WWE’s Austin Aries says it’s not tough to eat healthy, you just have to make the effort. (Photo: Lee South)
As they travel the globe to perform in the ring each week, the schedule of a WWE star is already tough enough. But Daniel Solwold Jr., better known as Austin Aries to his fans, just had to give himself another challenge: to be an athlete that sticks to a vegan diet.
Given that the event sells out each year, packing in well over 70,000 fans in stadiums across the country, WrestleMania is WWE’s version of the Super Bowl. It’s also a major I’ve-made-it-moment for anyone on WWE’s roster, and for Aries, a significant step to advance an already impressive career that’s taken him from TNA and Ring of Honor to WWE’s NXT and regular appearances on the company’s flagship show “Raw,” on USA Network.
It might surprise a lot of people that you’re vegan. And the first question they might have is why? So that’s our first question for you, too.
There are so many ways to answer that, right? Long answer: Because of health reasons and benefits, environmental benefits, and the compassion aspect of the animals. Short answer: Because I give a damn! When it comes to the food industry and the realities of what I was eating, the more I learned the more I kept looking for info.
So you’ve been on this path for a while now?
It started 16 years ago when someone I respected said, ‘Red meat and pork’s really not that good for you.’ At that time, I hadn’t really thought about food in those terms. That’s meat, that’s what we eat. And then I started to look into all the different aspects of what went into getting meat to our tables.
So you haven’t had meat in the 2000’s? That’s pretty impressive.
Well, at least not on purpose. Sometimes you get duped or there’s confusion when you eat out, which leads to some interesting conversations like the one I had once at a Chinese restaurant. I ordered mock duck and texture-wise it was pretty realistic. Then the bill came and it said I had chicken. So I asked, ‘Did you get my bill wrong or my order wrong?’ Unfortunately, it was the latter. Needless to say I didn’t pay for my order that night.
I have found that over time the wait staff are taking more care and being more knowledgeable about it. I used to ask if there was any dairy or eggs in a dish and servers would just say, ‘I don’t know,’ and I’d have to ask, ‘So … can you find out?’
Restaurants have gotten a lot better about that nowadays, but I’ve also gotten used to just saying I’m allergic to animal products — which at this point, my body reacts to animal products like an allergy so I don’t feel like i’m lying.
The knowledge of food and what you put in your body is very important.
What kind of impact have you seen on your health being a vegan?
I think for my age I feel good, especially considering what I do for a living. If you think about it, as a society we put more emphasis on our outsides than our insides. I live a healthy lifestyle overall so it’s part of the way in which I take care of myself. The knowledge of food and what you put in your body is very important.
You’ve been with WWE Network’s NXT division and recently joined their ‘205 Live‘ program so you’re on the road quite a bit. How difficult is it to travel as a vegan?
I always say it’s not tough. It can be, obviously, but it doesn’t have to be. I will say WWE has been great with any type of food restrictions for their talent and making sure everyone is taken care of for catering at the shows. But, for me, it’s just about being prepared.
What do you make sure you pack when you’re hitting the road?
Things I pack are probably a lot different than what other athletes pack. Lots of plant-based protein powders, instead of whey. I enjoy Indian food so lots of lentils or garbanzo beans instead of a can of tuna. I just keep those for when I’m in a pinch because honestly for our lifestyle we’ll get out of a show at 11 p.m., and then we have a two- to four-hour drive to our next location. There are not a lot of options at 2 a.m. that are going to be healthy, so I have a Neoprene cooler and I pack things in there for on the go.
I also have at least three or four pair of sunglasses on me at all times. If I ever lose them or break them I’ve always got a back up.
Do you have a favorite plant-based protein brand?
I like PlantFusion’s Cookies N Cream. I think it’s good enough on it’s own mixed with water and it blends well in smoothies, as well.
Do you have any favorite places in airports or fast food back ups when you don’t have your snacks handy?
CIBO Express is in a lot of airports and tends to have some decent options. Chipotle has their sofritos as an option and is pretty good and quick. Qdoba has some options and even Taco Bell has a few vegan options in a pinch. In this age of smartphones you’re never too far from finding a vegan meal in your area.
