Fourth Quarter Comeback: Why elite athletes can end up on the Biggest Loser

I'm a sports fan. Let me rephrase that. I'm fanatical about sports: all sports. I'm also a registered dietitian. So you can imagine my intrigue when I saw the commercial for this fall's season of The Biggest Loser. This season, the show's contestants are all former elite athletes.

Some athletes have experienced trouble transitioning to the real world after their playing days are over. The most common pitfall for former players has been financial, but others have also struggled to stay fit.  

Michael Phelps with 12,000 calories of food. Photo by Total Pro Sports.

Unlike most of us, limiting calories is of little concern to athletes while training at elite levels. In fact, they seek calories—Michael Phelps’ 12,000 calorie a day diet is perhaps the most well-known example of this. The life of an NFL player, for example, is filled with two-a-day practices and training tables. When these two staples disappear, however, balancing calories and physical activity becomes a much greater concern. Food choices that were once made for them now demand their attention. Overbearing trainers demanding “one more!” are now no more. 

This begs the question, for NFL athletes exchanging gridirons for griddles, which is more important for maintaining a healthy weight—calories burned or calories consumed?

For an expert opinion on the matter, I turned to Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN and sports dietitian for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the past 20 years. “Actually it is some of both,” she explained. “Once many of these players stop playing, they take a break from physical activity, but don't adjust their intake.”

For superstar athletes, the number of calories needed to maintain season-long energy, in-game endurance, and adequate post-game recovery far exceeds the needs of any weekend warrior. Us active folks like to fancy ourselves “athletes,” but, for even the most active among us, nutrition needs between leisure athletes and professional athletes are two entirely different ballgames.

The Biggest Loser Season 16 cast: All former elite athletes. Photo by NBC Studies.

When NFL players retire and join us as weekend warriors, many have a hard time changing their training table mindset. “Ideally the goal is to keep up some degree of physical activity but learn how to eat to live—not to survive on the playing field,” said Bonci. In other words, NFL players must learn to adapt their diet for a new (less active) lifestyle; a lifestyle much more like us weekend warriors. Yes, we all have something in common with NFL alumni: we each strive for a healthy weight, not a playing weight.   

Unfortunately, the down-sizing needed by many NFL players when they leave the game for good is challenging to say the least. “It can be a rude awakening when transitioning from needing to be a big and formidable opponent to right-sizing one's body to thrive, strive, and stay alive,” said Bonci.

Some have made the transition successfully, but others like Damien Woody and Scott Mitchell (two former Detroit Lions and current Biggest Loser competitors) have not…yet. They’ll both be looking for a “comeback” this season, just not the fourth-quarter type they used to live for. This comeback will help them live well into the fourth-quarter of life. I’ll be rooting for them—and not just while they’re on the show. Will you?


**Leslie Bonci is the author of “Sport Nutrition for Coaches, Human Kinetics.” You can follow her on twitter @lesliebonci.