NBA players make basketball look so easy. Playing at such a high level for an entire season takes a lot of work, though. Practice and weight training are two ways players excel for at least eighty-two games (during a typical non-COVID year). Diet also plays a huge role. Basketball is intense—the better your body is fueled, the better it responds to the grind of the season.

This article will break down the evolution of players’ diets and how players connected diet and performance to improve and extend their careers.

A Different Era of the NBA

In the ‘40s through the ‘70s, there was a general lack of knowledge about a proper diet’s benefits. In fact, every aspect of the game was approached differently until the late 20th century. Athletes would use training camp to get into game shape after the offseason, while weight training was also scarce.

Not only was professional basketball one of their multiple jobs (players usually had an off-season gig as well), but the travel arrangements were less than ideal. Players from the ‘50s and ‘60s also smoked and drank regularly, sometimes before and almost always after games. A post-game meal might be a fried chicken and steak dinner with a side of cigarettes and washed down with a beer.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, player diets weren’t much better. While players made more money than their predecessors, they still weren’t maximizing their bodies through diet. Post-game beers at the hotel bar were a given, meaning the next morning’s hangover would overshadow even the cleanest diet.  

A recent podcast with former NBA tough guy Rick Mahorn talked discussed his time as Hall of Famer Charles Barkley’s teammate with the Sixers. During the podcast, Mahorn remembered Barkley usually showing up five minutes before practice eating a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. Not exactly a breakfast of champions, right?

Enlightenment: NBA Diets Now

Today, most NBA players wouldn’t be caught dead eating Mcdonald’s before practice. There are too many cases of players changing their diets and transforming their careers in the process. 

Every player’s body is different and responds to various foods differently. Below, however, is a broad roadmap of what NBA players eat to excel on the court.

Carbohydrates

“Good” carbs like fruit, oatmeal, and starchy vegetables are great for an athlete because they almost literally act as fuel. Players can burn up to 800 calories in one game, so calories are necessary to keep the body moving. Pre-game pasta is common: it’s filling and can go a long way to up a player’s daily caloric intake.

Protein

During an 82-game regular season, a player’s body has the potential to break down. Proteins are vital because they maintain muscle and cell structure. It’s also important in the off-season when weight training becomes more prevalent. The league’s top stars, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, swear by lean animal proteins like poultry and fish because of how light they feel afterward.

Healthy Fats

Foods like avocado, nuts, and almond/peanut butter are crucial to maintaining energy during the slog of the regular season. A team might play four games in six nights in different cities, which means travel, lack of sleep, and the inability to sit down for a full meal. Snacks like almonds, hummus, and avocados are life-savers when players need to fill up without being unhealthy. 

Kevin Durant loves guacamole with quinoa chips or carrots for a midday pick-me-up. In a piece written about Durant and his full-time chef, they break down Durant’s go-to snacks and meals.

Lay Off The Sugar!

One common through-line of athletes that have transformed their bodies was cutting out sugar in their diets. 

In 2009, Dwight Howard was on top of the NBA world. His Magic team had just made the NBA Finals and looked poised to make runs at the title for years to come. But Howard approached his eating habits with the same youthful naivete as he did basketball: McDonald’s double-cheeseburgers and Skittles were the backbones of his diet. It began physically showing in his performance.

When Howard went to the Lakers, their team nutritionist couldn’t believe what such a high-level athlete was putting into his body. It got so bad that Howard developed dysesthesia—a condition many prediabetic patients suffer—which caused tingling in his legs and fingers. 

The Dwight Howard you see today is much different than the one in 2010. He completely cut out unhealthy sugars and looks leaner than ever. He cites the dropping of sugar and junk food as the main cause of his body transformation. “I wasn’t getting tired as fast during games,” Howard said in an interview with GQ.

Plant-Based/Vegan Diets More Common

Chris Paul is going to be a Hall of Famer one day. By 2019, however, it looked like his storied career had turned the corner towards retirement. He was about to enter his fifteenth season when he took on the role of producer of the documentary Game Changers. The film covered the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet. His work on the picture got him hooked; he went 100% vegan.

In an interview with Men’s Health, Paul says he feels fantastic at 34 years old chasing down 20-year-old rookies in the NBA. He has only missed 2 regular-season games this year with the Suns and is on pace to make another All-NBA team at the age of 35. 

Paul isn’t the only vegan in the NBA. Veteran Center DeAndre Jordan went vegan a few years ago and said he feels better than ever after thirteen seasons. Jordan even recently announced he’d compete as a chef on a vegan cooking show.

Stars LeBron James and Dame Lillard both flirt with the vegan diet, especially during the season. They cite diet as a big reason they have stayed off the injured list. Lillard is a smaller player; his game-in-game-out recovery has helped him become one of the most durable players in the league. James goes plant-based during the season and is playing at an extremely high level at 37. 

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Final Thoughts

It seems like every season, we hear of more high-profile NBA stars switching their diets to improve performance and help them recover from the rigors of the NBA season. The famous saying, “you are what you eat,” isn’t just lip service. What you put into your body will determine how you feel. 

As a professional basketball player—where winning is the number one priority—being at the top of your game through diet is key to a long and prosperous career. Just ask the best of the best.

Have you ever transformed your diet for the better? How did you feel? Let us know below in the comments!