Q&A with Dr. Cate Shanahan

January 21, 2014 1:15 pm PST
Fit For Life
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Director of the Lakers PRO Nutrition Program, Dr. Cate Shanahan, spoke to Mike Trudell about the Lakers nutrition program and addressed various topics on how her nutrition plan is implemented by the players and how nutrition plays a key role for athletes during the season.

Mike Trudell: Dr. Cate, there have been so many injuries this season, some muscle tears and some bone breaks. What do you make of this, and how can nutrition impact prevention of future injuries?
Dr. Shanahan: In the short-term picture, better nutrition engineered to reduce inflammation can certainly help in terms of speed and quality of tissue repair. But unfortunately, because it takes a while for the body to build bone, the benefits in bone strength from eating a better diet compared to a lesser diet is a longer-term proposition. Tim DiFrancesco and I are taking a closer look at what appears to be an endemic problem within the NBA – bone fractures, which seem disproportionately severe given the impact. A perfect example is Kevin Ware's catastrophic fracture back in March 2013. There is no question in my mind that as long as professional athletes continue to fill up on low-nutrient, high-carb diets (some of which call for as much as 600 gm or more of carbs per day for an athlete on a 3500 calorie diet), we’re going to be seeing more of these aberrational fractures. Alternatively, if more athletes wake up to the need for a more nutrient intense diet to meet the demands of growing healthy bone, then these kinds of unusual injuries will become less common.

Dr. Cate Shanahan

MT: Are there types of foods that should only be cooked in a specific manner to maintain nutritional values needed for the type of diet many of the players have adapted?
Dr. Shanahan: It’s very important to understand the consequences of different cooking techniques because nutrients can be destroyed or developed by cooking, depending on what you do. When it comes to meats, it’s especially important not to cook red meat in particular past medium due to nutrients reacting together and developing into toxic compounds (nitrosamines and heterocyclicamines, both carcinogens, for example). On the other hand, connective tissues like bone and collagen require slow, low moist heat cooking to be released into the juices of a meal like braised ribs or a whole roasted chicken. On the topic of veggies, when uncooked, they offer more antioxidants and B vitamins. When cooked, the tough cellulose walls break down so minerals are more easily absorbed into the body. So both gently cooked and raw veggies are part of a balanced diet.

MT: Who is the most difficult person to win over to get a player to follow the program? Is it the player himself or his spouse or his larger family?
Dr. Shanahan: I never know where resistance may originate. It could be the player or the player’s significant other or even their personal nutritionist. On the other hand, as long as there is somebody involved with serious interest in eating right, I can work with that.

MT: Can it be easier to arrange things for the players when they’re on the road, since they aren’t dealing with all the issues of their lives at home?
Dr. Shanahan: Cooking real food takes time. Most of these guys don’t ask their significant others to go to culinary school just to be able to get on board with this program. The only place I know for sure they’re all eating well when at home is at the facility, where Chef Sandra feeds them because, in some ways, you have to turn your priorities around to eat well and that’s not easy for anyone. While a few of the players’ wives and girlfriends have done an amazing job, for the majority, the scope of the program is a little overwhelming. So for those reasons it’s easier for most of the guys to access good foods while on the road because there they are getting fed by professionals trained to cook.

MT: Considerable preparation is done for every phase of the team's road trips. What is your role?
Dr. Shanahan: Luke and I had several meeting to educate the chef who oversees all the catered plane food in the particulars of the PRO Nutrition program. I also work with the hotels in all 30 of the cities they fly to and make sure that their buffet is compliant with the program. Finally, we also provide the players with a copy of each hotel dining room that indicates which meals are unhealthy and which are recommended.

MT: Are hotels and the other entities you work with for the planning open to these requirements? Do they deal with these customized food preparation on a regular basis or is this a new area?
Dr. Shanahan: The hotels are actually very used to accommodating special requests and are extraordinarily helpful. The most difficult issue is avoiding the pro-inflammatory oils. Vegetable oils like Canola are dirt cheap compared to high-quality fats like olive oil and butter, and there is no way for the average customer to know that they are cutting costs this way, so unfortunately, even these high-class hotels typically use low quality fats and oils to keep costs low. I was delighted to find that in three hotels the chefs were already committed to using high-quality fats and oils for their customers. They deserve credit so I'll mention the hotels by name: The Trump Soho in NYC, the St. Regis in San Francisco, and the Conrad Indianapolis, in Indiana.

MT: Do you adjust the nutrition plan for players that are injured and rehabbing vs. those playing?
Dr. Shanahan: Yes. Depending on the injury and the player’s background, we modify the basic plan to optimize healing.

MT: Is the plan adjusted for times when there are a number of games in a short time compared to when the team might have a few days off?
Dr. Shanahan: Yes, but only for the guys who are fully committed to the program. For the others we’re just happy to have them follow the basic guidelines.

MT: How much of the plan is personalized in terms of a nutrient mix per player?
Dr. Shanahan: This is a function of how closely I work with them. For those who are interested, I provide detailed instructions to achieve specific health goals for example digestive wellness, energy improvements, and overall joint health.

MT: One of the things that Gary Vitti has mentioned that intrigued him about your work was that it was strongly analytical. What measures do you have in place to assess how well the diet is working or to tell you what you need to adjust?
Dr. Shanahan: I like nothing more than the opportunity to show the players that the benefits are real and measurable. So in addition to the body composition measurements, blood tests are very useful to me to demonstrate to the players exactly how dietary improvements translate to improved metabolic health.