Dec 12, 2016Under Control
The topic of being a professional athlete while battling Crohn’s disease has been in the news lately, with Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson talking about using marijuana to treat the condition. Last year, we detailed how NBA player Larry Nance Jr. handled Crohn’s while in college.
When Larry Nance Jr. was selected in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, he joined a small group of athletes who have risen to the professional ranks despite battling Crohn’s disease. A significant factor in getting Larry to this elite level was managing his illness with a strict nutritional plan during his four years at the University of Wyoming.
Crohn’s is a chronic form of inflammatory bowel disease. It is thought to come from the body’s failure to regulate intestinal bacteria, and it affects nutrient absorption in the intestinal tract. If left unaddressed, Crohn’s can cause abdominal pain, malnutrition, lethargy, and other digestive issues.
The most important thing to know about creating a nutritional plan for an athlete with Crohn’s is that there is no “one size fits all” approach. Crohn’s symptoms are triggered by specific foods, which vary greatly among individuals. One key to managing the disease is therefore identifying these triggers.
Larry was diagnosed in high school and already knew that peanuts and most tree nuts were triggers for him by the time he arrived at Wyoming. But he hadn’t figured out all triggers or perfected his diet plan. That was what Sports Nutritionist Jackie Barcal, RD, and I hoped to do when we began working with Larry.
To start, we asked Larry to keep a food diary. After analyzing it, we recommended he increase his caloric intake, not only because of the demands of being an NCAA Division I basketball player, but also due to the malabsorption that can occur with Crohn’s. In addition, since vitamin D sufficiency has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of Crohn’s symptoms, Larry supplemented his diet with 2000 mg of vitamin D daily.
One of the major problems with Crohn’s flare-ups is that they prevent the patient from taking in enough food to maintain weight or keep energized. During Larry’s flare-ups, we tried to push items that were easy on digestion, such as soups and low-starch foods.
Jackie had many follow-up conversations and meal observations with Larry to ensure he was meeting his nutritional needs. Once we felt confident that Larry was following his plan, we provided as-needed monitoring and constructive reinforcement.
However, there were occasional bumps in the road that caused us to reevaluate or tweak Larry’s nutritional plan. One obstacle came during Larry’s first winter of college, when he had severe stomach pain and cramps for several days and lost 30 pounds in a matter of weeks. He discovered the culprit was popcorn and added it to his do-not-eat list.
Larry also sometimes struggled with making good food choices. Like most college students, he turned to fast food on occasion, and his primary vice was the Burger King Whopper. He’d usually down two in one sitting, which, if followed by more fast food, almost always induced some Crohn’s symptoms for the next couple of days. Though everyone is allowed a guilty pleasure, it was important that Jackie and I helped Larry understand the importance of a proper and, in his case, more restrictive diet for performance and health.
One of the major problems with these kinds of Crohn’s flare-ups is that they prevent the patient from taking in enough food to maintain weight or keep energized. During Larry’s flare-ups, we tried to push items that were easy on digestion, such as soups and low-starch foods.
The final obstacle we faced in managing Larry’s condition had more to do with the ups and downs of college athletics than with the disease itself. Larry returned from ACL reconstruction surgery early in the 2014-15 season, and a high-protein diet was pivotal in providing him with the necessary nutrients for energy, muscle building, and recovery.
Later in the season, Larry contracted mononucleosis, missing four games and losing 20 pounds. Getting calories back in him through protein shakes and other nutrient-dense foods was instrumental in his return to the court.
Though Crohn’s may seem like a lot to handle, if treated correctly and managed with proper nutrition, athletes with this disease can excel just as much as their teammates, if not more. In Larry’s case, despite all the complications of Crohn’s, he grew from a 205-pound role-playing freshman to a 230-pound first team all-conference senior and NBA draft pick. Now, he’s looking forward to continued success with the Lakers.
The following article appears in the July/August 2015 of Training & Conditioning.