EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — That saying ‘You are what you eat’ became serious business this season for Lakers players, subjects to a new nutrition project designed by their training staff in partnership with none other than America’s healthiest grocery store.
“I ate a lot of Jack In The Box in college and Taco Bell and now I’ve transferred into Whole Foods,” laughed Robert Sacre. “Grass-fed animals, that’s all I eat, is grass-fed animals and I make sure that it’s grass-fed cows when I drink milk. None of this like, you know, wannabe cows.”
He wasn’t joking.
Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, tasked with receiving the Whole Foods Market deliveries at home and on the road, explained a typical pregame meal: grass-fed beef skewers or omelets from eggs from chickens that ate grass, bacon from humanely-raised pigs, full-fat chocolate milk from grass-fed cows.
The rationale, according to DiFrancesco, is you can’t out-train a bad diet. All the work he does with the players in the weight room and on the court would not be as effective without being supported on the back end by good nutrition. So the question became, ‘What is good nutrition?’
Part of the answer came in a book by Dr. Cate Shanahan that head athletic trainer Gary Vitti had on his desk just before training camp. A couple phone conversations with Dr. Shanahan confirmed that knowing where the food comes from is key. The search for those products kept bringing DiFrancesco and Vitti back to Whole Foods, so they went ahead and created a relationship that’s set to go on indefinitely.
“The one in El Segundo is one of the largest and most extensive stores in the country and we happen to have it in our backyard, so we’re very lucky about that,” DiFrancesco said. “And that being the hub, they communicate with all Whole Foods in the other cities we travel to, so it’s a seamless relationship.”
A standard pre-game spread includes Applegate organic sliced meats like turkey, pepperoni and genoa salami; Organic Valley raw sharp cheddar, mild cheddar and jack cheese; and naturally fermented dill pickles with healthy bacteria to boost the players’ immune systems. Even meals on the plane come from Whole Foods.
Stuck on sugar? Not anymore!
When word got out about the new nutrition project, some players feared they’d no longer be able to eat what they wanted.
“It’s like telling a kid he can’t have any candy!” said Antawn Jamison. “It’s not bad though, a lot of guys really take care of their body on the team anyway so it’s just letting us know that what we eat, what we do off the court really makes a difference on the performance on the court.”
Before the new regiment, Dwight Howard said he was “stuck on sugar” – not just candy, but four to five fruits a day. He’d have two or three good meals a day and then one McDonald’s.
“When I got with Tim, no candy at all,” he said. “Fruits once a day for breakfast and throughout the day, only eat almonds and crazy snacks, things I wouldn’t eat, ever.”
For meals, his new diet includes steak and pasta, but tomato-based sauce instead of alfredo. A break from strictly water means Kombucha, a synergy drink Howard described as having “real itty bitty stuff in the inside, looks nasty, like octopus or something is floating around.”
“I’m like ‘uhh’ but it’s actually pretty good and it helps me recover,” he said. “I miss having sodas and stuff like that but I want to be able to get my body back to 100 percent and start to help this team win and just help myself get in better shape.”
DiFrancesco described the difference in energy coming from good fats versus carbohydrates and sugars as analogous to building a fire with sticks and twigs.
“If you put a bunch and lit them, they would burst into flames but they would quickly die out, that’s what things like pasta, rice, different types of energy bars that have a lot of carbohydrates and sugars end up doing,” he said.
‘It sucks, but it’s worth it’
The adjustment has varied among players.
At 39 years old, Steve Nash already watched what he ate and just had to try to get more healthy fats in his diet.
“It’s been good, I think it’s helped me. I feel like I have a lot of energy and my joints feel better too,” he said.
Arguably the most disciplined player in the league, Kobe Bryant cut out pepperoni pizza, Sour Patch Kids, sugar cookies in favor of fish, lean meat and vegetables last summer.
“It sucks, but it’s worth it,” said Bryant.
Now 16 pounds lighter, the superstar is putting up numbers better than his career averages in points, rebounds, assists and minutes per game, as well as shooting percentage, despite this being his 17th season.
“The diet has a lot to do with it to be honest with you, I think it’s really impacted my energy level,” he said after scoring 41 points and leading the Lakers to a remarkable comeback against the Toronto Raptors earlier this month.
Strict as their new diet may be, players do get five or six meals out of the week on their own. DiFrancesco said it’s not about wagging a finger and telling players they can’t eat what they love, but instead educating them on how certain foods can impair their performance and empowering them to make better choices.
Jodie Meeks said he still eats pizza and fries sometimes, but tries to limit that intake during the season.
“As you get older, you have to watch what you eat,” he said. “I like the diet. It gives you more energy and they’ve done a great job of giving us an idea of what to eat when he’s not around.”
Indeed, DiFrancesco’s carrot-not-the-stick approach of surrounding players with the right food choices has gotten many of them hooked on healthy eating.
“The guys start saying, ‘Where did you get this? I really want this at home,’ because they notice how much better they feel and how much it helps them to avoid injury and breakdown during the course of the season,” DiFrancesco said.
Having a nutrition regiment is a luxury compared to the days when legend James Worthy was a Laker.
“It wasn’t as apparent as it is now,” the Hall-of-Famer said about emphasis on having nutritionists and someone like DiFrancesco around.
“I don’t want to give him credit, but I have to give him credit,” said Sacre, who’s been able to limit his number of stops at Popeyes chicken. “I’ve definitely seen an improvement and it’s helped me, so I don’t really look back at what I used to eat.”