Meet the Lakers' Diet Doc: Cate Shanahan Shuns the Sugar

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Let’s just forget, for a moment, that the Lakers were terrible this year. Let's forget that Kobe Bryant played in only six games, that Mike D'Antoni can’t be shown the door fast enough, that there have been rumors that the team has been intentionally tanking to jockey for a better draft position this summer. Forget about that. Because the Lakers are doing at least one thing right, even though the results may not be all that, uh, evident. Cate Shanahan, excuse me, Doctor Cate Shanahan, just finished her second year as the team’s official nutritionist this season, engraining further a system/diet/lifestyle for the team that stems from the underlying philosophy (more on that below) found in her 2012 book, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food.

From weening Dwight Howard off consuming the equivalent of 24 Hershey’s bars a day (no, that's not a typo) to implementing an “old school” approach to diet, Shanahan has changed the way the Lakers think about food, shop for food, and of course, how they eat food. Every player who wanted to improve blood test abnormalities was able to do so by adhering to the program.  We could go on, but wouldn’t you rather just hear from the all-star (a rare distinction on this year’s team) nutritionist herself? Of course you would. Read on…

On how she became involved with the Lakers:

“We presented to them. My husband called them and said there was some information that could be of interest and we summarized that in our book. Gary Vitti [Lakers head trainer] said, ‘Okay, send me your book, I’ll read it.’ And he actually did, and he had one of his other trainers, Tim DiFrancesco, read it. They liked what they saw and had a whole bunch of questions. I went down and presented to them and they said, This is great, let's bring this on.”

On the players’ reactions:

“Curiosity. Some were like, ‘I want to go all the way on this.’ Then there were guys like, ‘Okay sure, yeah it’s fine, but I’m not going to go out of my way to do it.’ This year, the attitude started off fantastic, then… I don't know if it had to do with other factors, just being frustrated with everything and turning on this as well, but most of the guys are really enthusiastic about it. Just a couple aren't. I don't know if it has to do with the fact that we're kind of against sugar... some guys really don't like that.”

On the S-factor:

“There’s a ridiculous amount of sugar consumed by athletes. The reason is that the typical nutrition plan makes them feel good about [sugar], depending on how their dietician talks. They’re told, ‘You need energy,’ and they equate food and nutrition primarily to energy and fuel, as if we’re simple machines and you just dump fuel in the tank, whatever it is, like it doesn’t matter. That’s what they’re used to, and we say, ‘You have to watch how much carbs you eat,’ because all carbs turn to sugar, and sugar will drag your performance down. The more you go in that direction – fueling your performance by forcing sugar into the system – the more you derange your metabolism.”

One of Shanahan's dietary converts, Howard used to eat the equivalent of 24 Hersey’s bars per day.

One of Shanahan's dietary converts, Howard used to eat the equivalent of 24 Hersey’s bars per day.

On bad nutrition habits she’s helped break:

“Last year, we had a major breakthrough with Dwight Howard. He had been a candy-holic. He had stashes in all of his kitchen cupboards, in his nightstand, in his car, and when I added it all up, he was eating the equivalent of 24 Hersey’s bars in a day, and that’s just in junk food. That’s not including other carbohydrate sources from deserts or pastas. That was a huge habit he’s had for his entire life. People had been trying to get him off that for a while — his previous trainers — but we had a team approach that I think gave us an advantage. Plus me as a physician talking to him about it, I think carried more weight, and I was able to relate it to how it was causing him to fail to recover properly after his back surgery in a way that made a lot of sense to him. To [Howard’s] credit, the Lakers team and all of the people at his house — his personal chef, several personal assistants, and his bodyguard — cleaned it out of the house. Over the course of a weekend he went down to no candy and he attributed his ability to play much better in the second half of the season to that. He went from a hugely high carb intake to a much more reasonable, human level.” 

On the team’s current nutrition plan: 

“What we do is try to get players to eat human food. We have an underlying philosophy that people are designed to eat the kind of food our ancestors ate. Our genes actually expect those foods and if we shift from that, our genes are failing to get something they expect and they don't function properly. That’s the foundation of our book. It's the foundation in this whole new movement in health called ancestral health. The philosophy is, Let’s try to reproduce what people need. When I went through medical school, there was no underlying philosophy. It was just, ‘disease came from bad luck or family history.’

“But your genes actually change depending on what you eat and you will pass along different genes. That was one of the things that made me the happiest. In an article, [Howard] was quoted as saying, ‘All the sugar is bad for us and it affects the future generations too.’ So he really got it. He brought this diet to the Rockets. I don't know how much luck he’s having [in Houston] because they don’t have the team the Lakers do to get it all laid out.”

On what the Lakers eat:

“Sandra Padilla is the chef at the facility. She prepares breakfast and lunch for them. It’s regular food; we just use the better ingredients. We use pasture ingredients and we don't allow vegetable oil. We use nitrate-free meats when we give them bacon and sausage. It’s really just basic, simple stuff. It’s delicious, old-fashioned food. It’s the way people use to eat, what people would have called breakfast a hundred years ago.”

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On her role during the off-season:

“Because we have this team approach, [we’ve] gone on shopping trips with [the players] and their wives or girlfriends to show them how to read labels, what to look for, snack foods and simple things you can make. We’re hoping to extend the program even more so that people can be more confident in what they’re doing in the off-season.”

On how she knows that the program is working:

“All of the players’ body compositions have gone in the same direction since we implemented the program, and that was the first time that had ever happened, according to Tim. For everyone who has done the program, their blood tests have improved, not just lowering cholesterol, but improving signs of stress.”

On setting an eating schedule:

“What the guys have changed is getting away from this rigid idea that you have to eat every two hours, even if you're not hungry. We do want them to refuel after the game, but the rest of it, you actually do better if you can just burn off your stored energy. It doesn't make any sense physiologically, to try and digest while you’re playing. They play hard, and it's a two-hour game, and they do it multiple times a week, which is how they get the body stress, but in terms of fueling for endurance, this is nothing, it’s not a marathon, it’s not a triathlon.”

On the best way to improve metabolism:

“One way is to access your stored energy better. And you don't have to eat that often. You don't actually speed up your metabolism by eating multiple times. The only thing you get is more calories burned through the act of digestion. [Laughs]. This might shock you, but a lot more endurance athletes are [not eating much]. They will often go 15 hours without eating anything.”