Plant-enhanced diets: The new NFL way of eating

Meat and potatoes, fried foods and calories any way you can get them have been a tradition in football. More protein equals more muscle, right?

Tradition has given way to science, and this is a good thing for today's players and the fans that watch them. According to a NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) study, defensive linemen have a 42 percent greater chance of developing heart disease than the average adult. African-American athletes have a 69 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than Caucasian players. Additionally, concerns about brain health have focused attention on long-term health. 

Plant-enhanced diets come in many forms. This nutritional philosophy can be as simple as choosing more whole grains, such as brown rice and 100 percent whole grain bread, and increasing the servings of fruits and vegetables consumed. A simple rule is to make 50 percent of your plate fruits and vegetables, and this is a good place to start. Beyond that simple approach, 4.9 million Americans follow a consistently vegetarian lifestyle. This strategy usually is interpreted as avoiding all flesh foods or meat, but some include eggs and dairy products on their do-no-eat list. A vegan lifestyle avoids all animal products. Is this a fad, or are there real reasons to adopt this lifestyle?

The health implications are numerous. Eating a plant-enhanced diet provides greater amounts of fiber, vitamin C, folic acid, magnesium, vitamin E and other beneficial plant-based compounds. Additionally, consuming more plants and less animal protein also means less saturated fat and cholesterol, which are viewed as contributing to heart disease. Vegetarians have lower rates of cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. But these diets must be planned wisely. It is a myth that you cannot get enough protein on these diets, but the protein sources are not typical American fare. Nuts, beans, seeds, quinoa and whole soy products can fill the animal meat void. However, some other nutrients may provide a bit of a challenge. According to the position paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, nutrients at risk may include iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Registered dietitians can help consumers fill the void and avoid any deficiency. 

Since 2002, our Texans players have embraced a plant-enhanced diet. Fruits and vegetables aid in the recovery process from just the daily work that is football. They also are foods that can help in the prevention and treatment of dehydration. Plants also contain phytonutrients that differ from vitamins. Simply stated, these phytonutrients are the colors in fruit and vegetables. They aid in healing and prevention or treatment of inflammation. One of the most popular smoothies in the Texans cafeteria during 2012 training camp was our "mean green smoothie" made with spinach, green apple, banana, yogurt and honey. With spinach as the base, it is less sweet, which makes it refreshing during the really hot days of camp.

If you are a Texas carnivore who can't give up that big steak, consider having a "meatless Monday" and try eating more meat alternatives and more plants on that one day of the week. Today's athlete is demanding a higher-quality nutrition approach to optimal wellness and performance, and so should you!

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