Tom Brady says the secret to his success includes avoiding mushrooms, tomatoes and eggplants. The New England Patriots quarterback also limits dairy, gluten, white sugar, white flour, processed sweets, condiments, alcohol and salt.
Instead, Brady eats mostly fresh, local and organic fruit and vegetables, according to his new book, “The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance.” His staples also include wild fish and free-range, hormone-free meat, along with whole grains, nuts and products from his line of snacks and protein bars.
A major motivator for his choices about food as well as about exercise, hydration, sleepwear and mental training, he writes — in sweeping statements without references or citations — is to fight inflammation and help his body absorb nutrients.
“The type of nutrition regimen you choose will either promote or reduce inflammation,” he writes. (That explains his avoidance of mushrooms and nightshades, which some people consider inflammatory.) “If I know my body will experience inflammation every Sunday during the season, the last thing I want to do is stack on more inflammation on top of it - not if I want to feel great every time I take the field.”
Could food choices actually lower inflammation and make the rest of us as strong and healthy as Brady, who has won five Super Bowls and is still starting as quarterback at age 40?
Science has yet to connect those dots, experts say, and there are reasons to be skeptical. Despite a growing body of evidence linking inflammation with a variety of illnesses, inflammation isn’t always bad. And even though the literature on food and inflammation is suggestive, the details remain murky.
“I think everyone wishes that there was one secret or a couple of secrets for making dietary changes and improving health outcomes,” says Laura Cappelli, a rheumatologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. “It’s not that simple.”
Inflammation is a useful immune-system reaction that helps fight infections. Inflammation also follows injuries and athletic exertion, like the kind Brady endures every football Sunday, leading to muscle soreness and, eventually, stronger muscles. But chronic inflammation has been linked to such illnesses as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and autoimmune conditions including arthritis.
That link has fueled the appealing idea that dietary choices might fight inflammation and reduce symptoms of disease or help us avoid getting ill altogether.
In theory, the concept of eating to reduce inflammation makes sense, says Cappelli, especially as research builds about the influence of gut microbes on the immune system. And, to be fair, there is some evidence to back up parts of Brady’s diet.
In many ways, his meal plan resembles the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked with lower rates of heart disease and death from all causes. Like Brady’s diet, the Mediterranean diet is plant-based. Less restrictive than Brady’s diet, it also emphasizes fish and whole grains over red meat and butter, and it has been associated with reduced risks of cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
But science is far less clear about which foods matter or why — despite Brady’s confident yet vague statements about the relative benefits of “alkalizing” foods over “acidifying” foods.
Nutrition is difficult to study, Cappelli says. The only definitive way to link foods with health outcomes would be with expensive, long-term studies that randomly assign large numbers of people to eat specifically designated menus in highly controlled environments. Studies more often look for associations in people’s recollections of what they eat.
Brady’s restrictive advice could even backfire for some people. Strict diets tend to fail, Zaretsky says. And some of the foods he avoids are full of vitamins and antioxidants.
One recent study found lower levels of 12 inflammatory markers in people who ate more anthocyanins (found in eggplants, blueberries and other purple foods) and lower levels of two inflammatory markers in people who ate more flavonols (in cherry tomatoes, apples, cherries and other foods).