As a 6-foot-5, 218-pound guard for the Arizona State Sun Devils, James Harden’s attitude toward his diet was just like any other college student’s: laid back.
"In college, you just eat whatever," says Harden, referring to dorm room, microwaved fare, late-night munchies and classic cafeteria cuisine. "It’s hard when you’re young you like to eat a lot of junk food -- food that isn’t good for you."
After two years in Arizona (and a handful of accolades, including 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year), Harden left school to enter the NBA draft. Upon his arrival to Oklahoma City as the third overall pick, Harden’s eating habits were quickly turned upside down.
“The staff at the [Oklahoma City] Thunder did a great job of instilling great habits in me right away,” says Harden. “Everyday I was meeting with a nutritionist who was making sure I was eating right, being healthy and doing everything I needed to do to be a professional player.”
The discipline paid off in the long run. In his rookie season, Harden established himself as a reliable player off the bench, averaging 9.9 points in 22.9 minutes per game. By the 2011-12 season, Harden’s 16.8 points per game off the bench led all NBA reserves and helped the Thunder to the 2012 NBA Finals.
When a contract dispute landed Harden in Houston at the end of the season, the Rockets were ready to make the league’s 2012 Sixth Man of the Year a “foundational” player with a prominent role -- and his diet became equally important.
"Nutrition means everything," says Harden, who’s averaging 26.9 points per game this season. “Now I know you have to make sure you’re putting the right things in your body so your career can last as long as possible.”
For a pre-game meal, Harden sticks with pasta and a source of protein, like grilled chicken, to keep him satisfied and energized through the final buzzer. And inside of his fridge in his home in Houston, you’ll find a door full of dips and dressings -- ranch, Sriracha hot sauce and the usual condiment trio -- and shelves of (mostly) healthy foods that help keep Harden fueled up on the court.
Fish: Seabass and halibut are two of his favorites, but Harden’s personal chef will typically cook up any piece of fish with rice and mixed vegetables as a post-game meal. Omega-3 fatty acids in options like salmon can help Harden recover from his time on the court, but he says he will enjoy a steak instead, or some mac and cheese as an additional side dish, on occasion to celebrate a big win.
“Fish is pretty light and gives me a lot of energy,” says Harden. “Eating bad and not getting the proper rest takes a toll on my body, so I really try to focus on eating healthy.”
Breakfast foods: Forget the cereal -- Harden always keeps his fridge stocked with a variety of breakfast foods. “Eggs, turkey bacon, toast, potatoes -- for the most part it’s pretty simple,” he says. “On occasion I like pancakes and waffles too.” Harden also likes yogurt -- the original Yoplait cups, in strawberry or pineapple -- as a snack.
Fruit: Harden’s fridge is full of fresh fruits like pineapple, watermelon, strawberries, apples and oranges that get him in the kitchen and cooking -- sort of.
“The one thing I can make is smoothies -- you just throw it in the blender,” says Harden. “Sometimes I go healthy with the greens like kale and the other nasty stuff, but sometimes I just go with the fruit. It depends on the way I feel that day.”
Hydration: Like Andrew Luck, Sydney Leroux, Skylar Diggins and other athletes, Harden holds a stake in BODYARMOR, his go-to source for hydration. He drinks the sports drink throughout the day (his favorite flavor is strawberry banana) to keep himself hydrated.
Desserts: “Every year my diet is improving, but I do have my cheat moments,” says Harden. While he says he is not really “a candy or chips” kind of guy, Harden loves to indulge on anything sweet.
“Cookies, ice cream, brownies, hot fudge sundaes,” he says, listing a few special sweet treats. “I like cookies and cream ice cream, and vanilla too.”