Think of it as feeding the big guys. The 200- to 300-pound linemen and tackles and defensive ends. Food fuels the body, and when is that more important than before spending three hours tackling, hitting, and running?
U.S. News chatted with registered dietitian Mitzi Dulan, who spent eight years as team nutritionist with the Kansas City Chiefs. She weighed in on what NFL players eat, which nutritional issues concern them, and what kind of super meal the Super Bowl might demand.
What do NFL players eat on a day-to-day basis?
It can vary a lot, even among the players on one team. You want to make sure that every single meal provides carbs--ideally from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Carbs give muscles the energy they need to refuel and recover from a workout. Protein is also important, usually from sources like fish, chicken, lean beef, or beans. It helps decrease muscle soreness and gives the players the staying power they need. I also make sure players are eating all the colors of the rainbow in fruits and veggies, since these help minimize the need for time off from sickness by boosting the immune system.
You're a big proponent of proper hydration. Why's that?
It's really important to stay hydrated all week, and not just think, 'It's Saturday night. I have a game tomorrow, so I better hydrate.' Sometimes on Monday nights, the players go out because they typically have Tuesday off. From an alcohol perspective, they need to make sure they're drinking plenty of water, too, because alcohol can have a dehydrating effect.
How about sports drinks? Are they a staple among athletes?
I recommend a full-strength Gatorade during workouts, practices, and games. It gives the players some sugar, so they're starting out with energy. If you're only drinking water, you're not getting any calories. Gatorade also provides necessary carbs, and delays fatigue. I've seen Super Bowls where players had to leave the field and get IV fluids at half-time, and it's almost always related to hydration. There's absolutely no reason a player should have to do that. When the weather's cooler, they sometimes think it's not important, but it is. Eating pretzels or another snack that provides a little sodium can also help. You're sweating so much that you don't need to worry about getting too much sodium.
What do players eat before hitting the field?
It depends on game time. The Chiefs played a lot of noon games, so they'd get up and have a big team breakfast, and then maybe some chicken breast closer to starting time. It's best to eat a big meal three hours before hitting the field. The players certainly want to fuel, and an ideal meal is high in protein, but doesn't have much fat, so it doesn't create any GI [gastrointestinal] issues. You don't want to try something for the very first time on Super Bowl Sunday and have a bad reaction. That's why teams often stick with the very same offerings for the pre-game meal, without switching it up.
Does the team eat a big meal together after the game?
It depends if they have to hop on an airplane right away. If they're in town and they want to get out of there, they might just leave and go out to dinner with their families. Different teams have different setups.
NFL players are often pretty big guys. Do they consume a lot of calories, especially since they're using so much energy?
One player may need 6,000 calories a day, while another only needs around 3,000. I worked with each athlete to help him achieve his goal weight. For example, if he didn't have enough energy in his legs, it was probably a carb issue, so we could make the necessary adjustments.
Were certain meals or types of food most popular among the players?
The Chiefs used to have sushi every Wednesday, and we always ran out really quickly. The players loved smoothies, too, and they also enjoyed Mexican food and Chinese from places like P.F. Chang's.
Was there room for dessert?
We were providing monster cookies at one point, and the guys loved them. As a dietitian, of course, I wouldn't recommend eating a monster cookie before you're getting ready to head out onto the field.
What else does an NFL nutritionist do? What were your sessions with players like?
I spent a lot of my time working one-on-one with the players, since their diets varied so much. I've also done team presentations, worked with wives and girlfriends, and taken players grocery shopping. My advice varies depending on whether it's a single player, or a player who's married and has someone cooking for him. I also worked with teams on what types of food to provide.
What kind of common questions did you hear from the players?
They wanted ideas for simple meals, like what they could make on a grill or how they could make easy smoothies at home. And if they were going out, what were the best options? I've had players text me from the Super Bowl, because they were out to eat and wanted to know if they should order pork, fish, or something else. Some of the guys were trying to lose body fat--that was probably the most common question--but sometimes they were trying to gain weight instead.
Did you recommend a vitamin or supplement for the players?
Yes, I would recommend some supplements. Most commonly: fish oil, a multivitamin with minerals, protein powder, and creatine.