As winner of six World Series of Poker bracelets, two European Poker Tours, and a place in the Poker Hall of Fame, Daniel Negreanu is one of Canada’s most prolific poker players. Known as “Kid Poker” since claiming the World Series of Poker at the age of 23, PokerStars Pro Negreanu has featured on Millionaire Matchmaker and made a cameo in Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas” video. He may be pegged as one of the best poker players of the last decade but Negreanu is far from the burger-chomping, beer-swilling stereotype of the pro poker player. He has been vegan for the past nine years and is currently working with James Cameron on a documentary to dispel the “real men eat meat” myth.
When it came to healthy eating, my parents did their best to set me on the right path. At school, my friends ate McDonalds at lunchtime but I had a packed lunch that my mother made for me. I hated it at the time but looking back, I’m glad.
I dropped out of school to play poker and at 21, I moved from Toronto to try my luck as a pro in Vegas. I ate the typical meat-heavy diet of most poker players in the 90s: burgers and steak, along with French fries, mash, and a bucket load of wine, beer, and vodka. There was nothing fresh in my diet and I felt terrible.
Despite the lack of brain food (or maybe because we all ate as badly as each other) I won the World Series of Poker in 1998. I was the youngest winner in history.
My bank balance was healthy but my guts weren’t—I knew something had to give. I didn’t want to blame the alcohol so I decided it must be the meat that didn’t make me feel good and in 2000, I became a vegetarian. The guys in poker mocked me. There was this idea that “real men eat meat” and they’d eat piles of crap around the table, like mounds of dead animals every hour.
At first, I didn’t feel much healthier. I had no clue what I should be eating and there weren’t many options for vegetarians back then, especially at poker tournaments. I was living on cheese pizza so my diet was just as bad, lacking in fresh produce or anything nutritious but without the meat.
I became vegan in 2006 when I started taking healthy eating seriously. I knew dairy was bad—nobody thinks dairy is a good idea—so that was a no brainer. Aside from that, I had to do my research. I call myself a student of nutrition, I read a lot online and take tips from vegan lifestyle site Raw Till 4. I also talk to [fellow professional poker player and paleo diet advocate] Fabian Quoss and it creates interesting conversation at the poker table. I learn a lot and so does he.
When I became vegetarian, the guys in poker mocked me. There was this idea that “real men eat meat” and they’d eat piles of crap around the table, like mounds of dead animals every hour.
Now I know what I should be eating, it’s just a matter of getting hold of it! At home in Vegas it’s easy, I have two assistants who prepare healthy vegan meals for me. They make me nut cheese out of cashews and crackers out of flax seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Travelling to tournaments, it’s a little trickier. I have to be prepared because certain places in Europe aren’t vegan friendly and if I don’t eat I get hangry! So I pack protein bars and snacks from Go Raw like chocolate cookies made of coconut, dates, sesame seeds, and cocoa—everything’s organic. They also have these little crackers that taste like pizza but they’re just made of organic seeds and tomato.
I take things like coconut water, almond milk, chia seeds, which are high in omega, and pink Himalayan salt, which is high in minerals and lower in sodium than regular salt. I also pack my blender and my first stop in a new city is the grocery store, where I buy fresh greens and fruit. I prepare food in my hotel room and pack it in my cool bag to take to tournaments with me.
The other players are a lot more accepting now, they embrace my veganism! In the past they laughed at me, now they all want to try it. Recently I had 12 bags of food delivered to the casino floor from an Asian-themed vegan restaurant called Loving Hut. I was handing it out at the poker tables, everyone loved it.
Poker has changed, in the past, high profile players were obese, now they’re fit. They’ve swapped their moobs for pecs. Players now are educated people, they’re smart, they do the research, they care about their health. It’s not like the old days.
Now my cravings have changed and I don’t need the sweets. If I had to choose a last meal, I’d have French fries, falafel and hummus.
We’re evolving and some of the hotels we stay in need to catch up. On a recent trip I asked for an extra fridge in my room but they said no because they didn’t want me bringing my own food in. They said they’d provide the food for me. I said OK and I gave them a list, but they couldn’t get any of it. I got a bucket load of ice and kept my food in the sink.
My diet’s now as good as it’s ever been and although my veganism started out absolutely about health, it’s also become about the environment and animal cruelty. The way animals are treated and the conditions are atrocious. They’re force fed steroids, the chickens are de-beaked. You end up eating sick, diseased chickens because they’re living in shit. It’s like a holocaust on animals.
As a vegan, my diet was high in gluten, but I went to a food allergist in November and now I don’t eat processed foods. My diet is gluten free now, as well as being free of dairy and wheat. I like beer and popcorn, but I don’t have them any more. I wanted to change my body from a sugar burner to a fat burner. Now my cravings have changed and I don’t need the sweets. If I had to choose a last meal, I’d have French fries, falafel and hummus.
I try not to push veganism specifically. If I’m asked for my advice, I say just eat healthy.
As told to Samantha Rea.