The Best Way for Athletes to Start a Plant Based Diet is Gradually, Says this Coach
Athletes have strong ideas about their diets, and when one of them decides to go plant-based, usually because he or she just watched The Game Changers documentary, their coach needs to help them do it the right way. It's important not to just cut out meat but to also add in protein-packed vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and the calories that will keep their energy up.
"If they do it overnight their bodies may not be able to even absorb all the nutrients in the foods they eat," says Coach John Shackleton, who is a strength and conditioning coach at Villanova men's basketball. He tells his athletes that if they want to go plant-based the best time is during the offseason, and to do it gradually, in order to allow the body to adapt and their system to make the changes to reap all the benefits.
Coach Shack, as he is known by his players, eats mostly plant-based himself and in his private coaching, he is an off-season performance coach for Kyle Lowry, who back in 2016 got a chef and dropped 15 pounds, lowering his body fat to just over 4 percent. "I want to play longer, to be a more effective player into my mid-to-late 30s," Lowry said at the time. It's something more athletes are willing to do today: change their diet to recover faster, perform better, and add longevity to their careers. Lowry may be injured with an ankle sprain but eating healthy is one way to lower inflammation and come back faster, says Coach Shack.
Ever since The Game Changers came out last September, Coach Shack has seen more athletes who are eager to make the switch to a whole-food plant-based diet for performance. "They listen to me, but they follow the pros and want to be one, so as more athletes have been announcing that they've gone plant-based [like NBA great Chris Paul and others] that's having a big effect at the college level," he says. But Shackleton urges his players to take it gradually at first. "The best way to go is to listen to your body and do it right." He adds that even though he eats a mostly plant-based diet he doesn't advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. "Everyone is different," he adds, so you have to consider the individual.
"I say, if you want to try it, let's do it gradually. This one player watched the documentary [The Game Changers] and I gave him my thoughts and said if this is something you want to do, lets ease into it. When athletes are at home, it's easier. But at school, there are challenges. This particular athlete is aware of how he moves and his body and what he needs for fuel. He said, "I feel like I need more protein." And so we go plant-based, with plant-based breakfasts and smoothies and lunches, and then I tell him to eat lean protein at night. He made the switch. Now he is a lot leaner; he started at about 10 percent body fat and now he is 8 percent. But now he is actually bulkier. So he gained muscle."
Eat intuitively, choosing healthy foods. And fuel your body with quality food.
Coach Shack eats mostly plant-based himself and when he joined the Villanova program the head coach said, "Go ahead and work with their nutrition and see what you can accomplish," Coach Shack remembers. Since joining eight years ago, he has helped lead the Wildcats to 211 victories, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, five Big East Tournament titles, four BIG EAST championships, and two NCAA national championships (in 2016 and 2018).
"My overall philosophy is I'm not extreme, and I don't think there is one diet for everyone. Everybody is different. But I try to figure out the right thing for an athlete. I advise them to eat intuitively, choosing healthy foods. And fuel your body with quality food. They will learn to crave fresh vegetables and quality ingredients," he adds.
"I listen to my body. If I need more protein I will do it. Other days I go plant-based and juice. If I could go plant-based [completely] I would do it, but some days my body is craving lean protein from meat, so I just have it.
How Should Athletes Go Plant-Based, According to Coach Shack
"If an athlete wants to try it. If we're in the middle of a season I would say I respect what you want to do but let's do it in the offseason, because your body has got to adapt to it. If you go from eating processed foods to vegetables and fruit you may have a problem.
"For the average American, more than half of the food we eat every day is processed. But if you go from that to plant-based, your body doesn't have the enzymes to break down all that plant food. You may not get those nutrients from that food, because you don't have the gut health for it right away. But if you want to do it, I tell them to do it in the off-season; that is a great way to go. You want to cleanse your body out anyway."
The Game Changers Has Been a Game Changer as Pros Make the Switch
"Working with college athletes at Villanova, they're reading that the pros are going plant-based and they want to get there. I am always preaching 'more veggies on the plate,' but when they see other athletes doing that, it's the icing on the cake.
"Lebron may not be strictly plant-based but he is eating super healthy ... he eats low carb. As young athletes are hearing about more pro athletes doing it, like Carmello Anthony is doing it, and he got leaner and dropped a lot of weight, then the younger players want to try it."