HappyCow.net is a great site for showing you what’s near you. I often just go to Google Maps or Yelp and type in ‘vegan’ and see what pops up.
What’s the biggest challenge of being vegan?
Some people think my diet is pretty extreme. Listen, I grew up right outside of Milwaukee, so there were very few meals that we ate that didn’t have meat or some animal by product. I live on the other extreme side of that now but I often ask people, ‘When was the last time you had a meal that didn’t have meat, dairy or eggs?’ and most people have a really hard time thinking of the last time that happened. It’s really about finding a proper balance that works for you and your health.
A lot of people don’t know that WWE doesn’t have seasons. That’s a lot of shows requiring you to be in the ring or at an announcer table. What’s your travel schedule like?
For the time being, I fly out Sunday evenings to do WWE ‘Raw’ on USA Network every Monday and then travel to the next city for ‘205 Live’ on Tuesdays.
Since you have to travel a lot, where have you been recently that surprised you?
I went to Austin recently and I haven’t spent much time there before but I was excited because I knew they had a great plant based and vegan friendly culture there and found a bunch of spots. I went to Arlo’s, which is a food truck attached to a bar, and had bacon cheeseburgers, chicken tacos and reuben sandwiches so it’s not like it’s just brown rice and tofu. It’s been great to see the options broaden over the past few years.
You’ve been all over the globe at this point, do you have any favorite travel memories?
One cool thing was going to see “The Lion King” live over in England. My girlfriend and I had box seats and when they started the show they had some of the performers in the aisles singing to start the show. Also, going to Rome was a great experience. It actually wasn’t too difficult to find vegan options, either. Pizza without cheese was easy to get everywhere we went without any confused looks.
Pizza without cheese was easy to get everywhere we went without any confused looks.
You’ve traveled around Japan where wrestling is big. What was it like to go there as a vegan?
My first few trips were as a vegetarian which was a lot easier. By my third or fourth trip I was vegan and figured out I had to pack properly for food. It wasn’t so much that I wouldn’t be able to find it but with the travel schedule you’re going where the crew’s going because we all travel as a group. So a lot of times late at night we just stop at a place like McDonald’s.
I’ve learned how to order a Big Mac without the beef. Surprisingly, it was easier to order in a foreign tongue in Japan than it’s ever been in the United States. No weird looks or questions. ‘Tomato instead of beef? No problem.’ Here in the States, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, so, you don’t want the beef patty? But sir, there are no tomatoes on a Big Mac. I’d have to charge you for adding tomatoes.’
Do you ever get time to explore the places you travel to and perform?
It varies. A lot of times you go from a hotel to a venue to a hotel to an airport. What I like to explore is places to eat or even a good spot for craft beer or glass of wine.
There's a misconception that it's expensive to eat healthy. Not true. It's expensive to eat conveniently.
Where are you living currently and what are some of your favorite places?
I live in Clearwater, Florida, which is just west of Tampa on the Gulf Coast. To be honest there’s not as many options but lucky for me there’s a place down the street called Nature’s Food Patch. It’s a smaller Whole Foods-type place with a really good deli. That’s usually where I go and I’ll get a great ‘TLT’ which is tempe bacon, lettuce, tomato with avocado and vegan cheese on a grilled ciabatta.
How about in the Orlando area where WWE’s NXT Performance Center is located?
Casa Tina’s, in Dunedin, has probably the best burrito I’ve had in a long time. It’s a great vibe and a good restaurant. They just opened a sister restaurant Pan Y Vino next door that offers wine and vegan pizza dishes.
Anything that might surprise people about being vegan?
Yes. You can build muscle and be plant based. Not only myself, but there are guys much bigger and stronger than me that follow plant based diets. (Aries packs 202 pounds on his 5-foot-9-inch frame). You don’t need animal proteins to build muscle; you need quality nutrients and amino acids. Those are often easier and cheaper in plant based products. There’s a misconception that it’s expensive to eat healthy. Not true. It’s expensive to eat conveniently. You just have to make smart choices and put a little work in the kitchen.