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Nutrition Rising: Diets Have Become The Secret Weapon In The NBA

Some of the recent trends have gone public, giving us insight on the kind of nutrition plan these finely tuned athletes abide by
by Kirby Garlitos | Nov 20, 2017
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Kyrie Irving. Damian Lillard. Wilson Chandler. Al Jefferson. Garrett Temple. Enes Kanter. JaVale McGee. Jahlil Okafor. Jaylen Brown.

All these names are NBA players of different shapes and sizes. Some our superstars, some are stars, some are role players. As divergent as their statures are in the league, these nine players, and a growing number along with them, do have one thing in common: they’ve turned either vegan or vegetarian over the past year.

Dietary trends are nothing new in the NBA. Depending on who you ask or what you read, the term “diet” has been a fixture in the league dating back to its inception 70 years ago. Some of the first trends weren’t even of the healthy kind, primarily due to the lack of information about proper nutrition that players had back then.

Times have changed though, and just about every NBA player today follows a strict dietary plan. We often don’t know about them, but some of the recent trends have gone public, giving us insight on the kind of nutrition plan these finely-tuned athletes abide by.

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The revolution is real, so says a recent article by Bleacher Report. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are painted as the faces of the vegan revolution, owing largely to being the franchise players of their respective teams. Both players are recent converts, only giving up on eating animals or animal-derived products like eggs or milk in the offseason.

Irving says that he’s “getting away from the animals” and hasn’t looked back since. Anybody who’s seen Irving and the Boston Celtics play this season can attest to seeing the point guard with a new-found pep on his step, leading the Celtics to 14 wins in a row, including a come-from-behind thriller against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Whether his new diet is related to the Celtics’ winning run is a different discussion entirely, but the evidence is there for the world to see.

For his part, Lillard’s motivation to go vegan was brought about by his concerns about his age. “I wanted to eat cleaner, he told The Oregonian. “Also I want to play lighter this year and be easier on my joints and feet. I’m getting older, you know what I mean?” Lillard is 26, by the way.

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It may seem intuitive to characterize vegans as being completely different from vegetarians, but they really do fall under the same group. Vegans are vegetarians. They just fall in one of three groups since they take their diet a step further by completely shutting off any product that’s derived from animals. That includes eggs, dairy, honey, and milk. Those who do consume dairy and eggs fall under the lacto-ovo group while those who eat dairy but avoid eggs fall under the lacto group.

Indiana Pacers Al Jefferson didn’t say which group he falls under, but he has embraced a vegetarian lifestyle. Part of his reason for going this route is similar to that of Irving’s and Lillard’s. But there’s also something different about his circumstances because Al-Jef is no longer the star he once was; he’s an aging vet who’s milking—no pun intended—whatever he has left out of his career. That motivation brought about the dietary change and since then, the backup big man has lost 40 pounds, looking sprightly as ever on the court.

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As “in” as the vegan and vegetarian crowds are in the NBA today, not every player abides by that kind of nutritional lifestyle. In fact, just a few years ago, the “Paleo” diet plan was the craze around the league.

Officially, it’s called the Paleolithic diet, or Paleo for short. Unofficially, it’s referred to as the “caveman diet,” which hinges on the approach of eating like cavemen did: lean meats, fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar or processed foods.

Like the vegan and vegetarian craze, there have been some big NBA names to embrace the paleo diet, including LeBron James himself. His former Miami Heat teammates, Ray Allen and James Jones, are also all about the Paleo lifestyle. So too are Chris Kaman, Derrick Rose, and Blake Griffin, at least to a certain extent.


Back when he was still in the league, Allen was probably the most vocal about his experience with the Paleo diet. "I cut everything out, and within three weeks I lost 10 pounds," the soon-to-be Hall-of-Fame sharpshooter told {CBS Sports} back in 2013, referring to the first time he took the Paleo plunge six days after beating the San Antonio Spurs to win his second NBA championship.

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Allen hasn’t been in the league in three years, but given his reputation as a fitness nut, it’s hard to imagine him diverting away from a dietary plan that, in his own words, helped him maintain optimum physical form, even as he enters his 40’s.

Nutrition is the key that unlocks the engine

NBA players are by-and-large high-level athletes. They’re in an industry that demands peak physical performance, and anything less than that usually ends up with them losing their place in the league. The hunger and desire to remain in the league are often the driving forces that propel them to seek every physical advantage they can get. Whether it’s putting in more hours of practice or abiding by a strict dietary regimen, therein lies a tacit desperation among NBA players to ensure that their bodies can perform to their abilities as basketball players when called upon.

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The road to getting there isn’t easy, and most of us average folks can attest that engaging in a strict dietary plan isn’t for the weak-of-mind-and-stomach. A lot of NBA players still down inordinate amounts of unhealthy food, be it candies, pizza, burgers, ice cream, or even the staple comfort food across all NBA locker rooms, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But the recent trend of players going vegetarian isn’t a fad either. There is a correlation that exists between eating healthy and playing better. Stars like Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are giving us nightly evidence of that.

Where this dietary revolution takes the NBA is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably not a coincidence either that the league is experiencing an offensive renaissance that’s rooted in a dramatic rise in pace in games. That usually happens when players can perform to their abilities, and they can only perform at that level if their bodies allow them to.

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