisitive. I’m very passionate about it and if you ask I’ll definitely share my thoughts on why I made this decision. Just by people getting exposed to it and realizing that this stuff tastes good, that’s kind of a cool thing. People will start adopting it. Now, it’s growing, and I’m not the only guy doing it. People are starting to know a lot of others doing it too. Maybe even a plant-based MMA guy. People are starting to take this plant-based lifestyle a little more seriously. And even if they don’t implement it 100 percent of the time, they’ll implement it some of the time or most of the time.
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You look at a guy like Tom Brady who is about as picky and clean of an eater as they come. He looks like he’s going to be playing into his mid-60s. What effect do you think the vegan lifestyle will have on your career longevity?
I definitely say the decisions I make have a longterm goal in mind. It’s so that I can lead a better quality of life later into my life. So that when I’m in my 60s and 70s, I’m not dealing with all of the issues that a lot of that generation is, as far as the type of medication and sicknesses they have. As far as the career goes, look, I beat myself up for a living. So, the way I look at is that if I just put good stuff in my food and keep my inflammation levels down and not put animal products in my body, I hope it will extend my career, and I can perform at a higher level for longer.
As I was reading through you book, it really struck me that you vividly recall your diet as a kid, right down to the gooey chocolate chip cookies you would eat in school. That struck me, because I used to be 420 pounds and then I lost 265 eight years ago. When I was starting to lose all the weight, I went back to my childhood and remembered vividly those trips through the drive-thru, those crappy school lunches. It’s amazing how that stuff sticks in your mind.
You hit it on the head. The target market is the kids, right? The kids become customers for life and then they take their kids there. It becomes a cycle. There’s very little education about real true health in food. There’s very little education about what the food choices in front of us are doing to us. Frankly, there’s no money in healthy people. There’s money in the system we’ve put out in front of us where we make profit on healthcare and our food. There’s no money in healthy people. The money is in sick people.
That’s one of the things that you brought up early in your book. It’s that yes, this diet is a little more expensive, but I’d imagine you’re saving tens of thousands in healthcare if not more.
It’s huge. It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. The expense to me is the convenience. We live in a society where we value convenience and pay a premium for it. So, if you don’t actually want to make the beans in a pot and you’d rather open a can, it’s going to cost you three times as much.
My question is: why is it bad to spend money on food? We’ll line up for the new iPhone and drop hundreds of dollars. We’ll spend money on a vehicle, on nice clothes and want to live in a nice place. When it comes to food it’s like, “Oh, it’s expensive.” What about nice food? I guess it’s not quite the status symbol if you’re walking around with your nice food. But isn’t that the building blocks for everything?
Going back to when you were 420 pounds, for everything else that you had going on in your personal life and your career, what did you really have if you didn’t have your health? What were you building all of that on top of? You were building that on top of a really unhealthy foundation. So, why, when it comes to food, do we say it’s expensive? But is it expensive when you’re talking about what you’re getting back for the money and the time you’re putting in? Is it expensive or is it the most important thing that we do?
I agree with you 100 percent. I now look at food as an investment. I’ll put my money on that rather than cars, jewelry and everything else. Why don’t we make that same investment in ourselves? That’s that kind of logic that’s missing with a lot of people.
We can talk about studies and statistics, but I go by the eye test. I travel the country and go to towns big and small. And I shake hands, and I meet kids from two years old all the way up to the elderly. People aren’t looking healthy. Kids are at a disadvantage early in life as you attested to. They’re already overweight, and it’s not through choices of their own. It’s not through maliciousness of their parents, either. It’s just a complete miseducation or no education at all when it comes to our diet. The things that are easiest for us to put in our mouth, that we crave, and are formulated for us to come back time and time again are making us sick.
Whole Foods recently got acquired by Amazon. Now, I am a huge fan of Whole Foods. They opened my eyes to a lot of things when I was losing weight. I am concerned that with this huge corporation taking over, a lot of the store’s principles will fall by the wayside.
I try to look at things from different sides. Your point is very well taken and could be a concern. The message I take out of this and what all consumers can take is that the market is going to go where we go. Every time we make a decision to put something in our shopping cart or go to a drive-thru and pull out our checkbook, we’re voting that we agree with what’s going on. We agree that this is the type of food we should be eating and I’m happy eating this food. But now we have Amazon seeing the trend that people are willing to spend a little more for food and care where it’s coming from and read the nutrition labels. They’re going to go where the money is.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.