New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, winner of five Super Bowls, is one of the greatest athletes of all time. He’s also a peddler of baseless health claims, including in his 2017 exercise and diet book, The TB12 Method.
These principles, developed with his controversial friend, “body coach,” and business partner Alex Guerrero, include doing exercises and massages that supposedly increase “muscle pliability” (a concept exercise scientists say is bogus).
But it’s Brady’s diet — and the TB12-branded nutritional bars and dietary supplements prominently featured throughout the book — that he believes truly underpins his success as an athlete.
“It really doesn’t matter how much exercise you do,” Brady writes, “if you’re not eating the right food and providing your body the right nutrients.”
For Brady, the “right foods” are “alkalizing” and “anti-inflammatory.” Alkaline foods lower his pH level, he writes, which can help with a range of ailments, from boosting low energy to preventing bone fractures. (He’s wrong here.) Anti-inflammatory foods, meanwhile, supposedly enhance athletic performance and help speed recovery.
Unfortunately, with this book, Brady joins the club of diet gurus selling pseudoscience and woo about the body and nutrition. There’s no evidence that following Brady’s diet will turn his readers into “sustained peak performers” or do the specific things he claims — like rebalance the body’s pH level. (Your lungs and kidneys do that.) And while it may be true that the diet and “muscle pliability” routine help Brady stay strong and healthy, it’s probably not working for the reasons he suggests.
What Tom Brady eats and what he claims it does for him
Brady eats a mostly organic, local, and plant-based diet with no highly processed foods. In the morning, he starts with 20 ounces of “water with electrolytes,” then a fruit smoothie, and after working out, more water and a protein shake. Lunch is typically fish and vegetables. Afternoon snacks consist of fruits, protein bars, and more protein shakes; dinners include more vegetables and sometimes soup broth.
Even more notable than what Brady eats is what he doesn’t. He avoids alcohol, as well as gluten-containing bread and pasta, breakfast cereal, corn, dairy, foods that contain GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, sugar, artificial sweeteners, soy, fruit juice, grain-based foods, jams and jellies, most cooking oils, frozen dinners, salty snacks, sugary snacks, sweetened drinks, white potatoes, and prepackaged condiments like ketchup and soy sauce.
The list of restrictions and preferences doesn’t end there. Here’s Brady’s personal chef, Allen Campbell, describing the football star’s list of very specific food preferences and no-nos to the Boston Globe in 2016:
No white sugar. No white flour. No MSG. I’ll use raw olive oil, but I never cook with olive oil. I only cook with coconut oil. Fats like canola oil turn into trans fats. ... I use Himalayan pink salt as the sodium. I never use iodized salt. ... What else? No coffee. No caffeine. No fungus. No dairy.
Even certain vegetables and fruits are off limits. Brady doesn’t eat nightshade vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants.
The reason he has all these food restrictions — and even vilifies tomatoes — is because he follows an anti-inflammatory diet, and one made up of mostly “alkaline” foods.
An anti-inflammatory diet, Brady suggests, explains his success as an athlete:
Some younger players don’t give too much thought to nutrition. They think they can eat anything they want, and their bodies will burn off the damage. The problem is that by eating inflammatory foods, they’re eating things that create inflammation on top of the weight lifting they’ve done on top of the football game they just played on Sunday. That’s an inflammation response times three. As I said, 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.
Making sure about 80 percent of his calories come from alkaline foods “helps the body thrive, whereas eating too many acidifying foods leads to a condition called acidosis, which makes us more prone to infections, colds, flu, low energy, fatigue, sore muscles, joint pain, hip fractures, bone spurs, poor concentration, and mood swings.”
Why his diet claims are mostly baseless
Before we go any further, let’s just be clear: There’s nothing wrong with Brady’s diet. While he takes some of the food restrictions to the extreme (like the ban on eggplant, tomatoes, and bread), cutting down on junk food, sugar, and alcohol while loading up on fruits and vegetables is always a good idea.
But there are many problems with the claims Brady makes about the diet’s effects. There’s no good scientific evidence that the diet does the specific things he claims: neutralize the body’s pH level or improve muscle recovery.
For example, let’s first address his claims about acidic and alkaline foods. Brady suggests that by avoiding certain acidifying foods, like meat, refined grains, or ketchup, you can control your body’s pH balance and improve your health and athletic performance.
The problem here is that pH balance, like the body’s temperature, is very tightly regulated, and diet has little to no impact on it. Instead, your lungs and kidneys keep the body’s pH in check automatically.
