Worth the Weight

April 1, 2015

Three years ago, Ohio State University football players embarked on a program to shed excess pounds. Their sweet reward? A national title.

The following article appears in the March 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Sarah Wick

Sarah Wick, RD, CSSD, LD, has been the Lead Sports Dietitian for Ohio State University athletics since 2003. She can be reached at: [email protected]

Lean, mean, fighting machine—this is the expectation for today’s collegiate football player. But what about an athlete who is overweight? How can he lose body fat while maintaining muscle? This is a new struggle for many college players and one we have tackled head on at Ohio State University.

Over the past quarter-century, the prevailing mindset for athletes on both sides of the ball has been “bigger is better.” Linemen regularly tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds, with coaches encouraging the extra bulk.

When Urban Meyer took over the Ohio State football program in November 2011, he wanted to go in a different direction. Coach Meyer preferred fast, strong, and agile linemen on both sides of the ball who could keep up with his high-octane offense and hard-charging defense. For many players, this meant starting a plan that would shed excess pounds, maintain or gain muscle, and lose body fat.

Shortly after Coach Meyer arrived, I was called in to work closely with these athletes. With an emphasis on nutrition education, meal planning, and proper pre- and post-practice fueling, we have seen great results over the past three years. By the start of the 2014 season, the team had dropped more than 500 pounds of fat and gained more than 500 pounds of muscle.

We’ve also had some inspiring individual success stories along the way. One player in particular, who I’ll call Mike, came to me needing to lose more than 30 pounds. When we first started working together, he was frustrated. He had no idea how to drop weight while staying strong and healthy. Lucky for me, Mike was determined.

I personalized a meal plan for him, and he regularly met with me to go over his caloric intake. Mike slowly began to lose two to three pounds of body fat a week. When he went under the 300-pound mark—a loss of more than 25 pounds—he shot me the biggest smile and gave me a bear hug that lifted me off the ground. Mike is now playing and maintaining his weight.

In just three short years, the Buckeye football players have become the lean, mean, fighting machines that Coach Meyer wanted. And the results on the field have been spectacular. In addition to going 38-3 during Coach Meyer’s first three years, they capped off the 2014 season with a national championship.

PLAN OF ATTACK

While the mission of the Sports Nutrition team here at Ohio State was to help players lose weight, we had to be careful to avoid a drop in their performance from under-fueling. It was critical for the athletes to understand how to feed their bodies effectively. Therefore, our first step was education.

We quickly learned that a majority of the athletes were ill-informed about nutrients and what foods helped with energy production and recovery. To address this, we put colorful nutritional posters in the locker room, weightroom, and at the training table. In addition, we hosted grocery shopping trips and cooking classes to show the players how to choose and prepare hearty, healthy foods and snacks.

For the players who needed to lose weight, we made sure they knew how to do so properly. Athletes often think the best way to drop pounds is to drastically cut calories, but this method often results in inadequate carbohydrate intake to support training and recovery. We also cautioned that rapid declines in weight are a result of water, glycogen, and muscle loss, which can hamper training, performance, recovery, and health. There’s no easy way around it: Losing substantial amounts of body fat takes time and sustained motivation.

A realistic goal for our players was to lose one to two pounds of body fat per week. This necessitated cutting about 500 calories a day from each athlete’s intake. With a few small changes to improve overall nutrition, we showed the players that it’s possible to cut calories without depleting their energy levels.

In order to maintain or increase lean mass while losing fat, we had the athletes eat every two to three hours to encourage the efficient utilization of fuel. When done correctly, eating more frequently can add up to fewer daily calories consumed because it prevents over-eating and keeps the metabolism revving.

To make eating up to six times a day feasible for all of the weight-loss players, we stressed the need to plan ahead on a daily and weekly basis. We told the athletes to make time each week to go grocery shopping, and we even texted them reminders. We also encouraged them to take five minutes before bed to pack meals and snacks for the following day in their gym bag or backpack. When they had fuel readily available, the players were more likely to eat regularly and less inclined to get a quick, nutritionally poor snack from a fast food joint.

Getting the athletes to eat at the right times was one feat, but ensuring they consumed the right kinds of foods and drinks was another challenge. Adequate protein intake is a key element to address with football players looking to lose weight. To help preserve muscle mass and metabolic rate, roughly 20 percent of their calories should come from protein, or about 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight a day.

When the Sports Nutrition staff first started working with the team, we found that many of the players ate very little protein throughout the day, consuming most of their protein at the dinner training table—sometimes taking in 200 or more grams in one sitting. However, this wasn’t good for the weight-loss athletes. Since the body can only utilize 30 to 40 grams of protein efficiently at one time, the rest was being stored as fat.

We helped each player find ways to incorporate protein throughout the day to keep his body nourished more consistently. We often added low-fat milk, yogurt, string cheese, seeds/nuts, and eggs to snacks and meals. Once the athletes made regular protein intake part of their daily routine, they were amazed at how much more full they felt and how much energy they had.

Finally, we addressed fluids. Athletes don’t usually realize how many calories they consume through beverages alone. A few 16-ounce sports drinks can easily add 500 to 1,000 calories per day. Simply by eliminating them during the day outside of practice, athletes could potentially lose two pounds a week.

For the weight-loss players, the only drinking options outside of practice were calorie-free or very low-calorie beverages such as water and Propel. Skim or low-fat milks were options with meals or for recovery nutrition. Sports drinks, fruit-flavored beverages, and fruit juices were avoided. It took awhile for the athletes to get out of the habit of grabbing a sports drink after practice, but they gradually became accustomed to the low-calorie alternatives.

