Daniel Bryan is just about the opposite of what we’ve come to expect of a WWE superstar. At 5-10 and just over 200 pounds, he cuts a relatively unimposing figure in the ring, all pale skin without a rippling muscle in sight. His most notable physical attribute, in fact, is an alarmingly scraggly beard. Bryan eschews the wrestler’s traditional tough guy approach for a personal brand of positivity, as punctuated by his signature phrase, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Yet, just like the more muscular specimens he’ll be facing in a bid for the WWE heavyweight title on Sunday at WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans, Bryan survives on a meticulously managed diet. Not for the sake of gaining muscle mass or improving his strength, but because his health demands it.
Bryan, 32, went vegan in 2009 after suffering three staff infections over the course of a year. “My immune system is really weak and the idea was that meats take more energy for my body to process,” he says, “so if you stop eating meat then you have more energy to fight of bacteria.”
Dropping animal products from his diet helped Bryan remain healthy. He even used veganism as a part of his wrestling persona, aggressively touting a “meat is murder” message to fuel his role as a villain in an arena dominated by the red-meat crowd. “In every bite of meat you should hear the screaming of innocent animals in agony,” he once told a fellow wrestler during a scripted bit on Monday Night Raw.
Off camera, Bryan is much more measured in his stance. “We all have different [considerations]. Everybody has their own deal. Some people are allergic to strawberries, some people can’t have milk,” he says. “To me, we all just have to find what works for us.” Bryan has become a role model for people with dietary restrictions. He has received countless messages from people struggling with health issues, thanking him for inspiring them.
Bryan himself had a reemergence of dietary trouble in 2012. After three years of veganism, he developed a soy intolerance as a result, he says, of an overreliance on soy to provide protein. Though he is still primarily vegan, Bryan is forced begrudgingly to include the occasional serving of eggs or meat to his diet.
Bryan insists he actually feels weaker now with animal products in his body. “I feel more weighed down. I never felt better than when I was purely vegan,” he says. “When I eat meat I eat as little as possible, because it really weighs me down.”
Bryan’s diet will never allow him to build the massive physique normally expected of a WWE Superstar. “[Vegan food] is the stuff that makes me feel good,” he says. “Whether it makes me look aesthetically pleasing. I don’t know.”
Bryan's approach at the plate has served him well so far in the ring. In fact, in part because he defies the standard of a traditional wrestler, he has become one of the biggest stars in the industry. If Bryan—who faces off on Sunday against Triple H for the chance to battle Randy Orton and Batista—prevails to take the title, he’ll be a true sign of just how far quinoa and kale can take you.