By Sally Squires
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Real men don't eat meat and potatoes -- at least not only meat and potatoes. Now, they're also dining on fruit, vegetables and whole grains -- and enjoying them, too.
That's what I've been hearing from professional athletes who are leading the way. They've learned that eating smart not only helps their performance but also may lengthen their careers.
"It's a lifestyle thing," says the Washington Wizards' Brendan Haywood, who weighed 310 pounds in high school. The 7-foot center, who joined the Wizards seven years ago, now checks in at 265 pounds.
"I changed the way I eat," says Haywood, who has a fondness for chocolate cake, ice cream and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "I was astonished at how many calories are in one Krispy Kreme doughnut. . . . You realize as you get older that . . . to keep a healthy lifestyle, you can't have french fries and cheeseburgers every day."
That's why Haywood and a number of other pro athletes, including teammates Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, have hired personal chefs to assist them at the dining table. "Your body is your temple, so you want to keep it as fresh as possible," Butler says. "Eating right gives you an edge on your opponent."
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Ray King has learned that lesson, too. Concerned that extra pounds were throwing him off balance on the mound, he changed his habits during the offseason. Not only did King work out, he also stopped drinking soda and swapped greasy, fast-food burgers for salmon.
The result? Last week, King began spring training weighing 23 pounds less than he did last season. Now he "hardly has a gut," as MLB.com sportswriter Bill Ladson reported, marveling that King is "in the best shape of his life."
Such nutritional adjustments don't always come easy, even for highly motivated athletes whose livelihoods depend on their bodies. Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says she often assures male athletes that they don't need a hunk of meat on their plate for peak performance on or off the field.
Eating well "doesn't make you any less masculine," says Bonci, who also provides nutrition advice to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Pittsburgh Pirates and members of the U.S. Olympic team. "It may benefit you for years to come and enable you do to what you really want to do physically."
The surprise for many is how good healthful food can taste. The Pirates first added rice and beans to their menus when Dominican-born players requested them. The low-calorie, high-protein meals proved so popular that they are now standard fare. That move paved the way for other foods when the team opened Pirate City, its new training facility. Now vegetable kebabs, stir-fries, steamed vegetables and a salad bar with a wide range of greens are popular items, Bonci says.
Fruit salad and melon are also player favorites -- but whole fruit served in a bowl is not. "If it isn't cut up," Bonci says, "they are not going to eat it." So Bonci has the food service staff strategically position fresh cherries, melon slices and tempting vegetables at the entrance to the cafeteria line where athletes can grab them first after practice. "They're cool and tasty," she says.
Chef Gregory Love, who works full time for Butler, encouraged him to start with small diet adjustments. "I never ate breakfast," Butler says. "I was more of a lunch and big dinner kind of guy."
Now Butler begins the day with oatmeal, grits or ReddiEgg omelets -- "fake out" eggs as Love calls them, made from egg whites, which are rich in protein. "I sprinkle that with organic cheddar cheese and Monterey Jack," Love says. "That gives him energy."
Lunch is often soup and sandwiches -- either grilled chicken or lean organic burger -- on hearty multigrain buns. Butler's favorite soups are minestrone, loaded with garbanzo beans, tomatoes and zucchini, and chicken noodle, made with chicken breasts, celery, onions and carrots.
On the road, Butler often text messages Love for guidance in ordering from room service. He has been eating carefully since he was recently sidelined with a strained left hip flexor. "I'm trying to eat as light as possible to keep my weight the same," Butler says, adding that the effort has paid off. "Over the last two years, I've been an All-Star, so it's worked out."
Haywood's chef has helped him cut back on processed food, adding more organic chicken, beef, vegetables, fruit and whole grains. One of his favorite dinners is shrimp with saffron rice. Vegetable side dishes include broccoli, peas, green beans, collard greens, mustard greens and kale. "But he's not going into Brussels sprouts or asparagus," says chef Will Simpkin, who also introduced Haywood to orange roughy. "He loves it," Simpkin says of the fish. "It's not around all the time, but when it's in the market, I will get it for him."
Pro athletes who can't afford to hire their own chefs are also paying more attention to fueling their bodies. Bonci counsels minor-league baseball players and football practice squad members on tight budgets to skip the soda and Pop-Tarts. She encourages them to eat inexpensive, healthful and filling meals of burritos, beans and rice at Chipotle rather than fried fast food somewhere else.
Despite the trend toward healthier eating, few male athletes seem tempted to give up meat altogether. "Vegetarian?" Butler says. "No, it never crossed my mind."
He's not alone. At last week's congressional hearings on possible steroid use in baseball, members of Congress also grilled baseball player Roger Clemens on his eating habits.
"Have you ever been a vegetarian?" Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) asked Clemens.
"I have not," Clemens said.
"Have you ever been a vegan?
"I'm sorry?" Clemens said, sounding puzzled.
"A vegan?" Braley repeated.
Clemens responded: "I don't know what that is."