Before you write an angry comment for my title being click bait, hear me out. Yes, I admit the title was intended to grab your attention. No, I don’t think you’ll prevent Tommy John surgery by ONLY consuming bone broth. That is of course, ridiculous.
But I do think it’s part of a solution that very few doctors, coaches and trainers understand. In fact, I think it could be the missing piece of the puzzle that continues to confound experts as to why Tommy John surgery is increasing at an alarming rate.
Let me explain.
There was a time when if you heard the name “Tommy John,” you’d immediately think of the pitcher that won 288 games over a 26 year career from the early 60s to the late 80s. Growing up on Long Island I caught the tail end of his career with the Yankees.
I can’t remember the exact year but I remember Phil Rizzuto (the Yankees TV announcer at the time) getting all worked up in classic Phil Rizzuto fashion when John was pitching extremely well for a stretch. I can still hear him now… “HOLY COW that Tommy John’s still got it!” John’s career stats page on Baseball-Reference tells me this was probably 1987 because his record was 13-6, which at age 44 is really impressive!
The point is, nowadays, if you hear the name “Tommy John” most people immediately hear “surgery” attached to the end of that name.
In case you’re not aware, Tommy John was the first person to ever receive ulnar lateral ligament reconstruction surgery in 1974, which at the time was an experimental surgery. The technique replaces the ulnar lateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon from another part of the body. Prior to 1974, when a pitcher tore his elbow ligament, his career was pretty much over. The doctor who pioneered the surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe, gave John a 1 in 100 chance of ever pitching again. But pitch again he did, quite successfully for another 14 years afterwards. In time, the surgery simply became known as “Tommy John surgery.”
But it took a while for that to happen. It was only used sparingly in the next decade or so on the few pitchers that required it. In fact, for the rest of the 1970s, only two major league pitchers had the procedure performed (and one of them never pitched again). In the 1980s, 31 total players had the surgery including Paul Molitor, the first non-pitcher to ever have the surgery. In the 1990s that number rose to 88 (including 6 non-pitchers). Source
But in recent years, there’s been an astronomical rise in the need for the surgery, especially in young kids, so much so that now the words “Tommy John” and “surgery” are almost always synonymous.
In 2014, the number of major league and minor league pitchers that had Tommy John surgery was MORE than all pitchers combined that had the surgery from 1990-2000. Source
Between 2012 and 2016, an average of about 30 major league players per year had the surgery and 26% of all active MLB pitchers today have had Tommy John surgery. Source
But here’s where it starts to get even more frightening…
A 2015 study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that 57% of all TJ surgeries were performed on athletes from ages 15-19 with that rate increasing at 6% per year.
It’s become so common in teenagers that many parents and even coaches think the surgery should be performed ON PURPOSE, even when there’s no damage to the elbow, because of the mistaken belief that it strengthens the ligament and increases performance.
Part of this insanity may be that the media often profiles the MLB success stories, especially those that return to an All-star level of play. However, while it does save many careers, and that’s a good thing, it doesn’t save everyone. The media rarely lets you know that the procedure is far from perfect.
Because of this epidemic, baseball executives, coaches and former players, worried about the future of their sport, have been scrambling to figure out how to prevent Tommy John surgery.
Most of the experts say it’s one or some combination of these causes–throwing too hard at too young of an age, throwing too often at too young of an age, throwing too many curveballs at too young of an age and poor mechanics.
But the ROOT cause of it all is the fact that sports has become BIG business in America. Professional athletes can now make millions of dollars. As a result, youth sports have become a highly competitive environment where parents, coaches, scouts, universities, and sports-related businesses like shoe and apparel companies are all looking to cash in.
Kids are now asked to specialize in one sport year-round, join travel teams and practice obsessively.
Overtraining and overuse is leading to more and more injuries at younger and younger ages. This includes a lot more than just Tommy John surgery. Muscle strains, stress fractures, sprained and torn ligaments (especially ACLs) are on the rise in young athletes as well as they’re being pushed by a sports culture that tells you to follow your dreams and that with enough perseverance, hard work and training, you’ll be the one to defy the odds and make it big. The reality is that very few make it to the professional level. For young baseball pitchers especially, the results can be tragic.
As important as it is to recognize and address the culture around youth sports, there’s one other piece of the puzzle that rarely, if ever gets discussed.
