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Former Athletes Tackle the Challenge of Eating on an Ordinary Scale

With their football careers over, Jeff Kendall, left, and Cole Linehan are losing weight.
With their football careers over, Jeff Kendall, left, and Cole Linehan are losing weight. (By Rich Frishman -- Sports Illustrated Via Getty Images)
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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If you're among the roughly 3 percent of college football players who move on to a professional team after leaving school, you'll probably spend the bulk of your career trying to maintain your, well, bulk. But for the remaining 97 percent, the recognition that pro ball is not in your future should signal a marked change in eating habits.

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For too many young men, it doesn't. That's the story George Dohrmann, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, tells in the June 8 issue of the magazine. Dohrmann highlights the plight of two former linemen for the University of Oregon as they adjust their bodies to the realities of life without football.

For one, Jeff Kendall, that means giving up his nightly nacho feast and forsaking his habit of eating two lunches -- one from Panda Express, the other from Subway -- every day during training. For the other, Cole Linehan, it means forcing himself to take up running for exercise, something that proves surprisingly difficult. For both, it means reckoning with their 300-plus-pound bodies and realizing that their size, once an asset, has become a liability.

Though the young men's individual stories are inspiring, the phenomenon they illuminate is sobering. According to Dohrmann, these athletes are required by the demands of their sport and their trainers to eat up, consuming loads of calories to make them formidable foes on the field. But once it becomes clear that their playing days are behind them, the young men are largely left to their own devices as they navigate the transition from athlete to ordinary guy. As Kendall puts it, "All of a sudden you go from being a fat kid living the dream to, well, just fat."

A lucky few college athletes have access to a full-time nutritionist such as James Harris of Oregon's athletic department. Harris has been at his post for only three years, so he missed the freshman year of the current crop of seniors. Intervening that first year would have been ideal, he says, allowing him to plant the seeds of nutrition awareness at the start of their college careers. But still he was able to help Kendall and Linehan find their way, even though the athletic department was pretty much done with them, having shifted its attention to the training needs of the incoming freshmen.

Harris is a member of a very small club: Of the 119 Division I college football programs in the country, Dohrmann says that fewer than two dozen employ full-time nutritionists. Harris puts that number closer to just a dozen. Dohrmann says that although many schools have invested heavily in weight-training and conditioning programs and used those as recruiting tools, the idea of promising nutrition guidance as part of recruitment packages has yet to catch on.

Dohrmann points to the dearth of research showing what happens to college athletes' health once they leave school. Though it seems obvious that many beefed-up kids will face health problems later in life if they don't adapt their eating and exercise patterns, Dohrmann says he could find no scientific studies to back that up. Without such documentation, the situation is likely to continue flying under the radar.

Harris says that while non-athlete students may have their share of trouble making the transition from campus chow to real-world food, athletes whose eating regimens have been dictated to them for years often founder even more dramatically when that structure disappears.

Harris helps them establish a new structure, calculating their body mass and their daily calorie needs. He steers clear of the word "diet," which he says implies restriction. Instead, he favors teaching students to add healthful choices such as fruits and vegetables to their menus.

"It's a gradual transition," he says. "The first step is to never subtract; always add. You don't say, 'Cut out the beer and nachos,' but tell them to add some salsa. You have to incorporate new behaviors, not take away old behaviors. Eventually the new ones will push out the old ones."

The new behaviors that Harris promotes have apparently taken hold with Kendall. Dohrmann's article outlines the daily menu plan that he adopted and compares it with his college-days consumption. With the double lunches and nightly nachos, Kendall had been downing close to 6,000 calories a day, much of it in fatty, sugary, nutritionally unsound food. The new plan adds up to just over 2,600 calories, a surprising total given that the food consists mostly of fruit and vegetables, lean elk meat and canned tuna, and yogurt. According to the magazine article, the two athletes have lost at least 30 pounds each.

Kendall and Linehan happen to be white, but Harris says young black athletes face a still greater risk of disease related to overweight and obesity. "African Americans traditionally have higher instances of diabetes and heart disease," he says. "That makes their transition more important. It needs to start as early as possible."

Since the Sports Illustrated story appeared, Harris says he has been inundated with calls from former college athletes -- not just from Oregon -- asking him for help. Harris tries to offer some guidance over the phone, but without spending time with a person and getting to know his lifestyle, the advice he gives is necessarily limited.

With Harris's direct help and feedback on their own efforts, the two young men featured in Dohrmann's story seem to have landed on their feet. As Kendall says in the article, "You realize that our bodies weren't meant to be that big . . . . As you get to be a size that is more what you are supposed to be, you feel so much better. You have more energy, you sleep better, your mood is better. It changes your life."

Check out tomorrow's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer remembers moving from college chow to eating like a grown-up. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.


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