Can Athletes Improve Performance With Raw Food?

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying that the New England Patriots are a pro football powerhouse. Arguably, much of their fate rests on the right arm of Tom Brady.

Tom Brady’s right arm rests on a body that is over 40 years old.

The quarterback has reached the age when other players are often forced to invoke the “North Dallas 40” mantra of “better football through chemistry” (i.e. pain pills and injections of painkillers).

For Brady, however, better football involves eating a diet that includes more raw foods.

Brady employs a chef who prepares raw foods. The chef was referred by Matthew Kenney, himself a chef, author and restaurant owner whose expertise is raw food.

But can a raw food diet enhance athletic performance?

Kenney swears it can. Brady obviously thinks so. And New York Yankees' first baseman Mark Teixeira, tennis star Venus Williams and the Los Angeles Lakers are believers, at least to a certain extent.

Elite athletes have long incorporated raw foods into their diet, but for many it’s becoming a conscious choice—a strategy, even.

When antioxidants are not present, free radicals can slam into tissues and weaken them, causing pain and soreness and preventing muscle growth.

What Is a Raw Food Diet?

The raw food diet entails eating plant-based food in its purest form, containing all enzymes, nutrients and minerals. These foods are comprised largely of fruits, vegetables, nuts and cheeses that are never heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Like many practical raw food advocates, Kenney urges a diet that blends raw and non-raw foods. Some athletes who eat raw 100 percent of the time swear by their diet.

But most athletes add in raw foods while subtracting some cooked foods, dairy products and highly processed foods from their diets. They still might have a steak Saturday night, but on Sunday morning, they’re opting for fruits, vegetables, nuts, juices and superfoods.

The Benefits of Going Raw

Denira777/iStock/Getty Images

Cate Shanahan, M.D., a nutrition consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers, views all humans as athletes. Yes, you, me and Kobe Bryant, we’re all the same. Humans are partly carnivorous, she says, which means we’re designed to hunt and run in order to survive. Shanahan says raw foods benefit athletes in a number of ways, and antioxidants provide the clearest lift.

“Serious athletes have all kinds of inflammation in their muscles through the work of oxidizing,” Shanahan says. “That inflammation has the ability to do some damage if it gets out of control. One of the mediators of the damage is free radicals. The job of antioxidants is to capture these loose free radicals that are basically ricocheting around in our tissue and damaging us.”

When antioxidants are not present, free radicals can slam into tissues and weaken them, causing pain and soreness and preventing muscle growth. A diet filled with raw foods, particularly pungent greens and herbs, is loaded with antioxidants.

Eat Like a Laker

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Shanahan works with the Lakers' athletic trainer Gary Vitti, strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco and team chef Sandra Padilla to ensure the team eats healthy while at home and on the road. They make sure the team isn’t consuming the wrong foods while also ensuring they eat the right ones.

Vitti and DiFrancesco both invoke the saying: “You can’t out-train a bad diet.”

“We want to avoid the chefs inadvertently poisoning them,” Shanahan says. “They do that inadvertently because the processed oils that are in the deep fryers and in the sauces are toxic and contain trans fats and other fats that promote free radicals. If you could wave a Geiger Counter showing whether food that is good or bad over something like fries or deep-fried prawns it would go off the scale,” Shanahan jokes.

The diet the Lakers team members are allowed to eat is loaded with raw foods as well as fermented and sprouted foods, nitrate-free products and pasture-raised animal fats such as butter, cream, cheese and cottage cheese. Boneless and skinless meats are out. Meat on the bone (cooked on the bone) and natural fats from ribs and braised meats are in.

Shanahan’s regime is similar in many ways to the Paleo Diet. Cooking the meat takes the diet out of the "strictly, 100-percent raw" category, but it ensures food safety for the athletes.

Plus, Shanahan is a big proponent of the health benefits that come from cooking meats with the bone, end of the bone and joint material, and skin and collagen.

