Just before the 2013 season, Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore spent three weeks living and training with WNBA veteran Kara Lawson—and not just to work on her 3-point shooting (Lawson ranks 8th on the WNBA's all-time list). Mostly, Moore wanted to learn how to eat better.
"I took tons of notes, pictures and videos of everything she was showing me," Moore says of the experience. "I was really serious about this health challenge."
Lawson's challenge to Moore was simple: stop eating dairy (foods like milk, cheese and yogurt), and cut back on consumption of processed sugar.
"I knew that if she could do it for three weeks, the results would be there," Lawson says. "Once she saw the positive changes in her health and her body, she'd be hooked."
Sure enough, within three weeks Moore felt more energetic and less sore, and she recovered faster after workouts. Continuing her dietary changes throughout the season, she noticed a significant improvement on the court. She says, "It definitely made a difference in terms of me being quicker—and in less pain."
Moore lost seven or eight pounds, which took pressure off her joints, especially her sometimes-achy knees. And she was able to move better while guarding opponents. "It showed up on the defensive end, where I could stay in front of guards better," she says.
Moore went on to have a standout year, leading the Lynx to the 2013 WNBA championship. She played even better in 2014, earning league MVP honors.
Were her dietary changes solely responsible for Moore's success? Of course not. She had been an elite player her entire life, winning national titles in high school and college, along with Olympic medals and previous WNBA and other pro league championships. But there are reasons to think that cutting back on sugar and dairy helped her performance—and could help yours too.
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A Sticky Issue
Other basketball greats have performed better after waving off the white stuff. Moore cut back on the recommendation of Lawson, who stopped eating processed sweets after a conversation with former Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns star, Grant Hill.
"In Phoenix, Grant played alongside Steve Nash, who was famous for his emphasis on recovery and nutrition," Lawson says. "He said giving up refined sugar was a huge turning point in his career."
Indeed, Nash once wrote that after cutting back on sugar, "The difference was instantaneous: I slept better, I recovered from workouts more easily, and I had more energy."
There are several reasons why reducing sugar intake might cause an athlete like Nash or Moore—or anyone for that matter—to feel and perform better.
When you eat sugar, glucose enters your bloodstream. To absorb the glucose and use it for energy, your body releases insulin. But if you consume too much sugar too often, an abundance of insulin causes your body to store fat, which leads to excess weight gain.
Eventually, your body can develop insulin resistance. It stops using insulin effectively, and both insulin and glucose build up in your bloodstream. Too much glucose and insulin can cause inflammation, a response meant to protect the body when it's injured but which can be harmful if wrongly triggered. Chronic inflammation saps your energy, makes you more susceptible to illness, and can lead to more digestive issues.
Avoid overconsuming sugar and you're less likely to encounter these difficulties. But giving up refined sugar is no easy feat. Though it is nutritionally vacant—it provides no vitamins, minerals or fiber, only calories—sugar is found in a stunning number of foods. Of course it is abundant in the sweets and desserts you know aren't great for you, like candy, cookies and soda. But it's also surprisingly common in foods you might think are healthy, like orange juice, flavored yogurt, and many cereals.
Complicating matters more, sugar has many aliases on nutrition labels. Molasses, maltose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, lactose—they're all "sugar." Even the earthy-sounding "raw sugar" is an added sugar.
Moore says that learning to read labels to screen out foods with added sugar was an eye-opening experience. "You start to realize just how much sugar is out there," she says. "A lot of times, it's just empty calories." Eventually, she took matters into her own hands. "I started to find different recipes and learned to cook for myself."
Potential Protein Problems
Cutting out dairy was tougher for Moore, who loves treats like pancakes and red velvet cake. Eventually she found dairy-free alternatives that allowed her to enjoy her favorite foods without milk. She says, "One of my go-to breakfasts is a dairy-free pancake made with spelt flour, chia seeds, cocoa powder and maple syrup. It has a different texture than most pancakes, but it's super healthy and packed with energy."
Understanding why Moore might benefit from removing dairy from her diet is a bit more difficult. She doesn't suffer from lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest the sugar found in milk. People who are lactose intolerant can suffer diarrhea, bloating and gas after eating dairy, so they have an obvious reason to avoid foods that contain cow's milk.
According to Kamal Patel, MPH, director of research for the health and nutrition website Examine.com, recent studies on mice suggest that A1 casein, which is present in the milk from certain cows raised in the U.S., might cause inflammation in the gut. Patel says, "When there's inflammation in the gut, which is the gateway to the rest of the body, you better believe there will be a higher chance for systemic inflammation." And inflammation, as you recall, can lead to bad things in the body.
But lastly, it's possible that Moore doesn't have an allergy or physiological reason why avoiding dairy milk might improve her performance. Sometimes, a dietary change just feels better. And when that happens, there's no reason to argue with success. The only real rule in nutrition is to do what works for you.
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Recipes for many meals Maya Moore eats are available at lawsonwellness.com, a website run by Kara Lawson and her husband. Moore's favorite food, which is surprisingly simple to make:
Super Healthy Cocoa Pancakes
Combine 2/3 cup spelt flour, 8 tsp. cocoa powder, 2 tbsp. chia seeds and vegan chocolate chips (if desired). Mix until the chia seeds are evenly distributed. Add 2 tsp. maple syrup, 2 tbsp. peanut butter, and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract and stir. Pour in 1.5 cups of almond milk and stir until everything is thoroughly mixed. Wait a few minutes so the chia seeds can thicken the batter, then stir a bit more. Pour small amounts of batter on a griddle to cook. Top the pancakes with fruit.
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