As a kid, Daniel Healy Solwold Jr. had an epiphany in a barnyard.
The Milwaukee native was feeding a cow at his grandparents’ farm in Merton, when he and the cow happened to lock eyes. In that moment, Solwold was overcome by the realization that the heifer was a sentient being with thoughts and feelings.
“I’m staring at the cow, and the cow’s staring at me — and we’re sharing something,” he remembers. “I was suddenly aware of the correlation between this animal and what was on my dinner plate. A seed was planted” — and Solwold’s journey into veganism was launched.
That lifestyle change might seem unusual for a Wisconsin boy brought up on sausage and cheese. It’s even more startling when that boy grows up to be the award-winning professional wrestling star Austin Aries.
Standing 5’9” and weighing in at around 200 pounds of muscle, Aries is the antithesis of what people imagine when they think of vegans.
He describes his journey to veganism as a process of peeling back layers of awareness.
It began with his understanding of animals. He went on to devour information about nutrition and the perils of a carnivorous diet. He considered the environmental cost of factory farming.
And he was moved by the documentary film Forks Over Knives, which graphically documents the unspeakably cruel and unhealthy treatment of animals on factory farms.
“The underlying philosophy of veganism is compassion,” Aries says. “Eating other animals just seems wrong to me. We raise them to kill them. We fatten them up and we kill them while they’re still just babies.
“There’s something really beautiful and rewarding in knowing that I can sustain my life without taking another life and causing the suffering of other creatures. We can all make the decision not to contribute to the atrocities.”
A wrestling powerhouse
Aries’ career as a wrestler is long and distinguished. It’s included stints with the WWE and the Ring of Honor, where he’s a two-time world champion. He’s the longest reigning X Division Champion of the Total Nonstop Action wrestling alliance, and he was honored twice as TNA World Heavyweight/Impact Global Champion. The list of his achievements in the ring is lengthy.
So how does his passion for compassion square with Aries’ chosen profession of body slams, pile drivers and “gutwrench powerbombs”? His sport is brutal. A kick in the face last year smashed one of his eye sockets.
Aries acknowledges that his lifestyle and his profession might seem at odds. But that’s who he is.
Indeed, Aries credits his success and longevity in the sport of wrestling to his adherence to a vegan lifestyle. His profession is an ongoing process of breaking down and rebuilding his body, he explains, making it “even more important to take care of myself the way I do.”
Aries fully committed to his vegan lifestyle after 12 years as a vegetarian. The change came around the same time that he debuted as a professional wrestler.
Nearing the age of 40, Aries is still very much in the game — thanks largely, he says, to his diet.
Recently, Aries added “author” to his résumé. His book Food Fight: My Plant-Powered Journey from the Bingo Halls to the Big Time was co-authored by The New York Times bestselling writer Mike Tully. It combines the story of Aries’ wrestling career with his journey as a vegan.
Aries didn’t write Food Fight to proselytize but rather to get people thinking about what they’re eating.
“What we eat is the most important decision we make each day,” he says.
Although he’s not an in-your-face activist, Aries has strong feelings about the food industry, which he believes has betrayed its consumers. He believes there’s a direct relationship between “the food industry keeping us sick and the medical industry.”
If Aries was in charge of the FDA, unhealthy food products would carry warning labels on their packaging, just as the tobacco industry is required to do with cigarettes. In order to be healthy, people first need to know what they’re eating.
“How is giving your kids processed meats any different from giving your kids cigarettes?” he asks. “Both are carcinogens. If food came with labels, maybe people wouldn’t feed their kids a diet that causes them to develop Type 2 diabetes at age 12. Not feeding your kids a healthy diet sets them up for a lifetime of poor health. That’s child abuse.”
The vegan ‘toolkit’
It’s not surprising that the most common question Aries gets is, “How do you get enough protein?”
“Protein is the holy grail for putting on body mass,” Aries says. “As someone who’s constantly breaking his body down, I need more protein than your average Joe or Jane.”
