Dietitians feed NFL players' appetite for success

Updated: October 30, 2008, 4:51 PM ET
Associated Press

CINCINNATI -- A whirring blender drowns out the voice of a petite brunette serving up fruit smoothies and nutrition advice to football players twice her size in the Cincinnati Bengals' cafeteria.

She's saying something about sugars and starches and vitamin A, the terminology of a growing effort to get NFL athletes' diets on a par with their elite level of play.

"See if you like it," team dietitian Michele Macedonio says, handing out the icy concoctions. Darryl Blackstock grabs one to go along with his cold wrap and fresh cut vegetables. Fellow linebacker Rashad Jeanty takes one, too, and piles his plate with broccoli.

They're small signs of Macedonio's push for healthier eating on a team where some players have grabbed lunch from fast-food joints for years.

The push is on throughout the NFL. Since the 1990s, the number of teams hiring nutrition consultants has grown from a handful to nearly three-fourths of the league.

"I think the model is changing," said Roberta Anding, the Houston Texans' dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "I think collegiate programs and professional programs are looking at this and saying, 'We all stand to benefit from this."

Many of the consultants work for other professional sports teams or individual players, though they say a sort of domino effect has helped the use of nutrition experts catch on more quickly in football than in many pro sports, including basketball and soccer.

"The conditioning keeps you in fit shape, but you can't condition without the fuel and the raw material to achieve your goal," said Macedonio, who's in her sixth year with the Bengals.

The bulk of the consultants' work is advising players, shaping meal plans and debunking quick-fix diet myths -- no, eating 40 chicken breasts a day is not the best way to lose weight, as at least one player thought. Players come for various reasons, from changing their weight to dealing with injuries, illnesses and retirement.

Some still balk, preferring to stick with the same fatty foods that have fueled them for years.

"The challenge is getting them to understand what role nutrition plays and helping them both on the field and off the field," said Jacksonville Jaguars dietitian Jon Vredenburg.

Protein-packed foods like chicken and lean meats help build muscle. Eating carbohydrates before a game will help players that do a lot of sprinting sustain their energy, but carb-loading like a marathoner could leave a football player too full and sluggish.

Fruits are good snacks almost anytime because they digest easily, getting nutrients into the body quickly.

For players who understand the link between food and performance, Vredenburg said, the appetite for success overrides cravings for cheeseburgers and french fries.

Those foods sometimes still appear on the stadium lunch buffet, but a sampling of the better-for-you options reads more like gourmet than greasy spoon: grilled pork tenderloin, blackened tuna, roasted vegetables, sauteed spinach and flavored rice.

Even with easy access to healthier options, changing eating habits is a tall order for many pro athletes because they consume two to five times as many calories as an average person, nutritionists say. That and a lifestyle that often lends itself to habitual snacking and eating out make some players leery of stricter diets.

"The first thing I tell them is I eat Doritos and drink beer, so hey, let's talk," said Carrie Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings' dietitian.

Like many of their colleagues, Peterson and Macedonio say they rely on a philosophy of gradual change fueled by a player's commitment to improve performance from the inside out.

Macedonio tries to boost nutrition through tasty foods, an effort that was in full swing during a recent visit to a suburban Cincinnati supermarket with Blackstock and Jeanty.

They started in the produce section, where she persuaded Jeanty to try a slice of fresh red pepper.

"Just like that? Raw?" he asked, looking suspiciously at Macedonio. He took a bite and decided it was "not bad," then quickly added that he'd prefer to have dip.

The scene drew teasing from Blackstock, who cooks at home whenever he can. He shared recipes for grilled turkey legs and spinach-crab burgers in between signing autographs at the fish counter and making some Globetrotter-esque moves with a Tuscan cantaloupe.

But don't mistake the jokester for someone who doesn't take nutrition seriously. He's cut back on his favorite strawberry cheesecake and eating fries with meals.

"If it comes with it, I'll eat it, but I won't order it," he said.

Blackstock's efforts to enhance his diet recently resulted in a four-game NFL suspension for using an over-the-counter nutritional supplement that included a banned substance he says he wasn't aware of.

Sometimes a player's diet decision is more of a health mandate than a choice. Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler had to lay off fast food and learn to eat more meals at home after he was diagnosed with diabetes earlier this year.

"He's feeling a whole lot better," said team dietitian Jacqueline Berning, one of the longest-serving team dietitians in the NFL. "He looks a whole lot better on the field."

So does Tony Gonzalez, the Kansas City Chiefs' Pro Bowl tight end, who changed his diet before last season and noticed such a difference that he started preaching to teammates about healthier eating. Chiefs dietitian Mitzi Dulan, who is writing a book with Gonzalez, calls him the team's second nutritionist.

Former Texans' offensive lineman Zach Wiegert said he also got caught up in a healthier diet, teaching his family and friends many of the tips he learned from Anding, the team dietitian.

She helped him bulk up to about 315 pounds in-season and then shed 40 pounds in three months without starving himself after he hung up his shoulder pads and no longer had a grueling NFL regimen to burn off calories.

"None of it was hard to follow, and it wasn't like, 'Oh man, I'm hungry," said Wiegert, who spent part of his dozen years in the NFL scarfing down steaks and pizza to keep on weight. Now he eats more lean meat and greens, a diet aimed at keeping him both slimmer and healthier in the long run.

Bengals running back Chris Perry is taking a similar view, hoping Macedonio's help will give him a short-term edge over the competition, a longer career and a buff body when he retires. He's cutting back on chicken wings, cookies and other hallmarks of his college diet.

"I like candy, so it's a little difficult at times," said Perry, who says he never made the connection between food and performance during his days at Michigan. "But you know it's about your priorities. I don't think Reese's or ice cream pays the bills, so I've got to cut it out a little bit."


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Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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