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October 24, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY

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Butter, Bacon and Basketball: The NBA Goes Paleozoic

It seems that during every Olympics the media acquires a brief fascination with the diets of the participants.  Typically what comes to mind are supposed performance-optimizing foods like PowerBars and Gatorade, the high-carbohydrate sort of stuff that provides fuel for intense games and events, like the quasi-famous menu of Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps, comprised of 12,000 daily calories of French toast, pancakes, pasta, pizza and sugary energy drinks, among other things.

Yet increasingly, athletes are turning away from the traditional high-sugar diet to low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diets, and doing so to the benefit of their play.  CBS Sports reporter Ken Berger recently wrote a threepart series on the food revolution occurring in the NBA, with teams and stars, such as Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose embracing some form of Paleo diet.

Considering that pro sports have always been on the cutting edge in terms of medical care and recovery, this advancement in terms of nutrition maybe should not be the biggest surprise.  But given the context and reputation of professional athletes (see Phelps) being able to “eat anything” because of their rigorous workouts and constant exercise, the shift in eating habits is notable.  It was not long ago that outlets were doing pieces on Lamar Odom’s legendary affinity for candy, as well as other less-than-advisable athlete habits.

However, Odom’s former Los Angeles Lakers teammates have implemented a strict meal regimen of high-fats and low carbs over the last two years, and are seeing the benefits (at least, physically; due to other managerial and other unrelated factors, the Lakers are having a down-year this season).  The Lakers have embraced probably the most extreme version of the Paleo craze, shunning sugars and dining almost exclusively on organic, grass-fed meats and natural fats, which provide a more efficient source of energy.  Yet not just the usual sorts of “healthy fatty foods” generally thought of, like nuts or avocados.  They’re also gorging themselves on straight bacon and butter-coffee – literally black coffee with melted butter.

But the results speak for themselves, with players reporting increased recovery, reduced inflammation, decreased body fat and increased muscle.  Since joining the team, Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly saw his body fat drop from 14 percent to 9.4, losing ten pounds of fat and adding five in lean muscle.  It’s the sort of change in nutrition that veterans like Bryant, Allen and Steve Nash give credit to their prolonged careers.

While much of these benefits seem surprising, they probably shouldn’t.  Just because top athletes can get away with eating anything they want, doesn’t mean they should.  It’s telling that so many players are seeing extended playing careers and accelerated recovery from injury since switching to version of the Paleo diet, while candy-heads like Odom are out of the league.

Additionally, this is supposedly the way humans were meant to eat, going back to the Paleozoic Era.  Primordial humans certainly didn’t start out drinking Mountain Dew and baking deep-dish.  So – even if it goes against customary thinking – if the low-carb diet gave cavemen the energy to hunt wooly mammoths (grass-fed, of course) and run away from dinosaurs, it should certainly be good enough for Blake Griffin throwing down an alley-oop.