It's possible to get enough nutrients and protein on a plant-based diet
"It's possible to get enough protein and to be leaner on plant-based or mostly plant-based foods. We talk about protein, and eating fresh, locally grown ingredients, from farms nearby. Villanova has been successful and when I arrived, Head Coach,[Jay] Wright asked me to clean up the players' diets. You figure nine years of that -- and we're now eating clean. I'm getting things locally sourced, from local farms, and the beef is grass-fed and we choose local fish and these players come in [to the program from eating junk at home] and see how their bodies change and they have seen how this fixes their energy and focus and helps their performance and they're hooked."
Unfortunately for most players, eating at home, the food is not as healthy so Coach Shack offers the option of having food sent to them from a company called Factor, which offers plant-based or keto or vegetarian options. "A lot of teams using them, in the pros. They look at the oils, cook with olive oil and choose healthier ingredients."
To Fight Inflammation, Antioxidants Are More Effective Than Compression
Coach Shack sees athletes fighting inflammation with compression sleeves and other gadgets, but he will urge them to add vegetables and fruits to their plate as a way of lowering inflammation and treating the injury. "Leafy veggies are the one thing that everyone should eat more of, for their health and fight inflammation," he adds.
"The anti-inflammatory properties of eating real food -- as opposed to supplements -- are super effective. Some guys try to use external modalities like compression and boots and that's all good. but you have to heal your body from the inside out and that requires real food that is alive."
When someone has an injury he pays close attention to their nutrition: "You need to go for high-quality stuff... and drink plenty of extra water, especially if they get stiff or feel tightness. That is inflammation. Injury is the problem. You have to heal your body from the inside out and feed your cells living food which is vegetables, fruit, and whole plant foods. Your cells thrive on living food, not dead food or processed food."
NBA Star Kyle Lowry Eats a Clean, Low Sugar, Mostly Plant-Based Diet
Coach Shack advises Kyle Lowry on performance in the off-season. "Five years ago he hired a chef and he was eating Philly foods like the cheesesteak, which isn't healthy. And he would eat candy before games. Then he invested in a full-time chef, who cooks for him every meal. In the offseason, I've hung out with him, and now everything he eats is fresh from the farms around there, and he became leaner over time, and he got fitter. [back in 2016 when he dropped 15 pounds and showed up with under 5 percent body fat.]
"I would say a lot of what he eats now is plant-based, like 70 percent, and then he adds some lean meat and is keeping the sugars low. He's learning to add more plants to his diet as he's gotten older. It takes a while to get there. If you want to eat more veggies, your palate has got to adapt to it."
The bottom line: "Feed your body fresh vegetables. Listen to your body and start eating intuitively. Your body will tell you it's craving quality food and vegetables. You'll feel better."
Coach Shack's Famous Chocolate Avocado Protein Pudding
Ingredients: (Makes 6 Servings)
- 3x Avocados
- 3x Bananas
- 6 Tbsp Cocoa Powder
- 1 - 2 servings of Organifi chocolate plant-based protein powder
- 2 Cups Almond Milk
- Pinch of Sea Salt
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Use a spatula to remove the pudding from the blender. Distribute into small individual cups or one bowl. Place into refrigerator for 1hr to chill before serving. Enjoy!
Coach Shack's Famous Chocolate Chia Seed Protein Pudding with Omega 3
Ingredients: (Makes 4 Servings)
- 1 Can (13.5 oz) Full Fat Coconut Milk
- 3 tbsp Chia Seeds
- 1 tbsp Cocoa Powder
- 2 oz Dark Chocolate (100% Cocao)
- 1-2 servings of Organifi chocolate plant-based protein powder
- 1 tbsp Vanilla Extract
- Pinch of Sea Salt
Take a saucepan and over medium heat stir in the coconut milk, dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and sea salt. Bring to a simmer and stir until the chocolate is melted. Remove the pan from the stovetop and stir in the chia seeds, protein powder, and vanilla extract. Stir until the chia seeds become soft and take on a jelly texture. Pour the pudding into small serving cups and place into the refrigerator for 1 hour before serving. Enjoy!