One of the most daunting tasks to take on when trying to improve your health is mining through all of the information surrounding nutrition. The idea of “eating right” seems simple, but for many, when making deliberate efforts to lose weight, prevent or reduce the onset of illness, and/or improve general health and vitality, working out what exactly is a healthy diet can unfortunately be more confusing that it should be. Many grew up with the USDA Dietary Guidelines so have a default affinity for a balanced diet built heavily on complex carbohydrates, grains and avoiding all fat to stave off heart disease. As common as these principles are - plenty of fruits, rice, cereals, skim milk and margarine, and as little fat as possible - it’s thankfully becoming more heavily publicised that these platforms not only aren’t the way to optimal health, but actually have contributed heavily to the heart, brain and weight epidemics that are plaguing the modern health care across the developed world. Here is an earlier piece I wrote about why these “balanced diet” USDA Guidelines are wrong.
Interestingly, there was a recent bridge formed between health and sporting news in America. Boston.com published an interview with Allen Campbell, the personal chef of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady who is arguably the US’ most successful professional athlete of the last 20 years. For those that don’t follow (American) football, “Tom Terrific” has lead the Patriots to winning 4 NFL Superbowls with the first being in 2002, the most recent being last year, and almost made it to a 5th this year.
His status of a successful, high performing professional athlete may make the insights of his personal chef is of value for obvious reasons -- he’s incredibly fit and healthy. However, the longevity of his career and the fact that he’s maintained a spot at the pinnacle of his field for 14 years and counting in a sport where the average career length for the best players is 11 years, and for average players closer to 6 is especially intriguing. In other words, not only is Tom Brady incredibly fit and healthy, but he’s been able to maintain it and perform at peak levels for much longer than any of his peers. It is this “longevity” approach that deserves more discussion from someone who holds “healthy forever” as his mantra. This is Tom Brady’s diet, explained.
While it would’ve been very interesting to have a detailed menu or meal plan to unpack, Brady’s nutrition was discussed as part of a more holistic interview rather than a concise publication. Here are some of the best quotes from Brady’s personal chef, Allen Campbell courtesy of Boston.com.
What Tom Brady eats
“So, 80 percent of what they eat is vegetables. [I buy] the freshest vegetables. If it’s not organic, I don’t use it. And whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, beans. The other 20 percent is lean meats: grass-fed organic steak, duck every now and then, and chicken. As for fish, I mostly cook wild salmon.
It’s very different than a traditional American diet. But if you just eat sugar and carbs—which a lot of people do—your body is so acidic, and that causes disease. Tom recently outed Frosted Flakes and Coca-Cola on WEEI. I love that he did that. Sugar is the death of people.”
What Tom Brady doesn’t eat
“No white sugar. No white flour. No MSG. I’ll use raw olive oil, but I never cook with olive oil. I only cook with coconut oil. Fats like canola oil turn into trans fats. ... I use Himalayan pink salt as the sodium. I never use iodized salt.
[Tom] doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory. So no tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, or eggplants. Tomatoes trickle in every now and then, but just maybe once a month. I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation.
What else? No coffee. No caffeine. No fungus. No dairy. The kids eat fruit. Tom, not so much. He will eat bananas in a smoothie. But otherwise, he prefers not to eat fruits.”
The family (Tom and his wife Gisele have 3 kids)
“Yeah, I mean pretty much. Vivi was only nine months when I started, so I gave her first food. And 90 percent of the time they all eat the same thing. I cook for the kids, but Gisele makes Benny’s lunch to take to school. She packs that herself.
Yesterday I made veggie sushi for the kids. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. It’s brown rice, avocado, carrot, and cucumber. The kids like [it] maki-style, so the rice is on the outside. And I do it with a ponzu sauce, which is uzu and tamari. [I use] tamari because we stick to gluten free for everything.
For snacks, I make fruit rolls from bananas, pineapple, and spirulina. Spirulina is an algae. It’s a super fruit. I dehydrate it. I dehydrate a lot of things. I have three dehydrators in their kitchen. I also make raw granola and raw chocolate chip cookies.”