Still, there’s a widespread misconception of how much protein is needed to build body mass, according to Aries. The widely accepted bodybuilder formula of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is a myth, he says.
“You really only need to get 15 percent of your calories from protein,” Aries explains. “You need to increase your overall caloric intake to put on muscle. Your body can only break down so much protein at a time. The rest is waste. Protein is hard for the body to break down and digest.”
“To this day,” he laughs. “I’ve yet to find a doctor who’s treated anyone for protein deficiency.”
So when people ask Aries where he gets his protein, he responds, “from eating.”
Plant food is the original source of all protein. Omnivores and carnivores get protein from herbivores, which are killed and eaten. But if your protein comes from animals, Aries stresses, you’re not just eating the converted plant protein, but also the antibiotics, steroids, hormones, and carcinogenic additives they’re given to grow unnaturally fast and large. You’re also ingesting cholesterol and other unhealthy substances.
“You’re not only what you eat, you’re also what the animal you’re eating eats,” Aries says in summation.
But most plants don’t have complete amino acid profiles. “It’s important to eat a variety of different foods,” Aries says. Combining beans, grains and vegetables with different protein profiles is essential to making sure that you’re getting all the amino acids. That means that eating vegan requires knowledge and planning.”
Besides eating protein, Aries says that he’s not afraid of carbohydrates, which many people avoid because they’re considered fattening.
“My struggle is always keeping size on,” he says. "Not all carbs are made the same. Lentils have a lot of carbohydrates, but a lot of it is fiber. I don’t like to get my carbs over 80 grams per meal, and I keep my protein around 20. I keep fat at around 10 to 15 grams. I try to have a range. If I want to gorge, I can do that, but I do it mindfully. We all want to enjoy food, but I want to know when I’m being bad so I can counterbalance it.”
“You have to give yourself the right information and the right tools to get the job done,” Aries says, “You can’t hammer a nail with a butter knife.”
In conversation, Aries often sounds more like a nutritional scientist than a wrestler. He’s helped a lot of people, including family members, learn how to thrive on a plant-based diet. He urges newbies to explore the internet and social media for information and recipes. He shares a lot about his dietary habits and recipes on his Instagram account.
But Aries cautions against making an abrupt switch from a typical omnivore diet to veganism. It’s better to do it gradually, as he did. Or even starting out with one or two vegan days a week.
“It’s not about being perfect,” he says, “it’s about being mindful and making good decisions. You can’t really live in this world and be 100 percent vegan. There’s animal byproducts in things you don’t even realize.”
Correctly done, a vegan diet offers many rewards. “People say they have a lot more energy,” Aries says. “People aren’t losing their muscle mass, instead they’re finding that they’re not bloated from all the whey-protein shakes. They’re recovering faster from workouts, games and matches.”
One of the best aspects of going vegan is that it’s expanded Aries’ food horizons.
When he’s on tour, while the other wrestlers are looking for a Denny’s, he’s looking for plant-based foods. That’s led him to discover cuisines he was never exposed to growing up in Wisconsin. For instance, he’s developed a love for Indian and Ethiopian foods, which have many vegan dishes. His job involves international travel, and being vegan has opened him up to trying new eating experiences. That, in turn, has led to his meeting new people and opening up his mind.
In addition to eating healthier and with compassion, veganism also affords a way to limit environmental destruction. Aries says that’s a major reason he’s passionate about living a vegan lifestyle.
“The biggest detriment to our environment is the meat and dairy industry,” he explains. “The pollution from vehicles doesn’t even come close. The amount of waste that’s produced, the amount of land that’s been cleared for industrial farms and the amount of water that’s wasted is terrible for the Earth.”
All in all, Aries says, he’s enjoyed many rewards from being plant-powered — physically and spiritually. Veganism is easier today than ever, with many vegetarian and vegan restaurants and products that use plant-based protein in traditional dishes. He hopes that sharing his experience will encourage others to consider veganism as an option, whether it’s for one day a week or forever.