NFL players work out hard, both on the field and in the gym. But for them, training is only part of the equation. They also need to eat right. "If you're only [focused on training] you might not get the body you want, and you may increase your risk of injury," says Leslie Bonci, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and team sports dietitian for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Contrary to popular belief, eating everything in sight isn't a plus in the NFL. Barry Rubin, head strength and conditioning coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, says having an unhealthy body weight will only slow you down and make you more sluggish and susceptible to injury. "You can't outrun your calories," he says. "If you start doing that, you're going to get hurt and over train."
If you want to get in shape like an NFL pro, you need to eat like an NFL pro. That means getting enough protein and the right balance of nutrients in your diet.
Cincinnati Bengals safety Chris Crocker says, "Diet is very important to me as a player. High protein is my main focus along with incorporating more carbs the night before the game."
There's a reason pro athletes like Crocker won't go anywhere without their protein. It's an essential ingredient in every cell of the body, including the muscles.
During a workout, your body goes into a catabolic state where it's breaking down muscle. Once you're done lifting, you want to put it back into an anabolic state where it builds muscle again. Rob Livingstone, a strength and conditioning professional in Norcross, Ga. who has trained many pro athletes, says, "It's so important post-workout to get something in your body to start that anabolic phase."
Bonci says the goal with eating protein is to optimize performance and build lean muscle mass. Ideally, you want to get in a serving of protein both before and after a workout, she says.
When you eat your protein, don't take it solo. "You've got to have some carbohydrates," Livingstone says. "There's got to be some sugar in that protein to increase the absorption." Carbs not only help your body grow muscle, but they also provide you with fuel for your workout.
A lot of NFL pros get their protein on the go. A quick protein fix in bar or shake form is great when you're at the gym. But it shouldn't be your only source of the nutrient. "To me," Bonci says, "a meal is not a shake or a bar. I think there's something to be said for utensils and chewing. But they really can help somebody get to their goal and they're really convenient. It's a little hard to whip a turkey leg out of your [gym] bag." Bonci recommends using whey protein isolate, a straight shot of protein that you can add to shakes, peanut butter, oatmeal, and just about anything else you eat or drink.
When it's on your plate, which it should be at every meal, protein needs to be the right kind. "My emphasis is lean," Bonci says. "I don't want my players saying, 'I got all of my protein because I ate wings.'" Lean chicken, lean beef, soy, and beans are some of the healthiest protein sources.
During the season, former Tennessee Titan defensive tackle Torrie Griffin was burning so many calories on the field that he had to consume upwards of 8,000 calories each day just to maintain his 290-pound playing weight. "That is, I would say, a standard portion for some of the guys," he says. "I was one of those who had to work to keep the weight on."
Griffin, who is now a certified personal trainer and owner of TTrain Fitness Bootcamp in Atlanta, doesn't recommend the kind of diet he and his teammates ate to stay big. For breakfast, they'd down supersized restaurant portions of waffles, eggs, bacon, grits, and toast. At dinner, they'd pack in two burgers, mac and cheese, and fries. "In general for the linemen, it was three very large meals," Griffin recalls. "I didn't really think about how much of the bad stuff or fat and calories were in the food when we ate out."
The only guys who need to be as huge as defensive linemen are defensive linemen. If you work a desk job and eat like a lineman, the only thing that's going to grow is your belly. Guys who work out but eat nothing but junk food will gain fat on top of their muscle and bulk up. "When you're talking about lean muscle mass, you've got to have a clean diet ... a balanced diet of protein and carbohydrates [with a] low level of fat, and lots of fruits and vegetables," Livingstone says.
For that, you're better off taking nutrition tips from the NFL players who keep their diets lighter and cleaner.
Crocker only gets 3,000 to 3,500 calories on days when he trains. "As a free safety, it is best for me to be lighter on my feet so I am able to get to the ball and get to the plays a lot quicker." He says he can cover the field faster when he's a pound or two lighter.
If you're working out three days a week, you can eat about 15 calories per pound of body weight, according to Bonci. Men who work out five days a week can up their calorie count to 20 per pound. That doesn't mean everyone gets a free pass to eat more than 3,000 calories a day, though. "The range of calories you require on a daily basis varies greatly and is dependent upon your weight, your activity level, your age, and your muscle mass," Bonci says. "So one size does not fit all when it comes to determining your calorie cap!"
Your NFL Plate
For most NFL players, eating is a no-brainer. They've got nutritionists on staff, and during the season, they eat three meals a day in the team's cafeteria. If you're not a pro, you need to do the meal planning yourself, but you can incorporate elements from the NFL diet.
There's really no big secret to eating like an NFL pro. It's all about balance.
Your plate should look like this:
- One-third lean protein (eggs, chicken, turkey, red meat)
- One-third fruits and vegetables
- One-third healthy carbs (whole-grain rice, pasta, or bread)
Crocker starts his day with a breakfast of turkey sausage and egg whites with tomatoes and spinach. Lunch is usually a grilled chicken sandwich with a mixed green salad, or sliced ham on wheat with applesauce. And dinner is lean protein -- chicken, pork, or beef -- with brown rice, steamed green beans, and a mixed green salad. If he's hungry between meals, he snacks on cereal bars or fresh fruit.
The bulk of your nutrition should come from what's on your plate. But if you're not getting enough vitamins and minerals from food alone, it's OK to take a daily supplement, Bonci says. Nutritional supplements can help you make up for what you're missing in your diet, but they shouldn't replace it.
"It's very important that the supplement remain a supplement," Livingstone says. "If supplements start to take over the diet, they're not doing their job." Supplements can't provide the same quality of vitamins and nutrients as whole foods like chicken, fruits, and vegetables.
Also, be wary of the specialized supplements marketed to athletes because they're not always safe. Some supplements that are used to increase athletic performance have been linked to side effects like high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, and nausea.