LeBron, Kobe and Low Carb Context

Last year, NBA superstar LeBron James broke my heart and left my beloved Miami Heat for his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. And to kick a vegan Heat fan when he’s down, one of the biggest secondary storylines that offseason was about another of LeBron’s summer 2014 decisions: he cut carbs from his diet and became a “keto-paleo” dieter.

If you’re unaware of what that entails—it’s typically a diet of a lot of meat and eggs, with almost no carbs. No milk, cheese or dairy. No bread. No pasta. No rice. No sugar. No honey. No beer. No potatoes. No fruit. Only some types of veggies. And several other possible dietary restrictions as well. (But bacon? That’s perfectly acceptable for keto-paleo dieters.)

After some weeks on the restrictive diet, LeBron re-emerged in public as an astonishingly skinny version of himself. NBA fans and analysts were stunned at his weight loss. Of course, LeBron is a bulky human, but compared to the old LeBron, the new carb-cutting LeBron was, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “suddenly skinny.”

This news got people buzzing about low-carb eating. LeBron’s “weight loss has sparked as much interest in low-carb diets as the Atkins’ craze did back in 2004,” according to Sports Illustrated.

He stuck with the diet for at least 67 days leading up to training camp, although it’s unclear to what extent he continued to limit carbs, or whether he otherwise changed his diet, as the season progressed.

LeBron went into the season claiming that the diet “did make me quicker, so it will help our team.” A quicker, meaner, leaner LeBron? Cavs fans were cautiously stoked.

But by November, the low carb buzz and ‘skinny’ LeBron articles began to fade into the world of forgotten offseason storylines. At that point, we were a month into the NBA season. And a new LeBron headline emerged:

LeBron James is at center of Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles.”

“[LeBron is] the best player in the NBA and he hasn’t played like it.” Those sound bites are courtesy of the Northeast Ohio Media Group (an unnecessarily dull name for a media company, which is made up of many news outlets, including The Cleveland Plain Dealer).

Something was off with LeBron. He didn’t look like himself. He was underperforming. Fans and observers were legitimately concerned. Some, like Bill Simmons, outwardly wondered if his poor play had something to do with his diet. Fans on Twitter joked that LeBron should re-introduce carbs into his diet because it looked like he had no energy.

January 2015 arrived, and after 39 games, the star-studded Cavaliers—widely expected to dominate the league prior to the season—had a losing record.

Around that time, in a highly unusual move, LeBron vanished from the court. He stopped showing up to Cavs games, not even to sit on the bench. Where was he? Miami of all places. That’s where he went to undergo two weeks of rest and rehabilitation.

‘I’m serious, I haven’t felt right in a long time,’ James told Northeast Ohio Media Group. ‘The way I was playing out there, that wasn’t me. I had to do something.’

LeBron would end up missing more time last season than any other in his career.

Fast forward to June, and the Cavaliers were in the Finals, led by a nearly unstoppable LeBron James.

What gives? Did LeBron reintroduce fried plantains back into his diet when he went back to Miami? Well, there were certainly valid explanations that have nothing to do with diet. LeBron had that two-week rest period; the Cavs bolstered their roster with a mid-season trade; and the team had time to gel.

As for LeBron’s reasoning for the unprecedented two-week rest, it’s important to remember that the dude had played 11 grueling seasons without any major time off, not to mention he was coming off of four Finals appearances in a row. The man deserves as much rest as he can get. As for specifics of what changes he made during his time off, even the Northeast Ohio Media Group didn’t find any concrete answers. “He wouldn’t divulge much,” they wrote. And not a peep was written about his diet.

All summer we heard about the new, revamped low-carb LeBron. Then he started the NBA season and looked like a far less effective version of himself. Could his summer keto/paleo diet have anything to do with that? What type of diet did he stick to during the season? Did he switch his diet to include more carbs after his lackluster start?

Eventually we were at a point in the season where sports stories were about team chemistry, not players’ body chemistry. So there weren’t many places to find the latest on LeBron’s eating habits.

Finally, in the middle of the 2015 Finals, an answer emerged.

LeBron was consuming carbs. Lots of them, apparently.

Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported on LeBron’s post-game recovery plan: it involves gulping down “carbohydrate-rich recovery fluids.”

Imbibing a carefully prepared combination of water and carbohydrate-rich recovery fluids provided by his personal trainer, Mike Mancias, James immediately began the process of refilling his glycogen levels — the stored form of carbohydrate found in the liver and muscle tissue. If you equate James’ body to a Formula-1 racecar, refilling glycogen is as important as refueling during a pit stop.

Using carbohydrates to replenish glycogen? That’s a keto-paleo dieter’s worst nightmare. It’s exactly how keto dieters don’t want to energize their muscles.  Unfortunately, Berger reported on LeBron’s high-carb habits, but didn’t mention the context of LeBron’s low-carb diet to start the season. I’d be interested in hearing LeBron or his trainer’s thoughts on it. After their experience with it, would they recommend the low-carb diet to anyone?

