With its bodies nearly as big as its tackles, football might be the sport with the most obvious connection to food. But whereas the emphasis was once on eating to increase the size of an offensive lineman, balanced meals and performance-based nutrition have now risen to the forefront.
We chatted recently with Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., RD, a nutrition consultant for the Seattle Seahawks and a former full-time nutritionists for the "original" Cleveland Browns, about what it takes to feed and fuel the NFL's top dogs.
What was the attitude toward nutrition like in the early 1990s when you started working with NFL players?
What was changing in pro sports was the beginning of drug testing, frankly. People were looking for alternatives. I was very involved in nutritional alternatives to drug use -- that was my doctoral research -- and it was a big part of what I was doing in the early days of the field of sports nutrition. I worked with the "original" Cleveland Browns in 1991, 1992, that time. After several years I moved to Seattle and did some work with individual Seahawks players, including Matt Hasselbeck.
What types of questions or nutrition concerns did players have when you started?
Back then, the big impetus was just to be big and weigh a lot. Bill Belichick [then with the Browns] was at the forefront of looking at body composition and trying to enhance lean body mass and muscle mass without having players be over-fat. At that time, there were tremendously gifted players who actually could move around at these very high weights.
It was the beginning of a shift away from getting as many calories as we can possibly get in -- pounds and pounds of meat, whole milk, a dozen eggs -- but to eat healthy. We began to understand the risks of heart disease in these athletes, which was motivation to find healthier diets, healthier fats, getting in the whole grains
Eating a loaf of white bread was not a good strategy. Eating a dozen raw eggs in a milkshake, not a good strategy. But that's what athletes were doing.
We didn't have meal replacement drinks at that time, so I created what we called Kleiner's Muscle-Building Formula, which was instant breakfast powder with milk, peanut butter and banana. We were learning about utilizing carbohydrate and protein together and the power that had for promoting muscle protein synthesis and diminishing muscle protein breakdown. We started to understand inflammation in those early days and really increase fruits and vegetables. I understood at that time how important fish was, and I was probably the first to emphasis five fish meals a week in the NFL. There was a lot of experimentation, with the goal being, can we lower drug use and make people healthier?
What does a typical daily meal plan look like for an NFL player?
Of course it depends on the player and the position, and his size and natural metabolism. Some need far more calories than others.
My overall experience has been that a quarterback needs a minimum of 4,000 calories a day and up to 6,000 calories a day, depending on where they are in their training, in the season, and how quickly they gain or lose weight.
The typical day starts with as much breakfast as we can get in, consisting typically of some kind of hearty whole-grain cereal, eggs, maybe a whole-grain toast, flax seeds, whole fruit. On many teams they're getting lots of sautéed vegetables with omelets or eggs in the morning.
Depending on the team and the time of the year, they may be fed by the team or on their own at home for breakfast, but most teams have good nutritionists now or sports dietitians pushing vegetables early in the morning to try and get those in. We don't see the old donuts and danishes that we used to see. There may be starches like yams and potatoes and dairy like yogurt, but there is quite a bit of lactose intolerance with the players. The early morning meal can be pretty big, since they're usually sitting in the morning watching films.
Before they exercise they may need some kind of shake or pre-exercise snack of around 300 calories that combines protein and carbohydrate. It's not going to have a lot of fat because they're going to go out and play. During their workout, depending on their calorie needs, they might use sports drinks or sports drink mixed with water.
For lunch there is often a range of roasted or broiled meats. There may be things like burritos. There will very often be vegetarian protein options, like beans. Athletes will usually be careful about what they can and can't manage because they know personally how they digest before going into their afternoon training. There's always a big salad bar, always a lot of vegetables, there's almost always a big fruit bar. There are lots of bread and wrap options for sandwiches. We're seeing fewer and fewer foods that are high in added sugars and saturated fats.
The players are on their own for dinner, which is again pretty robust. We work on having them eat at least six times a day, if not more. Dinner will often have some kind of hearty protein and vegetable and grain. The heavy carbs at night may not be there. Ideally, I encourage getting in as much carbohydrate around training as possible so they're putting their food to work for them. At night, there isn't that heavy emphasis on carbs and then going to sleep, which is what used to happen. That's one trick to limit fat accumulation.
Are these changes in the attitude toward nutrition rubbing off on the players, or just coming as directives from the coaching staff?
It's a huge change over the years from when I started. When I began, it was the retired athletes who were worried about their nutrition. They weren't training in the same way anymore, but they weren't eating differently. They gained a lot of weight, and they were at tremendous risk for heart disease and stroke. Today, many of the young players take nutrition in college as part of their health and fitness education as they go through the athletic department. There are many players who come from schools who had sports nutritionists who worked with the team. They're coming in with an education. Most of them understand that it will make a difference in their performance and even more probably understand it's going to make a difference in the length of their playing life. And that translates to dollars for them.
Today, so many of the elite players are all working with nutritionists. When a young player has a role model, they want to know what that guy is doing. Most are trying at least to change their diets. I think the owners are even starting to notice that the teams that focus on nutrition do better in the long run. When I worked with Coach Belichick, who has gone on to have quite a career, he had incredible attention to detail. His motto was that the difference between any player and a champion at the level of NFL play where people are already selected out for being the most gifted, the hardest working, the most well trained, the difference is going to be attention to detail. I never think of nutrition as a detail. At that level it's just a critical piece, a very important factor among many important factors. You can't not pay attention to anything, because the champions pay attention to everything.
As told to Sarah Klein. This interview has been edited and condensed.