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Regardless of which basketball team you root for-or whether you’re a fan of the sport at all-it’s hard not to admire Kobe Bryant’s legendary 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. Even in his last game, the Black Mamba (Bryant’s self-ascribed nickname) set a record by scoring 60 points, more than double any other player’s final-game score in NBA history.
While dealing with multiple injuries during his last few years on the court, Bryant followed the team’s official diet: the Los Angeles Lakers PRO Nutrition Program, and his habit of drinking bone broth got a fair bit of media coverage. But there’s more to this wholesome eating plan than that.
“Your food choices change your genes,” says Catherine Shanahan, MD, who developed and directs the Lakers’ nutrition program and is the author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. Some foods lead to genetic mutations that foster ill health and disease, she explains, while others protect and enhance our well-being and support a long, healthy life.
In Shanahan’s medical practice, this approach has helped many patients to improve mood, calm allergies, boost fertility and give birth to healthier children, eliminate cravings and the urge to snack, sharpen cognition and memory, build stronger bones and joints, rejuvenate skin, and achieve optimum health.
A board-certified family physician who is also trained in biochemistry and genetics, Shanahan studied the common threads of traditional diets around the globe, examined related science, and identified four pillars that bring out the best in our genes: fresh food, fermented and sprouted foods, meat cooked on the bone, and organ meats. Here are the basics:
“There are foods that we eat that contain known gene-mutating agents-those are the vegetable oils,” says Shanahan, who calculated that these supply the average American with 35-45 percent of daily calories. More specifically, harmful oils are refined, bleached, and deodorized. The biggest culprits are soy, corn, canola, sunflower, and cottonseed oils, but olive, avocado, peanut, and other oils can also be refined. Gene-mutating oils are found in salad dressings, dips, and most conventional packaged and restaurant foods.
“They’re pro-inflammatory and break down our collagen,” says Shanahan, and that leads to cellulite, even in babies who are fed formula with refined oils.
Unrefined, cold-pressed versions of plant oils are, in contrast, beneficial. Grass-fed milk and cream, preferably unpasteurized; pasture-raised eggs; and grass-fed butter are other sources of healthy fat.
Eat: Grass-fed butter, milk, and cream, eggs, and cold-pressed, unrefined oils such as extra virgin olive oil, and peanut, sesame, avocado, and coconut oils. For anyone who is lactose-intolerant, fattier dairy products, such as butter, cream, and cheese, contain little or no lactose.
Unlike its corn-fed cousin, which contains inflammatory fats, grass-fed meat is a source of beneficial, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. And, the cut matters-cheaper cuts, slow-cooked, are better. “In that tender, falling-off-the-fork meat, that kind of protein is extremely digestible and bioavailable, and you’ve preserved the juices, which contain a lot of minerals, particularly potassium,” says Shanahan.
Cooked in their natural juices, gristly parts with bones, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments release a family of nutrients called glycosaminoglycans. That’s why traditional bone broth is so good for you. Glycosaminoglycans include substances found in many joint supplements, such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid, and these are especially easy to absorb from meat. Gelatinous animal tissue also releases collagen, the “glue” that holds our tissues together and keeps joints, arteries, and skin supple.
Poultry, when cooked whole, or when parts are cooked with bones and skin, also releases beneficial fats and nutrients, and it tastes great. To get the idea, compare the flavor of a Thanksgiving turkey with a dry turkey breast grilled without skin or bone.
Liver is chock-full of nutrients. Per 100 grams, it contains three times the vitamin C of an apple, more than three times as much magnesium, and about
50 times as much folate, the critical vitamin women need to prevent neural defects in their babies.
Eat: Grass-fed meat and poultry with skin, cooked “on the bone,” as well as liver and other organ meats.
Nonstarchy vegetables are the only healthy “free” food, in that you can eat as much of them as you like. Shanahan recommends steaming them and eating with butter and salt. “When you combine butter, salt, and spices, you really make vegetables taste so much better,” she says. Or, use other fats, such as olive oil. In addition to making veggies tasty, fat increases the absorption of nutrients and satisfies your appetite. And eat a massive salad at least three times a week.
Eat: Lots of steamed nonstarchy veggies with butter, olive oil, or another healthy fat. A big salad should include the equivalent of half a head of lettuce plus three other vegetables of different colors.
Conventional dietary recommendations often lump fruit and vegetables into one category, but they’re very different. Fruit contains sugar, and even though it’s a natural form, it’s still sugar. So consider fruit a treat, rather than a dietary staple.
Eat: No more than one piece of fruit per day, roughly the equivalent size of a medium apple.
Sprouted and Fermented Foods
Nutrients are more bioavailable and easier to digest in sprouted and fermented foods. For starchy foods, opt for sprouted grains and breads, and keep portions small. Fermented food options include kombucha, yogurt, naturally fermented soy sauce, sauerkraut, fish sauces, pickles, kimchi, and other types of fermented vegetables.
Eat: Choose pickled and fermented foods described as “cultured” or “aged.” Drink kombucha. For grains, stick with small portions, such as one slice of sprouted bread.
The Fat-Burning Secret
“One of the most important things is simply not snacking, because the more often we eat, even if we’re not eating a greater amount, the more we’re saying to our body, ‘you don’t need to burn fat because you’re about to get more energy coming in here,'” says Shanahan.
Our bodies have enzymes that burn fat, which can be more or less active. Snacking makes them less active. Avoiding between-meal snacks, and going longer periods between meals, makes these enzymes more active and can increase their number. In other words, you can train your body to burn fat, says Shanahan. Here’s how:
- Start by eating only three meals, without snacks in between.
- If you think you’re hungry between meals, have a glass of water before concluding that you really need to eat.
- To stay satiated, make sure each meal includes healthy fat.
- If you aren’t hungry when it’s time to eat a meal, it’s OK to skip it.
- At one daily meal, consume at least 30 grams of protein (the size of about 1½ palms) as this effectively supports muscle.
- Get at least 40 grams of protein per day.
- Forget about sodas, and instead, drink water (plain or bubbly), herbal teas, kombucha, black tea, or coffee.
- Grass-fed milk or cream is an option in tea or coffee, but avoid sweeteners. Once your taste buds adjust, they will detect the natural sweetness in dairy.
You can easily tell the quality of a plant oil, says Shanahan: “Taste is your best bet-good olive oil tastes like olives and good peanut oil tastes like peanuts.”