“Do you watch ‘Game of Thrones’? Imagine what they would eat," Shanahan says. "They would not have boneless, skinless chicken. They eat the whole chicken on a spit. Whole animals, rotisserie-slow-cooked, like what you could imagine coming out of a medieval castle.”

The Darker Side of Raw

Dana Hoff/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

There are risks associated with raw foods, some obvious and some hidden.

The danger of pathogen infection, particularly E. coli, is increased from raw meat and raw dairy consumption. If you’re going all-in on raw and want to include meats and dairy, do your research on safe food handling and preparation. And do your research on where your meats and dairy are coming from. Be sure to find a safe, reputable source.

It’s widely believed that completely raw fruits and veggies have higher vitamin and mineral contents, but Colorado State University professor Loren Cordain—the founder of the Paleo Diet movement—says that the difference between cooked and uncooked isn’t always dramatic, and sometimes there is no difference at all.

In fact, cooking enhances the nutritional value of some foods. Heating tomatoes lowers their vitamin C, but it also makes lycopene—a cancer-fighting compound— more absorbable.

Cordain points out that not cooking foods can limit one’s diet, as many grains, legumes, beans and root vegetables are inedible in their raw state. But cooking food before it's eaten is hardly a modern concept. According to most archaeological evidence, humans have been cooking with fire for at least 400,000 years.

But What If You’re Not a Laker?

Patrizia Savarese/Taxi/Getty Images

Shanahan coordinates with hotel chefs wherever the Lakers stay on the road, and she runs through the menu for the team meal ingredient by ingredient.

Must be nice to have a personal nutritionist and chef, right?

Unfortunately you can’t guard Kevin Durant or hit a 20-foot jumper with Metta World Peace in your face, so you do not have this luxury.

What can you do?

If you’re interested in increasing the amount of raw food in your diet, start slowly.

“We’re talking about changing habits,” Shanahan says. “The best time to introduce new foods is when you’re hungry. Pick a salad or partly germinated nuts or raw nuts or raw dairy cheeses or pickles. Introduce just a little bit of these raw foods, and it has to be a little bit because your digestive system works in baby steps.”

And when you’re ready to increase the amount of raw food in your diet, Kenney—who is also an active runner—has a few suggestions.

To get the calories you need for your active lifestyle, eat healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, coconut large fruits and cheese (though Kenney himself sticks to a plant-based diet). Rather than eating 16 ounces of meat or a plate of pasta, you can get calories from whole foods such as a coconut shake with maca.

To get the proteins you need, eat sprouted grains. Quinoa is a good source, as are vegetables, nuts and seeds. As for carbohydrates for energy, choose fruits and vegetables as well as superfoods such as raw cacao, maca powder, goji berries and maqui berry powder. Chia is good for endurance. Add hemp, cacao, maca to smoothies and shakes. Maca is famous for its preference by Incan warriors.

To get started: Keep it simple.

Many new raw food eaters try to prepare gourmet food, which can be a lot of work. Instead, start by adding a liquid component to your diet. Make green juice or fruit smoothies. You can get 600 or 1,000 calories in a blender full of smoothie with some super foods and healthy fats like coconuts. Smoothies are nutrient-dense, and they only take a few minutes to make.

And avoid this mistake: When it comes to a raw food diet, people often don’t appreciate balance. They’ll eat a big bowl of raw carrots for dinner, and they’re missing the essential fats. Or they’re missing the proteins from the seeds and nuts. Or they’re missing all the minerals and iron you can get from seed vegetables.

Eating raw foods successfully means understanding where you get the energy your body needs, because it’s not always obvious.

16 Raw Foods for Athletes

Want to add more raw foods to your athletic diet? The experts we spoke with recommend these for starters:

Raw cheese Pickles Avocado Kale Maca Cacao Chia seeds Hemp protein Seed vegetables Goji berries Nuts Almonds Fresh vegetables

Most Recent