Guys who play football for a living have realized what they put into their bodies drastically impacts their performance on the field. The days of eating burgers and mile-high plates of pasta are long gone. Many teams actually hire a whole roster of chefs and nutritionists to make sure their players are eating the freshest, healthiest foods possible. We’re sharing eight tips on healthy eating straight from the players and the people who keep them fed. Follow these rules, and you could be on your way to a fantastic physique.
1. Snacks should be real foods
Sticking to three meals a day is tough to keep hunger at bay for anyone, and it’s completely impossible for a high-level athlete. NFL players can bank on spending about four hours training when they’re preparing for the season, so staying adequately fueled is crucial. Though many people reach for energy bars or other packaged snacks to keep them satisfied until the next full meal, they’re really not very good options. No matter how carefully you choose, most nutritionists will say purchased products can’t compare with the nutrition whole foods provide.
Players have wised up to this tip. New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings told NFL.com, “I’m a whole food eater. I’m not going to waste my time on a couple little chips.” Instead, he opts for a piece of fruit, turkey meatballs, or hummus on gluten-free toast with avocado and turkey bacon. Going with this type of food ensures Jennings gets plenty of fiber, protein, and fat. These mini meals also help keep him satisfied until he gets the chance to sit down to a full spread.
2. Protein is a priority
Carbohydrates can’t be underestimated for the role they play in providing energy. Players rely on both simple and complex carbohydrates to get them through the day, but protein plays a pretty huge role as well. This nutrient is responsible for building muscle and also aiding the recovery process after a grueling workout. Leslie Bonci, RD and Pittsburgh Steelers team sports dietitian, told WebMD players should make sure to eat protein before and after every workout. She also stressed the importance of lean proteins, such as chicken and beans.
This rule holds true for all players. Even stars who aren’t trying to get huge need plenty of protein to stay strong, including punter Steve Weatherford. According to The New York Times, Weatherford eats upwards of 200 grams of protein every day, choosing eats like bunless turkey burgers.
3. Even high-calorie diets should be high in quality
Plenty of players need to add weight to their frames when they’re gearing up for the season. Instead of going for high-fat foods, they stick with healthy choices at a high volume. We hear nutrition experts talk about the importance of consuming quality calories, meaning foods that provide a lot of nutritional value for the amount of calories. A simple side-by-side comparison can illustrate the difference. Just 19 Cheetos pack 138 calories, more than 9 grams of fat, and not much else. Instead of going for this crunchy snack, you would be better off eating 3 ounces of chicken, which is a similar 139 calories, but has only about 3 grams of fat, and roughly 27 grams of protein. The choice is pretty easy.
This strategy is one Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Matt Kalil implements in his routine. Even though he needs a whopping 5,000 to 6,000 calories every day, he wants to make sure he’s bulking the right way. According to the Pioneer Press, Kalil meets his goal with lean protein and healthy carbs for meals and supplementing with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as protein shakes. Though it’s a more difficult way to add weight, it ensures he’s putting on muscle rather than just fat.
4. Healthy fat is essential
Though many players stress the importance of sticking to lean proteins, it doesn’t mean fat is out of the question. For those players who need to consume 5,000 or more calories a day, a diet of low-fat foods would require them to eat mountains of food. Heather Fink, RD who specializes in sports dietetics, told IndyStar NFL athletes should get quality fats from nuts, meats, and dairy products. Avocado is another great choice for satisfying fats, and it’s also good for your heart.
5. Load up on fruits and veggies
Going for plenty of produce is the best way to get the proper amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Studies continue to illustrate the importance of sticking to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. One example from 2014 found those who ate the most produce enjoyed a significantly reduced risk of death, particularly from heart disease. Most players are more concerned with the short term effects, but the plant-based approach is still a good strategy that players have embraced. According to Bolts From The Blue, most teams offer a huge salad and fruit bar at training camp. The article also said the San Diego Chargers consume 500 pounds of vegetables and 300 pounds of fruit every week.
Some players have taken the approach even further. Defensive end David Carter famously went vegan and soon found he was faster, stronger, and feeling better than ever. He certainly has to eat a lot, but the effort seems to be paying off.
6. Start the day with breakfast
The most important meal of the day is even more important for fueling an entire day’s worth of exercise. Susan Kleiner, RD who has worked with the Seattle Seahawks, told The Huffington Post she likes players to eat as much as possible in the morning. The cast of characters usually includes whole grains, eggs, fruit, and flax seeds. The Seahawks aren’t alone in their approach. Former defensive end Ryan Riddle penned a piece for Bleacher Report, where he said, “Oatmeal, eggs, and a lot of juice became the early morning answer before rushing off to the training room for mandatory treatment on all reported ailments and injuries.”
7. Just say no to junk food
Though professional football players put their bodies through an awful lot of pain and suffering, it’s still no excuse to munch on chips and candy. Even snacks should be considered fuel. These foods can sometimes be the first calories players consumer after a workout, so they need to be filled with nutrition to support recovery. According to The Seattle Times, the Seahawks can count on jerky and granola bars for snacks. These foods offer a balance of carbohydrates and protein the athletes need to repair ailing muscles. The story also said team chef Mac McNabb doesn’t offer any fried items, soda, or other junk foods, with the exception of fresh cookies on Thursdays.
8. Seafood is the new steak
All the hoopla about eating more fish hasn’t done much to convince the general public to eat more of the stuff, but NFL players have completely embraced the protein. Washington Redskins chef Jon Mathieson told Edible Richmond, “I never thought these guys would eat as much fish as they do.” According to the piece, the players sometimes scarf 300 pounds of seafood a week.
Though players used to get their protein from beef, fish is almost on equal footing. A 3-ounce serving of top sirloin steak contains almost 26 grams of protein while salmon is just behind at about 22 grams for the same portion. More importantly, the salmon packs a huge dose of heart-healthy fats. If you want to get as fit as your favorite players, more seafood could be the key.