She’s one of the most skilled female athletes in the world today, a multiple-time world champion and she eats beefs like there’s no tomorrow. In short, Gail Kim is one heck of a woman … and with a husband like renowned Chef Robert Irvine, her passion for culinary knowledge and exploration knows no bounds. Paste chatted with Kim about eating for pro wrestling stardom, life on the road and reinventing her diet after 17 years in the ring.
Paste: Starting from your childhood days, what was your relationship with food like?
Gail Kim: As far as I remember, I was always a big eater. I eat just as much as the wrestler guys. I eat more than my husband and it’s funny because everyone looks at him and he’s big and built and I probably eat at least double what he eats. People look at me and think, “Oh my God. You?” But my mom told me as soon as I was maybe two years old, I was eating a full steak. I was always a big eater.
I wasn’t a picky eater. I wanted McDonald’s and all that crappy food, but I was raised with a lot of Korean foods, since I’m Korean. My mom was always a really great cook, and to this day, Korean is my favorite type of Asian food anyway. After high school I started to learn how to eat better and healthier, and then as the years went on and obviously I’m a professional athlete, so I had to adopt that lifestyle.
Now, in the past year, I’ve experimented with vegan cleanses, because I can’t do just cleanses. I love food. I love to eat. I’m married to a chef. I can’t go without food. I was like, “Okay, I can do a vegan cleanse.” I’m pretty strict and disciplined. Oh my God, even when I’m sick. I would recommend to you right now since you’re sick, if you want to shake it, just do maybe a couple days of the vegan cleanse and you can still eat delicious food. just incorporate a lot more fruits and vegetables. I ate beans, tofu … I love all that stuff. It did wonders for my body … not just the way it looks, just everything. I have more energy. My digestion is so much better.
I’ve always been a major carnivore and so I would never become vegan completely, because it’s very hard for me when I travel as well, but I’ve pretty much cut out red meat since December. I just started incorporating my chicken and all that stuff back, but I was just doing fish for a little bit, and now I’m just starting to do it all, except for the red meat.
Photo courtesy of Gerry Strauss
Paste: You mentioned that high school was when you started really focusing on eating healthier. Was that related to sports?
GK: Oh yeah, I was playing sports all year round. You name it, I played it. Soccer, baseball, or softball, volleyball… badminton even. I did everything and then when I graduated from high school, there was this shock of not playing sports all year round, and I gained probably 5 to 10 pounds. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, so I went out and I got a personal trainer and went to the extremes of healthy eating. You just learn through all your experimenting. I leveled out after, but I just wanted to get back to my athletic self.
I met my husband way later than that, but he taught me to enjoy my food. but I was super strict when I met him, and he had a chef’s diet, I guess you could say. We taught each other how to enjoy life and health a little bit more and I went over to moderation and he went a little bit stricter and healthier.
Paste: Your next major athletic endeavor after high school was the decision to become a pro wrestler. At that point, was there a functional shift in your eating habits as you attempted to fit that mold?
GK: Yeah, because in this business, people are pretty direct. They’ll say it in a politically correct term, but if you’re not fit enough, you’ll hear about it somehow. You watch people on television in wrestling and for the most part, they’re very fit. You know that’s the goal you need to achieve. I think back then I still just had baby fat. I ate healthy, but like I said, I ate a crap load of food. I didn’t know how to portion until recently, I guess. I would eat, oh my gosh, a pound of meat at a sitting. You know how they say three to five small meals or five small meals throughout the day?
I would eat large meals all day, every couple hours. I needed that because I was working out and wrestling, but now I’m realizing throughout the last couple of years is that it’s the type of food I’m putting in my body that matters. I can eat a lot more vegan food and be okay, and still have that energy and not be lethargic. Everyone’s different. I definitely believe everyone’s different, as far as how their body reacts to certain foods. I’m just learning now. Like I said, I’ve been a big carnivore my whole life eating red meat all the time, and now I’m learning at the age of almost 40 that my body doesn’t react the best to that.
Paste: What about the travel? Whether it was the early days of making long car trips for little pay to being flown around the world, I can’t imagine that your schedule has ever made it easy for you to eat very healthy.
GK: Yeah, like you said, by the time we came out of a show it would be 10:00, 10:30. A lot of places are closed. You don’t want to sit around and sit down at a restaurant for an hour or more when you have a three or four-hour drive to the next town. Most of the time people want something that’s quick and easy. Nowadays, a lot of fast food restaurants have healthy options, but even then, you just never know how much sodium is in there. I don’t really trust the ingredients so much anymore. Back then, I just got what I could that was as healthy as possible … a grilled chicken wrap or grilled chicken sandwich.
Let me tell you, there have been a lot of gas station trips over the years. I was never one to just give up and eat some kind of hot dog or something at 7-Eleven. If we have to go to the gas station, I’d be literally eating packs of nuts and that’s the way I got by … Protein bars too. Then we got smart at some point, the girls anyway, and we would go earlier in the day. We’d find a supermarket and we’d always find foods that we could travel with, whether that was fruit, nuts, packaged food, tuna packs, things that were easy. We could bring hummus and vegetables to the arena and we did that a lot.
I still will do that to this day. We’ll go to the supermarket, pick up food for the day. If a hotel has a microwave, I always get a sweet potato and make sure I have a fork and I can microwave a sweet potato. Seven minutes, and I can do that. You really learn how to eat on the road.
Paste: As the years have gone by in your career, have you changed your diet specifically to address changes in your body… the bumps, the bruises or simply getting a bit older?
GK: It really has been becoming a little bit more vegan and cutting out the red meat, because it’s definitely had an effect on me. I’ve noticed a huge difference in my energy level cutting out the red meat. It’s crazy.
I will say in terms of just taking care of myself, It comes together with fitness and food. I’ve also changed the way that I work out because my back is pretty much breaking down right now. It’s been 17 years, and so now I’m doing things to take care of my back a little bit more and maybe not care so much about strength training to the point of lifting in the gym and going heavy. Now I’m just taking care of exercises that will protect my back and hips… all the things that are important for wrestling. It’s been a combination of both.
Paste: Is there a nutritional element that goes with that? Do you reprioritize things like protein intake?
GK: I will say that I’ve always found that I’ve been very conscious about my protein level, and since focusing more on eating vegan a lot of people are like, “Well, how are you going to get your protein sources?” Fortunately, I love a lot of things like tofu, which a lot of people don’t like. Beans, I love every type of bean there is. You can go to a burger joint, I have a black bean burger, or a vegan burger and I enjoy those things.
I’m not going to completely cut out the red meat. I’m going to treat it as a treat. I told my husband, “All right, even though I cut out the red meat, I have to tell you, I love pastrami sandwiches and corned beef sandwiches and Jewish delis.” That’s my thing, but I’m still going to make sure I get that, and like I said, I have to incorporate the chicken and the eggs and everything back into my diet. Fish, I’m just eating more fish now and yeah, the protein is important to me. I can tell the difference in how strong I feel and how my muscles work. I’ve still got to pay attention to that.
Main and lead photos by Mike Kalasnik, CC BY-SA 2.0