If you're a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, you've heard of Gary Vitti. He's the longest tenured athletic trainer in the NBA, and has been sitting on the Laker bench since the days of Magic and Kareem. Mr. Vitti took the time to talk with us about food, nutrition and its relationship to the NBA. Here's what he had to say:
Squid Ink: You've been the Lakers trainer for about a quarter century now, which is incredibly impressive. How much has nutrition changed in the NBA over that time?
Gary Vitti: Probably the biggest changes in nutrition is that more players are aware of having better eating habits. There is more supplementation out there now, and we know more about the protein and carbohydrate window for recovery.
SI: Michael Phelps, famously, is said to consume 12,000 calories a day. You're obviously around a lot of professional basketball players– how much more do they eat than normal people?
GV: The NBA is a microcosm of society. We have some players that are in the 10,000 calorie range and some in the 2500 calorie range. It seems it's not so much tied to size as it is basal metabolic rate and how efficiently they burn calories.
SI: What's some typical food you're likely to find in an NBA locker room?
GV: Once again we are a microcosm of society. You are likely to see a player eating skinless grilled chicken with broccoli and brown rice while another player is hiding in the restroom stall eating a hot dog.
SI: What player has been the biggest foodie during your time with the Lakers? Any big foodies on the current roster?
GV: Assuming by you foodie mean epicurean, that would probably be our international players. They seem to know more about food then the Americans. Pau Gasol and [former Laker] Vladi Radmanovic know food. Derek Fisher has also developed a palette.
SI: It seems like a lot of the younger guys in the NBA, particularly rookies, don't take nutrition as seriously as they could. In many cases, they can still play at a high level with a stomach full of junk food, but it's when they get older that it becomes a problem, right? Then you look at guys, like Steve Nash for instance, that take their nutrition very seriously, and we see the result. He's 35 years old and just signed an extremely lucrative contract extension. How hard is it to convince the average NBA rookie to grasp the idea of whole grains, or even in some cases, fresh fruits and vegetables?
GV: You can't lump all the young guys into one group. Some players come in with good habits, some don't. Part of the problem is that before they get here they didn't have any money or nutritional advice. Once we get them they learn and can afford to eat well. Some take everything you say to the bank, some take some of what you say, and some don't listen and don't care until they get to the end of their careers. Their metabolism has slowed and they need to work harder to gain less. It's then that they look for any advantage and nutrition becomes pertinent.
SI: On the other side, who on the Lakers, more than anybody else, does take their nutrition particularly seriously?
GV: Derek Fisher is the most diligent on our team.
SI: If Kobe showed up before the game and ate a giant bag of McDonalds, would we notice a difference in how he played?
GV: No. I wish I could say yes, to use performance to motivate better nutrition. But the fact is, beyond some ultra-endurance events, the research has not shown “if you eat this you will perform this way.” Our approach here is that we care about you not only as a Los Angeles Laker player now, but also as a person beyond your playing days. Many of our players have heart disease and diabetes in their families. These are primary characteristics that can't be changed. Secondary characteristics of diet and exercise can be changed. This is not dieting, it is behavior modification. The earlier you do it in your life the better chance you have of living a long healthy life.
SI: Is basketball like swimming? Should you avoid eating too soon before a game? How long of a wait is appropriate?
GV: Timing of a pre-game meal depends on two things, the comfort level of the athlete and what the meal consists of. An athlete should eat not less than a hour and not more then four hours before training or competition. The invention of the gel pack can also help with ingesting more calories during competition without the complications of trying to eat real food.
SI: There was a lot of talk last season about Lamar Odom's candy consumption. First of all, was it really a problem– and second, how much of a problem can candy really cause?
GV: Lamar's candy eating story was overblown. He for sure has a sweet tooth but nothing like what was described. It's a bigger problem for his dental care then a case of the sugar blues.
GV: Cheesecake Factory seems to be a place in L.A. for post-game, because of its proximity to the hotel that many teams stay at, and it's open late. You also know what you're going to get when you go to the Cheesecake factory. It's consistent and there's no surprises.
SI: You've been in L.A. for a long time. What are some of your favorite restaurants these days?
SI: Any advice for kids out there that are playing sports and want to make sure they're eating right?
GV: There have been lots of crazy diets and trends. I believe in the Mediterranean diet and the food pyramid. Grains form the base of the pyramid, fruits and vegetables are the second tier, meat and dairy on the third tier with fats and sweets at a small section at the top. Fats and sweets are high in calories but low in nutrients so should kept to a minimum. I always followed my mother's advice, “everything in moderation.”