What’s the biggest challenge you face preventing you from reaching your true potential? It's a question I ask professional poker players all the time.
Do you know what one of their most common answers is? Diet.
Finding the right dietary balance is tough under normal circumstances, but it can be even more difficult for professional poker players. If you play online, for example, you could spend more than 12 hours, stationary, staring at a computer screen.
Travelling the live circuit also has its challenges. Removed from your natural habitat, and living ostensibly in hotel rooms, it becomes extremely complicated to acquire the right foods and the tools needed for cooking.
It’s tough. But, not impossible.
But where do you start? Do you dive straight into the vegan lifestyle like Daniel Negreanu and Andrew Lichtenberger? Do you use a significant portion of your bankroll to have Whole Foods on speed dial?
Do you want my advice?
Start with the liver.
It wasn’t that long ago that my diet was having a horrific impact on my productivity both on and off the tables. Then one day I learned about the importance of the liver through an amazing young woman called Dr. Sandra Cabot. I bought her book: The Liver Cleansing Diet: Love Your Liver and Live Longer and decided to follow her eight-week eating plan.
It revolutionised my thinking around food and placed the health of my liver as priority number one. As a result, I lost a ton of weight, witnessed significant changes to the quality of my skin, and found bundles of energy.
And I am not alone. The greatest poker players in the world are all finding a change in dietary habits key to a lasting wellness away from the felt and super charged behaviour on it. Daniel Negreanu has often spoken about the importance of his diet, Andrew Lichtenberger talks about the importance of food in his book The Yoga of Poker, and former World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Champion, Martin Jacobson extolls the virtues of a healthy diet in his documentary ’10 For 10.’
And they all have one thing in common without even realising it. They all follow healthy eating plans that are kind to their livers.
Why Focus on The Liver?
The liver is both the largest gland and organ in the human body. Mother nature designed it to remove toxic matter from our bodies such as cancerous cells, fat globules, and other forms of crap that flows through our bloodstream wreaking havoc on our bodies.
Many of the nasty chemicals that enter our blood stream can only pass through once converted from fat-soluble chemicals to water-soluble chemicals. It's the liver's job to do this. Once finished the toxins leave our system through bile, sweat, saliva and urine.
If you overwork your liver, because you have an excess mass of these toxins, there can be a build-up leading to a whole host of nasty ailments such as inflammatory disease, chronic fatigue and auto-immune deficiencies.
These problems are especially prevalent in poker players and poor dietary choices are the primary reasons for this. Sitting at a table suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, gas, and tiredness is not the design of a winner.
So how do you turn it around?
I followed Dr. Cabot’s eight week Liver Cleansing Diet (LCD), and you can to. It wasn't easy. During my eight weeks, I continued to travel around the poker circuit, including a stint in Paris where I struggled to communicate with non-English speaking locals in the supermarket. But my determination to be a winner both on the tables and in life ensured I never waivered.
Here are the important points I learned throughout those incredible two months. I call them the 'Not So Crazy Eight'
I started to feel the need to eat less around the sixth week. The desire was gone. I later learned the reason behind this change was a lack of processed foods and sugar in my diet. These addictive substances were creating a chemical desire to eat more. Without them, I was satiated quicker, and it was rare that I felt the need to eat.
The late Allen Carr is a man responsible for saving the lives of millions of people, and yet you might not have heard of him. He wrote the best-selling book Easyway to Stop Smoking. Later, he would also write the Easyway to Control Alcohol, and the Easyway to Lose Weight.
`From his book on weight loss:
"The vast majority of the meals we eat in our lives are not so much a matter of personal choice, as a result of conditioning by birth."
Mother nature created hunger so we would understand when to eat. She also created a satiated feeling, so we would know when to stop. Except for domesticated animals and animals who have to overeat to prepare for hibernation, we are the only species that wantonly overeats.
This gluttonous behaviour places incredible pressure on the liver, which in turns reduces its effectiveness at breaking down toxic chemicals, allowing more of them to remain in the blood stream.
Andrew Lichtenberger is recognised as one of the greatest players of his generation but not many people know he suffered from a variety of different ailments all related to his dietary choices. Over time he stopped eating processed foods, and embraced a whole foods diet. His body changed. He only ate when he was hungry, and he wasn’t feeling hungry as often as he used to.