“It’s next to impossible — in fact, I can’t think of an instance — where people have been able to change their blood pH with diet,” Stuart Phillips, a professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University, told me. “So there’s zero foundation for the notion that alkaline and acid foods [are] able to do anything to your body.”
“If you actually eat a bunch of baking soda — even if you do that — you don’t change [the pH level] that much,” said Mayo Clinic exercise researcher Michael Joyner.
That means that while avoiding “acidifying” foods may feel good for Brady, it’s not actually going to alter his pH level.
Next, Brady suggests an anti-inflammatory diet helps him stay healthy and recover quickly on the field. Before we go into that, let’s step back and talk about what inflammation is. You can think about inflammation in the body in two ways. There’s helpful inflammation, as with your body’s immune response to an attack by a foreign invader — your skin reddens and heats up to fight off bacteria in a cut.
There’s also harmful, or chronic, inflammation: when your body’s inflammatory response goes into overdrive, hampering its ability to fight off viruses and disease. One measure of this is a blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP). Researchers have found associations between higher levels of CRP and various chronic illnesses, including cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. People who are inactive or obese or who eat an unhealthy diet seem to have higher levels of CRP in their systems too.
So unlike the pH level in the body, there are many ways to reduce chronic inflammation. A good amount of exercise, weight management, and medications can all help — as can diet. The idea behind anti-inflammatory diets is that they focus on foods that reduce harmful inflammation in the body and stave off illnesses like colorectal cancer.
But anti-inflammatory diets aren’t nearly as restrictive as the one Brady promotes, as I’ve written before. There’s also no evidence that these diets boost athletic performance, said Phillips: “I don’t know a morsel of new scientific knowledge [supporting] what Tom Brady would like for you, that his dietary practice is linked to his career longevity or his success as an athlete.”
The only post-exercise diet that’s been shown to speed recovery, Joyner noted, is getting enough carbohydrates to replenish glycogen that’s been depleted after a workout, or protein to help with muscle building. “That’s been clearly demonstrated,” Joyner added, but anything beyond that hasn’t been.
Instead, he thinks the reason for Brady’s success is better explained by the fact that he’s able to adhere to a healthy diet while avoiding weight gain and serious injury; the specifics of the diet matter less. “The one thing that works is consistency and adherence,” Joyner said. So Brady’s diet may indeed work for him — but not for the reasons he thinks it does.
“Muscle pliability” is another invented health concept
In addition to the dubious diet and nutrition claims, the book also expounds on a concept called “muscle pliability.” Muscle pliability is different from flexibility, Brady writes. Pliability is “all about lengthening and softening the muscles,” and it can be achieved through “deep-force muscle work.”
Brady says Guerrero, fitness guru friend, does special pliability-enhancing massages, as Brady “rhythmically contracts and relaxes” each muscle. In addition to helping athletes achieve peak performance, Guerrero and Brady believe this can cure many common injuries, from tennis elbow to lower back pain.
When I asked exercise scientists about the concept, they said they’d never heard of it. They also advised against trying to soften one’s muscles. “The last thing an athlete wants is a soft muscle,” Phillips said, explaining that muscles only go soft when they’re underused.
“After doing nutrition and exercise research for almost 25 years,” Phillips summed up, “there’s lots of examples where people who are successful athletes have attributed their success to one practice or another. But the main point is if you pull it back and start to look at the science that underpins what people are saying, there is none there.”
There’s one other explanation for Brady’s lack of injuries that has nothing to do with nutrition or muscle composition: A recent analysis in the Washington Post found that he gets hit at about half the average rate NFL quarterbacks endure.
Brady’s health guru has faced FTC allegations
So why is Brady selling such woo? Again, it may work for him and he’s long wanted to share his approach to help other people.
But the unreliable science behind Brady’s routine can be explained at least in part by the fact that Guerrero is behind it. Guerrero has been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for falsely presenting himself as a medical doctor, and for promoting bogus nutritional supplements.
According to the Boston Globe, Guerrero once marketed a drink “that protects your brain from the consequences of sports-related traumatic brain injury,” which Brady endorsed. Together, the pair opened up the TB12 Sports Therapy Center, outside the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, which brings many of the concepts outlined in the book to life for athletes seeking a fix. So the book is just the latest fruit of a dubious partnership — one that has the whiff of science without actually having anything to do with it.