By Jon McAdoo – 1/26/2018
The Ship – A Pirate Looks at Forty
The upcoming Super Bowl will feature the Philadelphia Eagles against the New England Patriots, with the latter team being quarterbacked by a household name for even those who don’t follow football, Tom Brady. Perhaps the most impressive line on his resume is his record-tying 5 wins in The Big Game, a record which he’ll claim sole possession of should the Patriots win his sixth on February 4th.
Compounding the spectacular nature of his career and current positioning on the verge of becoming the all-time winningest Super Bowl player is that Tom’s no spring chicken. At 40, he’s one of a handful of quadragenarians in the NFL, and the only current starting quarterback of that distinguished age. But unlike most quarterbacks who have pushed their playing careers into the upper limits of what’s considered viable, Brady shows no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by his team’s third trip to football’s mecca in four years.
How does he do it? Forty-year-old Brady is playing with the talent and vibrancy of a much younger man. Is he simply an athletic anomaly who’s slipped through the cracks to be in his current position? That may be the case, but Tom sure would tell you otherwise.
The Secret to the GOAT’s Success
During the past year, Tom released, for public consumption at a certain price tag, his TB12 (Tom Brady’s jersey number is 12) lifestyle guide, a set of 12 pillars guiding any Brady devotee in everything from exercise in endurance and pliability to supplements and diet. Brady developed this method with his longtime friend and trainer Alex Guerrero, a man who’s studied in holistic medicine, and sells it through a website. He even got some of his teammates on board with the regimen, which has famously led to some tension between Brady, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft, culminating in Guerrero being banned from Patriots facilities, and an expose-style article by ESPN about the feud. Teammates have described Brady’s program and diet as cult-like, and it’s been characterized as pseudoscience by some in the media. But what exactly does his diet entail, and what evidence exists for or against its efficacy?
TB12’s 12 Pillars of… Vegetables
There are a few core principles around which Tom bases his diet – first and foremost is his emphasis on hydration and consumption of electrolytes. He claims to drink over 100 ounces of water per day – 12 to 25 glasses – and recommends that those following his method consume half an ounce per pound of their weight. As for what he eats, he emphasizes the importance of alkaline foods, those that purportedly balance the blood pH level (Brady also emphasizes balance as a core principle of the TB12 method). This means eating a lot of whole vegetables and fruits and obtaining most of one’s protein from plant sources. Contrastingly, foods that would supposedly raise the blood’s acidity are to be avoided, such as bread, rice, and other carbohydrates. In a bit of a departure from the strictest interpretation of an alkaline diet, he’ll eat fish and chicken for protein as well.
Beyond that foundational framework, Brady has some rules about how one should spread out their consumption, which are in service of efficient digestion, whereby one avoids inflammation and bloating. He won’t have proteins and carbohydrates together and says that either proteins or carbs consumed with vegetables is helpful for the body’s processing of those foods. He believes that fruit is best consumed as a standalone snack, rather than combined with other foods. And despite his emphasis on water, he doesn’t think you should have it alongside your meals – the liquid decreases your body’s ability to cleanly digest the foods.
He’s Got the Nuts!
This all manifests in a daily menu that looks pretty bonkers to most observers. After Brady wakes up to, what else, a glass of water, he goes for a fruit and nut smoothie before his morning workout, followed by a protein shake including some of his signature supplements. He’ll snack in the morning if he feels like it (and you can too, if you’re inclined to shell out $50 for a box of his TB12 snack packs), then has some fish and vegetables for lunch. As needed, he’ll have an approved snack or two in the afternoon, and cap off the day with a supper of – you guessed it – lots of vegetables, and he’ll throw in some animal protein. All throughout, but never within half-an-hour before or an hour after a meal, he’s guzzling water like it’s going out of style.
The branded materials for the TB12 system don’t come cheap, and to the average person, the diet likely seems extreme, or at least restrictive. So, what does nutritional science have to say?
As far as water goes, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend consumption of about 75 fluid ounces of water per day for a normal adult, far less than the 100-plus ounces Brady drinks on a given day. But even considering that Tom is an elite athlete, who likely burns through hydration more quickly than the average adult, doesn’t tell the whole story. Foods comprise a considerable portion of the hydration that people need daily, meaning that 7 glasses of water or other liquid beverage, or about 55 ounces, is enough for most people. Tom’s 12 glasses of water alone are nearly double the normal amount that a person needs, and his upper limit of 25 is about four times the recommended amount! That’s not even accounting for his higher-than-normal consumption of smoothies, which in many respects are like additional glasses given their hydrating properties.
But what’s the worst that could happen, he has to run to the bathroom frequently? Turns out, no. The NIH warns of hyponatremia, excessive consumption of water that can intoxicate the drinker, even resulting in death in rare instances, causing headaches in less extreme cases. That doesn’t mean that Tom’s water-drinking habits are likely to kill him – again, he’s a professional athlete whose job it is to sweat all day – but drinking water in the quantities that he does doesn’t seemingly offer any measurable benefit to the average person and could be dangerous in certain circumstances.
So how about his emphasis on alkaline foods? This aspect of Brady’s diet captures a few more scientifically-validated benefits. The NIH find that a diet based on reducing acidic foods can ease chronic kidney disease. Further studies have examined whether such a diet can decrease the risk of certain cancers, but there’s not much actual evidence that this is the case, though there’s reason for further research in this area. Regardless, Brady’s dietary preferences aren’t explicitly targeted at prevention of these types of disease; he’s touting his methods as a means of increasing athletic performance. In that area, the consensus is still…up for debate. There’s a long-held scientific consensus that higher muscle pH levels can wear down an athlete’s recovery times, but the inverse – that a low acid environment would increase stamina – remains unproven. Studies like this one by Niekamp et al suggest that an alkaline diet may help maximize an athlete’s respiratory exchange ratio (RER), the peak endurance one can achieve during intense exercise or athletic events. But those scientists attribute only a 19% correlation between an alkaline diet like Brady’s with achieving the highest levels of RER. That means there’s probably a lot more to Brady’s “secret sauce” than diet alone.
Smoothies at the Super Bowl Party
All of this leads to the prospect that Tom Brady’s eclectic diet might have an impact on his elite status, not only in the current NFL quarterback field, but among the anthology, but to assert it as a direct cause would be to do so with little in the way of concrete proof. Most scientists would agree that the amount of water he consumes doesn’t help in the way he might think it does, and while the diet doesn’t seem to hurt his abilities on the gridiron, outside of the anecdotal evidence of Brady’s greatness (which, love him or hate him, an objective football fan would have to concede), there’s no proof that it helps. In fact, some studies suggest that carbohydrate avoidance doesn’t do much for athletes anyway.
Tom’s diet might seem a little whack, and its probably mere coincidence that he’s still rolling at an age and level that defy logic, but if opposing Eagles quarterback Nick Foles is thinking of adopting Brady’s diet before the Super Bowl, he might want to consult a nutritionist before doing so.