Dietitian Helps NFL Players Eat Based on Individual Needs
Posted Nov 19, 2012
When Texans running back Arian Foster tweeted in late June that he had decided to follow a vegan diet, it caused equal parts confusion and consternation. How, many wondered, could a pro football player subsist on a meatless, milk shake-free diet?
Others, of course, didn't even know what a vegan is, which shouldn't be too surprising considering Foster is thought to be the only practicing one currently in the NFL.
But a person who mattered hugely in the conversation, Texans dietician Roberta Anding, came to Foster's defense, saying that while he may be seen as an outlier now, he's arguably the prototypical pro athlete of the future. Anding expresses no concern about Foster's ability to meet his caloric needs, sans meat and dairy products. The health advantages of a plant-based diet are myriad and well-documented.
"Arian has been one of these guys I call a seeker, looking for optimum nutrition and variety," Anding said. "In my working with him, he has been open to a lot of strategies to get him where he needs to be, not only as a professional football player but, more importantly, as an adult man who has a child and a wife. That's the new NFL player. I don't think Arian is unique."
Credit to McNair
Anding has been the guiding force behind the Texans' training table since the franchise inception in 2002, and she applauds owner Bob McNair for never cutting corners in the team's kitchen. Thirty years ago, when the Oilers broke for lunch, they had pizza or burgers delivered to the locker room or they headed for a nearby fast-food dive. In contrast, the Texans' bountiful cafeteria in Reliant Stadium offers more options than a Luby's.
"It is through the wisdom and generosity of Bob McNair," Anding said, "that we can do what we do."
Variety is important because the Texans run the dietary gambit. A meticulous guy like linebacker Brian Cushing, while not vegetarian or vegan, "tries to stay away from dairy" and likes to eat "six or seven times a day, small portions only." Hefty defensive end Antonio Smith readily owns up to his addiction to Southern comfort food, naming chitlins and hamhocks as his favorite indulgences. Then there's cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Although his chiseled physique is Michelangelo-esque, Joseph swears, "I still haven't had my first salad."
The average Texans fan's diet probably has more in common with Joseph's than Foster's and, hence, he or she is perhaps made a tad nervous by the Pro Bowl back's decision. But Anding privately frets about players like Joseph, a man who admits, "I'm not big on nutrition. I'm a fried food guy. To be honest, I have never had anything but fried food in my whole life. The guys always rag me. We go to Del Frisco's (a high-end steakhouse in the Galleria) and I'm ordering the cheeseburger."
Still, Joseph added: "I'm trying to change over and get (better nutrition) into my game. It's a transition. Obviously, the healthier you eat, the better feel you'll have, the better you'll play each and every Sunday and the better you'll fight off injuries."
Diet helps what hurts
Joseph understands this from seeing fellow defensive back Danieal Manning experience a near-miraculous rapid recovery from a broken leg last season. Manning followed a dietary regimen developed by Anding after his injury and missed only three games. He says the experience changed his attitude about what he puts in his body.
"I'm mostly a fish and chicken guy now," Manning said. "If we win a big game, I might treat myself (to a steak), but that's it. I gained a lot of good muscle weight this offseason because I stayed on the diet that Roberta gave me."
Anding said football "is a really punishing game. There's an injury response that has to be accounted for. If somebody breaks something or has a severe soft-tissue injury, there's extra nutrition that's required to get that person back even if they're not exercising. Injury response demands a lot of calories in itself."
Anding's not paid to nag, however. As she says, "I'm not trying to be the food police. My job is to be the educator, to provide the tools and resources and make sure the players can call or text me any time."
Anding did have a minor breakthrough with Smith, who concedes he has a new meal-time watchword.
"Moderation," he said. "I'm eatin' my same stuff, all the food I love, but I'm eatin' less of it."
For most of us, less is more. It's far trickier for the professional football player in the sultry dog days of training camp. The "calories in, calories out" formula theoretically applies to the Texans exactly the same as it does to the people stuffing themselves into the Reliant Stadium seats, then stuffing their faces. But the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you need because the "average" Texan is burning 5,000 or more calories every 24 hours, well over twice that of the average armchair quarterback.
From Prius to Escalade
However, "average," when applied to the Texans, defies being easily defined. One (serving) size does not fit all.
"There are guys on this team that, if you crunch the numbers, they would come out (needing) 5,000 calories a day," Anding said. "But there are guys whose predicted need is 5,000, but I know enough about their diet that their intake needs to be closer to 7,000. What makes a professional athlete unique is the disproportionate amount of muscle mass they have.
"Muscle mass is the metabolic engine. The goal of a good strength and conditioning program is to take that metabolic engine from a Prius to an Escalade. But, when you have the Escalade, the needs aren't going to be something that allows you to crunch the numbers. There's not a chart, just a general ballpark."
©2012 the Houston Chronicle
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