After being selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, C. J. McCollum battled injuries for much of his first two years in the league. But when he finally got healthy, during the second half of last season, McCollum looked exactly like the elite player the Blazers knew he could be, averaging 15.6 points over the final eight regular season games and scoring 26, 18 and 33 points in three playoff games against Memphis.
One reason McCollum was able to seize the spotlight when he had the chance? His diet. At Glenoak High School in Canton, Ohio and Lehigh University, his diet was far from stellar, but once he got to the NBA, he realized he needed to make big changes.
“Our staff did a great job sitting me down and going over what foods are healthy,” McCollum says. “It does affect you, it affects your healing, your soreness.”
Working closely with the Blazers nutritional staff, McCollum took a new approach to nutrition, and it paid off in a big way. If you want to step up your game like he did, remember these five tips.
1. Fast Food Makes for Slow Feet
Both in high school and in college, McCollum ate massive amounts of fast food. He says, “I loved it. I would eat McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell. I would eat Burger King before playing in AAU tournaments where I had multiple games in a day.”
Although there’s nothing wrong with an occasional trip to the golden arches, eating fast food on a regular bases can lead to unnecessary weight gain, slowing you down. Most fast food meals are loaded with fat—a single Big Mac Value Meal serves up a whopping 43 grams—and high-fat foods sit in the stomach longer, take several hours to digest and leave you feeling bloated and sluggish—precisely the opposite of how you want to feel come game time.
Nowadays, McCollum’s game day meals are lower in fat, consisting of things like grilled chicken, salad, potatoes and pasta. These leaner, easier-to-digest options help keep his feet fleet throughout the game.
2. Keep Your Favorites the Smart Way
McCollum was obsessed with French fries. At drive-thrus and burger stands, they were always part of his order. And when he began to renovate his diet, he worried that he’d have to say goodbye to them for good. “But then I learned about sweet potato fries,” McCollum says. “They’re baked, they taste amazing and they’re much healthier than fast food fries.”
Finding substitutes for your indulgences—or smarter ways to prepare them—is one way to make healthy eating changes last. Michelle Tegenkamp, a Blazers team nutritionist, says, “Finding ways to make your favorite foods healthier is a solid strategy. If you’re trying to force down really healthy foods you simply don’t want to eat, you’re missing the mark.”
With burgers as well as fries, McCollum hasn’t had to say goodbye. He just eats home-cooked ones rather than fast food, and he prepares them with leaner cuts of meat.
3. Keep an Open Mind
Part of the reason for McCollum’s success in upgrading his diet was that he was willing to try new things. He says, “I knew changing my diet could help me. Kobe changed his diet over the years to get a competitive advantage, so I thought why shouldn’t I change mine?”
McCollum tried a variety of foods he wasn’t accustomed to eating, and he was surprised by how many he liked. “I learned a lot of these healthy foods taste good! I actually like a lot of them now,” he says.
Among his new additions were kale, red salmon, asparagus, snapper, spinach, guacamole and cauliflower. McCollum says, “I always thought cauliflower was like white broccoli—but it actually ain’t bad.”
4. Drink Water
McCollum learned that drinking water both at and between meals helps him feel better and play better. “Hydration is huge,” he says. “It does so much for your body.”
While upping his intake of H2O, McCollum also cut back on soda and other sweet drinks. They can wreak havoc, as their high sugar content can lead to body composition issues and blood sugar spikes followed by crashes.
“Every year, our nutritionists do a demonstration where they show us how much sugar is in sports drinks, sodas and juices. And it’s surprising,” McCollum says.
Although sports drinks play a role during games and workouts, McCollum tries to stick with water when he’s not training or being active. If you’re not drinking enough water, a good way to start is by replacing whatever beverage normally accompanies your meals with a glass of cold water.
5. Don’t Fall for Fast Food Being “Cheaper”
One reason McCollum ate fast food throughout high school and college was because it seemed like a cheap and convenient option.
“Sometimes the dining hall was closed after practice or I ran out of meals on my meal plan,” he says. “Times like that, you’ve just got to figure out how to get a cheap meal any way possible.”
To college-era McCollum, that meant hitting up McDonald’s or throwing in some money for pizza. But since joining the pros, he’s learned to pack a sandwich—or the makings of one—for times when he knows he’ll be hungry. With a little extra effort, he can eat a more healthy meal that’s also less expensive.
“The cost and convenience excuse for fast food is a common misconception,” Tegenkamp says. “You can get good, quality food for the same price or less, and it’ll help your body both in the short-term and further down the road.”
For example, a Big Mac meal is called a “value,” but it costs about $7. For that amount of money or less, you could to go a grocery store and buy bread, peanut butter, fruit, yogurt, string cheese and carrots—enough for several meals.
6. Dial Down the DOMS
After his workouts or practice, McCollum likes to down fruit smoothies with added protein. The protein helps his muscles recover and rebuild faster, and fruits like cherries and blueberries reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Check out the video player above to learn how to make the ultimate post-workout shake.
Tegenkamp says, “C.J. and the rest of the players are training at least once—if not multiple times—a day. Consuming some quality protein and carbohydrates post-training helps with repair, recovery and replenishing fuel stores. Smoothies are a quick and easy way to get those nutrients.”