If Jahlil Okafor can kick the injury bug, he has the potential to be something special.
The 21-year-old big man has dealt with knee issues ever since the Philadelphia 76ers made him the the third overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. But he’s flashed signs of dominance when healthy, averaging 14.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game over his first 103 NBA appearances.
In an effort to improve his durability, Okafor embraced vegan eating. He’s now down to 253 pounds—20 pounds lighter than he was this time last offseason—and says he’s feeling great.
“It took some drastic changes to get to this point, and I’m feeling really good” Okafor said at a recent Sixers media event. “I didn’t jump full vegan. I gradually made my way to that. First I took out dairy.”
Okafor believes removing animal products (and especially dairy) will help his body better hold up against the grind of an 82-game NBA season. “I read somewhere that dairy was an inflammatory and my knee was always swelling up last season. I had no idea about that, so once I found that out, I cut out dairy. Now I’m a full-on vegan and I feel great. I’m gonna stick with it.”
Though playing at a lighter weight is a surefire way to reduce pounding on Okafor’s joints, could dairy really be a culprit behind his achy knees? It all depends on how dairy affects Okafor as an individual. Even if he isn’t lactose intolerant or doesn’t suffer from a milk allergy, A1 casein—a phosphoprotein found in much of the cow’s milk produced in the U.S.—could be causing issues.
According to Kamal Patel, director of the health and nutrition website Examine.com, recent studies on mice suggest A1 casein could cause inflammation in the gut. An inflamed gut can lead to something called “leaky gut syndrome.” When the gut wall gets irritated or inflamed, it loses its selective permeability. A healthy gut allows only specific beneficial things—like vitamins and amino acids—to escape through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. A leaky gut loses this ability, often letting harmful things like undigested food particles, toxins and microbes escape from the gut and enter the bloodstream. While more research needs to be done, leaky gut syndrome could be a contributor to a huge number of conditions throughout the body—such as Rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s also entirely possible Okafor is experiencing improved joint health not because he no longer eats dairy, but rather as a result of dietary displacement. When you eliminate dairy from your diet, you have to replace those calories and nutrients with other foods. If the foods you add are nutritionally superior to what you ate before, you will feel the benefits of a better diet. “If someone starts eating a bit less cheese, yogurt and milk and replaces those with veggies, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, they could be doing their body good by getting nutrients most dairy products don’t provide,” says Ryan Andrews, RD at Precision Nutrition.
Considering Okafor used to eat foods like McDonald’s sausage and egg McGriddles on a daily basis, it’s no wonder he’s feeling better on a plant-based diet. “(I used to eat) a bunch of BS, man, but I cut it out and am glad I did it,” Okafor said.
Okafor is hoping a vegan diet will produce the same on-court results for him as it did for Wilson Chandler. Chandler, a 30-year-old forward for the Denver Nuggets, posted new highs in points per game and rebounds per game last season after he going vegan.
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