On Super Bowl Sunday, millions of Americans will be devouring pizza and gorging on potato chips while watching elite, finely tuned athletes perform from one edge of the big-screen TV to the other. While those pro football players will be burning thousands of calories from the opening kickoff to the final whistle, Joe Sixpacks from sea to shining sea will be loading up their plates and stretching their stomachs with enough calories to leave most bathroom scales screaming for mercy.
There may be a few dozen talented athletes providing the entertainment at the Super Bowl, but as dietitian Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, says, "The biggest exercise on Super Bowl Sunday is from hand to mouth." And at a time when nearly 65% of men and women in the U.S. are overweight or obese, the biggest football game of the year will provide them with yet another opportunity to overindulge.
According to the National Restaurant Association, more than one-quarter of all Americans who watch the game will be picking up takeout food or having it delivered. Many more will be turning their own kitchens into small factories that produce tempting, king-size platters of chicken wings, juicy hamburgers, and nachos dripping with cheese.
At last year's Super Bowl, if you had consumed an average serving of each of the snack foods and beverages advertised during the game itself, you would have ingested at least 925 calories from first quarter to last (nearly half the calories of a full day) as well as 38 grams of fat and 890 milligrams of sodium -- from chips to beer to candy bars.
Eat Like a Super Bowl Quarterback
In 2004, football legend Joe Montana joined WebMD in a live event -- accompanied by cardiologist James Rippe, MD -- and offered up some tasty and nutritious recipes for your Super Bowl party.
"Food can taste wonderful without being salty," said Rippe.
"All of these recipes are either very low salt or no salt and low fat, yet they taste delicious. If you think that low- or no-salt food tastes bland, you should try some of these recipes. You'll be very pleasantly surprised."
"I was blown away by the brownies," said Montana, who led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl victories.
"I don't eat a lot of starches, but I do like potatoes, and must admit that the potato skin recipe is a great alternative with great flavor. I'm a difficult sell, when it comes to alternative for something I love to eat."
First, Do No Harm
Even if you're watching your weight and corralling your cholesterol, can you have your cake and eat it, too, on Super Bowl Sunday? Just maybe. A single day of splurging isn't necessarily going to derail all the New Year's resolutions you've made for your diet.
"Of course, we've just finished Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, so think about how long it's been since the last splurge," advises Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health. "But for someone whose weight is at a healthy level and who generally eats a balanced diet with moderate calories, fat, and sweets, and plenty of fruits and vegetables, then splurging one day a year or even a few days a year is probably not going to do any harm. Just try to eat very lightly on the following day or two."
Nevertheless, a number of recent studies have shown that even one high-fat meal can cause at least temporary upheaval within your cardiovascular system. In 2002, researchers at Columbia University and Osaka City University in Japan published a study in which they gave 15 healthy young men a single high-fat meal composed of a colossal 1,200 calories, 100 grams of fat, and 6 milligrams of cholesterol. Five hours after they consumed the high-fat meal, their levels of triglycerides (a blood fat) increased an average of 140 points, compared with an increase of 10 points in men who ate a low-fat meal. At the same time, the capacity of the blood vessels to expand or dilate (an indicator of blood vessel health) declined 18% in the high-fat group.
"We know that a single high-fat meal does raise triglyceride levels," says Kleiner, author of Power Eating. But the effect is short-term. "Even just a day or so later, the triglyceride level will return to what it was."
Super Bowl munchers may need to show a little more care if they already have a chronic illness or if they're pregnant. "Diabetics taking insulin should watch what they eat all the time," says Kava. That may mean staying away from refined carbohydrates -- for example, avoiding soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks, and choosing diet sodas and sparkling water instead.
Most experts say that on balance, a healthy person who succumbs to the seduction of beer, burgers, and chips on Super Bowl Sunday will barely cause a blip on their personal health-status screen. But for people who are insistent upon absolutely no backsliding in their commitment to scaling down their waistline and controlling their cholesterol, there's a game plan for them to follow, even while watching the biggest football game of the year.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends selecting fresh fruit, vegetables, baked chips, and pretzels when filling up your plate. If the party's at your house, offer entrees such as meatless chili or lean chicken strips. And for some sweet satisfaction in the fourth quarter, the ADA suggests angel food cake topped with low-fat frozen yogurt and chocolate syrup.
"Give people choices," says Kava. "If all you're serving is corned beef sandwiches and hamburgers, that's what your guests will eat. But if you have some healthier choices as well, you'll give them some options."
While a submarine sandwich (with ham, salami, and cheese) has about 450 calories and 17 grams of fat, a typical low-fat hot dog on a reduced-calorie bun contains only 130 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. A slice of carrot cake with cream cheese icing has about 480 calories and 29 grams of fat, compared with a slice of angel food cake that will provide only about 70 calories and 0.2 grams of fat.
Kleiner is the nutritional consultant for the Seattle Supersonics and has created dietary plans for the Cleveland Browns and the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the Browns, she says, because football players burn so many calories, they typically consume from 3,000 to 7,000 calories a day. "Some of the smallest and leanest players, like the running backs, eat the most," she says. "They may weigh only 180 pounds, but most of it is muscle. Their metabolic rates are very high, and it's not unusual for them to eat 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day."
"If you fall off the wagon," says Kava, "the wagon will still be there in the morning. Just climb back on."