Shawn Armstrong has explained it so often that he knows he needs to start a certain way: He’ll never completely give up eating meat.
But after that caveat, the Orioles reliever has a myriad of reasons, both empirical and anecdotal in his own life and career, why the plant-based diet that’s largely cut meat out of his life has helped him maintain his body and arm and allowed the 29-year-old right-hander to apply the same critical mind he brings to the pitcher’s mound into the kitchen.
“It’s really fun to see and learn and also see the results in how your body feels,” he said.
Armstrong, a North Carolina native, said he started to be more mindful of his diet and how he ate after he was traded to the Seattle Mariners from the Cleveland Indians in 2018. When Seattle’s Triple-A team was located in nearby Tacoma, Washington, Armstrong said, the preponderance of plant-based restaurants with local and natural fish and fruit plentiful caught his eye.
“It’s one of the best fruit capitals in the world, with berries and everything,” Armstrong said. “Being around that and seeing the different grocery stores and little organic places and juice places, you really get intrigued.”
He started being strict about what he ate then, reading the Whole Foods Diet book from the founder of the eponymous grocer and shopping almost exclusively there.
“That’s kind of the real reason I really like the plant-based stuff, just because you’re eating partially plant-based doesn’t mean you’re vegan,” Armstrong said. “It just means that I pretty much go off of organic.”
His pregame meals went from whatever was available to salads, and he “saw a huge change in recovery, performance, all that stuff,” Armstrong said.
“My arm felt better than in any season before that, so I decided to keep that,” he said.
His wife, Sarah, is fully on board. Armstrong said that despite the transient baseball lifestyle meaning they’ve moved around a lot lately, it’s no tall task to stock an apartment when they arrive in a new place the way they had to when summer camp began this month.
“I’m not a guy that sits there and counts every single calorie,” he said. “I don’t do that, but also, whenever I’m eating, I’ve got to make sure I’m getting grains, I’m getting my starches, I’m getting my proteins.
“It’s not always meats. Sometimes it’s nuts, greens, little things like that. The milks and stuff we drink now has changed quite a bit once we started learning all that. Just little things and making little changes here and there, and once you study it and see all the differences it’s made in other people’s lives and you put it into your life and actually see and feel the results, I think that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s also a good feeling to be able to work towards that with what you’re eating and also, you and your wife are both feeling and seeing the difference.”
Armstrong acknowledges that there will always be cheat days. Even the healthiest baseball player will still “crush cake,” he said. But he’s noticed since his diet changed how much easier it is to maintain that at the ballpark than it used to be, especially with the Orioles.
The team’s clubhouse chef, Jenny Perez, is “unbelievable,” Armstrong said. The team’s kitchen is dictated by what’s local and what’s organic, and “there’s never more than four or five ingredients in anything she makes, from crabcakes to pancakes,” he said.
“It’s really easy to transition into the season here because she’s already doing this stuff for us,” Armstrong said. “She has the cold-press juices. She has turmeric shots. She has ginger shots. She has everything. … We’re very blessed to be able to have her here.”
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For that reason, he said, it’s hard for Orioles players to not at least be curious about his diet. He’s always reading about different diets and foods, and said he’s recommended several to teammate Branden Kline in the clubhouse.
At home, Armstrong and his wife try to cook the same way. He’ll never give up sweets, but Sarah Armstrong’s vegan chocolate with dark chocolate, goji berries and a variety of nuts is quite a substitute.
When he was with the Indians before the trade, veteran outfielder Brandon Guyer would ask if the food was organic or free-range and not eat the clubhouse spread if it wasn’t. Armstrong listened to his explanations and now understands, too. Focusing organic meat without genetic modifications has made “a big difference” in his body when it comes to conditioning, resting heart rate, and all kinds of measurables.
“I’ve seen differences because all the testing and stuff we do for baseball, the testing we do for the offseason, and just like anything with baseball now, analytically, numbers don’t lie,” Armstrong said.
The end result of taking control of his diet and seeing it affect his body is a feeling of accomplishment that Armstrong likened to the way a father will stand and admire a freshly mowed lawn.
“I think it’s kind of the same thing with the longevity aspect of food,” Armstrong said. “You sit there and eat healthy and you see your body transform in a good way, and it’s just a really good feeling to be able to see that.”