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Is A Plant Based Vegan Diet A Smart Option For Basketball Players?

Plant Based basketball Diet Tips

Over the past few years a number of high profile NBA basketball players have revealed that they follow a vegan or plant based diet.

So what's the difference between a vegan and a plant based diet?

Well, someone who identifies as vegan does not eat animals or use animal products.

A plant based dieter on the other hand does not necessarily concern themselves with animal rights and is focused solely on the nutritional benefits that this method of eating may offer.

In this guide we will take an in-depth look at the pro's and con's of plant based/vegan dieting for basketball players.

You will also learn about the 10 common nutritional pitfalls of the vegan diet and ways to avoid nutritional deficiencies if you decided to go "plant based" this season.


Who Follows A Vegan Diet In The NBA?

Two of the "biggest named" players to adapt a plant based way of eating are Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving.

These athletes have been very vocal about the benefits that their vegan lifestyle has provided.

In saying that, it is important to note that both Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul are investors in a new plant based meat company named "Beyond Meat"


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Could discussing the benefits of a vegan diet help ultimately help their bank account?

Sure. But maybe I'm just being cynical.

In an interview on NBA countdown Kyrie discussed the effects that the vegan diet has had on his life.

He said "So my energy is up. My body feels amazing.”

Dame Lillard was previously an advocate of the plant based way of life but went back to eating meat after around 6 months on the diet.

In a podcast interview dame said “I did it, but I started to lose a little bit too much weight with all the games and practices and all that.”

Jahlil Okhafor is another NBA player who ditched the vegan diet after his team doctor took a blood sample and discovered he had low iron levels.

The vegan diet has notoriously poor long term adherence rates. A recent study looked 11,000 former and current vegans and vegetarians over the age of 17 in the US and found that 84% of these plant eaters returned to eating meat.


Criticism On The Use Of A Vegan Diets By Basketball Players

Critics of the vegan diet believe that a plant based diet will lead to a range nutritional deficiencies that can potentially lead to poor performance and a potential increased risk of injury.

Interestingly both Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving have been riddled with injuries over recent years.

Demarcus Cousins is another NBA star who decided to go vegan to drop weight.

Sure, he dropped the weight but ended up tearing his ACL in the following season. Demarcus has been riddled with soft tissue injuries throughout his career so there is no way of knowing if a vegan diet was a factor in this injury or not.

Studies have shown that poorly constructed vegan diets can predispose individuals to macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies.

A reduction in collagen content due to poor quality protein intake is a major concern for vegan athletes as this could be a potential risk factor for tendon injuries.

Vegan diet advocates on the other hand believe that a plant based diet offers superior health and performance benefits for athletes.

Some have alleged that a vegan diet could offer potential performance benefits due to the antioxidant (polyphenols), micronutrient (vitamin C, E) and carbohydrate-rich foods typical of plant-based diets assisting training and enhancing recovery.

However all of these nutrients can also be added to a "meat based diet".

Ultimately, it seems that we can all improve our health by adding more plant based foods to our diet.

Lebron James' diet is an example of a well balanced diet.

He embraces plant protein but also takes advantage of the many benefits that animal protein provide too.


The Popularity Boom Of The Vegan Diet Among Athletes

Many people around the world were convinced that eating a plant based diet is the best dietary choice after watching popular Netflix documentaries "What The Health" and "Gamechangers".

These movies are very convincing, but are based on very weak and biased science.

These movies have an agenda, which is to push the vegan and plant based movement. 

Evidence suggests the vegan film Game Changers is linked to investors and producers of meat alternatives and vegan protein supplements. 

When you watch these movies it is very important to realize that the data is cherry picked to make it suit their agenda.

A carnivore diet advocate could just as easily make many claims that could have you convinced that a meat only diet is the way to go.

If a die hard carnivore dieter decided to make a well produced documentary there is also plenty of evidence out there that they could use to convince you that plants are dangerous and can cause inflammation and immune issues. 

We can always find the data to suit our beliefs. This is a flaw in human behavior known as confirmation bias.

Many studies have shown that most of the healthiest communities in the world consume a balanced diet of both plants and animals.

When it comes to diet we must have an open mind and not get caught up in dogma.

Vegan Diet Foods

Source: Giphy


Is Moderation The Key To Basketball Nutrition

Moderation seems to be the key to dietary success. Cutting out sugars, processed meats and poor quality vegetable oils should be the first nutritional conquest on anyone's list.

If you have read our Ultimate Guide To Basketball Nutrition you would have learned that their are many dietary factors that can contribute to a players on-court success and recovery.

These performance based dietary variables can be met with both an animal or plant based diet.

Some athletes may choose to follow a strict vegan diet for ethical reasons.

It is important to note that an athlete who chooses to follow a strict vegan diet will have to be much more conscious and calculated about exactly what they put in their body to ensure they do not leave themselves vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies.

In this guide we will take a look at some of the common nutritional pitfalls of a vegan diet for basketball players and how they can be minimized to best optimize performance.

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Planning An Effective Vegan Diet Plan For Basketball Players

There is limited research on plant based athletic performance. 

However, there are plenty of anecdotal reports of vegan athletes who are able to perform at a very high level.

To thrive on a plant based diet a vegan athlete must be meticulous with their planning and supplementation. 

In fact, poorly planned vegan diets that do not replace the critical nutrients found in meat, can lead to serious micro-nutrient deficiencies and many negative health consequences. 

