From CBS Sports: Nutrition In The NBA
Dr. Cate Shanahan was watching Dwight Howard play for the Lakers last season, and she was frightened by what she saw.
The Napa Valley doctor and nutritionist had no stake in whether Howard would re-sign with the Lakers; that was the least of her concerns. In conversations with the Lakers about spearheading a drastic change in their nutritional program for players, Shanahan believed she had the found the ultimate test subject in Howard.
"It looked like he was wearing oven mitts out there," Shanahan said. "It reminded me of patients who have pre-diabetes and neurological problems because of how sugar impacts the nervous system. That's where I became really concerned."
Shanahan's husband and co-author, Luke, had sent a copy of their book, Deep Nutrition, to the Lakers' longtime athletic trainer, Gary Vitti. Having been around professional athletes for decades, Vitti had seen a lot of pitches. But Shanahan's book resonated, with its scientific and practical approach to a traditional diet of real food. In the year since, the approach to eating has become the standard in the Lakers' locker room, at team hotels and on charter flights -- setting the tone for what could be a seismic shift in how athletes use food to not only fuel, but also medicate their multimillion-dollar bodies.
"We're making the shift from basically worse than pet food to actual food," Cate Shanahan said.
With Howard, the intervention began where it does with most athletes (and non-athletes, for that matter) who need to change their diets. It began with sugar. It turned out that Howard was consuming the equivalent of 24 Hershey bars a day in the form of candy and soda -- not to mention the additional sugar his body was making out of all the empty starches he was eating.
blood screening that revealed a frighteningly pathological profile. His glucose readings were through the roof, much higher than they should have been for a ripped, 27-year-old professional athlete who used to call himself Superman.
(Within 10 years, the NBA will be applying blood testing to get their athletes the right recovery and nutrition solutions.)
Howard was struggling to return to form after back surgery the previous spring, and was wrestling with the enormous pressure of whether to re-sign with the Lakers as a free agent. Cate Shanahan believed his performance and recovery were being seriously compromised by his poor diet. She saw the telltale signs of sugar addiction -- spikes in energy followed by crashes and erratic motor skills that were indicative of nerves misfiring.
Like an addict, Howard had candy and sugary drinks stashed everywhere -- from his kitchen cabinets to a drawer next to his bed to the backpack he toted to games and practices. He agreed to get rid of it all and start over.
"She's not pushing supplements on us," Lakers point guard Steve Nash said. "It's all natural foods. There's nothing processed; nothing unnatural. ... Although it is a bit of an extreme diet compared to the traditional diet, what works in its favor as far as a safeguard is that it is a natural diet."
Nash believes the infusion of healthy fats and oils helped him recover from a broken leg last season, and he's holding out hope for any edge he can find as he tries to overcome residual nerve damage from that injury this season. Other players report that their joints aren't as sore and their muscle recovery is better, like Steve Blake, who says his knees haven't felt this good since he played for the University of Maryland.
"If you really stick to it, it really makes a difference," Blake said. "Everything they're telling us, one, it makes sense, and two, [Shanahan] has science to back it up."
"It's a different philosophy," Bryant said. "It's something that we all had to adjust to, but we trust Dr. Cate implicitly. I've seen great results from it from when I started doing it last year -- watching your sugar intake, making sure you're eating healthy fats. You've got to find a balance in that system. It's worked well for me."
Spreading the grass-fed gospel
"For thousands of years before we had these chemicals and preservatives and processed foods, everything was fresh," said Kaman, a hunting enthusiast. "You cut it down and you ate it, or you killed it and you ate it or wrung its neck and you ate it. It's the most basic form of eating and I think that's the best way to eat."
(Nutrition in the NBA Part II: Paleo diet takes hold for myriad reasons - Ray Allen, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Pablo Prigioni, along with many other NBA stars are adopting the Paleo diet. Inspired by Robb Wolf's The Paleo Solution, even the most skeptical of players are partially adopting its tenets and are realizing how important diet is to performance.)
Blood as a way to measure performance
Within weeks of starting the program, Howard said his blood-glucose levels declined 80 percent. After increasing his consumption of healthy fats and decreasing processed carbs -- "No bread," Howard said -- all the blood markers that are indicative of heart health went in the right direction, too. After some initial lethargy during the detox phase, Howard said his endurance improved and his energy levels became more consistent. His body-fat percentage -- hovering around 5-6 percent his entire career -- dropped to 3 percent, he said.
"I would always tell [the Lakers] how bad I wanted to get back to being Superman," Howard said. "Their response was, 'Well, you have to sacrifice something.' "
Since Howard left LA, the Lakers' program has gotten even more sophisticated -- and has gathered more support in the locker room. Now, Whole Foods caters every Lakers chartered flight and road trip, right down to the uncured meats and raw cheeses for charcuterie plates that sit on a table in the locker room before games.
Whereas most trainers travel with a suitcase loaded with pills and powders, DiFrancesco has replaced most of those with real food
His luggage is stocked with raw nuts, squeezable packs of hazelnut butter, kale chips, grass-fed beef jerky and more.
"What my real title is -- strength and conditioning coach -- becomes way more effective when you can combine eating the right foods, the right fuel and food as medicine with training the right way," DiFrancesco said.
(Nutrition in the NBA Part III: The role of the personal trainer - The role of the trainer is no longer of the guy who makes you work out really hard. It's now the consultant who puts it all together for peak performance. That includes diet, and not just simply giving faulty advice like eat low fat. Preventing injury, optimizing diet, and analyzing their numbers from blood panel to body fat.)
For every road trip, Shanahan will study the room service and hotel restaurant menus and color-code items so the players know what to avoid. Some hotels make substitute items available – such as cooking meals in olive oil instead of partially hydrogenated oils that promote inflammation and disease while hindering recovery, she said.
bullet-proof coffee" -- coffee seasoned with two teaspoons of pastured butter and heavy, grass-fed cream.
"The caffeine dilates your blood vessels and delivers the fat to the brain," Kaman said. "It's good."
Read more: Build A Better Coffee.
For the long haul
After years of health authorities telling us to eat low-fat, high-carb diets, there's a movement afoot suggesting that it's actually the processed carbs and sugars that are causing disease – not the fats, as long as the fats are from quality sources.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration woke up from decades of slumber and issued a ruling that would all but eliminate trans fats -- predominant in the partially hydrogenated oils that the Lakers have eliminated from their menu -- from the food supply. It remains to be seen whether the mass-producers of the food industry will replace trans fat with something that's better or worse for us.
In October, Sweden became the first Western nation to establish nutritional guidelines that reject a high-carb, low-fat diet after the Swedish health council pooled the results of 16,000 studies on the causes of heart disease and diabetes and found no link to saturated fats --and instead, found links to sugar and high-carb diets.
Whatever happens as far as wins and losses, the Lakers have been sold on some other numbers linked to the program. When DiFrancesco shared the players' bloodwork and body-fat changes with Mitch Kupchak last season after a few weeks on the new diet, the Lakers' GM was floored.
"We are doing this for you as a 50-, 60-, 70-year-old," he said. "This is for your health as a human being. It's going to help you as a Laker, but it's more than that. ... Once you put all that on the table, it's hard to walk away and not feel good about it."
The above story is based on materials provided by CBS Sports.
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.