An Interview with Dr. Cate Shanahan

December 03, 2013 10:29 am PST

Last season, the Lakers implemented an entirely new and comprehensive nutrition program for the players both at home and on the road.

Initiated by longtime head athletic trainer Gary Vitti and strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, the Lakers hired Dr. Cate Shanahan, an expert on nutrition, who explained her role with the team in an interview:

1) How did your relationship with the Lakers begin?

Dr. Cate Shanahan

It all starts with the head trainer Gary Vitti. My husband and co-author Luke has been a big fan of the Lakers since he was a kid. And he knew of Gary's reputation as an extraordinary trainer. Because of this, Luke felt that Gary would be the kind of trainer who would be open to compelling ideas about how nutrition might offer the his players an advantage in terms of energy, recovery, and so on, and so Luke sent him our book. Now bear in mind, Deep Nutrition isn't exactly what you would call a light read. Parts of it are pretty heavy on the science. But as I've come to learn over this past year, Gary possesses a keen scientific mind, and so the detailed scientific explanations of my nutritional principles were, for him, a good thing. He's said he was intrigued by the fact I wasn't parroting the standard low-fat, high-grains mantra. But I think what really got him interested was that the science was sound. Gary then arranged for a couple of conference calls with me and Strength and Conditioning Coach Tim DiFrancesco so we could really hash things out. They both had a lot of tough questions for me, but I was able to answer to answer to their satisfaction. In other words, I passed that initial test.

2) How did things progress to the level they've reached today?

It's no secret we had a tough season last year. But behind the scenes, we've made some really positive inroads with the players' health with better nutrition. When a player decides to commit themselves to the ideas behind our PRO Nutrition program (PRO stands for Performance, Recovery and Othogenesis), he sees positive results. At least, that's how it's gone thus far. I don't always get to hear directly from the player how the program has helped him. I usually find out from Tim or from an article in the paper, like the one that just came out in the Orange County Register. I do think the players talk to one another about how the diet has helped them, and I think that's a big part of why it's been successful. Gary and Tim and I can tell them all day long about the science behind this program, but if they don't see the results for themselves—and in other players adopting the same changes—then they're not going to buy in. And of course they won't buy in unless the food tastes good. That's where Lakers chef Sandra Padilla comes in. I can't begin to tell you how lucky I feel to be working with her. She's the real deal, a chef all the way down to her bones, and someone who knows how to gauge what's working with the players tastes and what's not. She's immediately had an instinct for the nutritional profiles we were aiming for and ran with it—little tricks she came up with, like making low-starch crepes that still come out light and fluffy and delicious. She's amazing. Tim convinces the players by helping them understand how better diet leads to better workout results. Sandra wins them over with their taste buds.

3) What are some of the more important things you've tried to instill in the players?

The most important idea I try to instill in the players is that we need to get away from the idea of food as fuel. Sure, food provides energy—and no, I'm not talking about sugar here. Our body's cells actually prefer fat as an energy source. But it does, or should be doing, so much more. First, food communicates information to your body's cells, information about the outside world, the ecosystem from which the food was gathered. Food is the way our bodies communicate most directly with nature. That might sound like some high-minded concept, but it's fundamental biochemistry: Where your food comes from matters. Healthier ecosystems, healthier soils, healthier happier—as in raised with kindness and respect—animals matter when it comes to the healthfulness of the food on your plate. Second, food should provide the raw building blocks your body needs to repair and improve its various tissues. Let me give you an example. We all know that to build muscle we need to get plenty of good protein, preferably from natural food sources, like grass fed beef or wild fish. But what do you include in your diet to ensure you're getting the basic building blocks to repair and improve soft tissues like tendons and ligaments? How about nerve tissue, which is constantly growing and responding to the demands of exercise and other inputs. What in your diet gives your body what it needs to repair nerve? The second function of food is to make sure the body has an bountiful supply of these raw materials. The third function is to provide energy. Thinking of food simply as an energy source ignores the other important functions of good nutrition, and that's a fundamental conceptual error that can get folks into real trouble.

Gary Vitti
Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti

4) How can non-athletes embrace your ideas to try and live healthier lifestyles?

