How NBA star Sean Elliott switched to a kidney-friendly diet

How NBA star Sean Elliott switched to a kidney-friendly diet

At the height of his career, Sean Elliott was one of the NBA’s top players: a two-time all-star who helped the San Antonio Spurs win their first NBA championship in 1999.

But just two months after the win, Elliott had a kidney transplant — a setback that threatened to end his career. Yet, less than a year later, he returned to the sport.

Elliott, 56, says that both genetics and his diet — heavy on fast food, light on fruits and vegetables — probably played a role in his kidney disease. Since undergoing his transplant, Elliott has transformed his diet and become an outspoken advocate for kidney health.

I spoke to Elliott about the “silent epidemic” of kidney disease and the dramatic diet changes he has made since undergoing a kidney transplant. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become an advocate for kidney health?

I was 25 years old when I got struck with kidney disease. At least 1 in 7 American adults have chronic kidney disease — more than 35 million Americans. The problem is that 9 out of 10 people don’t know that they have it. Kidney disease doesn’t present itself until it’s advanced.

What were your symptoms?

The first symptom was trouble getting out of bed. I was lethargic all day. I had lost my appetite and didn’t want to eat. But I thought I was just depressed because we had lost in the playoffs.

I also had a ton of swelling and water accumulation in my legs, called edema. It was so bad that if you pressed your fingers into my legs, it would leave an indentation for 10 minutes. It was as if my legs were made out of clay.

The other thing I noticed is that when I would urinate, my urine would foam up. By the time I finished urinating, it would look like a bubble bath. It was really bizarre. I’ve been told that was because I was spilling protein into my urine.

You’ve said that your diet played a role. How so?

I was a big drive-through guy. I was the fast-food king. I would eat any kind of burger. Double Whoppers with cheese, Wendy’s double and triple burgers, Big Macs. I ate a lot of drive-through Mexican food — carne asada tacos with cheese. A lot of french fries. I was drinking at least five or six sodas a day. At the time, I just didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to do that. But when you’re young, you think you’re invincible.

Can you talk about the changes you made after your transplant?

My wife, Claudia, is a dietitian. She has a website called the Diplomacy Diet, and she got me to change the way that I eat. I stopped drinking a lot of soda. I might have a Diet Coke four times a year. I stopped eating fast food. We try to eat real food that we make at home. Nothing processed. I don’t eat much dairy. I try to limit fried foods. You have to live a little. I still love french fries. Sometimes I have fried chicken as a cheat meal. But it’s not a staple for me anymore.

Was it difficult to give up your favorite foods?

Frankly, I don’t feel like I’m missing out at all because the food that I eat now is so good. I eat a lot more vegetables — way more than I ever ate as a player. I now eat tons of broccoli and cauliflower, and I look forward to that now. For a long time, we had “Meatless Mondays,” and my wife would make these amazing butternut squash tacos. Lately she’s been buying these mini sweet peppers, and they’re my favorite thing. You roast them, and they’re so sweet and delicious. I love them. I could eat them until I get sick.

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What are your staple meals now?

I’d say our staples are salmon and broccoli with cauliflower rice. Butternut squash tacos. Black bean soup. Last night I had skinless chicken thighs with a green sauce and onions on top, and I had a huge serving of sauteed purple cabbage flavored with pepper. I eat a lot of plants and colorful foods. If you look at your plate and it’s all brown, that’s a bad sign.

What happens in a kidney transplant? Do they take out the sick organs and leave you with one good kidney?

I thought that’s what they were going to do, too. But they actually don’t do that. They placed the kidney in my lower abdomen. It’s right above my right groin. They do that so they can monitor it more easily, instead of tucking it behind my rib cage. Now when I go in to see my nephrologist, he’ll put a stethoscope on it to see how it’s functioning.

Technically, I have three kidneys. But the other two are nonfunctional. They basically atrophy. The last time I had a sonogram, the nurse had a hard time finding them because they shrink to a degree where they’re almost nonexistent.

Who donated the kidney?

My older brother, Noel. He was almost a perfect match. I heard lots of stories from other people who told me that their family members were reluctant or hesitant to donate, so they had to get a kidney from an outside source. But my brother didn’t hesitate, which says a lot about him. He was like, “I’m here to do this, and this is what I want to do.”

African Americans have disproportionately high rates of kidney disease. Did genetics play a role?

In my immediate family, four out of five of us — my dad, my mom, my oldest brother and me — all took medication for high blood pressure. We’re trying to get the word out, especially to underserved communities. If you have any symptoms like I did, then you should talk to your doctor about getting screened for kidney disease. Go to You’ll find healthy recipes. You’ll find a lot of information about kidney disease. And from there you can go and talk to your doctor about whether you should get checked.

Do you have a question about healthy eating? Email and we may answer your question in a future column.


Kerri Waldron

My name is Kerri Waldron and I am an avid healthy lifestyle participant who lives by proper nutrition and keeping active. One of the things I love best is to get to where I am going by walking every chance I get. If you want to feel great with renewed energy, you have to practice good nutrition and stay active.

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