Recently, LeBron James has gotten a lot of attention. He went through a surprising weight loss transformation, causing popular media to name the diet he was following after him: “LeBron James Diet. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, we’ll give you the low-down.
Over the past several months, people starting noticing how LeBron James was slimming down – a lot. Last summer, he lost about 20 pounds to prepare for the new season. He lost a significant amount of fat, while retaining muscle definition.
He didn’t do it on his own; he followed the diet the LA Lakers Physician designed for them, which switched them from a high-carb (the common athlete diet) to a high-fat diet.
What Does the “LeBron James Diet”: Entail?
The diet is a modified version of the Paleo diet, and it follows three guiding principles:
1. 50/30/20 proportions: 50 percent of your calories should come from fat, 30 percent from protein, and 20 percent from carbohydrates. The carbs consumed should come from fruits and vegetables.
(NOTE: This is a big change from traditional macronutrient percentage recommendations. The traditional nutritional recommendations are 50-55 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 30-35 percent of calories from fat, and 15-20% from protein. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of this later on in this article.)
2. Eat healthy fats: Unhealthy fats include trans fats, found in a lot of processed foods and margarine. Healthy fats are unsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and fish. It is also considered OK to eat saturated fats, especially from grass-fed beef and poultry. Regardless of the distribution of foods in your diet, you should avoid trans fats.
3. Stop the snacking: To follow this regimen, it is recommended that you don’t snack throughout the day in order to help your body use fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.
LeBron followed these principles to a T for two months last year, not eating refined carbohydrates, dairy or sugar.
The LeBron James Diet and Paleo
Both the Paleo diet and the “LeBron James Diet” follow the same ketogenic principle. When a diet is ketogenic, it reduces carbohydrates, maintains or increases protein, and ups the fat in the diet to force the body to use fats for energy rather than carbohydrates. Ketone bodies are synthesized (a fancy word for “made”) in the liver and put in the blood stream for the use of several organs, including your brain (#1 priority) and your muscles (1).
When you eat carbohydrates, your body uses the glucose in the food to provide energy for the normal functioning of your organs. When your body doesn’t have any glucose available, it breaks down fat, which is a sort of “energy reserve”.
In the process of breaking down fat, your body produces ketone bodies, rather than glucose, which are an alternative energy source. Normally, this occurs only in emergency situations: your body doesn’t want to lose its fat reserves if it isn’t necessary, but it can in times of crisis (like a famine, for example). The Paleo diet and the LeBron James diet takes a principle that usually applies in emergency situations to be make fat your main source of fuel.
Both diets bank on these physiological processes to cut our refined carbs, grains and dairy, and stocks up instead on meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables. However, LeBron James also reportedly ate fruit (as you can see the mango in his Instagram picture above), although strict followers of Paleo try to avoid fruit because they are high in natural sugars. Another big difference is that most strict Paleo followers make 50 percent of their calories come from protein, rather than 20 percent, like the diet followed by many Lakers players.
It is important to note that although the brain and muscles can use ketone bodies for fuel, your liver cannot. Your liver does need glucose (from carbohydrates) to function properly. So regardless of the fat-loss foundation, it is important not to neglect your liver (especially if you depend on it to make ketone bodies) for long-term healthy.
The Paleo “Paleolithic Myth”
The Paleo diet (also called the caveman diet or the stone-age diet) was named after an idea (now known to be mostly faulty) of what a diet of a human living in the Paleolithic era looked like. Most of the academically-based health and nutrition organizations have categorized it as a fad diet (4)(5) .
The Paleo diet has been promoted in some form since the 1970’s but its popularity exploded in 2002 with the publication of The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain. The idea is that the Paleolithic human (commonly known as the caveman) led a hunter-gatherer diet based on plants and meats. Grains came into the picture only when agriculture became part of the human lifestyle.
However, as Matt Fitzgerald writes in his book Diet Cults: The Suprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us, “Paleo Diet creator Loren Cordain has no formal training as a paleobiologist or evolutionary biologist […] The most celebrated Paleo Diet debunker is Christina Marinner, a biomolecular archeologist at the University of Zurich, […] who opened her TED talk saying ‘This version of the Paleolithic diet that is promoted in popular books, on TV, and on self-help websites, and in the overwhelming majority of popular press has no basis in archeological reality.’” (6)
Marinner also pointed out that the methods used to estimate meat intake during the Paleolithic period of the development of the diet are completely flawed. And scientific evidence shows that Paleolithic humans ate grains far before the agricultural revolution.
The “No-Carb” Myth
Neither the LeBron James Diet nor the Paleo Diet (or any healthy diet, for that matter) has zero-carbs. Usually, when people think of carbs, they think of bread, chips, breaded things, tortillas, and the like.
However, carbohydrate is the word used to encompass a large group of organic compounds like starch, sugars and cellulose, found in living things that can be broken down by the body to release energy. All living things use some form carbohydrates for growth, structure and energy; it is actually the physiologically preferred macronutrient for our bodies to obtain energy. Plants used carbohydrates as long-term food storage, as protection, and as their main structural support.
So, if all plants use carbohydrates as the main structural component of their tissue, all plants have carbohydrates; this includes wheat, potatoes and rice, as well as broccoli and kale. The proportions and form of the carbohydrate, of course, changes depending on the plant. Even meat, though limited, has a certain amount of carbohydrates.
So, carbs aren’t bad. No one should be arguing that. Rather the source and the proportion of carbohydrates in the diet compared to other macronutrients (protein and fat) are what the big debate is about.
Thinking of Trying Out the LeBron James Diet? Two Big Things to Keep in Mind
The fact is, LeBron James was able to successfully follow a low-carb, high-fat diet, stay healthy, lose weight, and claim to have a drastic improvement on his performance.
It seems easy from afar to say that it’s a good idea for everyone to try.
There is one key element that few people talk about. LeBron James has to resources to pay highly skilled professionals – Registered Dieticians, Physicians and Chefs – to make sure he follows the 50/30/20 plan without any nutritional issues.
For the rest of us, it’s easy to cut out a major food group and experience important nutritional deficiencies. Cutting out milk and grains also means you might be missing out on calcium, magnesium, folate, and iron, among others – all very important for maintaining health. If you decide to take up a Paleo-like diet without having the proper nutritional control, you could be taking a big health risk.
Not to mention, with carbohydrates being the cheapest energy source, and fats and proteins being significantly more expensive, the Paleo Diet and the LeBron James Diet are not cheap. It demands high-quality vegetables and meats to fill up the plate, which may also empty your wallet.
The Bottom Line
Some of the premises of the Paleo Diet are not anything new. We know that processed foods have many negative side effects, which are important to keep in mind no matter what. We also know that a healthy balance of fat intake, with a focus on unsaturated fats, is important. Some of the healthiest non-fad diets around the world follow very similar principles, such as a Mediterranean Diet, which has been long known to be one of the healthiest in the world.
However, there are important limitations to keep in mind. It is dangerous to cut out entire food groups if you aren’t an expert. There are multiple side effects and deficiencies you may experience, and the effects in the long-term just may not be worth it.
The best advice you can follow is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, protein from healthy sources, and whole grains. If you want to take it a step further, you can cut out grains, but there is no reason to cut out fruits or vegetables. Avoid processed foods and refined sugars. Most importantly, beware of fad diets.