If you want to perform at your best on a vegan diet you are probably going to want or need to supplement at some stage to ensure you don't leave yourself susceptible to malnutrition.

When you take a look at just how easily an athlete can succumb to deficiencies on a vegan diet it makes you seriously consider if this really is a smart choice for basketball players.

Kyrie and Chris Paul can have their own personal chefs to prepare nutritious meals that check all the boxes. Their nutritionists can prepare expensive supplement blends to ensure they get the full spectrum of nutrients.

Unfortunately for the average recreational or student athlete this level of planning and financial investment is not viable or sustainable.

For some athletes eating a quality piece of meat may be the smartest dietary option.

Our ancestry tends to indicate that we are omnivores and have eaten that way for millions of years.

When looking at the potential deficiencies common in the vegan diet it sure looks like our bodies were designed to thrive on animal proteins.

If you do decide to "go vegan" here are the 9 most common potential nutritional deficiencies to be aware of:

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10 Potential Nutritional Deficiencies For Vegan Basketball Players

Cons Of Vegan Diet For Basketball Players

1. Protein

Protein is a very important macronutrient for basketball players at it promotes muscle building, strength and recovery. Basketball training and games breakdown muscles at a higher rate than the average sedentary vegan. Therefore sufficient replenishment of protein is necessary after training and games to promote optimal recovery.


In our article The Top 5 High Protein Foods For Basketball Players we discussed the recommended protein requirements for basketball players. 1.4-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is optimal for an active basketball player. 

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2. Vitamin D 

Vitamin D is necessary for bone health, calcium absorption, and muscle function. The best food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish and fortified milk. Vitamin D can also be produced in our bodies following adequate sun exposure.

Vegans unable to maintain normal blood levels through fortified foods and sun exposure should consider taking a supplement.

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3. Calcium

Calcium is necessary for bone health and muscle function. Research has revealed that vegans have a much higher bone fracture rate than omnivores.

If you are a basketball player you need to look after your bone health.

Many of the plant sources of calcium, such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds have very poor bio-availability of calcium due to compounds such as oxalic or phytic acids.

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4.Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B12 is very important for basketball players as it plays many vital roles in the body such as DNA synthesis and nerve and muscle function . 

Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods but is added to many vegan foods through fortification.

Supplemental B12 is usually necessary for vegan athletes.

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5. Omega 3

Omega-3 fatty acids are very beneficial to athletes as they are powerful anti-inflammatories that can help keep you feeling great and performing at your best.

Plants do contain one type of omega-3, called ALA however the much more powerful omega-3 fats EPA or DHA cannot be found in plant foods.

The problem is that ALA is very ineffective at being used by the body. 

Vegan basketball players may want to consider supplementing with EPA or DHA, due to the known health benefits of these essential fats.

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6. Iron

Adequate iron intake is of critical important for basketball players, as iron is used to transport oxygen to muscles. Without iron, an athlete will struggle to perform at a moderate to high intensity.

There are two types of iron in food. These are heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal foods. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods.

Heme iron is much better utilised by the human body.

Vitamin C helps absorb iron, therefore high heme-iron foods should be paired with high vitamin C foods on a vegan diet.

Vegan athletes require more iron than the average sedentary person, therefore they should be monitored regularly for iron deficiency.

Iron supplementation may be necessary to avoid potential deficiencies.

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7. Zinc

Zinc helps support  an athletes immune function and tissue repair.

Plant sources of zinc are poorly absorbed due to the phytate content of these foods. 

Phytate binds to zinc in the digestive tract, lowering the bio-availability. 

Athletes should therefore consider supplementation in order to provide adequate zinc in the diet.

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8. Iodine

Most plant foods are low in iodine . Iodine is critical for thyroid function. 

Iodized salt is found in most fortified foods in the western diet but very low in most vegan food sources. 

Vegan athletes can get their iodine via iodonized salt, seawood or through vitamins.

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9. Creatine

Creatine is not essential in the diet, since it can be produced by the liver.

Creatine is used during explosive movements such as jumping and lifting weights.

Vegans tend to have lower levels of creatine in their muscles.

Low creatine levels can negatively effect strength and power.

Creatine supplementation is common for many professional basketball players, vegan or not.

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10. Beta-Alanine

If you are a vegan who is interested in high performance do not over look the importance of ensuring you have adequate beta-alanine in the diet.

Beta-alainine has been shown to improve endurance and time to exhaustion.

It is usually created in the body from components of animal based amino acids, particularly carnosine.

Vegans have been shown to lower carnosine concentrations in their muscles after only a few weeks on the diet.

Supplementation of beta-alanine may be a smart option for high performing vegan athletes.

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Will You be Following A Vegan Diet This Basketball Season?

There is limited research on whether a vegan plant based diet is effective for boosting performance of basketball players.

Many concerns remain about potential for nutritional deficiencies, particularly in recreational or college athletes who don't have the luxuries of a private chef.

Creating a well designed vegan friendly meal plan for athletes is very difficult.

Adhering to the vegan diet long term is even more of a challenge.

If you are considering following a vegan diet be sure to cover all of your nutritional requirements or you performance and health will plummet. Speak to a qualified nutritionist to help set up a plan that meets your needs.

Have you tried the vegan diet? Share you thoughts in the comments section below.


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