It’s no secret that athletes eat differently from the rest of the world. However, a variety of diets contribute to the success of players out on the court, and there’s no one perfect meal plan. Herein, we take a look at some of the more interesting restricted diets that NBA superstars follow and their health benefits.
As far as restricted diets go, vegetarianism is by and large the most common and the least understood (at least in context of sports). Vegetarians avoid animal protein, and instead chow down on vegetable-based sources of the stuff—beans, nuts and grains like quinoa, to name a few. However, they’ll also drink milk and eat eggs, making the hunt for fats and protein easier. But don’t athletes need more protein than the average person? Yes, but they also need more carbs and fats, too. The good thing is that vegetables are quite abundant in protein (up 30 per cent for beans, in fact), so if you up your caloric intake to support your athletic lifestyle, you’ll get the nutrition you need in turn.
Role models: Former ballers Bill Walton and Robert Parish were both meatless wonders, and they helped contribute to the Celtics’ run at glory in the 80s. Former Atlanta Hawks point guard Salim Stoudamire also followed the diet, and Carmelo Anthony dabbles from time to time.
Veganism is a restricted diet that not only gets rid of animal protein, but all animal products and byproducts. An obstacle vegetarians and vegans run up against is that vegetables are often incomplete proteins. For example, one type of veggie may only contain some of the nine amino acids in protein you need to be healthy, unlike meat, which often contains a complete set. Having cut out dairy and other animal products, vegan athletes eat meals mixing several protein sources to get them all. Common combos include black beans with rice, pasta with peas and peanut butter on whole wheat bread. These combos are great options for low-fat, high-protein carb loading the night before a game, regardless of your diet.
Role models: The Knicks’ Amare Stoudemire is a famous example of a vegan who made the switch because he caught himself eating too much junk food. Former Pistons player John Salley also advocates for the restriction and blows stereotypes out of the water, having played as a big man for 14 years, and current Clippers power forward counts himself among the diet’s followers.
More commonly known as the “paleo” or “caveman” diet for short, this traditional diet aims to cut out many products of agriculture and processing. Most notable among the foods it cuts out are grains, dairy and refined sugars, which are common to much cuisine since humanity resigned its hunter-gatherer status to history. Practitioners also try to avoid foods with additives and some seasonings. That leaves fish, vegetables, roots and nuts on the table. This is attractive to athletes especially, as practitioners argue the diet supports the lifestyle of paleolithic humans, who may have burned as much as a third of their caloric intake on physical activity. Regardless, this high-protein, low-carb diet lends itself to those seeking to build lean muscle. The gluten-free aspect also reduces inflammation in the system, reducing joint pain common to basketball and boosting cardiovascular health.
Role models: Miami Heat shooting guard Ray Allen adheres to a slightly modified version of the paleo diet, crediting lean meat, veggies and nuts with helping up his game—the change being that he prefers to up his carbs as well by eating potatoes and fruit. Since, many other players have ended up going paleo, including the Phoenix Suns’ Channing Frye and many Lakers.
The ‘Nash Diet’
The LA Lakers’ resident Canuck, Steve Nash, has eating habits very similar to the paleo diet in that he aims to reduce the amount of simple sugars one eats. However, Nash cuts out all processed foods, as well as most unrefined sugars or carbs such as pasta, rice and wheat. In effect, he eats fruits, veggies, nuts (which provide many healthy fats) and fish. He supplements this stuff with vitamins. Basically, he eats as organically as possible, with a dash of lean meat. This cuts down on the amount of inflammatories he ingests, simple sugars that burn quickly and don’t contribute to gameday form, as well as unnecessary fats.
Role models: Aside from Steve Nash, various other NBA players have caught onto his eating ethic, including Jared Dudley, Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill, the latter of which would go on to perfect his own macrobiotic diet.
A macrobiotic diet is not only effective, but very simple. Without going into its yin/yang-based philosophy, it eliminates processed foods and many animal products like the paleo and Nash diets, replacing them with staple foods—usually organic grains (especially brown rice), vegetables, fruit and beans. Some proteins such as fish are also permitted, although red meat, dairy, eggs and animal products are avoided, as are veggies of the nightshade family. If an athlete successfully eats a variety of foods without taking this diet to the rice-and-beans extreme, they can expect enhanced energy levels thanks to the carbs.
Role models: Former Pistons and Clippers small forward Grant Hill famously chose to switch to this diet along with his wife, Tamia. In the last legs of his career, Hill credited the diet with helping him do new things out on the court.