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Can Endurance Athletes Benefit by Eating Like Tom Brady?

Is the diet of this Super Bowl hero a nutritional touchdown or fumble?


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Playing in his 10th Super Bowl, Brady once again defied father time, earning his seventh ring and establishing himself as the NFL’s G.O.A.T. Even at age 43, Brady appears to still have plenty of youthful swagger and shows little sign of moving to the sidelines. How? He’s quick to attribute much of his sporting longevity to a holistic approach toward health and wellness (as documented on his website and in his best-selling book). A key aspect of this approach is a dietary practice that Brady says boosts his energy levels, dampens inflammation, reduces his risk of career-shortening injuries in an injury-prone profession, and enhances performance on the field and recovery afterward. 

The Tom Brady diet—also known as the TB12 Diet—is sold as an eating plan that blends the principles of alkaline, Mediterranean, and anti-inflammatory diets. His approach to eating is what some (OK, most) people would call confining, to say the least. While the effects of the TB12 method seem evident given his successful athletic career, not all nutrition professionals are on board with some of the finer points. “There are a few things to like about his diet, such as an emphasis on eating produce, but there are many eliminations that aren’t justified by science,” said sports dietitian Leslie Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice whose clients include the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

Let’s dig into the nuts and bolts of the food that fuels the legend and if triathletes can benefit from stealing his shopping list.

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A Day of Eating for Tom Brady

Breakfast for the quarterback is typically a calorie-dense smoothie made with almond milk, various fruits, nuts, seeds, and protein powder. After his morning workout, he will gulp down another protein shake. Lunch and dinner adhere to his core principle of “mostly plants,” so are typically heavy on vegetables (ideally organic and seasonal) served with some form of protein, such as lean meats, and perhaps a whole grain like quinoa. In between meals, he is snacking on nuts and seeds, a steamy cup of bone broth, and two to three more protein shakes—plant-based milk and protein powder. Cleary, Brady’s blender gets as much of a daily workout as he does.

Plant Power

The diet plan follows a general 80/20 pattern, consisting of about 80% plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. The other 20% is animal-based, with an emphasis on fish and lean meats like chicken breast. “Flexitarian” could be another way to describe how Brady eats—not vegetarian, but also not loaded with as much meat as the Standard American Diet. 

The reason for following a plant-based diet he says is simple: plants, including dark, leafy greens and berries, are high in the nutrients, fiber, and enzymes needed to fuel active bodies, and provide those nutrients without many of the negative side-effects of ultra-processed foods.

Certainly, there is something worth grabbing onto here. “For athletes, a plant-heavy diet that is higher in antioxidant intake can lower oxidative stress, improve blood flow, and reduce indicators of inflammation,” said Bonci. “It also encourages a higher carbohydrate intake to optimize training, performance, and recovery.” And research is piling up suggesting welcoming more plants into your kitchen can be a recipe for longevity. Case in point: A recent study in the journal BMJ found that replacing red meat with high-quality plant foods, such as beans, nuts, or soy, may be associated with a lower risk of heart disease. 

Ideally, the veggies and fruit on Brady’s plate are organic and locally sourced. A noble pursuit, but Bonci stresses these stipulations are not necessary to optimize health. “And not everyone makes his salary to afford these things,” she quipped. 

Going Without

If you want to eat the Brady way, you better be ready to trim down your shopping list. 

The diet is designed to minimize or eliminate foods that are believed to provide little nutritional value, are too acidic, or cause inflammation, which will impact performance and the ability to recover from a Sunday beatdown. Gone are gluten-containing foods like wheat, dairy, corn, soy, MSG, coffee, alcohol, genetically-modified foods (GMOs), refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, and generally anything deemed processed. Based on the ingredients in the TB12 protein bars, there appears to be an allowance for foods sweetened with dried fruits like dates.

While aiming to cut back on ultra-processed foods and too much added sugar is a smart dietary move, Bonci cautioned that a lot of what Brady cuts out is not necessary for most athletes. “There is no science to show that someone without an allergy or sensitivity to gluten, soy, or dairy will experience health and performance benefits from going without.” This study found no evidence that athletes without celiac disease will experience improvements in physical performance or markers of inflammation by following a gluten-free diet. Score one for sourdough. Further, a 2017 review of 52 clinical studies reported that cow’s milk does not have inflammatory effects unless there is an allergy.