Let me answer this way: Forget the idea that you're not an athlete. You are. No matter what your present condition is, no matter how many extra pounds you may have put on, try your best to remind yourself that your body is happiest when your as active as possible in mind body and spirit. Luke and I used to live in New Hampshire, where I spearheaded a weight loss program called TRIM, Treatment for the Reversal of Inflammatory Metabolism. Well, Luke helped a lot with the development of that program, and he was always thinking about how to encourage my overweight patients to break free of the idea that weight gain, and all the other physical declines associated with aging, are beyond our control. I remember him telling me about how, during his 5-mile run one day he saw a woman out jogging in the cold who must have been a good hundred pounds overweight. But there she was, just doing it. He told me, "I can tell you who the best athlete in Bedford is today." His point was, it takes a pretty formidable will to suit up on that cold morning, especially if your joints are aching from carrying all that extra weight ,and just get out there and give it what you've got. I think that's a big part of why fans are so fascinated with Kobe Bryant. It's not just his physical skills. It's also the, "You know what? If he can shoot make those free throws with a ruptured achilles, maybe I can get through this workout." So that would be my first lifestyle advice, do your best to challenge yourself a little bit physically, and remember that that's what makes you an athlete, the willingness and the will to do that.

As far as far as nutrition goes, I've got a couple of things you can start with today. Get vegetable oils out of your diet and cut your sugar intake in half. That means checking food labels for Canola and other vegetable oils and cutting back on sweets, fruit juice and energy drinks. Those changes alone will take you a long way. You will see benefits.

5) Is it an advantage for you to work with world class athletes, whose bodies may be capable of drastic change thanks to being in such good health? Or not?

That's really good question. Of course, it's a thrill to work with some of the most gifted athletes on the planet, a unique privilege and it's been incredible to witness what happens when you take an athlete eating the standard high-carb, low-nutrition diet and give them what their bodies really need. With the genetics these guys have, this is the best possible situation for showing what a diet can accomplish. What makes it all the more exciting for me is that these guys are so incredibly motivated to do whatever it takes to be at the top of their game. But I've discovered that this world-class dedication is something I need to be careful with, because some of the athletes are so serious about doing right with diet that they won't give themselves any leeway. Like any long term commitment, it's got to be fun to be something you want to continue. It's really about embracing a new way of eating. I should add that I wouldn't have had much chance making a connection with the players if Gary and Tim hadn't schooled me on the way these pro athletes think, about what matters most to these guys and how to talk to them the right way.

6) How would you like things to continue to develop into the future in terms of what the players put in their bodies?

We're approaching food in a different way than the usual macronutrient breakdown of carbs, proteins and fats. Yes, we do consider those ratio, for sure. But what's really at the front of the stage, for me, is a way of thinking about food that would feel more natural to a chef than to a nutritionist trained in the current orthodoxy. And that's how I'd like the players to start to think about food, more like chef's and less like someone who just fell asleep on some dietician textbook. What it really boils down to is this: In the context of real food, flavor equals nutrition. That's why, when the President of the Culinary Institute of America near Napa CA where I live, invited Luke and I to have lunch, he opened the meal with a tasting of fine local olive oils, not Canola oils. Good, quality, fresh, unfiltered olive oils speak of the place they came from. They taste like something you should be putting into your body. Canola oil tastes like…well, like nothing—and that's only because it's been been treated and deodorized to keep it from tasting like the nutritional disaster it truly is.

What's really wonderful is that Gary, Tim, Sandra, Luke—the whole PRO Nutrition team, we all love food. Some of us are pretty serious cooks. But we all believe in this central idea that food is a sacred thing and there's more to this nutrition stuff than we've been lead to believe. This is where the nutrition science is going, and Gary called it early. The chef's, the best chefs, were right. And powerful nutrition, like great cooking, is one part science, one part art, and one part passion for maintaining the traditions that taught us how to eat well. There's no cheating good nutrition, just as there's no shortcuts to making a perfect meal. You've got to really care about good. And thank goodness for that.

Go to Lakers Athletic Trainers Staff page