I watch MLB network every now and then and not too long ago they had a panel of ex-players, pitching coaches and orthopedic doctors to discuss the reasons for the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries.
Not a word was spoken about diet. NOT ONE.
That said, if you were to get some sort of consensus from experts in the sports world (athletes, trainers, coaches, etc.) they’d probably say something like this…
Eat more veggies, consume less saturated fat and cholesterol by eating less dairy and red meat, eat good protein from lean meat from fish and chicken and get your good fats (the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) from olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
Basically, eat a low-fat, high-protein diet. Athlete after athlete, trainer after trainer, website after website recommends some version of this.
Now compared to the standard American diet (SAD) of highly processed junk food, sweets and soda, this is not a terrible dietary recommendation. But it may not be the best prescription for the health of bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. After all, fats help lubricate and protect joints, cushion internal organs, aid in tissue healing and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Two of those, vitamins D and K play essential roles in regulating calcium levels and bone metabolism.
Cholesterol also plays roles in the tissue healing process and is vital for brain and nerve function. Furthermore, it’s a building block of cell membranes, sex hormones and vitamin D, all of which are vital to the growth and development of children.
Michael Rothman MD, who is a board certified in both Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine and has over 10 years of experience as a holistic doctor offers this perspective…
The low saturated fat, low cholesterol, high carbohydrate diet being recommended by the mainstream not only is causing higher incidences of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and strokes, but is also contributing to weakened connective tissue and UCL tears necessitating Tommy John surgery.
It is a scientific fact that saturated fat and cholesterol actually help to rebuild and repair and strengthen connective tissue. Therefore persons adhering to a low saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet will suffer from the conditions and diseases related to loss of strength of connective tissue. Unfortunately, a vast majority of mainstream doctors, nutritionists, trainers, dietitians and other “experts” are extolling the virtues of consuming unsaturated fats as “the good fats”. These unsaturated fats (found in things like fish oil, avocados, nuts and seeds) cause a weakening of connective tissue.
All of the high tech solutions being recommended in the mainstream to reduce the incidence of Tommy John surgery will be fruitless, if these young athletes continue to eat low saturated fat, low-cholesterol diets. Source
If that sounds crazy to you, check out any of these resources for a more thorough discussion on the myths of saturated fat and cholesterol:
In his 2001 book, How I Play Golf, Tiger Woods discusses his diet and touts avoiding red meat, eating egg whites, consuming skim milk and well, basically, a high protein-low-fat diet. This website gives a brief overview of Woods’ daily diet which also includes Gatorade, a sports drink full of chemicals and sugar.
Multiple knee and back surgeries have derailed Tiger’s career since 2008.
Now I’m not saying Woods’ diet was the only cause. After all, he has an extremely violent swing that places enormous stress on his body. But I don’t think a low-fat high, protein-diet was doing his body any favors, especially when he started bulking up. Woods put on a lot of muscle due to an intense workout routine that many feel was not necessary for playing golf at a high level. Just take a look at any pic of Tiger when we won the Masters in 1997 compared to today.
Let me give you one more example.
Because I’m a New York sports fan I still listen to WFAN sports radio and regularly follow my hometown teams. So I can’t help but think of New York Mets pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, also known as “Thor” for his long blonde hair and Nordic superhero-esque build.
After the 2016 season, Noah Syndergaard, naturally tall and muscular, put on 15 pounds of additional muscle through an intense workout routine and a high protein diet. He tore a lat muscle in the first month of the season and was out for most of the year.
Tiger Woods and Noah Syndergaard are just two small examples but I see so many similar stories throughout the sports world. But I also see things changing for the better too.
Not everyone is recommending outdated low-fat nutrition programs anymore. There is a turning of the tide back to a more balanced, commonsense, real food approach.
That’s why I was so thrilled to find that someone had written a book promoting real, traditional foods to prevent Tommy John surgery in young athletes.
And here’s the really cool part…
This person just happens to be Tommy John’s son, Dr. Tommy John, a chiropractor and sports trainer who’s been working with young athletes for over 17 years, helping them train properly to avoid serious injury. His new book lays out a detailed and specific plan to help not just young athletes but also parents understand how to prevent sports-related injuries.
