Fat or fit? These ‘obese’ athletes are proud of their extra pounds

CNN  — 

For a brief 10-minute spell at LA’s Staples Center earlier this month, one imposing NBA player got busy throwing his weight around – literally.

The man known as “Big Baby” – all 206 centimeters and 131 kilograms (6’9”, 289 lbs) of him – contorted his body to sink improbable layups, dive for loose balls, rebound, block shots and turn into an all-around disruptive force for the Clippers in a win-or-go-home victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

A week later at Tropicana Field in Tampa, a 201 cm, 138 kg (6’7”, 304 lbs) behemoth named C.C. Sabathia struck out nine batters in seven innings to clinch a win for the league-leading New York Yankees. The pitcher’s protruding belly shook like a washing machine on fast spin after each delivery.

In an era where top athletes obsess over body fat and favor kale smoothies over traditional pregame pasta, Sabathia and Glen “Big Baby” Davis are two of a handful of professional athletes thriving in spite of their girth.

“People look down on them, because they say they shouldn’t be out there,” Ollie le Roux, a former South Africa rugby international, told CNN. “But the nice thing about the big guy, the fat guy, the guy that doesn’t look athletic, is that when he runs over the little guy that looks like a superstar, it makes it more human.”

“It’s amazing to watch guys like Michael Jordan as well, but you don’t relate to them on a physical level like you do the overweight guy,” adds le Roux, who tipped the scales at 137 kg (302 lbs) during the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

For professional athletes, however, registering as overweight on the body mass index (BMI) – an overly simplified health indicator that divides a person’s weight by the square of their height – does have its disadvantages.

“There’s a perception that to be an athlete you need to be a specific weight and a specific size,” says Adebayo Akinfenwa, a striker for English club AFC Wimbledon nicknamed “The Beast.” “I think (my size) has been a hindrance in terms of perception.”

The 33-year-old has an unusually stocky frame for a footballer, packing 105 kg (231 lbs) into a height of 180 cm (5’11”). Although he’s considered the strongest man in football according to the FIFA 15 video game, his BMI of 32 classifies him as obese (the breaking point is 30). BMI detractors note that the index does not distinguish between fat and muscle.

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Despite his fairly prolific scoring record of 15 goals in 52 appearances for the fourth-tier team – including one in a defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup – Akinfenwa has bounced around the lower divisions throughout his career. His size and strength have proved beneficial to his physical style, but the pace of Premier League football would likely prove too demanding.

“There are things that I’m very good at, and that’s because of my size. And there are things that I’m not so good at, because of my size,” he says.

“There’s nobody stronger than me,” he adds. “You know, when it comes to a 50-50 (challenge), there is only going to be one winner. And that’s purely because of my size; I have more muscle mass than the average footballer.

“The thing that is a negative is being able to run away from defenders. Because of my size, I can’t run consistently for 90 minutes, which somebody who is much smaller than me will be able to do. So there are pros and cons.”

Despite proving his doubters wrong by scoring 152 career goals in 14 seasons so far, Akinfenwa admits he may have done even better had he watched what he ate.

“I’m not going to lie, I don’t calorie count,” he says, noting that he is partial to the home cooking of his Nigerian heritage. “I built my size purely by eating chicken and going to the gym.”

“I am not that (obsessive) on dietary (needs), but at the same time I’m not against it because I know I didn’t make it to the promised land of the Premiership elite. If I tweaked my diet when I was younger, who knows what would have happened?”

Although fastidious dieting has taken on a new level of popularity in sports as far ranging as golf, tennis, basketball and cricket, some athletes who tried shedding the pounds actually performed worse.

Sabathia, one of the most effective pitchers in baseball over the past decade, hired a chef to put him on a low-carb diet two seasons ago in an attempt to lengthen his career.

Despite shedding over 20 kg (44 lbs) off his frame and looking noticeably lighter, Sabathia lost velocity on his fastball and suffered two disappointing seasons before undergoing knee surgery.

As part of his recovery, the 34-year-old ordered his chef to double his protein intake and reintroduce carbs to his meals, taking him back up to his ideal game weight of 138 kg (304 lbs). Although his 1-5 start to the season has been rocky, Sabathia said he has regained his balance and strength on the mound.

