Wilson Chandler is on the rise. The Denver Nuggets forward is off to a red-hot start this season, averaging 18.3 points and 7.7 rebounds, both career highs. In late November, Chandler scored at least 25 points in back-to-back games, a career first, and he hasn’t had this kind of streak since 2011, just before he was traded in the deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. That year also marked the start of more injury issues, as the nine-year veteran has missed all or part of several seasons due to surgeries on both hips.
In an effort to stay on the court—and out of the training room—Chandler’s injury struggles led him to look for solutions in an unusual spot: the kitchen. In an effort to improve his resilience, Chandler, 29, converted to a vegan diet six months ago, making him one the few vegans in the NBA.
“I’ve always had a pretty healthy diet, but after dealing with several injuries, I wanted to find a diet that would help with inflammation,” he says.
Stricter than vegetarianism, a vegan diet eliminates all animal products—red meat, fish, poultry, all dairy—leaving a diet composed primarily of fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables, legumes and plant-based protein substitutes like tofu.
For athletes, one of the more interesting facets of a plant-based diet is its potential effect on inflammation. The theory is that meat and dairy products increase acidity, while plant based foods are less acidic, or alkaline. Consequently, the side effect of the standard meat and dairy diet is a high acidic blood pH that could result in inflammation and impair recovery.
Though there isn’t any research that yet shows how the vegan diet influences injury or athletic performance, science has started to nibble at the edges of how the diet affects general health, and the early results are promising. These studies suggest that less meat and more vegan staples like nuts, fruit, and legumes may lower markers of inflammation, potentially lowering the risk of chronic disease.
Research or not, Chandler is convinced of the difference.
“My recovery time is faster, I’m in a better mood, I feel more explosive on the court and I’m leaner,” he says.
Nancy Clark, sports nutritionist and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, believes that while hard science on the topic is still lacking, athletes like Chandler can serve as an example for others.
“Basketball players get beaten up all the time and they need to know how diet can influence recovery, inflammation and injuries,” she says.
The problems with a vegan diet? The NBA lifestyle is not an easy one—games, practice, travel, hotels and time away from the reliability of one’s own fridge make any diet more difficult to follow. For Chandler, being on the road has been the biggest challenge. “It’s hard to do with all the travel,” he says.
But aside from the difficulty trying to find a vegan friendly meal at 10 p.m. in an NBA city, one of the raps on plant-based diets is the challenge in maintaining protein intake. Vegans, especially those that are traveling athletes, may have to work harder to find a variety of good sources of plant protein to make sure they get all the essential amino acids.
"To ensure they are getting the right quality of protein, vegans need to eat a variety of plant foods to get a variety of the amino acids needed to build muscles,” says Clark. She also stresses the need for vegans to supplement vitamin B12, an important nutrient affecting red blood cell production and one only found in meat.
Good sources of protein for vegans are out there—beans and nuts, to name a few—but shopping and eating get more complicated when searching for protein alternatives outside the meat counter. Making the right food choices can require the guidance of a nutritionist or experienced vegan.
For dietary advice, Chandler primarily leans on the experience of a vegan friend.
“I had a chef for a while but mostly have used the help of a friend that has followed the diet for years,” Chandler says. “I also have other friends that are vegetarians that have helped.”
Learning how to follow the vegan diet is more than just eating healthy, says Clark: “The vegan diet is a philosophy, a lifestyle that is more than just good food and bad food.”
Clark believes that athletes like Chandler who put considerable effort into nutrition can bring that same level of intensity into other aspects of performance. “How people live with their food is often how they live the other parts of life and sports, they usually put a lot of effort into training, rehab, and practice,” she says.
Despite the occasional jab at his eating habits, Chandler says overall, his teammates and friends have been accepting of his diet change.
“Sometimes I’ll hear something when I get my food and everyone else is eating meat, but that’s about it,” he says.
Advocates of the vegan diet maintain that athletic performance can be maintained, and perhaps enhanced, with a diet free of any animal products. Those looking to validate those claims need look no further than Chandler’s performance this season.
Fruit is a mainstay in Chandler’s diet and he always makes sure he has cherries, grapes and other fruits that are easy-to snack on.
Vegan for the soul
“My favorite spot is a vegan restaurant in Detroit,” Chandler says. “They have a vegan soul food platter with yams, cornbread, black-eyed peas, and mac and (vegan) cheese.”
Before and after games, Chandler puts an emphasis on protein in the form of lentils or beans.
“Before games I like to eat a protein, greens and a vegan pasta that I get from a Whole Foods that is close-by to where I live.” If he does need a halftime snack, which is unusual, fruit is first up. “If I’m hungry at halftime, I’ll grab a banana,” he says. After the game, it’s a similar mix of proteins, grains and greens, as he tries to get protein right away, to enhance recovery.
Like everyone, Chandler has his cheat moments and is fond of a little candy, now and then. “I don’t eat chocolate (chocolate usually contains milk), so when I’m looking for something sweet, it’s usually Skittles or Starburst.”