The game of basketball played at the level of the NBA is as rigorous as it gets when it comes to game schedules, and training. One of the biggest threats to NBA players or any professional players is injury. They need to stay healthy in order to train at the intensity they need to and perform at the level they need to, in order to make their living. LeBron James is considered as a genetically gifted phoneme in the world of athletics; his anthropometry and his athleticism (explosiveness, agility, speed, which can all be categorized as type II muscle fibre make up) is one of a kind (Hay, 2017). His genetic make up along with his work ethic is what makes him one of the best players, which means that he most likely trains at a higher level, performs at a higher level, and logs in high minutes per game and high games per season compared to his peers.
(Image taken from steemit.com)
The sport of basketball is considered extremely anaerobic, with 75-80% of the game played equal or above 85% of maximal heart rate or above 80% of VO2 max (Popovic et al., 2013). On paper, it makes sense for an athlete like him to be on a high carbohydrate diet to maximize his training, promote post-training recovery, improve muscle and liver glycogen storage, improve cognitive functioning and hence focus and motivation, and limit fatigue (Burke & Hawley, 2018); however, being the genetic phoneme he is, the way he utilizes fuel sources may be different, and hence, it is hard to criticize his decision for following a diet of “no carb, no sugar, no dairy". It is hard to argue that this diet that he followed for 67 days was detrimental to him as he pulled off one of the historic finals come back to win the championship for Cleveland that season (see before and after pictures above). That being said, he also missed 13 games that year during the season, with reports from Sports Illustrated (Johnson, 2014) during the 2014 summer camp indicating that “he’s been battling a back issue in the early part of Cleveland Cavaliers’ training camp”. Although it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to attribute cause of injury to any individual factor in an athlete’s life; it is hard to overlook the effects of taking away the major and most efficient fuel sources of the body - carbohydrates (Murray & Rosenbloom, 2018).
As injury poses the biggest risks for any professional player’s career, nutrition professionals are generally weary of the development of relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). Carbohydrates are the major fuel source for both aerobic and anaerobic respiration because of its ability to generate and regenerate ATP faster than any other fuel source (protein and fat). Even though it has been reported that LeBron had “no carbs, no sugar, no dairy”, according to Celebrity Body (Lee, 2014), he was still able to eat fruit, which are considered as carbohydrates. A low carbohydrate regimen has been implemented and studied in elite athletes but as a specific strategy for individual training sessions (Burke & Hawley, 2018). The induced low endogenous along with low exogenous carbohydrate availability has shown to drive desirable metabolic changes and “augment adaptive processes in skeletal muscles” (Burke & Hawley, 2018), however, long-term adaptation creates a shift in fat oxidation, and can be unfavourable for sports that require VO2max > 75% (Burke et al., 2017), such as basketball. As mentioned earlier, LeBron is a genetic phoneme, and it is hard to compare him to other elite athletes, let alone sub-elite population, which are the predominate audience for most sport nutrition research. Apart from the obvious goal of improving performance and helping LeBron recover properly with nutritional intervention to achieve the ultimate goal of wining the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it is also important to address his psychological needs as well. It was reported by Manfred (2014) that “he has become a bit self-conscious about his weight in recent years”. Hence, as a bespoke strategy, it may have been suitable for LeBron - he won the championship, and he lost weight.
Whether I would recommend the same diet for the same duration to another NBA player would depend on many factors; but in the context of driving long-term adaptation of the metabolic system for an athlete who operates largely under an anaerobic energy system, it would not be my recommendation. An NBA game lasts for 48 minutes, however, most games are played for the duration of 2.5 hours to three hours depending on whether the teams enter overtime. Hence, during the season, the amount of available energy in the system in the form of muscle glycogen and circulating glucose becomes crucial for the athlete to perform at a high level, and maintain focus for the duration of a game. All NBA teams also go on a stretch of back-to-back games, so replenishment of glycogen stores become especially important in order to spare liver glycogen and prevent fatigue (Murray & Rosenbloom, 2018). That being said, playing time is a major factor when it comes to proper nutrition for individual NBA players, some players play 35 plus minutes, where as some players do not play any minutes. Body composition is another factor that will determine the amount of carbohydrates needed; the player’s position and play style will dictate that difference. These variables however, do not change the context of necessary carbohydrate intake for an NBA player; providing sufficient relative carbohydrate supply can largely prevent fatigue and mitigate injury risk (Burke & Hawley, 2018). To further the case of not using LeBron’s 2014 summer diet is the idea of low energy availability (LEA) posing serious threat to bone, endocrine, and metabolic health (McGuire et al., 2020). Energy of the body and cells should always be met with the proper supply in the performance realm. Following digestion of carbohydrates, glucose can be readily absorbed and enter the bloodstream, and facilitate either synthesis of ATP for cellular work, or replenishment of muscle and liver glycogen stores (Fink & Mikesky, 2018, p. 29). Studies have shown that sufficient intake of carbohydrate within two hours after cessation of exercise amounting to “1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight every hour for four hours” (Fink & Mikesky, 2018, p. 85) is best to maximize glycogen synthesis. Proper carbohydrate intake will ensure consistent muscle glycogen storage, which spares liver glycogen and hence prevent muscle protein degradation from glyconeogenesis.