LeBron would come up short in the Finals, but it’s quite an achievement he made it that far. His All-Star sidekicks were injured, though I should give a shoutout to James Jones, LeBron’s reliable vegan teammate who, at 34, played in all 20 of the Cavs’ playoff games.

All in all, this is a mere anecdote. But it’s an anecdote that spread far and wide in 2014, and got people very interested in meat-heavy, low-carb eating. People should know that LeBron didn’t stick with it, and it may have even contributed to the most injury-prone season of his career. No matter how you feel about the low-carb diet, it certainly deserves to be looked into further.

The Los Paleos Lakers

LeBron was not alone in the NBA Extreme Low-Carb Dieting Club. (I’d imagine this club’s ‘No Beer & No BBQ Sauce’ cookouts have pretty low turnouts).

Count the 2013-2014 L.A. Lakers team in as well. That’s right, the entire Lakers team adhered to a low-carb diet, for at least that season. That’s when the Lakers brought in low-carb advocate Cate Shanahan to revamp the team’s nutrition program. How did she do it? She restricted the players’ diets to no more than 25 percent carbohydrates. (For reference, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends people get 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbs.)

Lakers star Kobe Bryant was all in. “It’s something that we all had to adjust to, but we trust Dr. Cate implicitly,” he said.

Again, we can credit Ken Berger of CBS Sports with the scoop on this story in December 2013.

But in February 2014, not even two months after the CBS article ran, the Lakers made headlines for a new reason—the team became so riddled with injuries, they literally ran out of healthy active players in a game. Thanks to a rule that almost never gets used, the Lakers finished the game with a fouled-out player as the fifth man on the court. Amazingly, they pulled out the win in overtime. So kudos for that, I guess.

As for the Lakers bench, it was filled with a smorgasbord of injuries. Kobe Bryant fractured his knee just 10 days after the CBS article ran. He was out for 6 weeks. Steve Nash was suffering various injuries, especially back problems. Jodie Meeks had a sprained right ankle. Pau Gasol had a strained groin. Jordan Hill had a strained neck. Xavier Henry was out with a knee injury. Nick Young injured his knee during this epic game. And Jordan Farmar was forced to sit out with a calf injury.

In August 2014, when the Wall Street Journal came out with the ‘OMG LeBron So Skinny’ article, there was no mention of the Lakers’ team-wide low-carb diet from the previous season. But the article did mention that Lakers’ stars Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were strict adherents to the same diet as LeBron. In fact, Nash, who back in 2009 during a  healthier, higher-carb chapter of his life would start his days with cereal and almond milk, had since become so immersed in low-carb eating by 2014, the article described him as “fanatical” about it.

Yet by December 2014, Kobe sat out due to a wide array of injuries, including sore knees, sore Achilles’ tendons, and sore feet. In January 2015, he tore his rotator cuff and would sit out for the rest of the season.

As for Nash, his injuries were so severe that he didn’t make it onto the court at all that season. He announced his retirement in March 2015.

That’s back to back seasons of multiple injuries for both players.

To be fair, Nash retired at 41. Kobe was ruled out for the season at 36. These aren’t 20-year-old rookies. I’m trying to play devil’s advocate here. These are guys who have played several unthinkably long and intense seasons. Their bodies are understandably worn and weary. And like LeBron’s story, these are just anecdotes. Without further proof, you can’t confidently pin the blame solely on their low-carb diets. You also can’t fault them for looking for uncommon ways to try to revitalize their aching bodies.

But Kobe, Nash and LeBron have been the subject of so much low-carb media coverage, yet they have a downright awful track record with the diet. It’s perplexing: there’s been virtually no follow up to their pro-low-carb stories from 2013 and 2014. Their low-carb diets were presented as something of a success story, yet history appears to show their low-carb phase as a pretty massive misstep for all three of them.

In fact, according to Berger’s 2013 article on the low-carb diet, there are a few other adherents to the diet in the NBA (at least at the time of that article): Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Ray Allen. None of their stories support low-carb dieting either.

Here’s the deal with Derrick Rose, directly from Berger’s low-carb article:

‘Sugar is one of the reasons that people don’t recover the way that they were supposed to, and I had surgery,’ Rose said earlier this season. ‘So taking all that into consideration, I was just trying to put everything on my side, giving myself a chance to come back.’

Rose made it back, but only 10 games into a successful return from the ACL injury, he tore the meniscus in his other knee. He is out for the year again . . .

Yikes. Rose would go on to miss 72 games in 2013/2014, and 31 games in 2014/2015. In full fairness, he had a reputation even before this as an injury-prone player.

As for Dwight, he missed 41 games in 2014/2015, and he entered the current season with nagging back and knee injuries.

Ray Allen is cited in many of the low-carb articles as one of the figureheads. But why? He adopted the diet for a short period in the summer of 2014, just days after making perhaps the greatest shot in NBA Finals history. As training camp progressed, here’s what happened:

With his activity level ramped up — practices, weightlifting sessions, the endless shooting he does to hone his craft — he began to feel depleted. So he did something that even one of the world’s top proponents of the Paleo diet acknowledges is OK for athletes with a high activity level: He increased his consumption of carbs.

