Do NBA players need more dairy in their diets?

After a recent string of broken legs suffered by NBA players Julius Randle, of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, as well as former University of Louisville player Kevin Ware in the 2013 NCAA tournament, the Lakers PRO Nutrition Program director has placed blame on players’ nutrition.

According to an ESPN LA blog post by Baxter Holmes, Dr. Cate Shanahan said that Randle’s broken leg wasn’t just a freak accident.

“He just didn’t have enough dairy in his life,” she said. “From my perspective, there’s an epidemic of bone health problems in pro sports because guys are drinking soda instead of milk,” said Shanahan.

Shanahan believes part of the reason players aren’t drinking enough milk is due to the stigma surrounding the fat in dairy products.

“Dieticians are obsessed with calories. For some reason, they’re more obsessed about fat calories than sugar calories,” Shanahan told ESPN LA.

Dr. Matthew Pikosky, vice president of nutrition marketing and affairs for the National Dairy Council, added further insight on the subject.

“First, I must point out that as a dietitian myself, I do not believe that dietitians are concerned around the fat provided in dairy products. Given the energy needs of these elite athletes, fat is an essential part of their diet to help provide the calories they need. Additionally, for those times when additional calories may be a concern, there are low-fat and fat-free options available.”

Certainly there are other factors contributing to these accidents, said Pikosky. These athletes are big, fast and moving with so much speed and force. Those factors will play a role in the stress and strain that is placed on their joints, but overall diet, especially calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus intake, contribute to building and maintaining strong bones.

According to Pikosky, the data on milk consumption for the general U.S. population agrees with Shanahan’s decreased dairy intake beliefs.

Pikosky said adults 19 years of age and older are consuming about 1.72 servings of dairy products per day. He further stated that milk consumption of both white and flavored milk is at a rate of .87 servings per day for that age group.

“Current dietary guidelines for Americans recommend 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products for adults and children and adolescents ages 9 to 18 years. Based on current U.S. consumption data, we’re only at about half that on average,” said Pikosky.

Calcium and vitamin D requirements for adults 19 to 50 years old are 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium and 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D, respectively, said Pikosky.

“One serving of milk provides 300 mg of calcium and 100 IU of vitamin D. At three servings per day, you can see it’s definitely a major contributor,” he said.

Pikosky offered another answer for why some young athletes may suffer serious injuries in the sports arena.

“While these athletes put tons of effort into honing their craft … a lot of times nutrition is overlooked, especially in the younger athletes,” said Pikosky. “When they’re young, they have so much God-given ability, in terms of sheer athleticism. They’re able to perform just because physically they’re so much more gifted than the kids they’re playing with.”

But at the collegiate and especially the professional level, Pikosky said, nutrition plays a significant role.

“At the professional level, everyone has amazing physical ability. The athletes that have been able to sustain excellence in their health and performance for a long period of time see nutrition as an essential component of their overall training program,” he said.

Agreeing with Shanahan concerning calcium pills, Pikosky said in general the recommendation is to obtain nutrients from food rather than supplements. Milk is a great supplier of nine essential nutrients.

“Some of it has to do with the synergy of the package in which that food delivers that nutrient, so not only are you getting the calcium, but you’re also getting the vitamin D, the phosphorous, the high-quality protein,” said Pikosky.

Another potential factor in Shanahan’s “milk epidemic” might be a perceived lactose intolerance that can lead to dairy avoidance Pikosky said. Rates of medically diagnosed or confirmed lactose intolerance are not available according to Pikosky, but self-reported data in terms of perceived lactose intolerance sits at 12 percent for all Americans.

“That increases in certain ethnic groups. In African Americans, it’s at about 20 percent perceived or self-reported lactose intolerance,” said Pikosky.

In those individuals who have a problem digesting lactose, there is lactose-free milk available that provides all the nutritional benefits without the lactose, said Pikosky. It’s important for health professionals to educate athletes and the everyday consumer alike about these options as well.

“We promote dairy,” Shanahan said of the Lakers’ nutrition program team.

Shanahan reported to ESPN that the Lakers don’t downplay dairy’s role in a healthy diet. Players are served cheese, and after games Kobe Bryant drinks a low-sugar chocolate milk.  PD