Given all the calories that NBA players burn off in a single game, you’d think that they could eat whatever they want. A recently rediscovered profile on the Atlanta Hawks’ center Dwight Howard, however, dispels that myth. It describes how Howard, notorious for consuming insane amounts of candy, began feeling weird physical sensations that interfered with his gameplay. Turns out that the literally nerve-numbing condition was the result of his extreme sweet tooth.
Howard, who was with the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, was profiled in ESPN, where his medical anomaly was laid bare:
Howard’s legs tingled, he complained, but she noticed he was having trouble catching passes too, as if his hands were wrapped in oven mitts. Well, he quietly admitted, his fingers also tingled. [Lakers nutritionist Dr. Cate] Shanahan, with two decades of experience in the field, knew Howard possessed a legendary sweet tooth, and she suspected his consumption of sugar was causing a nerve dysfunction called dysesthesia, which she’d seen in patients with prediabetes.
Dysesthesia, or sensory neuropathy, is the feeling of having reduced feeling in the limbs, especially the hands and feet. People with the condition often feel numbness or lose sensation in their fingers and toes, become less sensitive to extreme temperatures, and feel the sharp stabbing pains of pins and needles in their extremities, especially at night.
As Shanahan mentioned, it tends to happen in people on the verge of diabetes, a disease characterized by the body’s inability to process sugar properly. In these people (as well as in people who have diabetes), the weird sensations in the arms and legs can be traced back to nerve damage. If you think of the cells responsible for sending signals about perception back and forth between the brain as highways, then a person with dysesthesia has a huge pothole problem. While the causes for dysesthesia are still under investigation, scientists think that the high blood sugar in people with prediabetes or diabetes interferes with the nerves’ ability to send signals and that the sugar also weakens the capillaries, which are responsible for supplying those nerves with oxygen and nutrients.
You know who else has high blood sugar? People who eat extreme amounts of candy, like Howard. The ESPN article explains that when Shanahan investigated Howard’s diet, she learned that:
Howard had been scarfing down about two dozen chocolate bars’ worth of sugar every single day for years, possibly as long as a decade. “You name it, he ate it,” she says. Skittles, Starbursts, Rolos, Snickers, Mars bars, Twizzlers, Almond Joys, Kit Kats and oh, how he loved Reese’s Pieces.
Should you be worried about your own candy intake? Consider that in 2009, the American Health Association suggested that men have no more than 37.5 grams of sugar per day and that women consume a maximum of 25 grams in order to be healthy, lest you risk “several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions.” A standard pack of Reese’s Pieces, in comparison, has 25 grams of sugar. If Howard was eating a dozen packs per day, he was having about eight times more than he should have been having over a long period of time. Whether you’re a basketball player or not — that probably qualifies as overkill.