In contrast to the slew of diets that gang up on all grains, Brady’s diet does welcome gluten-free whole grains, including quinoa, oats, and brown rice, onto his menu. “This does make it easier for endurance athletes to meet their carb needs,” Bonci said. “There is only so many fruits and veggies one can eat.” 

Despite being mostly plant-based, several vegetables are excluded from the TB2 Diet. Brady shies away from eating nightshade vegetables because of the belief they are inflammatory. This means no tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, or potatoes. “This is another example of where something in this diet has absolutely no scientific justification,” noted Bonci. “These vegetables contain compounds like antioxidants that can help lower inflammation, not increase it.” 

In his book, Brady makes some bold claims about the benefits of alkaline foods and ditching items like corn, soy, and coffee—thought to work against alkalizing the body. He believes that his diet neutralizes the pH level in the body by reducing acidity. But claims about alkaline diets do not yet have any scientific evidence to support their effectiveness for health and performance. Regardless of dietary choices, our bodies already do a great job at maintaining the necessary acid balance. And, ask yourself: Are you ready to give up your pre-run espresso? 

Another rule of thumb for the diet: “If it’s in a box or a bag, it belongs there—don’t take it out.”

Again, it’s not the worst thing to cut back on your intake of overly processed packaged foods with paragraph-long ingredient lists, but to shun all boxed or bagged food is nonsensical. “There is no need to vilify canned or frozen produce as these are nutritious, budget-friendly options,” Bonci explained. Interestingly, Brady fans can find meals, bars, and powders on the TB12 website that come in a box, wrapper, and plastic tub. 

One real danger of eliminating and defaming so many foods is that it can make it harder for athletes who don’t have the means to afford a personal chef to get all the nutrition they need. Such highly regimented eating plans often end up being difficult to follow for the long-term and, in turn, become unsustainable. And for some people getting caught up in labeling foods “good” or “bad” can create an unhealthy relationship to food and may even lead to disordered eating behaviors such as orthorexia, which is an obsession with “clean” eating. “This food blaming and shaming does not help physical performance, physique or self-esteem,” Bonci concluded. 

To be fair, recent interviews suggest that Brady has become somewhat less draconian with his eating and has allowed himself more breathing room for pizza and bacon. And we can support his choice of an almond butter and jelly pre-game sandwich.  

Drinking Your Protein

When doing the math, it appears as if Brady gleans a large percentage of his daily protein from powder in the form of shakes and smoothies. “Protein shakes are easy, but there is no satisfying chew involved, and are more like drive-by eating with a risk for monotony,” said Bonci. There is nothing wrong with whipping up one or two servings of powdered protein, but most of your daily protein should come from something you chew or serve with a spoon. And before you run your blender morning to night keep in mind that with his emphasis on building the bulk needed to sustain punishing hits from hefty linebackers, Brady likely needs a higher overall protein intake than your typically triathlete. 

Water World

As the oldest quarterback in NFL history to start and win a Super Bowl, Brady begins each morning with a 20-ounce glass of water spiked with electrolytes. In fact, he downs an astounding amount of liquid—up to 25 glasses a day. The diet plan encourages drinking at least one-half of your body weight in ounces of water daily. For most athletes, Bonci believes this is a bit excessive. In general, you can tell if you are staying hydrated throughout the day if your pee is straw or lemonade in color—urinating seven or more times is another good sign you’re drinking enough. Since sleep is dehydrating, Brady’s commitment to drinking upon waking is a good habit to follow, but there is no evidence to support the notion that you should drink water 30 minutes before meals but not during meals until one hour afterward.

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Conclusions

The TB12 diet is unique in that it doesn’t use labels related to macronutrients (i.e. low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, etc.), but it still comes with a long list of restrictions and questionable science. Here are the best tidbits of Brady’s eating regimen that are worth incorporating into your diet and the principles you can put on the chopping block.

The Good

  • Up the intake of plant-based foods including colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Focus on eating minimally processed whole foods
  • Eat more fish for animal-based protein
  • Seek out locally grown foods if possible
  • Add nuts and seeds for healthy fats
  • Try to limit added sugars
  • Practice mindful eating 

The Not So Good

  • Too much protein in powder form
  • Needless restriction and elimination of certain foods
  • Relying on nutrition pseudoscience
  • Drinking a fish tank of water

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