The nickname "Grass-Fed Tim" didn't come out of nowhere for the strength and conditioning coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Tim DiFrancesco.
It was bestowed, rather, by Metta World Peace since the term "grass-fed" was perhaps the most common phrase coming out of DiFrancesco's mouth during the 2012-13 campaign, when the Lakers underwent a complete overhaul from a nutrition standpoint. We sat down with DiFrancesco to detail the genesis of how and why the Lakers underwent a collective healthy diet:
MT: OK, Tim. If we rewind back to the 2011-12 season when you started here to the present day, we've seen a steady integration of healthier options for the players here at the practice facility, before and after games at the arena and on the road. How have things developed?
DiFrancesco: It's the goal of all of us on (head athletic trainer) Gary Vitti's staff to find the best way to optimize athlete's careers on the court. I've gone full circle, where I grew up on a dairy farm in a small town in New England around what everyone now knows is the healthiest thing for us to consume: real, whole foods. Nutrition is a huge piece of performance, and performance really can increase with food alone. I was frustrated with how things were at the grocery store, so I'd been relying on supplements when working with athletes. I wasn't really thrilled with that, because every supplement says it's the greatest next thing, but many are just loaded with sugar. But here with the Lakers, I'm able to think more about just doing the best things in part because cost is less an issue provided it's furthering the support we give our players.
MT: So you and Vitti got to talking…
DiFrancesco: I initially wanted to simply educate the players as to what some better foods were, but (before last season), Gary got a book on his desk from Dr. Cate Shanahan called "Deep Nutrition," and a secondary book called "Food Rules." He probably gets 50 of those a month in his position, and tries to give every product a fair shake, but this stood out to him as different. My first response to it was that, like I mentioned, this is the kind of stuff I grew up on – a natural, whole food diet thinking closely about the actual source of the dairy and meat products. It gave me the license to go back to what I was inclined to, with a focus of relying on food and not supplements. It's now to the point for Dr. Shanahan is our official consulting nutritionist, and it's incredibly easy for me to be educated in her beliefs and relay that to the players.
MT: How do you go from understanding those beliefs to implementing them to a professional team?
DiFrancesco: The approach really was always about educating, but not forcing a nutrition system on the players. We wanted to make them aware of what we know doctors, scientists and researchers are now understanding about nutrition, and how it affects athletes and performance. The first thing was creating a huge poster in the lounge where the players eat using a red, yellow and green system to categorize different food options. The goal was to make it as simple and easy as possible for them to digest.
MT: Give us an idea of the finer parts of the chart:
DiFrancesco: It's a stoplight system, where, obviously, green is good and red is bad.
Green: Green, leafy vegetables are always good; fatty, grass-fed beef and pastured (pastured is good, but pasteurized is not, because being heated takes away essential nutrients) dairy products are less obvious, but encouraged; egg yolks from pastured chickens and humanely raised pork are good as well.
Note: DiFrancesco says the Lakers want their guys to consume good fat, which is what their bodies are designed to burn as fuel. "Contrary to what people might think, we actually want our players to eat as much grass fed butter and bacon as we can get into them. Will that sky-rocket cholesterol? No, just look into the science on it. The type of fats in the grass fed butter, dairy, meat products can actually help to lower bad cholesterol & improve the good cholesterol," he says.
Yellow: The "proceed with caution" category includes most carbohydrates like pasta, bread, potatoes, bagels, cereals and apple-sized fruit. This is complicated, but basically all the sugar in fruit can be a negative – eating too much fruit can cause an immediate spike in energy, but then an immediate crash because sugar is the least efficient thing we can eat. Says Tim: "We can get all of the healthy antioxidants that we seek in fruit in green leafy veggies in higher amounts. People need to start to think of sugar as a deadly poison. Sugar is an addictive substance that wreaks havoc on our body and additionally it is a terribly inefficient energy source."
Red: Chips, store-bought dips, french fries, onion rings, candy, soda, energy drinks, sweet cereal.
MT: *Sighs audibly* OK. What's up with the fat debate? It's OK?
DiFrancesco: A key to implementation was really understanding fat and how it can work for us. Fat is far and away the most efficient fuel source to burn – not protein or carbohydrates – as long as they're the right kind of fats. How much should I eat, you wonder? Your body has a great ability to tell when enough is enough when you eat fat, as opposed to eating carbs or bad things, when you can eat a whole bag of chips, still feel hungry but then feel bad an hour later. Instead of just looking at food for fuel, understand that food may even be more important than fuel … it's medicine.