Even the paleo guru quoted in the article (Robb Wolf) said increasing carbs is “absolutely what needs to be done. When you start looking at any type of high-level athlete, they need a lot of carbs to be able to function optimally – potatoes, some sweet potatoes, some white rice.”

The article continues: “Allen sometimes eats pancakes or waffles, but only in the morning, so he has all day to burn them off. He doesn’t eat red meat or pork, an idea that Paleo zealots might have a hard time digesting.”

Somehow, despite eating waffles and pancakes, Allen is still mentioned in pro-low-carb articles, like the ‘Skinny LeBron’ Wall Street Journal piece. It’s hard to explain how he has earned this reputation. He tried low-carb for a short while, then he felt depleted, and added carbs back into his diet. Is that really a low-carb success story? And now he eats pancakes and waffles, but only in the morning. Whoa whoa whoa, stop the clock. As much as I think breakfast foods should be the norm every meal of the day, restricting your pancake and waffle consumption to the morning hours is pretty typical. And no red meat or pork? Now Ray is talking my language.

Blake Griffin is also mentioned in Berger’s article. But he isn’t a low-carb dieter either. His diet includes “rice and other quality starches (sweet potatoes, occasional white potatoes).” Delicious.

 

Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant continues to slop up bone broth, and the media continues to rave about how it has contributed to his recovery and longevity. The Washington Post wrote a story calling bone broth “Kobe Bryant’s secret Stone Age weapon.” The only player he seems to be attacking with it is himself. Just last week, Kobe said after a game: “Right now, I’m barely standing up. My back and my legs, man, it’s killing me.” Maybe we should leave bone broth in the Stone Age.

Before last season (and before LeBron’s struggles from November to January) the Lakers’ low-carb diet guru Shanahan said about LeBron, if he is successful with his low-carb approach, he “will be a monster” on the court next season. LeBron wasn’t a monster. He was less effective and injury-prone. Only after rehabilitation and a return to a higher-carb recovery diet would he get back to form. I wonder what Shanahan’s thoughts are on all that. Meanwhile, Shanahan has since relocated from California to Colorado (but according to her website, she says she still consults with the Lakers).

By and large, these are stories of wealthy celebrities engaging in what could be called a “fad” diet (albeit celebrities whose health and well-being we witness about 82 games a year). In all fairness, this applies to celebrity stories and wild health claims about any diet, including plant-based diets. Those stories can be interesting here and there, but they can also generate a lot of questions. Considering so many of the NBA’s low-carb figureheads have suffered such notable, long-term injuries since they adopted the diet, did low-carb eating really deserve the positive attention from the media? One thing the low-carb diet does deserve, is context.

 

Why Might They Get Injured? 

There are many scientific reasons why a low-carb diet isn’t a great idea. Many of the LeBron articles from 2014 cautioned readers of the consequences. Here are just a few:

From Today, which quoted registered dietitian Elisa Zied:

  • Carb-rich foods are an important source of B-vitamins, iron, fiber and magnesium.
  • “Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the important fuel needed by your brain, red blood cells, your entire central nervous system and even your muscles.”

The note about magnesium is especially interesting. Magnesium is a nutrient that plays important roles in both muscles and bones. You’d think something like that would be found in milk or meat, based on their respective popular reputations. Yet, it’s a mineral that’s only found in significant quantities in carby, vegan foods. The best sources are almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts and peanut butter, cereal, beans, bread, avocado, potatoes, and rice. So next time you meet a keto paleo, ask them where they get their magnesium.

From Details Magazine, which quoted registered dietitian Jim White:

  • Low-carb diets raise the amount of ketones in diet, which “turn the blood acidic and cause horribly bad breath, [and] nausea.”
  • And also “brain fog and a really crappy mood.”
  • “Low-carb diets make dehydration—which is already a major threat to athletes—much more likely.”

From Business Insider, which quoted dietitians Alissa Rumsey and Joy Dubost:

  • Whole grains are nutrient-rich sources of food that provide important vitamins and minerals into the diet. “‘And when you start restricting that, particularly for a length of time, you can run the risk of nutrient deficiency,’ Dubost said.”
  • “It takes significant planning and resources to get the nutrients you need while refusing to eat grains, sugars, and dairy. LeBron has every resource in the world at his disposal. He has a team of people making sure he’s getting the nutrients he needs. Normal people don’t, which makes trying to mimic a diet like LeBron’s difficult.”

Kobe Bryant’s favorite low-carb food of bone broth remains in the news. Mother Jones recently unleashed a comprehensive attack on bone broth. NPR also criticized the claims of the pro-bone broth crowd. The gist of it: there’s basically no scientific studies that show any benefit to consuming bone broth. It’s all broth, no substance.

As a fan of basketball, vegan food, and good journalism, the low-carb storyline grabbed my attention. Hopefully NBA writers revisit the topic with LeBron and Kobe, and challenge the health gurus who influenced them. Until then, have a great NBA season, and don’t forget to eat your beans.

One Comment

  1. Wendy Cossman

    Wonderful and well researched article. Very interesting hypothesis. You did a lot of legwork. Thanks for writing about an interesting subject combining nutrition and sports. Enjoyed !!

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