The rest of the interview touches on preparation for games, shopping habits and example meals, so it’s a definitely a great read with a lot of fantastic insight on how elite athletes are able to nurture their body for optimal health. Again, the rest can be found on Boston.com. While glimpses into others’ lives and what works for them is no doubt, fascinating, it can’t be ignored that Brady is one of the world’s most notable professional athletes and, combined with his supermodel wife, has a lifestyle and means that most of us cannot afford. As a result, it’s best to take a lot of the practices with a grain of salt and instead focus on the principles with which to cater your own habits. These are the basics:
- 80 percent vegetables - freshest possible, all organic
- whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet and beans
- lean meats, grass fed steaks, fowl, wild fish
- Very different from traditional american diet - no sugar, limited carbs
- Frosted Flakes and Coke...sugary processed foods are the death of people
- plant-based diet has the power to reverse and prevent disease
- no sugar, white flour or iodized salt
- no oils other than olive and coconut
- no caffeine
- no dairy
Our household aligns quite closely with this. We’re not the type to quantify things, but honest conscious thought has us very confident that out of what we eat, a very strong majority is fresh vegetables. We go organic when we can, but not all the time as our budget, time, and retail options sometimes make it tough to manage comfortably. However, we definitely make sure that fresh, local and colourful veg -- lettuces, carrots, broccoli, peppers, brussel sprouts, spinach, kale, zucchini, and everything else in that section of the market -- goes in and out of our fridge the most. Colour vegetables, especially greens are the most important. No one disputes this.
Meats come in at second priority rather than any grains, whole or otherwise, so this is another deviation from the Brady’s. Adding to this difference is our acceptance of the role of animal fats, including saturated fat in brain health and long-term energy supply. We buy into much of the research supporting healthy animal fat in beef, fowl and fish as an essential component in neurological development and being highly positive influences in preventing or reducing impacts of autism, down syndrome, mood disorders and intellectual impairments in children, as well as staving off dementia, Alzheimer's and the like in elderly. Dr. Perlmutter’s work is a fantastic starting point for learning about the links between nutrition and brain health which historically is far too neglected.
As far as grains are concerned, we follow these same ideals opting for brown rice, quinoa and the like if we really want some grains-based foods, but as a general rule we try to limit carbohydrates in all its forms. Carbohydrates, even complex carbs from whole grains get converted to sugar, spiking insulin levels and any excess carbs that aren’t used as fuel are locked as triglycerides. Triglycerides are the fat cells that your body can’t use for energy and end up crowding intestines, burdening the heart and doing much of the damage. If we were elite athletes, or even just had an affinity for 5-10 workouts hours per week, a steady stream of regularly monitored carbohydrates may be beneficial. For us, the ketogenic process of burning-fat for energy is easier and produces more palpable benefits.
The differences are noticeably stronger when looking at the “don’t eat” list. I love coffee. I enjoy seeking out varieties of fresh, fairly-traded coffee beans from far off places, thinking about the differences and enjoying the warm and inviting nature of the entire process. Grinding the beans and frothing the milk is my own personal therapy. Dairy gets a yellow light with us. It’s mostly taken with coffee or as cheese and we only buy fresh, local, full fat jersey milk. For everything else, the sugar, flour and oils, we’re pretty much all-in with. Oliv oils for dressings and cooking with coconut oil or ghee (again saturated fats are essential)
At the end of the day, it’s unreasonable to look at any diet or nutrition plan whether it’s a published work, or someone’s personal program as one to follow 100%. Even though the USDA has recently revised it's Dietary Guidelines, it's still built on faulty conventional wisdom which over emphasises carbohydrates, confuses fas and is not harsh enough on sugar.
While there are some essentials (mostly colourful vegetables, quality meats and fats, limit carbs, stay away from sugar), everyone’s going to need to approach their nutrition with flexibility and openness. Finances, time, tastes and environment are all real factors in determining a healthy diet that works. When you consider all of these factors, it makes sense why a professional athlete would stock their fridge differently than a public school teacher. Local and fresh foods mean different things in Hawaii as they would New Zealand, or a Canadian winter versus a California summer. Establishing or maintaining a healthy lifestyle for the long term doesn’t mean finding one formula but rather developing an approach or mindset that you can make work not just for a few weeks or months, but forever.