In just the past year, professional football players have begun to tackle the notion that one needs milk to grow big and strong. The mainstream media took hold of the trend in 2018 when 15 players on the Tennessee Titans team adopted Chef Charity Morgan’s vegan meal plan, but some athletes realized the benefits far before the news decided to cover it. Chris Manderino is a former fullback with a professional career spanning from the Cincinnati Bengals, to the Kansas City Chiefs, to the Bologna Doves (a pro football team in Italy). He has been dairy-free for years and now owns a plant-based nutrition company focused on helping others eat and feel better to live their most active life. As one of our awesome Switch4Good athletes, Chris sat down with us for an interview on football, nutrition, and the changing landscape of athletics.
Chris grew up with a rough-and-tumble spirit in his blood. His father played for the Michigan State University football team and instilled the love of the game in his son. Chris jumped into the sport at eight years old and continued to build his skills through college, where he walked onto the University of California, Berkeley team as a freshman. During school, Chris started all four years. Come senior year when scouts appeared at his games, Chris realized he had the opportunity to turn his hard work on the field into a career. When asked about this turning point in his young life, Chris responded, “[Playing professionally] was always a dream, but it was a long road to get there.” Following graduation and the completion of his self-designed major, American Studies with an emphasis in Business in Globalism, Chris launched into NFL.
After signing on to two separate NFL teams, Chris was invited to play for a professional team in Italy, and he accepted. His time playing for the Bologna Doves served as a critical moment in his dairy-free journey. He noticed the abundance and variety of Italy’s fresh produce and realized that these foods were far more nutrient-dense than what he was being fed back in America (aka meat and dairy). “The [American] training table was very animal protein-centric,” Chris recalled. “It was not the most nutritious from a health standpoint. Tons of calories was the goal.” However, in Italy, his thoughts about whey protein powders and other outdated food philosophies began to change. He claims that he has always been interested in nutrition in regards to athletic performance, and he eventually made the decision to cut out dairy. Chris noted significant changes in his gut and energy levels after he made the switch.
After retiring from professional football, Chris found success in sales for various health companies, but he was itching to start a business of his own. He had spent years refining his diet, eventually adopting a primarily whole foods, plant-based lifestyle. In 2016, he launched his current project: LYFE Fuel, a nutrition and supplement company. Chris explained, “I saw a lot of companies that were all sales and marketing bells and whistles without having much credible science behind the formulations they were bringing to the market. I wanted to provide a product that was consumer-friendly in which customers didn’t have to go to a practitioner to get it.” All of LYFE Fuel’s products are aimed toward those in search of optimizing their health by cleaning up their diet through a dairy-free (and plant-based) approach.
While no longer playing professionally, Chris still leads an intensely active lifestyle. He’s become a regular at his local Crossfit gym, which fuels his desire to lift heavy things and push his body to its limits. On lighter days, he’ll enjoy a hike or time in the harbor paddle boarding. He still adheres to a dairy-free diet to fuel these activities, focusing on minimally processed and nutrient-dense foods. A typical day includes coffee, a morning LYFE Fuel Essential Shake, a big salad for lunch, a post-workout recovery shake and a handful of berries, and a macro bowl for dinner. When asked what his go-to dish was, there was no hesitation, “Hummus. I love it. You can get creative and add different herbs and spices!” he exclaimed.
Chris also offered some choice words to those who are still stuck in the “bro-science” mentality of the whey protein shake world. “I was one of them for so long,” he admitted, “but [dairy] is where all the research was and it’s still where a lot of the money is so we’re fighting that battle. We now know you can get the same comprehensive and complementary mix of proteins—from a muscle protein synthesis standpoint—in a plant-based source without the negative side effects of whey, which is a highly processed food. It’s also not eco-friendly and not sustainable. I don’t see any benefit to consuming whey protein.”
The Future of Football
Chris is hopeful that the paradigm is shifting for many athletes. He believes that we will reach a tipping point once professionals become more vocal about their dairy-free diets. He applauded the recent news about the Tennessee Titans and said he expects them to do well next season (although at his core, Chris is a true San Francisco 49ner’s fan). Chris also noted that he admires Tom Brady, who also follows a dairy-free diet and whose 19-year NFL career has reached an unprecedented longevity in football years. “I really admire what Brady represents, and the amazing career he’s had. It’s not easy to do what he’s done and what he continues to do,” explained Chris. “He’s starting to change the conversation to think consciously and make more well-informed decisions about how to fuel your performance for the longevity of your career.”