Leading up to today’s Super Bowl, a Boston television station aired a piece examining how Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, eats. The segment teaches us that among other eating behaviors, Brady does not consume any added sugar or processed foods and he abstains from alcohol.
Celebrities often influence our own behaviors, which is the driving principle behind sponsorship deals. Lump me in there as well. When Andre Agassi, my all-time favorite athlete, was endorsing Nike, much of my workout apparel bore the “Just Do It” slogan. Later in Agassi’s career when he signed with Adidas, the logo on my sneakers quickly changed from a swoosh to three black stripes.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, the sentiment we tell ourselves is along the lines of, “If those sneakers [or racquet, or sports drink, or watch, etc.] are good enough for him, then they are more than good enough for me,” or perhaps, “If I use those sneakers [or racquet, or sports drink, or watch, etc.] too, then maybe I can play like him.” It is only natural that the same message may extend to our perceptions of how professional athletes eat, but if you are considering emulating Brady’s diet, think again.
With sport being the primary focus of a professional athlete’s life and so much financially riding on performance, they frequently make choices that would not necessarily be prudent for the rest of us. In a recent conversation, a physical therapist pointed out to me how professionals are quick to undergo surgery and rush through their recoveries, while an amateur with the same injury is more likely to opt for a longer, but safer, rehabilitation program rather than an operation.
In other words, the life of the professional athlete is often focused on the here and now while the long-term risks take a back seat. Look no further than how the National Football League dealt with concussions for decades – largely minimizing the significance of brain injuries and rushing concussed players back on the field with little regard for the depression, memory loss, and suicidal urges that often came with retirement – until very recent legal action inspired change.
This philosophy bleeds into nutrition as well. Following rigid food rules comes with upsides for professional athletes, but similar payoffs are unlikely to exist for amateurs. Therefore, while it may make sense for Brady and his peers to follow strict diets, the same does not hold true for the rest of us. In other words, Brady’s diet may serve him at this stage in his life, but if implemented by one of us, the same eating behaviors may be described as orthorexic.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 6.5% of high school football players will continue the sport in college, and 1.6% of college players will go on to play in a professional league. In other words, only 0.08% of high school football players will ultimately play professionally. The statistics that they report for basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer are on par with these figures. Given the extremely high probability that student-athletes will have to make their livings in a capacity other than turning pro, they often have backup plans for their lives (well, at least hopefully they do) in the form of academic educations so they have somewhere to turn when school and their athletic careers end.
Similar benefits exist in thinking long-term about nutrition as well. With all due respect to Brady and other professional athletes who are doing what they feel they need to do in order to perform their best, all-or-nothing approaches to eating rarely serve people for too long. When an athlete retires and suddenly the incentive for restriction ends, how will he deal with previously-taboo foods? This is akin to children who grow up in rigid eating environments with strict rules regarding quantities and/or forbidden foods, and then they go off to college and binge on late-night pizza delivery and all-you-can-eat soft serve in the dining hall. Such black-and-white approaches that teach us to ignore our internal cues and rely instead on external constructs will in all likelihood ultimately backfire.
Real life exists in grays, so building healthy relationships with food means both listening to our bodies and being flexible to allow for the complexities and variables that come our way. A professional athlete may have incentive to sacrifice such a relationship and rely instead on external rules because the here-and-now upside is so great, but the rest of us are better off learning a lesson from the 99.92% of high school football players who will never play in the National Football League. In other words, think long and hard before deciding to sacrifice for the here and now, and instead focus on life’s big picture.