Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Chefs and a nutritionist help Redskins stay strong and avoid unhealthful foods

"I really don't have the urge for fast food anymore," says Clinton Portis. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Clinton Portis never cared much for broccoli, until he tried it Chef Mike style.

Portis, the 219-pound, 5-foot-11 veteran Redskins running back, hired private chef Michael Stevenson in March to help him shed some body fat before starting training camp in July. "I was looking for someone to help me get on a diet, a better eating program," says Portis, who had played at a heavier weight during previous seasons but wanted to be lean this year.

It's no secret that elite athletes have special dietary needs. But just how do the Redskins get the nutrients they need? It's not easy. For one thing, they eat a lot. Football players need double or triple the daily calories that most people do, and they must get enough from a healthful balance of carbs, lean proteins and fats to fuel grueling daily workouts and maintain energy during games, according to Jane Jakubczak, the Redskins' team nutritionist.

Finding a way to meet those energy needs is "quite a challenge," she says. "Their days are really scheduled, just like anybody else's." Fitting meals in between meetings and practices "is a full-time job." Plus, she says, it's important to "make sure their meals are performance-enhancing."

Improving players' performance by helping them eat more healthfully is what Jakubczak and Stevenson are all about. They try to show players that food that's good for you can also taste good. Stevenson points to his work with Portis, 29, who says he used to favor chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A and wings from Popeyes a few times a week. He also loved to eat his mom's comfort food recipes, such as rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese.

Now, Portis eats plenty of lean protein and vegetables, such as a garden salad topped with Cajun shrimp and chicken, served with oven-roasted wild mushroom chicken (with a sauce made from chicken stock reduction and no flour, cream or butter). And, yes, he's also come to enjoy Stevenson's broccoli, which is cooked in homemade chicken stock until it's tender, then seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and cracked black pepper. That's more palatable to Portis than the al dente broccoli he thought was the norm.

Once Portis started eating Stevenson's food, the athlete admits, "I started to feel better. Every time I tried to cheat and eat fast food, I had a [bad] reaction." He felt sluggish and lacking in energy. Now, as he begins his seventh season with the Redskins 13 pounds lighter than last year, he says, "I really don't have the urge for fast food anymore."

The team nutritionist

During football season, a National Football League player needs 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day, Jakubczak says. Of course, "a 200-pound player needs less food than a 350-pound player." The proportions of food groups remain the same, while portions vary according to body size.

About two-thirds of the NFL teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, employ nutritionists to help with these issues, says Jakubczak. Her part-time job also involves working with the strength and conditioning coaches to help players achieve and maintain optimal body mass. That generally means building lean muscle and keeping body fat to a minimum, which makes a player "quicker and stronger on the field," she says.

To help players navigate the food choices at work, the team kitchen uses a traffic-light system, which labels foods with green, yellow and red symbols, with green indicating the most healthful choices and red the ones that should be sampled sparingly, if at all.

Jakubczak also supports players through injury recovery and repair. "Nutrition plays an integral role in bringing down inflammation," she says.

The teams' head strength and conditioning coach, Ray Wright, agrees. "When you lift or practice or do anything physical like that, any type of workout like that, tissues are broken down -- you tear tissue," he said in an e-mail. "Nutrition aids in the recovery of that tissue. It also aids in getting you ready for the next practice. We're always worried about the next practice or the next game."

Extra help for players

Wright and Jakubczak are happy to see Portis and other players hire private chefs, especially because they're served only breakfast and lunch at Redskins Park in Ashburn, and only on weekdays. Jakubczak appreciates the extra guidance a chef can provide on weekends and in the evenings.

Wide receiver Santana Moss, 31, is one of a handful of Redskins who has worked with Stevenson to control his weight. "I was 10 pounds heavier than I wanted to be," said the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Moss. After knee surgery in the offseason, Moss couldn't work out as much and was eating a lot of carbs, he said. Chef Mike helped him focus more on meat, fish and vegetables. "I lost 10 pounds," Moss said. "Once I got back to practicing, I came down to the weight I wanted to be."

Jakubczak's and Stevenson's jobs are easiest when they're working with the likes of Fred Davis, a 24-year-old tight end who, at 6-foot-4, weighs about 255 pounds. "He's a foodie guy," with wide-ranging, generally healthful tastes, Stevenson says. But, Davis says, "I'm an athlete. I don't cook." Before teaming up with Stevenson, he ate out a lot, enjoying various ethnic cuisines but also frequenting Ruth's Chris and Morton's steakhouses. He still eats steak, but it's Stevenson's lean rib-eye, served with Chilean sea bass, asparagus, saffron rice and salad. (When he allows himself dessert, he loves strawberry shortcake.)

Like Portis, rookie Trent Williams -- another Stevenson client -- was big on fast food. What's the top takeout choice for the 22-year-old offensive tackle (who, at 6-foot-5, weighs 318 pounds)? "A cheeseburger," he said, "from anywhere."

"I knew it wasn't good for me," he said, but he wasn't big on cooking for himself. Once he went pro, he decided that "if I want to be healthy and injury-free, I had to treat my body better than [by eating] fast food."

Still, Williams admits he sometimes splurges on sweets such as ice cream and cookies. "I can't help it at times," he laments.

That's okay with Jakubczak and Stevenson, who encourage the occasional indulgence. Stevenson, who allows his clients a weekly "cheat day," still makes Portis a version of the jambalaya that Portis's mom cooks, using chicken breast and shrimp along with the traditional andouille sausage. "He won't let me change that," Stevenson told me in an e-mail. "He likes his food to have authentic roots. Also, his mother is an awesome cook."

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