Dwight Howard preens a few months before making massive changes in his diet (Getty Images)
Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard was hit with a shocking diagnosis during his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers last year. According to a physician working with the team’s medical staff, Howard was consuming “the equivalent of 24 Hershey bars a day” because of all the candy and glucose-rich carbonated soda he was drinking.
Dr. Cate Shanahan, in a fascinating feature by CBS Sports’ Ken Berger, described her shock at Howard’s alarming levels of glucose in his system, telling CBS that she became concerned because Howard’s sluggish play and blood work “reminded me of patients who have pre-diabetes and neurological problems because of how sugar impacts the nervous system.” A subsequent blood test revealed frightening amounts of glucose in his system.
And before you dump on the often immature Howard for continuing to gorge on sweets and soda well into his mid-to-late 20s, have some compassion and understand that Dwight showed all the signs of a sugar addict, someone who needed help more than he needed a lock on the pantry drawer. From Berger’s report:
Howard was struggling to return to form after back surgery the previous spring, and was wrestling with the enormous pressure of whether to re-sign with the Lakers as a free agent. Cate Shanahan believed his performance and recovery were being seriously compromised by his poor diet. She saw the telltale signs of sugar addiction -- spikes in energy followed by crashes and erratic motor skills that were indicative of nerves misfiring.
"I said, 'I can't live this way because it's not healthy to have this high level of sugar in me,' " Howard said. "I just made a commitment."
Like an addict, Howard had candy and sugary drinks stashed everywhere -- from his kitchen cabinets to a drawer next to his bed to the backpack he toted to games and practices. He agreed to get rid of it all and start over.
Within weeks of starting the program, Howard said his blood-glucose levels declined 80 percent. After increasing his consumption of healthy fats and decreasing processed carbs -- "No bread," Howard said -- all the blood markers that are indicative of heart health went in the right direction, too. After some initial lethargy during the detox phase, Howard said his endurance improved and his energy levels became more consistent. His body-fat percentage -- hovering around 5-6 percent his entire career -- dropped to 3 percent, he said.
"I would always tell [the Lakers] how bad I wanted to get back to being Superman," Howard said. "Their response was, 'Well, you have to sacrifice something.' "
You might recall an interview with Howard that ESPN Los Angeles’ Ramona Shelburne released midway through last season, apparently soon after he attempted to overcome his issues with the sweet stuff:
Howard said getting some extra rest over the All-Star break helped, as has a new diet he started over the break.
"I'm just making sure I don't eat as much candy and sugar so I can get in good shape," he said. "Back when I was able to play 48 minutes, I could eat anything. But now I can't."
Just how big of a candy lover is he?
"Am I a big candy person? That's an understatement," he joked. "My pantry is full of candy. Skittles just sent me 30 pounds of Skittles. I have a nightstand full of every candy you could think of. Skittles, blow pops, Laffy Taffy, Reese's Pieces, Kit Kats, all types of candy was in the drawer. They had to clear it out."
(This also, unfortunately, reminds of just why branding and business and seeking out any sort of endorsement hook for a column fodder can also leave you looking soulless and uncaring however many years later, as Darren Rovell is hopefully finding out upon looking back to the full on advertisement Rovell gave a major candy conglomerate in 2011:
The candy brand, owned by Wrigley, made a custom pinball machine featuring images of the Orlando Magic center accompanied by pictures of the candy. A slot in the front of the machine has room for about 30 packs of Skittles.
In what might be one of the most savvy moves in marketing today, Wrigley executives find its biggest, most high profile Skittles lovers and make custom dispensing machines for them.
Before he goes out on the court for each game, Howard says he pops a couple Skittles in his mouth, along with some popcorn ("Like I'm going to see a show," he says) and washes it down with some Gatorade.
Darren Rovell, or anyone else, hears this and doesn’t bother to say anything? Because Dwight Howard has huge guns? Bloody hell.)
It’s good to see that Howard has attempted to overcome his habits, because for someone that appeared to be the model of NBA health throughout his first eight seasons in Orlando, it’s somewhat shocking and more than a little concerning that he was working with such dangerously high levels of glucose in his system, and a shockingly-poor health and fitness support system in place. It’s a telling reflection on the insidious nature of corporation-designed candy and soda that someone can be in such pitch-perfect shape externally and still be suffering from the early signs of a full-blown chemical addiction.
Because these things aren’t made of pure sugar anymore. These are chemicals, designed to grab and hook.
It’s also telling that the doctor chose to use the Hershey bar as a go-to source for comparison’s sake, because amongst Hershey’s neighbors in the candy aisle, the classic confection is actually a relative lightweight. Because it’s pure chocolate, and not some unholy amalgamation of processed sugars (via caramel, nougat, peanut butter, or gummy-formed glucose-bomb), it actually ranks far down the list in terms of calories per single serving. This also allows for Dr. Shanahan to pump a few more candy bars into that “you’re eating the equivalent of …” diagnosis.
Which is good, because it influenced Dwight to change his ways. The guy can slap the top of the backboard even after jumping off of his wrong foot, but it hardly matters if his system is being polluted by all the wrong foods. This change in consumption doesn’t directly compare with Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw eliminating fast food from his locker room before games – this was something significantly more serious and dangerous.
Go the smart-aleck route all you want in reaction, especially in light of the embarrassing 2012 Orlando Magic account about how they plied Dwight to stay with the team with “all his favorite foods and candies,” but this is some serious stuff. And some pretty damning indictments of all the types that helped enhance the puffed-up Dwight Howard brand – from former trainers to teammates to journalists to team executives and owners.
At the end of the day, this is on Dwight. Still, it took nearly a decade of NBA play to discover and attempt to stop what this guy was doing to his body?
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- Dwight Howard