It was during his senior year at Michigan State, around the time he was preparing for the NFL draft, that Kirk Cousins met with an applied kinesiologist about a range of fitness issues, and the subject of diet came up.
Cousins had always had a fast metabolism, lean for his height through adolescence, so his personal dietary guidelines were only slightly more sophisticated than that of the typical college student. “I thought, as long as I didn’t go crazy and have doughnuts at every meal, I could have pizza and burgers and the occasional chocolate milkshake and not see any extra weight,” Cousins recalls.
The specialist told him otherwise, but at the time, Cousins now concedes, he wasn’t ready to hear it.
Today, roughly six years later, Cousins has joined the growing list of NFL quarterbacks who have radically overhauled their diets with an eye toward prolonging their careers and preventing injury. Their mentor is New England’s four-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who enters his 18th NFL season, at age 40, as light, limber and effective as he has ever been. Their ranks include New Orleans’s Drew Brees, 38, who spurns gluten, dairy and nuts, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, 33, who adheres to a quasi-vegan diet with minimal lean meat.
“It took the fourth or fifth time hearing, ‘You need to do this,’ and then reading about Drew Brees and Tom Brady and others who are your peers doing it,” Cousins said, explaining his dietary conversion in a recent interview. “I realized, ‘If I want to hang with these guys, then it’s time to stop playing around.’”
Notoriously meticulous in his approach, Cousins did more than simply try to adopt Brady’s highly restrictive diet, which bans refined sugar, white flour, dairy, caffeine, alcohol, many fruits and such vegetables as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant while leaning heavily on organic vegetables and grain, with modest servings of lean meats.
Cousins sought out a scientific explanation of the way his body processes food based on bloodwork analysis. The test, which he underwent in January, around the time of the Pro Bowl, identifies the type of food the body is sensitive to and, as a result, must expend extra energy to process. Then he repeated the bloodwork this past spring, roughly three months later, to confirm the initial findings and rule out any quirky results.
“The test showed that my sensitivities were to nearly all dairy, eggs, wheat and gluten and a couple random things — like green beans,” Cousins said. All the findings (including green beans, for whatever reason) were confirmed by the retest.
As a result, Cousins now follows a highly regimented diet that cuts out eggs, dairy and wheat-based foods and consists primarily of poultry, lean beef, fish and fruits and vegetables. Staying the course demands plenty of planning, no impulse eating at airports and more frequent meals to ensure he gets the total calories he needs.
It is just the latest in Cousins’s drive to improve his performance each year in a sport that has little use for athletes who plateau.
As an upshot, Cousins, who turned 29 Saturday, said he has lost between five and 10 pounds. It’s not as noticeable as the weight Redskins left tackle Trent Williams has shed (27 pounds) after his own dietary overhaul two years ago and a recent vegan conversion or the 23 pounds lost this summer by Redskins Coach Jay Gruden, whose 50th birthday, rising blood pressure and worsening joint pain and stiffness were a wake-up call.
But it has made a difference, says Cousins’s personal trainer, Wisconsin-based Joe Tofferi, who for the past four years has worked with the quarterback on a year-round fitness regimen that focuses on flexibility and agility and prioritizes lengthening his muscles rather than bulking up.
“You can still be strong, but a quarterback’s muscles must be long and elastic,” Tofferi said. “A muscle is like a rubber band. So if you want to shoot a rubber band a long way, you have to pull it way back. Our strategy with Kirk is to keep him as elastic as possible.”
That approach, Tofferi explained, works hand in hand with a diet that doesn’t tax his digestive system.
“The cool thing about Kirk, he is always looking to get better,” Tofferi said. “I remember four years ago, I’d have to beg him when we got done training to stop and get a nutrition shake so he would eat something. Now he has educated himself so much, I don’t have to say anything. He sees the importance; he feels it. It has been quite a journey nutritionally.”
Said Cousins: “It’s all about good health and staying healthy; it’s not about a number on a scale. But if I look lighter, it’s because I am.”
Now under 200 pounds, Cousins is still trying to figure out the sweet spot in his physique for maximum performance, maximum durability and maximum longevity, eager to extend his career well into his 30s, as Brady and Brees have shown is possible.
“If I’m 195 on the light side but keep going out there and playing, I wouldn’t say I’m too light,” said Cousins, who hasn’t missed a game since being named the Redskins starter in August 2015. “If I’m getting hit and getting hurt, then yes, I could be too light.”