Feb. 1, 2017 -- It’s a pretty good bet that NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan aren’t eating anything close to what you’re serving at your Super Bowl party for Sunday’s big game.
New England Patriots star Brady, 39, credits his well-publicized Spartan eating routine for keeping him at the top of his game at an age when most star quarterbacks are retired. His $200 cookbook of no-sugar, no-white flour, no-dairy recipes, the TB12 Nutrition Manual, sold out quickly online when it was released last May.
Ryan, of the Atlanta Falcons, isn’t quite as extreme with his diet. He’s said he favors clean eating but allows room for occasional treats.
Ryan, who is 8 years younger than Brady and was named the 2016 Pro Football Writers of America NFL MVP, said he’s studied how the four-time Super Bowl champ stays in shape. “He’s set the bar for longevity, aging well, and playing at a really high level for a really long time,” Ryan told NBC Sports.
"He is a role model," agrees Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics.
Even with good genetics, there's no doubt the diet is crucial, says Clark, the author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook." Diet helps fine-tune athletes' ability to perform at their best and is important to recover quickly from injury. That applies not just to the football field and pro athletes, but also to our workouts and workdays, she says.
WebMD asked nutrition experts to weigh in on the quarterbacks’ dueling diets.
What Tom Brady Eats
Brady’s personal chef, Allen Campbell, has said that the quarterback and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, eat a mostly plant-based diet. They don’t eat white sugar, white flour, or dairy. Brady also avoids ''nightshade" vegetables (hot peppers, sweet peppers, eggplant, and tomato) because he thinks they cause inflammation, Campbell says. Brady also rarely eats fruit.
On the menu: 80% of Brady’s meals are vegetables, all organic. Whole grains only: brown rice, quinoa, millet, and beans. And 20% of his calories are lean protein from sources such as salmon and steak.
Nutritionists Weigh In: Brady's Diet
Sports and conditioning specialists Clark and Marie Spano, a registered dietitian and certified sports and conditioning specialist, applaud Brady's emphasis on a plant-based diet. Research has found that plant-based diets can improve body mass index, blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol while reducing the need for medication for chronic disease and lowering your chance of dying from heart disease.
However, they aren't sure omitting the nightshade vegetables is crucial. While some diets recommend avoiding them, claiming they lead to inflammatory reactions, Clark says evidence supporting that is lacking.
Spano says that nightshade vegetables may disagree with certain people. But "I don't see any reason to take out nightshades unless you have tested positive for an allergy or food sensitivity,” says Spano, a sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks NBA team.
Another nutritionist gives their “no-dairy” rule a thumbs-down. "Any diet that restricts entire food groups almost always puts someone at risk for nutrient deficiencies," says Tim Ziegenfuss, PhD, a sports nutrition and exercise scientist. He has done consulting for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, among other football teams.
Clark says that eliminating all sugars isn't necessary. Under the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, 10% of total calories can come from added sugars, she says. And while Brady's emphasis on whole grains is good, the dietary guidelines suggest at least half of all grains should be whole grains. "A slice or two of white bread can fit into a sports diet and will not ruin one's health."
Neither Clark nor Spano favors coconut oil. "It has a couple of fatty acids that can increase cholesterol," Spano says. She prefers using olive, pecan, or avocado oil, citing their vitamin E content and other benefits. Vitamin E is key for a healthy immune system and vessel functioning.
"I have great respect for people who pay attention to what they eat.” Clark says. “An athlete's diet is a reflection of how they live their life, how they train."
What Matt Ryan Eats
For his diet, Ryan has said that he loves to ''try and keep it as clean as I can." He told Men's Fitness magazine he tries to eat every 3 hours "to keep my blood sugar level right where it needs to be."
Like Brady, he is a fan of vegetables, lean meats, and fish. “I’ve been told to try and put a lot of color on your plate,” Ryan says. He says he cheats every so often, “but as a professional athlete, you have to put good fuel into your body.”
Falcons team nutritionist Dan Benardot, PhD, offers players general advice before he develops an individual plan for each one. "Never get hungry," he advises, ''and never get thirsty." Eating often, more than three meals a day, is encouraged. Food is readily available at team meetings and in the workout room, he says.
Benardot, who's a registered dietitian, would not talk specifically about Ryan’s diet but says he advises protein intake based on a player's weight and other information. "We try to diminish the amount of fat they consume," he says, "and we try to make it more from vegetable instead of animal fat."
A high carbohydrate intake is crucial to fuel performance, he says, especially as game time draws near. He suggests 55% to 60% of total calories from carbs.
Nutritionists Weigh In: Ryan's Diet
Eating every 3 to 4 hours is wise, Spano says, especially for athletes. Eating often is a good idea for everyone, Clark says, ''especially if you want energy.'' Eating frequently also helps you eat more healthfully, Clarks says, because you avoid that ravenous feeling that might make you eat anything.
"When you get too hungry, you tend to eat the wrong foods," she says. "You don't eat an apple, you eat apple pie."
Eating a variety of vegetables is great and provides a wide range of vitamins, Spano says.
She also gives a thumbs-up to occasional cheats. She advised people to enjoy a slice of cake at a birthday party or a cookie once in a while. "It's important to include some of your favorite foods," she says. "Eat healthy most of the time. Don't necessarily aim for perfection.''
The key word about cheats is ''occasional," Spano says. "I don't like the idea of a cheat day," she says. "It's like binge eating."
How likely is it that we could adopt the Brady or Ryan plan? "I would venture to say the average American would not be able to sustain Brady's diet," Ziegenfuss says. "It's expensive and restrictive, and honestly unnecessary for most people. Ryan's diet, on the other hand, seems much more reasonable and sustainable. "
Of course, he adds, there is no perfect diet. "The key is to find a healthy, sustainable, nutrient-dense diet that helps you maintain a healthy body weight and lowers your risk of chronic disease."
Even if we don't adopt either diet, adopting some of the quarterbacks' thinking might help, Clark says.
"Athletes are either fueling or refueling," she says. Those who aren't pro athletes need to think the same way, she adds -- fuel up for a busy workday and think like an athlete does about how they need to maintain energy by refueling.
We don’t need the same number of calories as pro athletes, but many of the same nutrition rules apply, Clark says.