How football players eat

It's kind of like what you eat. But the portions are bigger.

When the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos take to the gridiron on Sunday for Super Bowl 50, that accomplishment alone will have been more than a sum of passing yards and field goal accuracy. The season itself is a war of attrition. Staying on the active roster is a 24-hour-a-day undertaking involving workouts, sleep and nutrition. Finally in our three-part series, it’s what’s for dinner.

The interplay between athletic performance and nutrition has for decades been considered irrefutable. Professional football has been, however, late to the party. “People might be surprised to learn how NFL players eat,” says Brian St. Pierre, RD, a fitness and nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition who consults with the Cleveland Browns. “On one end of the spectrum there are guys like Tom Brady and on the other side there are others who have been able to get as far as they have in spite of what they’re eating—things like chicken wings and fast food.” Young guys can often get by with that sort of diet, but St. Pierre says, “but older guys realize they can’t continue to play at the level they want to play at if they continue to eat like that.”

The average career span of a professional football player is a mere three years, so teams historically aren’t in the habit of making long-term investments in their health and longevity, St. Pierre said. Trainers got the guys big and strong, but recovery and regeneration were seldom factored into the schedule and the organizations served food that was inexpensive and calorie-dense. Translation: There were fed a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But a few forward-looking organizations, such as the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, have started making institutional changes. It often starts with bringing on a nutritionist who works with the team chefs to widen the healthy food offerings and audit the layout of the cafeteria in a way that encourages players to eat well. They might make specially designed shakes based on a player’s individual needs. And it goes further, curating the team’s options on airplanes or at the hotel so their eating doesn’t fall off when they’re on the road. Some players request one-on-one help, but that's not the biggest part of the job: “It's altering the environment so players are more apt to make better choices,” St. Pierre says.

Forward-thinking organizations have moved past chicken breast and broccoli. Think turkey, various fish, steak and pork. There are still favorite meals, but made healthier, such as baked hot wings and sweet potato fries. And St. Pierre uses Super Shakes for teams he works with, which are more than just protein powder and water. “They’re specific combinations of proteins, veggies, carbs (especially fruit) and healthy fats that are better at improving the health and recovery of players,” he says.

Some teams have a reputation for treating their players well, others not so much. But over the next several years, it might become the norm. “It’s just a matter of a team coming around to the idea that it’s not just outputting more money,” St. Pierre said. “The NFL is a copycat league and as long as there’s a perceived edge in things like performance and injury prevention, you’re going to see it picked up by more teams.”

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