“I wasn’t as hungry because of the reserves of energy being produced by my choice of whole foods,” said Lichtenberger, “The difference when compared to processed foods is profound. So much of this over processed food is devoid of the healthy nutrients needed to power your body so of course you are always feeling the desire to eat more.”
Only eat when you are hungry.
Stop eating when you are not.
Ban The Booze
It's better to eradicate alcohol completely during your eight-week LCD. However, you can drink sparingly, but you have to increase the time you are on the diet each time you do.
When I took the LCD, I had already stopped drinking alcohol. I was an addict. It had taken over my life. All the walls were tumbling down, including the ones protecting my poker.
The liver has tremendous difficulty breaking down alcohol. It produces oxidative stress. Cell damage occurs, and this leads to inflammation, and in severe cases cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol also plays havoc with our intestines. The result of which is an increase in nasty gut bacteria in the liver, leading to the same problems described above.
If you drink alcohol regularly, you are increasing the risk of developing liver disease.
How can your liver - the most important organ in the body - function at its optimum capability if it's scarred or diseased?
Not only will alcohol directly impact your liver and your performance at the tables, the addictive nature of the substance can also lead to the use of other drugs, as was the case with the former World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Champion, Greg Merson.
“Alcohol is a gateway drug, and in some ways it’s one of the worse because it’s so socially acceptable.” Said Merson, “It is a slow, deliberate disease that exists in a class of its own because if its acceptability as part of the ‘normality’ of life. I definitely believe alcohol contributed towards my relapse.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) website, in 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight, and 600 million were obese. 42 million children were obese under the age of five. For the first time in history, we are looking at an incredible shift where more people are dying of obesity-related diseases than malnutrition.
In the stunning book Fat Chance by Robert Lustig, he writes:
"Over the next 15-years, the diseases created by the food we eat will cost low-middle income countries more than $7 trillion."
Food is not only life sustaining anymore. It has been engineered to be an addictive substance. The quality of what we put in our mouths determines the quantity of what we eat. The main reason for these problems is sugar.
Stressed is Desserts spelt backwards.
In a recent podcast on Bulletproof Radio, David Ludwig said of food, "Overeating doesn't make you fat, the process of getting fat helps you overeat."
The liver turns refined sugars into ugly looking cholesterol called triglycerides and LDL. This fat has nowhere to go. It's stored inside our cells that surround or vital organs, and in storage areas such as your belly, thigh and ass.
If the blood triglycerides get too high - as they will be due to over consumption of excess sugar - then you are increasing your likelihood of cardiovascular disease and blood clots.
I diet high in sugar can also reduce the production of a brain chemical called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Without this chemical we can’t create new memories, or learn properly – two important tools you need to be a great poker player.
Quitting sugar is hard. But, once you ride out the most difficult parts, you feel so much better. And, it’s this lack of sugar in your diet that allows you to calm the hell down and only eat when you are hungry and stop when satiated.
Take professional poker player Paul Vas Nunes as example. Paul is a Type 1 Diabetic and insulin dependant. His condition means he has a hyper awareness of what the flux of blood sugar levels does to his body.
“I can feel my concentration deteriorating when my blood sugar levels are high. Something similar happens when they are too low. If my blood sugar levels are where they should be, I am a much better player.” Said Vas Nunes.
Drink Plenty of Water
So if you can’t drink alcohol or soda, what can you drink? We were only designed to drink one thing. Water.
Make sure you drink at least 12-glasses of water per day. It flushes your system, cleanses the liver and kidneys.
Andrew Lichtenberger, credits drinking plenty of water as one of the main reasons behind his recent return to form.
“I grew up with a host of physical health problems,” said Lichtenberger, “I decided to change my dietary habits. I transitioned away from processed foods with modified ingredients. I was left with an all vegan diet with an emphasis on high water intake. I felt stronger, healthier, and had sharper attentiveness.”
Stress and Anxiety
Don’t eat if you are on tilt. Eating when stressed out diverts blood away from the intestines and liver leading to the pot bellied pig look and poor digestion. If regularly bloated, something that dies down during an LCD, then this can commonly be traced back to eating when stressed.
Get ahead of the curve. You can avoid this problem by reducing your stress. Poker is getting tougher. The games are harder to beat. Technical ability alone doesn’t give you that edge anymore. It’s your health and mindfulness.
