KOLKATA: Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri on Saturday said he turned vegan for better recovery and digestion, adding the realisation of a better diet as he grows older is secret behind his supreme fitness.
India's record goalscorer Chhetri at 35, is still the team's go-to-man when in need for goals. Against Oman in their World Cup qualifying opener, the diminutive striker scored the only goal to take his tally to 72 international goals, thus becoming the fifth-highest international goalscorer from Asia of all time.
India lost 1-2 but their spirited display under head coach Igor Stimac drew praise. India followed it up with a famous 0-0 draw against Asian champions Qatar, a match in which Chhetri could not take part due to illness.
"I have become vegan -- I don't take dairy or meat. But it has helped me a lot in terms of recovery and digestion," Chhetri said days ahead of India's third Group E World Cup qualifier against Bangladesh here at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan on October 15.
"As I grew older, and as I had more knowledge and met more people who could help me, I kept making those positive changes. And because I was getting older, it was easier to calm my desperation, or my desire to cheat on diet," said the iconic forward.
"My diet has kept on improving. It's not that I was as strict as today some 10 years back. But it's also not that 10 years back I was eating everything, and anything. So as every year passed by, I kept making changes, being strict on myself.
"When you are younger it's actually a bit difficult. When you are younger you eat a lot of things out of desire. As you grow older, you understand that these are the things which you should not, and these are the things you should.
"When I was 25 and I was told to eat 6 pieces of potato every day, someday it would be 8, someday it would be 10. Not that it's going to make a big difference. But now when I am told by my nutritionist that you get to eat 6 pieces a day, it's 6. Done! These things really help you when you grow older because by now you have understood what works for you, and it's easier to be more disciplined. That is where probably when people who are 30 plus do well."
Chhetri said the realisation dawned on him during his stints with American soccer outfit Sporting Kansas City and Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon.
"The awareness crept up after my stint with Sporting Lisbon. When I was in Kansas in the US, there was a little slight change but as I said as I was young - I didn't go deep into it. I followed it but not religiously. Then when I went to Sporting Lisbon, I saw that it's common in Europe about what they eat. It was there that I became stricter," said Chhetri who now plies his trade for Indian Super League (ISL) champions Bengaluru FC.
Asked whether he occasionally eats sweets, Chhetri said: "It's been over one and a half years. Both I have indulged on two momentous occasions, the first time I gave in was after BFC won the ISL; and the next time I had a bite was after we drew our away match with Qatar. You need to understand what works best for your own body. In fact, there have been occasions when people put slices of cake in my mouth. But I never gulped it, but went to the washroom to rinse out (smiles)."
Married to Sonam, Chhetri informed his wife is not vegan and enjoys her non-vegetarian dishes but it is her support towards his lifestyle that keeps the Indian goal-machine going.
"It would be wrong to say that it has come into effect only after she became my wife. That's why I am completely happy, and so much in peace that I did get married to her. Does she eat what I eat.
"Well, off-course. Not because she has to, but because she gives me company. But yeah she is not a vegan, and every now and then, she enjoys her prawns, and fish curries too. I am so much in peace that I did get married to her. The support from home has stayed the bedrock."
Talking about the team and their food habits, Chhetri said over the last decade all the players have become more conscious about what is on their plate.
"The current crop of boys knows what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. They understand what is beneficial for them, and most importantly they stick to it. And it's doesn't end with the national team. It is percolating down to the clubs, and age group players as well."