Kyrie Irving leads the growing trend of NBA players adopting a vegan diet. KEITH ALLISON/CC FLICKR

One of the rising nutritional trends among athletes today is veganism. This is especially pronounced in the the world of basketball, where more and more players are turning toward vegan diets and lifestyles.

A vegan is defined as someone who doesn’t eat animals or any animal products, which includes all meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy products.

As athletes continue to devise strategies to increase performance, ideas around diet and nutrition have also evolved, whether that be hiring personal chefs or even nutritionists to watch what they put into their bodies. The amount that NBA players invest into themselves has dramatically increased over the past decade, with keeping track of their diets and what caused them to be injured being among the leading forces in the so-called revolution.

“I had a recurring injury in my knee,” free agent Jahlil Okafor told SB Nation. “I just kept getting hurt and my knee was always inflamed. The main cause of my knee being swollen was dairy. I cut dairy, watched a few documentaries. Then, I cut out steak, cut out chicken, then gradually started cutting out every animal-based product.”

“Now I’m just an all-out vegan,” added Okafor.

Okafor is not alone in the NBA’s latest growing trend, with Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo, and Wilson Chandler taking up the vegan way of life.

The changing nature of basketball play coincides with this trend. According to Bleacher Report, the NBA has been leaning toward playing ‘small ball,’ a style of play in which the emphasis is placed on leaner athletes who play a variety of positions to outpace and ultimately outrun their opponents. The rise of small ball has seen a decrease in the weight of players since 2013.

It’s important that NBA players on vegan diets have still been able to maintain strength training during the offseason. Performance-wise, players want to increase muscle mass to increase weight, making them more likely to overwhelm an opposing defender when posting up or finishing through a contact at the rim on a layup attempt. Putting on this muscle weight has traditionally been done through high-carbohydrate, high-protein diets.

However, if players add too much muscle, they’ll become too slow to keep up with the faster, more agile players, and they will have endurance issues throughout the game, making them less effective. This can lower minutes on the court in the short term, and, in the long term, it will affect a player’s market value. Vegan diets can allow players to put on enough muscle to stay competitive on the court without running the risk of being too heavy in an increasingly fast game.

Veganism also isn’t unique to the NBA. Despite the rigorous training and dietary requirements in the NFL, 11 members of the Tennessee Titans followed in linebacker Wesley Woodward’s footsteps and adopted a plant-based diet.

Woodward told AP Sports, “My energy level’s gone up… It’s just putting in good fuel to your body. And of course, it’s always hard to keep weight on this time of the season. But it’s worth it for me staying on top of my health.”

NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady both enjoy near vegan diets; Rodgers has cut out dairy from his diet but still indulges in red meat and fish, while Brady credits not consuming dairy or inflammatory foods like peppers, mushrooms, and eggplants to his career’s longevity as he continues to play at a high level at 41.

All things considered, it appears that the traditional idea of bulking up with lots of meat is waning in popularity, and new ideas are being tried, both for competitive purposes and for personal health. It will be up to the players to decide what is right for them.

And while professional athletes are on a different level from the average person, for those of us who are more health conscious, the same benefits on a micro level can be applied here. For example, due to the lower amount of saturated fats and cholesterol consumed in a vegan diet, cardiovascular health is improved, reducing the risk of heart disease. And eating anti-inflammatory foods like kale, spinach, tomatoes, and blueberries can increase energy levels.

In the end, though we aren’t professional athletes, let alone elite basketball players, the fact that more athletes are gravitating toward health conscious options underscores an important emphasis on health and well-being. That should push us toward the ultimate goal of a better lifestyle, on our own terms.

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