FULL CIRCLE

To put the pieces of the players’ weight-loss plans together, the Sports Nutrition team relied on training table meals. We revamped the daily training table menu to provide healthier, more nutritionally balanced options. Now, we always offer two colorful veggies, a full salad bar, and fresh-cut fruit (not fruit salad because the players pick out the fruit they like). We try to attend every training table, and we encourage (okay, sometimes demand) that the weight-loss players have a fruit, vegetable, or salad with every meal.

At first, some of the players were reluctant to try new foods, especially those that looked “too healthy.” We always asked them to try one bite of a new food, and if they didn’t like it, they didn’t have to eat any more. It was never as bad as they thought it would be. As a result, we’ve switched out some of the players’ old favorites for leaner alternatives. Salmon, tilapia, and mashed sweet potatoes have become huge hits. With the new, creative, healthy menus at the training table, players looking to drop weight have discovered low-fat, nutrient-dense foods that they really enjoy.

Despite our emphasis on more nutritious fare, there is never a food on the training table that weight-loss athletes can’t have. But we do work with them on how much to eat of each item and what a balanced plate looks like. If a player wants something that we deem unhealthy, we ask him to have a single serving of that food along with lean meat, vegetables, and/or fruit. To prevent the athletes from looking for an unhealthy dessert after dinner, we stress filling up on fruits and vegetables.

The training table also gives us a chance to educate players on portion control. Many of them have no idea what a cup of rice, eight ounces of milk, or four to five ounces of lean meat looks like. We follow these individuals through the training table line to help with portion sizes until they can do it for themselves.

Mike was one player who required one-on-one attention at training table meals. He always looked for me to go through the line with him before he even picked up his plate, and he never touched a food unless I approved it.

Although Mike wasn’t a particularly picky eater, he hadn’t experienced a variety of foods, and he had little knowledge of proper portions. As we went through the line, I would point out the leanest meats and what nutrients certain foods offered. While Mike filled his plate, I would educate him on what a serving of each food looked like. Now, he knows what colors and portion sizes his plate needs to have and prepares his training table meals without me.

FUELING FOR PRACTICE

While the overall key to weight loss is cutting calories throughout the day, there is one area in which athletes looking to lose fat shouldn’t skimp: pre- and post-workout fuel. If the players go into an intense practice on empty, their bodies use their own energy stores for fuel, including muscle. Since weight-loss players are trying to maintain or increase their lean mass, this strategy doesn’t fly.

It’s important to make sure the athletes are getting the right kind of pre-practice fuel, however. Prior to the team’s collaboration with Sports Nutrition, players would grab fast food after a busy day of classes before hitting the turf in the afternoon. These meals could contain upwards of 1,200 calories and lack nutritional value. This was one of the first things we tried to change.

The weight-loss players need low-calorie, nutrient-dense food before practice, so we make these foods available to them. We focus primarily on carbohydrates in our pre-practice offerings, such as cut-up and whole fruit, bagels, cereals, supplement bars, and “Championship” fruit smoothies consisting of frozen fruit, tart cherry juice, sports drink, and ice.

We put the food in a convenient spot for the players, such as right outside the locker room or athletic training room. This way, athletes who are looking to lose weight can easily grab the nutrition they need while sticking to their eating plan. Plus, we are around to make sure they fuel up with a controlled portion.

Some players still choose to eat fast food before practice. However, we never preach or begrudge them if they make unwise food choices. Scolding athletes will only drive them farther away. Instead, we hang up posters covering what to order when eating out. We’ve slowly started to see less fried foods and sodas and more healthy pre-practice options, such as noodle bowls with chicken or beef and vegetables.

Immediately after practice, the main nutritional goal is replacing the athletes’ lost energy stores with carbohydrates and protein. Each player is given a post-practice protein shake—strawberry and chocolate banana are the team favorites. The post-practice shake keeps the weight-loss players from gorging themselves at the evening training table. Because they aren’t starving when they belly up to the buffet, they are able to make better food decisions.

SEEING RESULTS

At first, some players were less receptive than others to our nutritional changes. But as soon as we related their performance to their diet, they started to buy in. It became clear to them that what they ate made a difference in how they played. Our players want any edge they can get to be the best.

As they started seeing positive results, they became more motivated. When it comes to weight loss, success breeds success.

One final important factor in making the Ohio State football players lean and mean was the work of the strength and conditioning team, led by Mickey Marotti, MS, MSCC, CSCS, Assistant Athletic Director for Football Sports Performance. They helped the players with any nutritional goals, often serving as the extra eyes and ears I needed. When the entire football staff is on the same page with what the players’ needs and goals are, the team feels the unity, which creates a positive atmosphere and generates a desire to be successful.

With the weight-loss plans put into place at Ohio State, we have achieved a team of lean, powerful, and fast football players. Executing these plans can be challenging at times, but when you keep the players focused on meal timing, balanced feedings, and proper pre- and post-practice nutrition, they can make positive changes to their body compositions.

 

SIDEBAR: NEW MENU

When I started working as the Sports Dietitian for the Ohio State University football team, one of my first acts was revamping the training table options. Here’s a look at how I changed a few things around:

Before

Protein: Steak, fried chicken

Sides: Mashed potatoes, green beans

Drinks: Whole milk, sports drinks

After

Protein: Blackened chicken, salmon with mango salsa

Sides: Mashed sweet potatoes, corn, broccoli, full salad bar, fresh-cut fruit

Drinks: Low-fat and skim milk, water

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