Writing in Excelling in No Limit Hold’em by Jonathan Little and co., Evan Jarvis writes:
“You cannot control the cards and other people’s behaviour. Don’t waste your time complaining about bad river cards or the guy who doesn’t know how to treat other players. If you’re thinking about these things, you’re not thinking about your main goal, and your play will suffer.”
Meditation, yoga, and stillness are all excellent ways to control stress and anxiety. Poker Mind Coach, Elliot Roe, offers a wide range of meditation/preparation audio programs to help you prepare for your poker sessions and reduce stress and anxiety.
“Anxiety, on and off the table, is a key factor holding many players back from performing their best.” States Roe on his website PokerMindCoach.
Eat Organic Whenever Possible
Go to your local market and look at the amount of food there is? Ask yourself, ‘How can we continue to produce this amount of food, in a global population that’s expanding?’
It’s a problem, one that’s been solved by the birth of conglomerate food industries. The nutritional value of our food has diminished as our soil quality degrades over time. More and more chemicals and artificial preservatives are added to increase the shelf life of our food. All of these changes put increased pressure on our liver.
Eat organically grown fresh produce whenever you can. I order mine through a company called Abel & Cole. It's a godsend, especially if you are playing online poker, because you don't have the grief of heading to the supermarket to try and find the right produce.
“Nourishment of the human body is a simple process,” Writes Lichtenberger in The Yoga of Poker, “but if we get disconnected from the resources we need for proper nutrition, we need to return to the source. Plugging into the source of life – nature – is the most ancient technique for thriving as a human.”
Diversify Your Protein Intake
The only form of meat allowed during the LCD is chicken. Red meat is very fatty and puts stress on the liver. I only ate chicken in the first fortnight and the final fortnight of the LCD. You can eat certain types of fish.
Before the LCD, I received most of my protein via meat, and like most people thought I would fall apart without it. Instead, I felt liberated, after eight weeks of not eating red meat.
Other sources of proteins include legumes such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils; grains, seeds and nuts; eggs, and fruits and vegetables such as avocado, spinach, broccoli.
All of these protein rich foods have excellent liver cleansing properties. Not to mention the improved environment they help create in your gut, leading to significant brain health.
As the benefits of a healthy diet have started to show up in people’s results, there is a growing section of the poker community that are moving towards a meat free diet, or at the very least, are choosing to eat meat from animals that are raised and treated humanely.
Daniel Negreanu and Andrew Lichtenberger don’t get their proteins from meat and it hasn’t done their careers any harm.
Ban the “Bad” Fats
I grew up eating chips/fries with every meal. My parents had a huge chip pan full of fat. It would remain in there for days, always being re-heated. When frying, the only oils my parents used were high in Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil. They are BAD. They cause tremendous stress on the liver.
By eating this crap, you are finally putting your hands around the liver and choking the life out of it. It cannot perform if it cannot breathe. However, healthy fats are vital for active liver function. Coconut oil has become an essential part of my diet. You can also use ghee or good olive oils.
The prevalence of bad fats is particularly problematic on the live poker circuit. To ensure you are not forced to eat food that will lead to poor performance at the tables - come prepared. Take a packed lunch with you, and plenty of fruit and nuts to nibble on in between meals. I always take a smoothie packed with goodness with me. I find it’s filling and keeps me on top of my game.
If you are eating in a casino, then don’t be afraid to ask what types of oils their foods are cooked in and if there are alternatives available.
- The liver is one of the most vital organs in the body. Taking care of it is essential.
- You have to be well prepared when going through an LCD.
- It wasn’t until the end of week six that I saw weight loss, and it was significant.
- Most food cravings diminished by the end of the eight weeks.
- I remain sugar-free to this day.
- I never touch alcohol.
- I have no desire to eat meat.
- I am vegan.
Here is a list of the maladies associated with a poorly functioning liver. The list is not exhaustive. Instead, it focuses on the symptoms that are more likely to affect you as a poker player.
- Acid reflux
- Mood Disorders
- Poor Concentration
- Weight Gain
- Fatty Organs
Eight weeks LCD is difficult. Take baby steps. Try it for a week. Then, try a fortnight. The game is getting tougher to beat. Finding an edge is getting more difficult. It's time to start looking in places where others aren't.
It’s time to start looking at the liver.