Due to the demanding schedule of an NBA season, setting the athlete up for optimal metabolic efficiency for carbohydrate absorption, energy regeneration, and utilization during the off season becomes crucial and can prolong an NBA players’ ability to perform at a high level. Off season and pre season tinkering with various kinds of carbohydrate to help maximize intestinal absorption (Fink & Mikesky, 2018, p. 81), and create a routine for physiological and mental comfort is also part of a necessary preparation, and hence, no carb, no sugar, and no dairy becomes difficult during the time when athlete is trying to get ready for the season.
I would however, incorporate low carbohydrate availability in specific training sessions as part of a microcycle in a periodization model. The idea of sparing muscle glycogen also holds true if the body is able to efficiently utilize fat oxidation mechanisms to delay the crossover point (Fink & Mikeskey, 2018, p. 75). As all sport utilizes a combination of all energy systems, basketball is no different; hence improving (but not full adaptation) fat oxidation can push the athletes’ VO2max capacity up to 75%, and improve training and competition performance and capacity (Burke et al., 2018). This “train-low” strategy can be implemented on days of training that are less intense to avoid down regulation of carbohydrate oxidation (Burke et al., 2018). Studies have shown that it takes around five days for an adaptation to fat oxidation, and the associated lethargy and fatigue can last for up to three weeks (Burke et al., 2018); as a result, a train-low strategy should not be implemented in a consecutive fashion.
Overall, when contextualizing whether LeBron’s 2014 diet can be recommended to another NBA player, the athlete’s playing time, role on the team, long-term goal in the NBA, and self-perception of their body image should all be considered. In the context of meeting the metabolic demands of the sport, LeBron’s 2014 67-day-diet-plan does not achieve that need, but individual athletes require bespoke strategies, and unfortunately nutritional research do not highlight outliers. NBA players are mostly outliers when compared to the general population, so implementing a trial and error system, while keeping in mind the theoretical guidelines of fatigue and injury risk would be my plan of action.
Burke, L. M., & Hawley, J. A. (2018). Swifter, higher, stronger: What’s on the menu?. Science, 362, 781-787.
Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Jeukendrup, A., Morton, J. P., Stellingwerff, T., & Maughan, R. J. (2018). Toward a common understanding of diet-exercise strategies to manipulate fuel availability for training and competition preparation in endurance sport. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(5), 451-463. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0289
Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Garvican-Lewis, L. A., Welvaert, M., Heikura, I. A., Forbes, S. G., Mirtschin, J. G., Cato, L. E., Strobel, N., Sharma, A. P., & Hawley, J. A. (2017). Low carbohydrate, high fat diet impairs exercise economy and negates the performance benefit from intensified training in elite race walkers. The Journal of Physiology, 595(9), 2785–2807. https://doi.org/10.1113/JP273230
Fink, H. H., & Mikesky, A. E. (2018). Practical applications in sports nutrition fifth edition, Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning
Hay, J. (2017). A gene ahead of the game: A look at sports genetics. Honors Theses, 427. https://encompass.eku.edu/honors_theses
Johnson, C. (2014, September 30). LeBron James says his back has been ‘iffy’ at cavaliers camp. Sports Illustrated. https://www.si.com/nba/2014/09/30/lebron-james-cavaliers-back-injury-update-cleveland
Lee, E. (2014, September 25). LeBron james’ 67-day summer slimdown demanded “no carbs, no sugar, no dairy”: See before-and-after pictures. Celebrity body. https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-body/news/lebron-james-67-day-weight-loss-program-before-and-after-pictures-2014259/
Manfred, T. (2014, August 6). Here’s why lebron james is losing so much weight. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/skinny-lebron-james-2014-8
McGuire, A., Warrington, G., & Doyle, L. (2020). Low energy availability in male athletes: A systematic review of incidence, associations, and effects. Translational Sports Medicine, 3(3), 173-187. https://doi.org/10.1002/tsm2.140
Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews, 76(4), 243-259. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuy001
Popovic, S., Akpinar, S., Jaksic, D., Matic, R., & Bjelica D. (2013). Comparative study of anthropometric measurement and body composition between elite soccer and basketball players. International Journal of Morphology, 31(2), 461-467.