I was made aware of the book through Dr. Tommy John’s sister, Tamara, who I’d met many years earlier at a Weston Price conference and who runs the very popular real food blog, Oh Lardy. When she told me he was writing a book for how to prevent Tommy John surgery and that part of protocol was nutrition-related, I couldn’t wait to read it.
Dr. John’s protocol is divided into four parts and one of those is called “Replenish” and is all about proper nutrition and diet. I want to highlight a few of his tips in this section to illustrate how different his approach is compared to the mainstream.
1. Stop consuming sports and energy drinks
Yes! Please stop giving your kids these things. Just look at the ingredients. They’re full of artificial colors, sugar and chemicals. Their widespread use is due to slick marketing campaigns targeted at kids and not because of any nutritional benefits.
2. Proper hydration not over hydration
While it’s true many kids are not adequately hydrated, the pendulum has swung too far in the fitness and sports world where kids (and adults) are overdoing it with this idea that you have to walk around drinking large quantities of water all day. Too much water can create imbalances in the body by diluting other key nutrients.
The key as Dr. John points out is PROPER hydration. That includes consuming water-rich foods and consuming mineral-rich drinks with natural electrolytes such as herbal teas and kombucha. Dr. John even includes a great recipe for a simple and natural homemade sports drink that consists of lemon, lime, sea salt, honey and apple cider vinegar.
3. Good quality proteins and fats from clean sources
This includes eggs, meats, butter, coconut oil and even lard. Yes, lard. If that sounds crazy, consider these 7 reasons why you should eat lard.
Regarding fats, Dr. John says, “The right type of healthy fats is crucial for brain growth, nerve development, and hormone balance – and plays a major factor when it comes to children’s overall sports performance.”
Regarding protein, “Your kids’ body desperately needs protein for repair, recovery and regeneration so they will always come back to the field or court an even better version of themselves than when they walked off it – so, which building blocks are you going to give them? A processed hot dog filled with who knows what – or a clean, hormone-free source of animal protein that will give their body the best building blocks possible?”
I love love LOVE that Dr. John makes the connection between real farms, with plants and animals raised in proper environments, and the health of our kids. I wish more of the experts would promote this. I think many are aware but may be silenced by the TV networks and MLB franchises which get tons of advertising and sponsorship money from processed food companies. Just got to any MLB ballpark and check out the food choices. It’s an absolute joke. Nothing but junk food.
But the next tip is the one I love most…
4. Make and consume homemade bone broth and soup regularly
Hallelujah! Finally, someone who gets how important this food is to our body.
Dr. John recommends a long, slow cooking method, in the traditional manner, to leach the nutrients from bones and other animal parts attached to bones. These contain key nutrients for healthy bones, joints, tendons and ligaments such as minerals, proteoglycans like chondroitin sulfates, glucosamine, glutamine, glycine and proline. Some of these nutrients are popular in pricey supplement form, however consuming them in whole food form, as Nature intended, and as cultures around the globe have done for centuries is a much better choice.
In Nourishing Broth, Sally Fallon writes…
What if everything we’ve ever been taught about sports nutrition is wrong? What if all that lean protein brings short-term benefits but long-term harm? What if the simple step of drinking broth every day could optimize the health and longevity of bodybuilders, strength trainers, athletes, joggers, jocks, spinners, skaters, and weekend warriors?
And that is exactly what Dr. John recommends, a cup every day or so for strengthening bones and protecting joints.
Of course, these tips are just some of the basics and Dr. Tommy John goes into a lot more detail for how to personalize the diet for your young athlete, including sample meal plans.
Nor is this book just about diet. In fact, diet is just one part of the overall plan.
Though I’m taking the angle of preventing Tommy John surgery in this blog post I want to be clear that Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance is more of a holistic approach to preventing ALL types of injuries. Of course, the surgery that has become synonymous with his father’s name is certainly emphasized. But the book is so much more than just that.
It’s also a wake up call to the parents of young athletes. Because parents need to be aware just as much, if not more than their children.
In addition to proper diet here’s a few more things you’ll learn in Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance:
I really can’t recommend this book enough! If you’re a parent to a young athlete it’s an absolute MUST READ. Pick up a copy as soon as possible and start educating yourself to help your child not just excel in sports, but more importantly, stay healthy in the long run.
Click here to order a copy from Amazon right now or just click on the cover below. I promise you’ll be glad that you did.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.