NBA star Davis, who was raised on the rich cuisine of his native Louisiana, has experimented with different diets – even going vegan for a few weeks. His new online cooking show creates traditional recipes of the South using gluten-free and other healthy options.

Baseball slugger Prince Fielder, who tips the scales at 125 kg (276 lbs), has long considered himself a vegetarian. Though fast approaching a career mark of 300 home runs, the 31-year-old Texas Ranger would probably do himself a favor by eating seafood and fatty meats (including free-range bacon), while cutting out bread, salt and sugary drinks, according to dietary researchers.

“Obviously they are (succeeding), but there is a cost, of course,” says Timothy Noakes, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. “Their long-term health is going to be a problem.”

Noakes recently co-wrote a report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which concluded that diet is almost entirely responsible for a person’s health, regardless of physical activity (the report generated controversy within the profession). An avid runner himself, he completed over 70 marathons before discovering he had type 2 diabetes.

For 33 years, the South African academic adhered to the conventional wisdom that carb intake and sugary energy drinks were ideal for performance. Unfortunately, Noakes had a family history of diabetes and a genetic disposition for his body to become insulin resistant, storing carbohydrates as fat instead of burning them.

“I realized that carbohydrates gave me diabetes,” he says. “I was addicted to bread and sports drinks.”

Noakes now preaches a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet, variations of which are rapidly gaining popularity throughout sports.

“We accept that you might not be able to perform explosively quite as well when you are not taking carbohydrates,” he says, “but your whole body is healed, you train better, you recover better, you get fewer injuries, you get fewer infections, and so you are on the court more often than not.”

Noakes even advocates LCHF as a way of maintaining concentration during competition, noting that carb and sugar intake affect an athlete’s glucose levels, which can be distracting.

He points to the success of the Australian cricket team, many of whom took on LCHF last year and went on to win the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

“Cricket is like baseball,” Noakes says. “You’ve got to concentrate for 10 seconds and then you relax, and then you concentrate. And that switching on and switching off is affected by carbohydrates and sugar, in my view. It’s the same in golf.”

Indeed, English golfer Justin Rose credited his recent second-place Masters finish on a gluten-free diet (banning wheat and most grains) that allowed him to lose eight to 10 pounds.

“My joints feel amazing, no soreness, no early morning creaks,” he told ESPN. “It has been amazing. I’m still training and still lifting in the gym and have kept my strength up. It’s just the unwanted stuff that’s disappeared.”

Rose took his lead from tennis star Novak Djokovic. Although the Serb had won an Australian Open in 2008, he often faded during long matches before discovering he had a gluten intolerance in 2010. Now known as one of the fittest players in the circuit, the world No. 1 has credited his gluten-free diet with helping him win nine further majors.

Four-time NBA most valuable player LeBron James went on his own no sugar, no dairy, no carb diet for 67 days last year to shed pounds and adopt a faster pace leading up to the 2014-2015 season.

In his playing days, rugby international le Roux says carb loading was preached by the team trainers – a practice he reflects on as damaging to his career. He would often stuff himself with bacon and eggs in the morning, followed by a lunch of potatoes and pasta washed down with energy drinks. After games, the team would be served steaks as a treat.

Now coaching at club level, the 42-year-old chicken farmer stays active by competing in Ironman triathlons, although his training regimen is completely different. After undergoing surgery to replace damaged cartilage in his hip with metal plates, le Roux began experimenting with different diets, including the now trendy Paleo diet (named for the Paleolithic Era), the Daniel Fast, and the Banting diet, a variation of LCHF.

All of the diets required him to give up the carbs and sugars which were a staple during his playing career, a process which le Roux found excruciatingly difficult (though he admits to knocking back the occasional beer).

“Carbohydrate addiction is as bad as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day,” he says, adding that his waist size dropped from a 46 to a 40 shortly after he went back into training.

Had he known then what he knows now, le Roux thinks he would have been better equipped to handle the physical toll rugby inflicted on his body.

“I would have been lighter and extremely powerful, and that constant pain I got dealing with inflammation would have been much better,” he says. “I would have had much less stress on my body.”

Still, le Roux will always have a soft spot for the larger-than-life competitor, no matter what diet the athlete is on.

“I root for the guys that shouldn’t make it,” he says, “and the fat guys normally shouldn’t make it.”

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