When I sit down to watch the Packers and Seahawks tonight, I’m betting I won’t be a model of nutritional excellence. In fact, during football season, Sundays rank at the top of my (mostly sensible) splurge days. But in the new NFL, food isn’t just a big part of my watching—it’s a big part of the habits of the guys on the field. Here are three things that this NFL preseason taught me about nutrition:
1. Nutrition doesn’t just happen by itself.
Knowing how to eat right, especially for specific health and performance goals, doesn’t just come naturally. We all need nutrition education to better understand our bodies and what we eat, and professional teams are seeing this value as well. Some teams have been using qualified nutrition experts for years, like my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, who work with Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN.
Leslie says that the emphasis on nutrition is increasing, and that “the emphasis has moved from performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to performance-enhancing diets” to assist with performance, recovery, weight management and injury prevention.
Leslie observes that other teams have recently brought in registered dietitians and nutrition experts to run the training table, and work with team chefs and strength coaches. She estimates that nearly 20 percent of NFL teams use full-time sports RDs, along with about half of NBA teams and the majority of MLB and NHL teams. Players are seeing a difference: Green Bay Packers defensive back Jarrett Bush told the local news that his cramping has gone way down since his eating habits changed. With such strong incentives to improve nutrition, the biggest barrier is getting the nutrition know-how in the first place.
2. Nutrition is a key part of bigger goals.
Focusing on nutrition always seemed like a bit of a luxury—something people did to prove they were “living well.” But seeing how athletes incorporate nutrition into their daily lives, I have a strong example of nutrition contributing to a lot more than pride. It’s even a lot more than weight management, which is usually how it’s talked about on TV. NFL teams are using nutrition to improve tangible health qualities, like injury recovery time, as well as overall athletic performance and energy levels. Making nutrition a part of your life can seriously and positively impact your real life, like getting over that pulled muscle or keeping energy up in the post-lunch lull, not to mention reducing your risk of certain diseases.
3. Nutrition is accessible: Just start simple.
In the integrated training camp video below, NFL players are put into two groups: "red" athletes who are aiming to gain muscle and "blue" athletes who are aiming to lose fat. At the training table, when there are multiple options for items like smoothies, the options are labeled "red" or "blue." Everybody is different, and through the course of training athletes learn what works and doesn’t work for them specifically. But they start out with simple changes, shifting options towards the nutrient they’re prioritizing. You can go even simpler by using smaller plates for smaller portions and swapping out a side or two. These small changes add up to big impact.
For simple nutrition starter tips that are more "family of three" and less "300-pound lineman," check out the It’s All About You toolkit.
Check out this video to see how NFL camps are making nutritional changes simple and impactful.
Q&A: Nutrition and Performance from Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN