Jan 29, 2015Catch of the Day
Through education, careful meal planning, and creative entrees, Texas A&M University offers its football players the right fuel for success.
By Jonathan Tanguay
Jonathan Tanguay, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is Director of Performance Nutrition at Texas A&M University. He is a founding member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association and currently serves as its listserv chair. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution knows how difficult it is to maintain the commitment for a full year. From quitting smoking to running five miles a day to giving up potato chips, the odds of making it to Dec. 31 without a lapse are not favorable. At Texas A&M University, our football players are expected to maintain a healthy diet. And since we consider football a year-round sport, you could say they’re making a New Year’s resolution to eat well for their entire collegiate career when they sign on to be an Aggie. However, understanding the enormity of the task, we have created nutritional strategies designed to help them stay the course. We begin with customized nutrition and hydration plans for each player, which vary depending on whether we are in season or out of season. We support our meticulous dietary planning with positive reinforcement and a hands-on approach that includes educating the players on grocery shopping, cooking, and smart food selection at team meals. Taken together, we consider it our blueprint for resolution success. COMMAND CENTER
To give our players the best chance of meeting their nutritional goals, Texas A&M recently opened the multimillion-dollar R.C. Slocum Nutrition Center. Previously, all food for the football players had to be brought in by an outside vendor, and we were not able to serve more than one meal per day. This meant that our student-athletes were on their own for non-training table meals, and although we provided plenty of guidance and support, it was difficult to accurately monitor their nutrition and hydration levels. As a result, it was not uncommon for a player to show up to practice running low on fuel. With the opening of the nutrition center, we can now control the number of meals and quality of food served to the players. From a salad bar to an ever-flaming grill, the center allows athletes to choose the food items that satisfy their taste buds while also meeting their nutritional needs. We offer breakfast foods to players in the morning, such as breads, bagels, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, water, and sports drinks. Our lunch is open to the general public, and we hold a training table dinner for the players. Both lunch and dinner in the nutrition center are mandatory meals for the football players. For these meals, we have several action stations with cooked-to-order menus that include pasta, stir-fry, fajitas, quesadillas, omelets, carved beef, pork tenderloin, and turkey.
The nutrition center was designed so that one of the action stations can be used for interactive nutrition education. Set up similar to a television studio kitchen, the station allows me to give football players and other student-athletes a cooking demonstration while they sit in the “audience.” Although it’s not a complete kitchen, we use it to encourage students to get hands-on culinary experience to help them gain confidence in their cooking abilities.
The majority of our culinary nutrition education takes place in our summer CHAMPS class, which provides an introduction to life as a collegiate athlete for new players. Held once a week, the nutrition-education session features a lesson of the day and a cooking demonstration, and the students are able to sample the food we prepare. The session familiarizes athletes with our nutrition staff, and we let them know that we are an expert nutrition resource they can utilize at any point during their time here at Texas A&M. Another focus of the CHAMPS education is grocery shopping. Unfortunately, our freshmen live off campus and this can lead to an over-reliance on fast food. I take the football rookies to the grocery store in groups of three to five to help them identify foods that are healthy, tasty, and simple to prepare. The grocery shopping and cooking demos often run hand-in-hand, as the foods I use are typically the same ones I will steer the players to in the grocery store.
Before football two-a-days kick off in August, we develop meal plans and recommendations based on a player’s calculated energy expenditure and modify them if a desired weight gain or loss is not attained. In addition, we calculate calorie needs based on a player’s height, weight, and level of activity. Daily nutritional requirements are broken down to exchanges of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. We create meal cards for them and, combined with a food labeling system, this helps athletes determine which foods will work best for satisfying their individual requirements. Fueling needs are divided up throughout the day to create breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack options that are included on the meal cards, and every menu item in the nutrition center is labeled based on its macronutrient content. Overall, we focus our two-a-day nutrition program on hydration, weight maintenance, and recovery. To help players stay in front of hydration, we monitor their status at each meal. We keep a scale where players check in at mealtime and record their weight before and after each training session. Depending on the amount of weight they lose, players may be provided with an individualized rehydration prescription of either electrolyte pills or a drinkable electrolyte supplement, as well as sports drinks or water. Our two-a-day meals focus on enhancing players’ energy levels and facilitating recovery. Here’s a look at our nutritional game plan:
Breakfast: Our first meal of the day is served at 7 a.m., before practices begin. We design our breakfast menu to give athletes a light, healthy, and balanced meal that also jump-starts the hydration process. The focus is on carbohydrate intake in order to provide energy for the day’s workout, and foods typically are low in fat and moderate in protein, and provide lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. A typical breakfast menu includes: Gatorade, water, fruit juice, smoothies, fresh fruit, breakfast cereal, hot oatmeal or grits with fixings, various breads and bagels, and a breakfast sandwich selection that changes daily. Brunch: Following the morning practice, we serve a hearty brunch that emphasizes recovery and refueling through carbohydrate and protein. We add fruits and vegetables to enhance the vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content of this meal. We also push fluids in order to initiate the rehydration process for later sessions. The brunch selection typically includes: – Omelet bar with vegetables – Scrambled eggs (diced turkey, ham, and cheese optional) – Grilled chicken breast – Bacon, sausage, pork chop, patty melt, or fajita steak – Breakfast potato or sweet potato – Pancakes, waffles, or French toast – Toaster station with bagels and various breads – Fresh fruit – Water, sports drinks, and fruit juice.
Lunch: Brunch is followed by some down time so the team can rest, recover, and rehydrate for afternoon training. Lunch is served before the afternoon practice and, similar to breakfast, the meal is designed to be light on the stomach yet still provide the nutrients the players need to get through their second active session of the day. We also emphasize healthy fats from sources such as avocados and oil-based salad dressings to maximize players’ vitamin and mineral intake, reduce inflammation, and enhance recovery. The buffet includes:
– Deli spread with ham, turkey, roast beef, and grilled chicken – Hot sandwich of the day – Broth-based soup – Chef’s salad – Pita chips or pretzels – Fresh fruit – Cookies – Water, sports drinks, and electrolyte supplements.
We closely monitor players’ hydration levels and rehydration prescriptions are distributed accordingly. Athletic trainers and coaches are alerted to players with a poor hydration status so they can be closely monitored during afternoon training. Dinner: The fourth meal of the day is dinner, which immediately follows practice. While we don’t go overboard with our menu options, dinner is designed to be a treat for the players, who have put in a grueling day’s work and deserve to enjoy a great meal. Both lean and hearty protein options are available so that players trying to gain weight and those attempting to lose it are able to make responsible meal choices. Hydration status is checked again at dinner and rehydration prescriptions are distributed. A typical two-a-day dinner spread includes the following:
– Blackened tilapia fish tacos – Grilled pork tenderloin with pepper jelly sauce – Spinach alfredo pasta with grilled chicken – Griddle-seared whole kernel corn – Maple syrup carrots – Griddle-seared broccoli – Watermelon wedges and berries – Caesar salad of the day – Brownie sundaes.
A college football game is generally a weekend affair. So menus and meal times need to be planned accordingly. The night before: Most of our games take place on Saturdays, so on Friday evenings I like to ramp up the fueling process with a dinner that’s particularly interesting and appropriate to the occasion. For example, we plan a BBQ-themed meal when we stay in Memphis to play the University of Mississippi, or we add some Cajun flair to the menu when at Louisiana State University. For home games we follow the same theme–we even roasted a whole pig the night before the Arkansas game–and also offer enticing entrees such as carved steamship round, ham and turkey, baked salmon, and shrimp and grits. This is done to increase menu variety, which can become stale and stagnant if it remains unchanged for too long. The focus of this menu is getting the players as well fueled as possible. We include multiple carbohydrate and lean protein options and plenty of vegetables to ensure the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are being consumed. I typically choose menu items that we have had success with in the past as well as those that are specialties of local chefs. (For an example, see “Night Before,” below.)
Pregame: Our pregame fueling strategy starts the morning of the game and runs until the opening whistle. Nerves can affect how an athlete eats before a game, so I try to keep these meals simple and familiar. Depending on game time, our pregame meal lineup will include anything from breakfast to breakfast, lunch, and a snack. These meals are a combination of our different menu items, and may include fruit, eggs, chicken, beef, rice, potatoes, pasta, pancakes, waffles, and/or French toast. I sometimes have to eliminate certain mainstays. For example, while breakfast omelets are always a hit with the players, if the line to the omelet bar gets backed up during the only full pregame meal of the day, some may go hungry. So instead of omelets, we’ll sometimes do scrambled eggs with diced ham and turkey and cheddar cheese to provide the same nutritional content in a shorter time.
Another key component of pregame nutrition is hydration. We need to provide players with ample opportunities to hydrate, so we make sports drinks and water available to them wherever they go. For example, we place them throughout the hotel at away games, including in meeting rooms and meal rooms. On game day, we travel to away stadiums with a pre-stocked nutrition cart that fits on the team bus. As soon as we arrive, the cart is unloaded and brought into the locker room so I can set up the onsite nutrition selections. For home games, I simply arrive at the stadium ahead of the team. We rely heavily on sports drinks and make electrolyte supplements available to those who need them. The snacks we provide are typically low-fiber, easily digestible bars and chews. All these items provide quick sources of energy that are readily absorbed. Each player has his own approach to pregame nutrition. While I base the offerings on scientific research and the nutritional needs of each individual, oftentimes an athlete’s tradition or superstition takes precedence. I try to support and encourage any pregame routines as long as they’re not putting the athlete at risk for depleted energy stores or compromising their ability to perform on the field. In-game: We offer a variety of halftime nutrition options for our players. These include simple carbohydrates that are easy on the stomach and quickly absorbed as well as more complex carbohydrate and protein options such as energy bars. We also include an assortment of fresh fruit and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As fall advances and game-time temperatures drop, chicken broth becomes a team favorite. I head to the locker room a few minutes before the end of the first half and make sure the sports drinks, water, electrolyte replacers, and other halftime supplies are ready for the players. When the team comes in, we hit them with their hydration products first. I work with the athletic training students and other support staff to make sure that each player is refueled, rehydrated, and ready for the second half. Post-game: We organize a post-game meal and schedule it to be delivered around the start of the fourth quarter so that it is ready as soon as the team gets off the field. While on the road, options are sometimes limited but we always make sure a balance of protein and carbohydrate is included, as well as some type of fruit. We also provide the players with a sports drink and water to kick-start the rehydration process. We ensure the team is fed again on the flight home after road games. We organize this meal so that it includes a hot sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, fresh fruit, pretzels or baked chips, a sports drink, and water. In addition, we include some kind of treat on the flight after winning road games. From preseason to gameday, Texas A&M football players work hard to maintain their healthy eating “resolutions.” However, it is a team effort to keep the players committed, and our nutrition staff puts in long hours to achieve this goal. In return, we receive great satisfaction seeing the players utilize sports nutrition to take their performances to the next level.
Sidebar: NIGHT BEFORE Here is an example of a team meal served the night before a game: – Seasonal fresh fruit salad: including cantaloupe, watermelon, pineapple, honeydew, grapes, strawberries, oranges, grapefruit, sliced apples, kiwi – Green salad: including cherry tomatoes, sliced red onion, sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, diced boiled eggs, diced turkey, diced ham, shredded cheddar, parmesan cheese, bacon bits, croutons – Assorted dressings – Caesar salad – Chicken broth and chicken noodle soup (with saltines/assorted crackers to aid hydration) – Steamed green beans – Honey-glazed carrots – Mashed potatoes – Sliced beef tenderloin – Raspberry and chipotle salmon – Cajun red beans and rice – Baked meat lasagna