After two months of sitting on the bench instead of battling in the paint, Marc Gasol knew he had to make a change.
A sprained MCL forced Gasol to miss an extended amount of time last season. He wound up playing in only 59 regular season games—the lowest total in his career.
"To be away from the game, it's pretty tough. It lets you know you aren't invincible," Gasol said.
The injury was an eye-opener for Gasol. He resolved to do anything in his power to prevent future injuries. That meant working out harder and eating smarter.
"I was a good player where I was, but I knew that if I changed a few things, I could become even better," Gasol said. He also wanted to make sure he lived a long, healthy life after hanging up his jersey. "Beyond basketball, living healthier can help me have a better and hopefully longer life."
Gasol's new approach included a more consistent workout regimen, featuring 40 workouts in two months, but the biggest renovations were to his diet.
"I decided to start over and really personalize what I ate to my needs," Gasol said. "I paid close attention to how different foods affected me, which foods gave me more energy and made me feel better."
Fast-forward to now. It's safe to say that his new approach paid dividends. The 7-foot-1 Gasol is roughly 20 pounds lighter and playing at a higher level than ever before. For the season, Gasol averaged 17.4 points per game on .501 shooting—up from 14.6 on .494 a year ago. His rebounds, blocks and assists are up as well. Many have mentioned his name as an MVP candidate, and he credits his new physique—which has him recovering faster and feeling more energetic—as the big reason why.
"I feel a lot better. I sleep a lot better. I recover a lot better, and I'm more productive in games," Gasol said. "And I can see muscles that I didn't even know I had."
So how'd the big man do it? His dietary overhaul came down to three key changes.
Gasol has a close family friend who is a vegetarian, and last summer he started trying summer vegetarian dishes. He was surprised by how much he liked them. "I found out how surprisingly tasty [vegetarian meals] can be," he said. "And when you know it's good for you, it becomes even tastier."
Gasol now follows "flexitarian" diet, which means he gets most of his calories from fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes, but he isn't forbidden from eating meat or animal products. With a flexitarian approach, you have wiggle room for an occasional grilled chicken breast or steak—although Gasol tries to limit his animal products to mostly eggs and fish.
According to dietician Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition, the benefits of a plant-based diet are immense. For one, you get more bang for your caloric buck. "Plant-based foods are usually very nutrient dense," Andrews said. "One hundred calories of vegetables, for example, contains a huge amount of nutrients compared to 100 calories of many other foods. And from a chronic disease standpoint, a plant-based diet is great. One of two people in the United States die from heart disease or cancer. Plant-based diets reduce your risk of both, while also lowering your blood pressure, improving your blood lipid profile and reducing your risk of Type 2 diabetes."
Finding Protein in Unexpected Places
Many people equate "building muscle" with "eating protein" and "eating protein" with "eating meat." But there are many ways to lower your consumption of animal products and still get all the protein you need. In the diet Gasol uses, common replacements for meat include vegetables, grains and legumes, foods that have as much, if not more, protein per calorie than meat. And Gasol says they're delicious.
"I find myself eating a lot of foods like lentils and chickpeas," Gasol said. "Quinoa is also something I really enjoy. There are so many ways you can prepare it, your imagination is really the limit."
Replacing meat with these options is a smart choice, according to Andrews. "Legumes are the great underutilized food in North America," he said. "The average American eats 216 pounds of meat and fish per year and only seven pounds of beans. This is out of balance. Lentils, peas and beans taste good, are inexpensive and are high in nutrients such as fiber, protein, folate, zinc, iron and magnesium"—all of which can help an athlete play better and feel better.
Where's the Beef?
When many athletes hear the word protein, they think "meat." But a surprising number of plant-based foods actually pack more protein per calorie than beef. In fact, spinach has nearly twice as much protein per calorie than the patty in your burger. Check out the graphs below, and you may be surprised by the percentage of total calories that are protein in each food.
Passing on Processed Foods
Gasol believes "the less touched by a human, the better." So he eats foods that aren't processed at all, like the ones you find in the produce section, or are minimally processed and contain a limited number of ingredients—instead of packaged foods that promise convenience or some kind of health benefit. Gasol used to purchase items packaged with labels claiming "Low Calories!" or "Fat-Free!" or "Low Sugar!" But look a little closer, and you'll find that these claims are usually empty. He said, "They try to fool you. [But] if you become more educated about how those foods can affect your body, you'll be surprised what a 'Fat-Free' or 'Zero-Calorie' product can do to you."
Andrews agrees. He said, "My number one rule for grocery shopping is to not believe the front of the package, because many items just throw out buzzwords to try to get you to buy it. Not everything in a package is bad—things such as frozen vegetables, shelled nuts, canned beans, are all fine. But choosing foods that are low or minimally-processed is the key."
Try Gasol's Protein-Packed Quinoa Bowl
One of Gasol's favorite foods, quinoa, is versatile, easy to make and packed with protein and other nutrients. Once the grain is cooked, you can assemble this meal in 10 minutes or less.
Mix these ingredients together in a large bowl
- 2 cups cooked quinoa
- 15 oz. can (or fresh) organic black beans
- 2 cups of thinly sliced kale
- Diced cherry tomatoes
- 1tbsp balsamic vinaigrette
- 1tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
Drizzle the dressing over the mix and enjoy!
(Makes two servings)
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