The Food That Keeps India's Wrestlers Going
Image Credit: Sakshi Malik at the Summer Olympics in Rio, 2016. Facebook/@wrestlersakshi

THE physical training that wrestlers have to go through is quite demanding on the body, so they have to take great care when it comes to nutrition. They train in the morning and in the evening. To fuel that, they have a lot of milk, paneer, dal and ghee,” says Rudraneil Sengupta, author of the book Enter the Dangal: Travels through India’s Wrestling Landscape (2016).

While working on the book, Sengupta interacted with wrestlers in Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. He noticed that there are subtle shifts in the staple diet eaten by wrestlers at akharas across north India, based on regional cuisines, but there is a tendency to prioritise rotis, vegetables, dairy and almonds. He says, “Wrestlers who eat meat have a wider range of choices, so they get their nutrition from chicken, mutton and fish as well but a lot of them, especially in Haryana, don’t eat meat. They are fine with eggs.”

He was fascinated to learn that owning a cow or a buffalo is a sign of prestige among many of the families that the wrestlers come from. These athletes take great pride in drinking milk that is produced by their own animals. Sengupta adds, “In Delhi, it is not uncommon to see fathers of wrestlers from Haryana lining up with canisters of milk. They do not mind travelling two hours every morning just to make sure that their sons are well-nourished.”

Milk, ghee and almonds feature heavily in traditional akhara diets. Photo by Navjot Singh Payal via Shutterstock



During the course of his research, Sengupta also discovered that people who take up wrestling professionally often belong to families that practice dairy farming. “In rural India, wrestling is often connected with a family’s ability to provide nutrition on a consistent basis. Who can afford five litres of milk, half a kilo of paneer, and 250 grams of ghee every day?”

Sengupta points out that elite athletes with international exposure have developed a taste for many dishes that are traditionally not prepared in akharas. “Sushi has become a favourite among wrestlers who are well-travelled. They find it delicious, and rich in nutrients.” They are intentional about what they consume because they work with professional nutritionists.

Sheikh Iram Saba, a sports nutritionist who has worked closely with Indian wrestlers, says, “A lot of them come from villages where there is little access to scientific information about healthy, balanced diets that are suited to their professional needs.” She has to help them understand that supplements should be taken only if they have deficiencies, not because others are taking them. She adds, “Supplements could be adulterated or contain banned substances. If they are not tested and certified, they might cause more harm than good.”

Educating wrestlers about these aspects is a significant part of her work. This needs to be done tactfully and sensitively because religious beliefs play an important role in their lives. She says, “Some wrestlers do not eat certain food items because of dietary recommendations that they have to follow for religious reasons. Some of them observe food-related customs on specific days of the week.” As a nutritionist, she has to dialogue with them gently to find alternatives to meet their body’s requirements. Else, their training might get badly affected.

Saba has worked with wrestlers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. When wrestlers do not eat meat, she recommends getting their protein requirements fulfilled through consumption of paneer, soyabean, tofu, and whey protein. Instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach, she guides athletes in keeping with their individual goals. “If they want to reduce their weight, I ask them to cut down on carbohydrates, and introduce more fibre and more protein in their diet. If they do heavy training, I ask them to have more carbohydrates.”


Food reaction tests are used to detect gluten and lactose intolerance. Sengupta says that awareness of these conditions has increased because of international exposure and the importance given to scientific approaches to nutrition. Saba adds, “People with gluten intolerance cannot digest wheat. They suffer from bloating, rashes, swelling, constipation and acidity. People with lactose intolerance experience indigestion and water retention.”

Food is a sensitive matter because wrestlers often have strong likes and dislikes. Saba says, “I never ask them to suppress their cravings. How long can anyone control themselves? It is better to have what you enjoy as long as you can train yourself to stick to small quantities.”

Hansaben Rathore, who represented India at the World Wrestling Championship in Budapest, and is now training at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary, says, “For us wrestlers, nutrition is as important as training. We cannot afford to snack on junk food every day because of the oil and spices. We engage in such indulgences only once a month.”

She has eggs, bananas and bread before training in the morning. Her breakfast consists of oats, fruit, paneer and protein powder. At lunchtime, she has dal, rice, salad, rotis, curd. In the evening, before she goes off to train again, she has bananas and some carb-rich food. The dinner is not too different from lunch. She says, “Before competitions, we usually cut down on carbohydrates and fats. Every day, after training, we have badaam thandaai. It is difficult to have 40-50 almonds at one go, so we crush them, mix them in water, and strain them to make a drink. We all have it together. Our individual diet plan also depends on our weight.”

When athletes like herself travel to other countries, it is hard to source the cuisine from their own region. Therefore, they have to go well-prepared. In case of trips that last between three to four days, Rathore carries a lot of dry fruit along with herself. She also packs enough churma – wheat dough balls mixed with jaggery and ghee. It is not difficult to source fresh fruit, rice and bread outside India. She substitutes ghee with butter. “Vegetarians are not the only ones who have to be careful. Even meat-eaters from India may not eat beef,” she says.

Nutritionists sit down with wrestlers and draw up a meal plan for them before they travel. Being lax is not an option because carelessness in dietary matters can be disastrous for them.

Chintan Girish Modi can be reached @chintanwriting on Twitter and Instagram