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Will A Plant-Based Eating Plan Improve Your Tennis Game?

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veggie burger

By Page Love, MS, RDN, LD, CSSD, USPTA

More Americans are adopting a vegetarian or plant-based lifestyle, and competitive tennis players also are following suit. The biggest trend setter in tennis, Novac Djokovic, is setting the stage for this excitement, claiming his most recent success at the Australian Open was partly due to his new plant-based eating approach. So, should you give this a try? Is it safe for your health? How can you do this while meeting your nutritional needs? Will this approach enhance your tennis performance?

There is no question that plant-based eating can provide a plethora of great antioxidant nutrition for your body, including anti-inflammatory nutrients such as vitamins A, C, and E; fiber, unsaturated fats; and numerous phytonutrients. However, plant-based eating may leave you short in several key nutrient areas, including protein, vitamin B-12, iron, and calcium, so you need to proceed with caution. If you are not meeting your full nutritional needs, you may experience some of the following symptoms related to protein malnutrition: fatigue, sleepiness, inability to concentrate, shortness of breath with normal exertion; loss of muscle weight and strength, hair loss, nail brittleness, swelling and water retention in joints, slow recovery from respiratory infections, and illness.

If you are open to a more “flexitarian eating style” that would allow you to best meet your nutritional needs, this may be the most conservative approach to making sure you maximize both your health and tennis performance needs. For example, being open to fish, or occasional egg or dairy choices may improve your ability to fully meet your protein, B-vitamin, calcium, and iron needs.

In summary, as you consider approaching vegetarian or plant-based eating, keep in mind two critical things: meeting your protein needs and your micronutrient needs for calcium, iron, and B-vitamins. You may need to supplement your diet with a solid multivitamin that contains iron and B-12. And, if you are not including animal dairy sources, you may also need to add a calcium supplement to your regimen. Consider consulting a registered and licensed dietitian to help you with menu planning to fully meet these needs, not to mention your increased needs for additional nutrients that increase with your tennis training.

What is an adequate amount of protein?
Tennis players should aim to have at least 20 gm protein servings at meals (2 times per day) and 10-15 gram serving of protein at snack time, especially after tennis or workouts (1 to 2 times a day). Research suggests that protein needs are slightly increased with regular sports training.

Because protein needs are specific to body weight, these needs are determined by taking into consideration your weight in pounds.

Example: Your weight in pounds ÷ 2.2 = kg
Your kg weight X (1.0 – 1.5)  = grams

Sample player’s daily needs:
140 lbs. ÷ 2.2 X (1.0 – 1.5) = 64 to 95 grams daily

Meatless foods higher in protein

  • soy, tofu, tempeh, setian
  • veggie burgers and sausages
  • legumes (peas, beans)
  • grains, nuts, seeds
  • veggie luncheon meats
  • veggie chicken nuggets
  • veggie jerky
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • soy milk, fortified almond milk, and
  • hummus

Simple meal ideas that can meet your sport nutrition needs for tennis:

  • bean soups paired with seeded crackers or bread
  • legume high-protein pastas with parmesan
  • beans and rice with cheese
  • stir-fried rice and tofu with veggies
  • bean and rice burritos with cheese

Page Love is an avid ALTA participant and owns a private nutrition consulting practice in Atlanta. She is a consultant to both the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tennis tours and is a member of the USTA national sport science committee. Contact her at nutrifitga.com for questions or consultation.