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Why So Many Athletes Have Such Terrible Diets

In 2013, NBA big man Dwight Howard developed a rare nerve disorder called dysesthesia while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. He had tingling in his extremities and was losing motor function, to the point he had difficulty catching passes.

Dysesthesia is common among prediabetics — not men who make a living physically exerting themselves. But Lakers nutritionist Cate Shanahan knew Howard had a “legendary sweet tooth,” and suspected his tingling was due to his sugar intake. Sure enough, Howard revealed to her he had been consuming an unthinkable amount of sugar. According to ESPN:

“Howard had been scarfing down about two dozen chocolate bars’ worth of sugar every single day for years, possibly as long as a decade. “You name it, he ate it,” she says. Skittles, Starbursts, Rolos, Snickers, Mars bars, Twizzlers, Almond Joys, Kit Kats and oh, how he loved Reese’s Pieces.”

Not even the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Howard could metabolize all those carbohydrates and all that fat.

Howard will likely be remembered as a good player who never achieved his physical potential. Made of nothing but lean, fast-twitch muscle, he is one of the most impressive physical specimens to ever play in the NBA. But he’s averaged less than 20 points per game over his career, and critics will always wonder how much better he might have been had he maintained a healthy diet during his prime.

Dwight Howard

Perhaps the most remarkable (or disturbing) part about the Howard story is that it’s not all that uncommon within the realm of men’s professional sports. There are a startling number of high-profile NBA and NFL players who’ve kept objectively terrible diets during their playing days, including:

  • Kwame Brown: Like Howard, Brown was a highly touted prospect who jumped to the NBA right out of high school. He’s also one of the biggest disappointments in NBA history, recording only one double-digit scoring season in his 13 in the league. That may have been due in part to his dreadful diet. Brown ate Popeye’s fried chicken for every meal, even breakfast, when he entered the league.
  • Caron Butler: Butler admitted he was “addicted” to Mountain Dew for much of his 14 years in the NBA, drinking two liters of the stuff a day.
  • Lamar Odom: Long before he was a bit player in the Kardashian universe, Odom was a professional basketball player with a serious candy habit. He ate candy for breakfast before games, saying it helped fuel his performance on the court. Specifically, he ate Twizzler bites, Gummy bears, peach rings and Hershey’s white-chocolate cookies-and-cream bars (his favorite).
  • Derrick Rose: Back when he was an MVP point guard for the Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose admitted to regularly eating McDonald’s, potato chips and, of course, lots of candy. He kept a Skittles vending machine in his home. “Everybody’s got their poison, and mine is sugar,” Rose told ESPN in 2010.
  • Vince Young: Young’s rapid fall from grace in the NFL may have had something to do with his undying love for the Cheesecake Factory. Young spent a reported $5,000 a week (a week!) dining out at the chain restaurant. Young’s Cheesecake Factory patronage is usually seen as evidence of his poor money management, but it’s also an indication he wasn’t that health-conscious. The restaurant is frequently cited as one of the unhealthiest eateries in the country.
  • Marshawn Lynch: Lynch’s Skittles habit was treated as a charming affectation, and played into his image as a lovable scamp. He’d snack on them during games when he played running back for the Seattle Seahawks.

The poor diets can be seen as just part of a general lack of basic life skills. Brown, for instance, spent part of his $3.7 million rookie contract on fancy suits, but had no idea how to properly care for them. After wearing one, he’d wad it into a ball and throw it on his bedroom floor instead of putting it back on a hanger. And professional athletes are notoriously bad money managers. A disproportionate number of them go broke after retirement despite earning millions during their playing days.

It’s almost as if, when society values young men only for their athletic gifts, and tells them to focus all their energy on their chosen sport, they tend to miss out on some of the basic life lessons most of us learn in our formative years.

But the poor diets also speaks to how poor dietary health correlates with race and poverty in our culture. All of the men listed above grew up in poorer African-American communities, where healthy eating options are hard to come by, and bad dietary habits were often the norm.

“This is a product of their upbringings,” says John Salley, who witnessed the phenomenon up close during his 11 years in the NBA. “You go into our neighborhoods, all you see are fast food chains, corner stores, bodegas. As kids, all these players had was processed foods.”

John Salley with fellow vegan Moby

Growing up in these “food deserts” can mean never learning about proper nutrition, and consequently believing that microwavable foods constitute a well-balanced meal. As a result, many pro athletes grow up “prediabetics,” Salley tells MEL. (Rates of diabetes are higher among racial and ethnic minorities, with African-Americans more than twice as likely to have the disorder than whites, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Butler, for instance, said his Mountain Dew habit was rooted in his tumultuous upbringing, dealing drugs at the tender age of 11. “I can get away from the streets, I can get away from all of these different things,” he said. “I can’t get away from Mountain Dew.”

Phil Jackson, who coached both Howard and Odom on the Lakers, said poor dietary habits are one of the most common problems among NBA players. “A lot of these players come from positions in life where their diet probably is one of the main things they have to correct when they become professional players,” he said.

Being a good athlete growing up only reinforces poor eating habits, says Salley, who’s now a vegan and a vocal advocate for plant-based diets. When you spend so much of your time being active, you probably don’t see much need to change your dietary habits.

In fact, it’s easy to see a sugar-packed diet as a contributor to your success. Lynch’s mom Delisa gave him Skittles when he was a 12-year-old football player, telling him they were “power pellets” that would improve his play. “I would give him a handful of Skittles and say, ‘Eat ’em up, baby. They’re going to make you run fast and they’re going to make you play good,” she said back in 2012.

“[Professional athletes] have already made it to the pros eating how they’ve been eating. So why should they change?” says sports nutritionist Susan Kleiner, who’s advised a number of NBA and NFL teams on healthy eating, including the Seattle Seahawks, Lynch’s former team.

It’s easy to understand to why a 12-year-old would go along with a diet heavy on candy. But what’s harder to grasp is why professional athletes — whose livelihoods depend on their physical well-being — don’t treat their bodies like temples and eat the finest foods money can buy.

Because “trying to change someone’s lifestyle is like trying to change their religion,” Salley says. He remembers once telling former teammate Shaquille O’Neal about the virtues of healthy eating, only to have Shaq respond by biting into a piece of fried chicken.

Kleiner agrees, saying dietary habits are incredibly hard to change, especially when you’ve never really learned about proper nutrition. Almost everyone eats the same way their parents did, she says, even into adulthood.

That said, sports teams, like the culture at large, are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of a nutritious diet. Most NBA teams now have a sports dietitian consulting with them, and a couple have full-time dietitians on staff.

Why bother with diet? That attitude can be pervasive among professional athletes, but it is getting less so as athletes are exposed to sports dietitians, and the expectations of their coaches are higher,” Kleiner says. “When other teams are paying attention to details [such as diet] and winning championships, coaches catch on quickly that they need to have players who are going to do everything it takes to win championship games. So players who don’t change, may not stay on the team. That’s how things change.”