A healthy diet fuels athletic excellence, something Dr. Dan Benardot, Team Nutritionist for The Atlanta Falcons‘ football team knows all too well. Clean Plates did a Hail Mary, asking Benardot if we could receive his nutritional game plan and we scored. He didn’t punt or pass and instead, touched down with these goals (ok, we’ll stop)…
Clean Plates: Is there one food or drink you recommend every Falcons’ player has before the game?
Dan Benardot: It is important for players to understand that arriving at the pre-game preparation in a low-energy and/or poorly hydrated state cannot be corrected quickly before the game. Therefore, players know that they must avoid relative energy deficiency and poor hydration at all times. There is no single food or drink recommended to each player before the game.
However, there are some science-based principles we try to follow. As football is a sport highly reliant on anaerobic metabolism (i.e.: power/speed), we provide good quality carbohydrate foods as part of a balanced intake. Regular consumption of carbohydrates encourages muscle glycogen storage, and muscle glycogen is the primary fuel for power/speed activities.
As part of this strategy, we also must assure that sufficient fluid is consumed so that players sustain a good hydration state, and also because fluid is necessary for glycogen storage. It is also important for players to sustain normal blood sugar, which can become low in 3 hours with normal daily activity, and in as little as 30 minutes with highly intense activity. Low blood sugar has multiple negative effects, including reduced neurological function with reduced concentration capacity, loss of lean mass as a result of higher stress hormone (cortisol) production, and higher insulin production on the next meal, with higher fat production.
We try to assure that optimal nutrition and hydration are both achieved by making it easy for the players to obtain what they require. Foods and beverages are easily and readily available before the game, including the pre-game meal, snacks and beverages after the pre-game meal, and snacks and beverages before the players take to the field for initial pre-game warm-ups.
C.P.: What pre-game meals are you planning for the players?
D.B.: The menus for the players are coordinated with the hotel chefs. The emphasis is lower fat, higher carbohydrate, and moderate lean protein foods as the meals get closer to game-time. As we approach game time, higher fiber food intake is reduced to avoid bloating and potential GI distress.
Lower fat intake is prescribed because commonly consumed fats are potentially inflammatory and they delay gastric emptying, which could inhibit the needed pre-game consumption of fluids and carbohydrate.
C.P.: What do the players eat on the sidelines during the game to maintain their energy and strength?
D.B.: It would be a rare occurrence for a player to consume a solid food on the sidelines immediately before or during the game. Carbohydrate and electrolyte beverages (such as Gatorade), modified to optimize need based on environmental conditions (such as requiring higher electrolytes in hot/humid environments) are consumed at frequent intervals.
During half-time, players have an opportunity to recover glycogen loss through the consumption of high-carbohydrate, low fat, low protein, low-fiber foods, and through carbohydrate-electrolyte fluid consumption. After the game, you may observe players consuming solid foods on the field. This post-game recovery—which is best immediately following the game—includes foods that contain good quality protein and carbohydrates and are washed down with ample fluids.