How NY Giants Justin Pugh Went Gluten-Free—And Got Stronger Because of It

N.Y. Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh switched to a gluten-free diet, and his play on the field improved as a result.

Justin Pugh is a 6-foot-4, 305-pound monster. The third-year NFL lineman has been a crucial part of the Giants' potent offense. His unique blend of speed and strength have helped him bully opposing defenders. Pro Football Focus, a service that watches every snap and assigns grades based on player performance, currently ranks Pugh as among the 10 best guards in the NFL.

Not bad for a guy who gave up four sacks in a single game last season.

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Justin Pugh is a 6-foot-4, 305-pound monster. The third-year NFL lineman has been a crucial part of the Giants' potent offense. His unique blend of speed and strength have helped him bully opposing defenders. Pro Football Focus, a service that watches every snap and assigns grades based on player performance, currently ranks Pugh as among the 10 best guards in the NFL.

Not bad for a guy who gave up four sacks in a single game last season.

One big key to Pugh's impressive progress? A drastic diet change. We caught up with Pugh to learn more about how healthy eating amped his game.

The Gluten-Free Guard

Throughout Pugh's college career and his early seasons as a pro, his diet centered around one thing—keeping weight on. It's a struggle many football players know all too well. "I was just trying to get my weight up and keep weight on, because that's something I've always struggled with," Pugh says. Getting the scale to that magic number was his No. 1 priority. How he did it was little more than an afterthought.

Pugh often ate the same high-calorie, high-carb foods he grew up on as a kid in suburban Philadelphia. "I've always loved cheesesteaks, hoagies, pizza, that sort of stuff. I'd eat big dishes of pasta before a game or in the days leading up to a game," Pugh says. He was also a big fan of bagels and English muffins for breakfast, and he had a tradition of downing red velvet cake every Friday.

This diet did an adequate job of keeping weight on, but Pugh was unaware of the damage it was causing. He didn't know it at the time, but he is afflicted with a condition known as gluten sensitivity.

RELATED: What Gluten Is and How It Can Affect You

Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in cereal grains. It's a composite of two sub-proteins—gliadin and glutenin. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten sensitivity is "a condition with symptoms similar to those of celiac disease that improve when gluten is eliminated from the diet." These symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headaches, bone or joint pain, depression and fatigue. Roughly 18 million Americans suffer from gluten sensitivity.

Pugh didn't find out about his own condition until last season. He says, "We partner with Quest Diagnostics so they come in and do blood work with the players. We found out that I have a gluten sensitivity. I don't have full blown celiac disease, but it's definitely something that has the potential to hinder my performance."  The discovery spurred Pugh to go gluten-free in the off-season, a decision that's paying off in a big way.

A Change for the Better

Justin Pugh

Cutting foods that contain gluten from his diet left Pugh with a massive calorie hole that needed filling. As a lineman, the worst thing you can do is to fall short of your calorie requirements, since consistently running a large deficit burns muscle and drains your energy. Thus, Pugh strategically replaced the gluten-containing foods in his diet with high-calorie options he knew his body could handle well. But not just any high-calorie foods would do. Pugh knew that if he was going to take the time to rebuild his diet, he needed to do it with smart, healthy foods.

RELATED: How Marc Gasol Got Better by Overhauling His Diet

"It's just about being more conscious of what's going in my body and knowing how it's going to help me perform and feel better," Pugh says. He began adding coconut oil to more of his meals, crushing avocados like crazy and downing multiple shakes a day.

As the off-season progressed, the gluten-free diet proved more than capable of supporting Pugh's activity level. He was able to gain a few pounds while dramatically reducing his overall body fat, something many football players struggle with. "When guys are trying to gain weight, a lot of them just down a bunch of pizza or milk or fatty things, and that's not the smartest choice to make," Pugh says.

Axing gluten also increased Pugh's energy, giving him the ability to train harder and recover faster. As a result, his weight room numbers shot through the roof. "I was repping out 425 on the Bench Press. Before, I wasn't even coming close to that," he says. "And I was training so heavily but still feeling great."

The benefits have continued into the regular season. Pugh says he's never felt better this late in the year. "I've felt as good as I've ever felt, and that allows me to get in the weight room and lift and do the things I need to do to maintain. What you're putting in your body is huge," Pugh says. "What I was eating before was making me feel lethargic and just out of it. The difference is night and day."

Spreading the Word

Pugh's newfound respect for nutrition and its impact on his wellbeing has inspired him to share the message of healthy eating. Along with his Giants teammates Geoff Schwartz and Rashad Jennings, he teamed up with Silk for their "Sideline Meat" campaign, which challenges football fans to go meatless on Monday nights as a first step toward better overall health. A plant-based diet offers countless health benefits, because plant-based foods are often high in nutrients and low in calories. "Meatless Monday is about sidelining meats one night a week," Pugh says, "Anyone can do it and just try it for one night. Hopefully we can get some people moving in the right direction."

The campaign offers meatless variations of classic football recipes, such as Hearty Black Bean Chili and Sweet Potato Avocado Sliders, made with Silk plant-based beverages. "You'll be surprised at how hearty, delicious and filling plant-based foods can be," Pugh says.

Check out this recipe for the Sweet Potato Avocado Sliders and head to Silk.com/SidelineMeat for more information and recipe ideas.

Sweet Potato Avocado Sliders

Servings: 6
Total time: 1.5 hr

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce, preferably tamari
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 1/4 cups gluten-free organic rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup raw walnuts, crushed
  • 3/4 cup flaxseed meal
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp Silk Unsweetened Original Almondmilk
  • 2 tbsp unrefined coconut oil or vegetable oil
  • Whole wheat or gluten-free mini slider buns
  • Avocado, additional Worcestershire sauce, onion, kale, mustard and mayonnaise, for serving

Preparation

  • Preheat oven to 375°F.
  • Combine sweet potato cubes, olive oil, garlic powder and salt. Spread into a single, even layer on a large baking sheet and roast until golden brown (approximately 35-40 minutes).
  • Remove from oven and cool slightly.
  • Place roasted sweet potatoes into the bowl of a food processor along with soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Pulse 15-20 times to combine.
  • Add onion and chickpeas and pulse until fully combined, occasionally stopping to scrape the food processor bowl. Mix until the chickpeas and onion are fully incorporated. The mixture should have the consistency of mashed potatoes. Avoid over mixing.
  • Combine oats, walnuts, flaxseed meal and paprika in a large bowl.
  • Fold sweet potato mixture into the dry ingredients, then mix in Silk.
  • Measure out 1/3 cup of the mixture at a time and, using your hands, form into round burger-shaped patties.
  • Heat the coconut or vegetable oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the patties and sauté until golden brown on each side, about 4 minutes per side.
  • Serve on slider buns with your choice of toppings.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: FOOTBALL | DIET | MEALS & RECIPES | FOODS | HEALTH | AVOCADO | SWEET POTATO | GLUTEN