Fitness is an integral component of any sport. In a physically punishing discipline like boxing, the importance of strength and conditioning is vital. While most budding boxers follow the guidance of their coaches and adopt all practices that lead to a healthy lifestyle, it is a specific set – vegetarians – that are compelled to take the biggest leap of faith.

Meat is a vital component of diet plans set by coaches of most sports. India’s junior women’s coach Raffaele Bergamasco of Italy initially prescribed this internationally accepted diet plan to all his wards, many of whom are competing at Boxing Women’s Youth Worlds currently underway in Guwahati.

Despite its worldwide acceptance, convincing life-long vegetarians to become meat-eaters is not a straightforward proposition. Bergamasco found out soon enough when he took over the reins of the Indian team.

“Protein intake is important, which is why I prescribed a meat-based diet plan, but in our team there are many girls who only eat vegetarian, all we can do is work around this and ensure they get the necessary nutrients through other foods,” said Bergamasco.

Eating protein-rich meat like chicken is an easy way of gaining the right nutrient necessary for maintaining a lifestyle that entails a heavy physical load. Boxers in India’s women’s team, though, have refused to take the short cut and stuck to their way of life.

Lifestyle choices

Shashi Chopra (left), India's 57 kg finalist, swears that she is yet to touch meat | Photo credit: BFI

India’s featherweight medallist Shashi Chopra has altered her eating habits only to the extent of eating eggs. “I have yet to touch any other form of meat,” she swears, so does Flyweight boxer Jyoti.

Bantamweight medallist Sakshi still wonders what is served on her plate every time she sits down for a meal with the squad. Sakshi, who is assured of a medal in Guwahati, said that it was solely circumstances that led her to making drastic changes in her diet. “I was a vegetarian all my life but I have been eating meat for the past year,” said Sakshi. “I had to lose weight and the coach has prepared diet charts for each of us now.

“When I was touring, there were some countries that didn’t serve up too many options in the vegetarian section,” Sakshi added. Despite the refusal, the support staff tries to maintain the players’ nutrient intake through other ways.

“Initially, Rafaelle suggested a meat-based diet and the problem was that most of the Haryana boxers do not eat meat,” said assistant coach Bharti Thakur.

“Even though they don’t eat meat, we still try and carefully assess what they eat, ensure that they take the necessary nutrients, which includes packing up with carbohydrates in the morning and have instructed them to stay away from ice cream and chocolates,” Thakur added.

Meat fixation across sports

Across sports, diet and nutrition have entered the lexicon of the Indian players’ off-field strategy. With upper body strength and endurance playing key role in an athletes’ match performance, most coaches and players alike have followed the meat-eating route to maintain nutritional balance.

A protein-rich diet was earlier recommended by badminton coach Pullela Gopichand as he shaped two Olympic medallists in Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu: “Eating chicken is essential for the good supply of protein content,” he had said then.

“It helps in losing weight and ensures essential supply of vitamins and minerals. Red meat also provides iron which helps to maintain the energy levels,” the former All England champion, an ardent follower of the Chinese training methods had said.

Former India pacer Javagal Srinath also switched to a non-vegetarian diet improve his pace. It doesn’t take an expert to predict that boxers across the world consume a generous dose of non-vegetarian food as a part of their diet regimen.

Despite the earlier precedents, India’s junior boxers are treading their own paths.

Alternate path

Leading up to the AIBA Women World Youth Boxing Championships, the Indian squad has been on the road for many months, including exposure tours in Bulgaria and Istanbul, where they returned home with rich medal hauls.

The punishing schedule meant that there had to be more emphasis on watching one’s nutrition and diet as a slight weight gain or loss may adversely affect a boxer’s performance.

Other than the lack of meat, India’s cultural diversity also means that the diet patterns differ across states and it needed a bit of standardisation, a system followed across the world now.

“You start with nutrition and diet at club level. You can’t have an athlete at the elite level without (right) nutrition,” explained International Boxing Federation’s (AIBA) three-star coach Andile Mofu.

“If you are in India, you will ending up eating Indian food. It is the case whichever part of the world you are from – you eat the staple food there. The most important thing is you need to strike a balance. Dietitians will know what you need to mix with one to get the right kind of protein intake, despite the boxers choosing to be vegetarian,” Mofu added.

The alternate plan, though, seems to be working fine for now. Despite the meat-less diet, the Indian contingent has matched up well with their foreign ‘meat-eating’ counterparts.

Not only have the Indians fought toe-to-toe with them, they have in many cases bettered their opponents with brute force through the ongoing competition. Will this way of life lead to medals in senior tournaments, is a question for another day. For now these girls living life their way, both in the ring and in the dining hall.