MT: I imagine that some guys came in eating really well, and some horribly?
DiFrancesco: On this team, we had everyone on the spectrum from already great eaters like Steve Nash to those who couldn't care less about it and doesn't see how what they eat is related to how they feel. One important thing for us in general was getting our chef, Sandra Padilla, on board. She cooks more food for these guys than anybody, and her being passionate and understanding about what we're doing was critical. She hears and sees these guys talking about what they eat and how they respond to things and acts accordingly. For example, she makes a new soup each day for the team that nourishes the player’s regularly taxed joints, ligaments, and tendons.
MT: And how is Dr. Shanahan involved?
DiFrancesco: She comes in once a month for 15 minutes to educate guys on a topic. For example, how leafy greens on a daily basis significantly help fight inflammation in general and specifically with injuries. It's way more effective than something you can get out of a bottle (like Advil). Another example, she provides soup daily with a bone stock base, and by slowly cooking down bones from animals you're able to pull out all the cartilage and really intense joint-surface nutrients that are deep within. Kobe Bryant's (surgically repaired) Achilles tendon is craving those types of nutrients. Nobody has a problem with paying for pills at a supplement store, but we've gotten away from eating it from nature.
Dr. Cate also reached out to every hotel chef to see how things are cooked and prepared, and then she goes through a tedious process to make a traffic light color system on the hotel menus and email it out to let players and staff know what to eat. For example, chicken wings can be green or red depending on what type of oil they're cooked in (canola is the bad one that's in almost everything, but there are other good ones like peanut oil and palm oil).
MT: You've also gotten Whole Foods involved to a significant degree. Why?
DiFrancesco: As we were learning more from Dr. Cate, Gary, myself and she started to talk about how Whole Foods was the best place to get most of these things. So we proceeded to get Whole Foods to cater our plane food, even though they'd never done anything like that before … but it worked out great. Meanwhile, Whole Foods also now caters to our facility on game days with an option to eat for the players both before and after the games. We can see that in the locker room, when after games, each player has a personalized leafy green salad including either beef, salmon or a fat/protein. And it's better to have the meat less well-cooked, because the more raw it is the more good fats are in it. I've even seen Steve (Nash) open a can of sardines and eat it in the post game locker room. You hear about fish oil supplements … well, that's nature's answer times 1,000 to a pill. The other development perhaps for Nash was recognizing how much fruit he was taking in with the rest of his already-healthy diet.
MT: How much of a difference does it make for you to have guys like Bryant and Nash on board?
DiFrancesco: It helps when you have a couple of Hall of Famers embrace anything that you're doing. What happened was guys starting to see Kobe and Nash eating something or ordering something we suggested, and then a seed gets planted in the other players that, 'Maybe I should do that.' As the years went on, I'd get whispers of guys pulling me aside and saying that they really liked something, but they wouldn't really say it out loud. Pretty soon, they realized everyone else was liking it, to the point was later in the season guys would complain if a certain kind of almonds or grass-fed cheese wasn't on the pregame platter. I've heard Nash and Kobe talk multiple times say to media that their nutrition was making a big difference; that was happening with those two beforehand, but we just try and aid it as much as we can. Part of what we had to do is to break down things that players have been told or thought all their lives, and part of the answer is that we didn't know exactly the best way to eat. And of course, companies have interests in selling their products and branding things a certain way.
We're now at a cool period of time in terms of nutrition in this world, and we're continuing to get better. Cutting edge information, science, and research is colliding with the understanding that our ancestors had this all right many years ago to create the Slow Food Movement – the Anti-Fast Food Movement. The fast food/mass produced/processed approach to food has placed us on the wrong path. The Slow Food Movement can get us back on the right path if we accept it.
MT: What more can you tell us about Bryant's diet?
DiFrancesco: He is definitely much more selective on what he chooses to put into his body than he was earlier in his career. He appreciates that while being healthier, he can still eat the right kind of bacon and butter, the things he loves at breakfast, and that it's not only good for him but imperative to his performance, especially after the Achilles injury. He really needs the natural anti-inflammatory products he can get to fight it. Anyone can look at food as fuel and most people do, but he has started to look at food as medicine. This perspective is not common and is an advanced concept … but just like in other things, Kobe is advanced. When you combine the right training with the right eating habits you have a perfect storm of performance – in a good way
You can follow DiFrancesco on Twitter at @tdathletesedge.