Lean Plate Club: Athletes shape up their eating

  • Article by: SALLY SQUIRES , Washington Post
  • Updated: February 19, 2008 - 4:27 PM

They still eat meat, but personal chefs, more fruits and vegetables make for performance-enhancing diets.

Real men no longer just eat meat and potatoes. Now, they're also dining on fruit, vegetables and whole grains -- and enjoying them, too.

Elite professional athletes are leading the way. They've learned that eating smart not only helps their performance, but may also lengthen their careers.

"It's a lifestyle thing," said 7-foot center Brendan Haywood, who weighed 310 pounds when he first joined the NBA's Washington Wizards seven years ago, but now clocks in at 265.

"I changed the way I eat," said Haywood, who admits to having a sweet tooth. "I was astonished at how many calories are in one Krispy Kreme doughnut. ... You realize as you get older that ... to keep a healthy lifestyle, you can't have French fries and cheeseburgers every day."

That's why Haywood and other pro athletes such as teammates Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler have hired personal chefs to assist them at the dining table. "Eating right gives you an edge on your opponent," said Butler.

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Ray King has learned that lesson, too. Concerned that extra pounds were throwing him off balance on the mound, he changed his habits during the off-season. Not only did King work out, but he also stopped drinking sodas and swapped greasy, fast-food burgers for salmon.

The result? Last week, King began spring training weighing 23 pounds less than he did last season. Now he "hardly has a gut," as MLB.com sportswriter Bill Ladson reported, marveling that King is "in the best shape of his life."

Such nutritional adjustments don't always come easily, even for those whose livelihoods depend on their bodies. Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh, said she often assures male athletes that they don't need a hunk of meat on their plate for peak performance on or off the field.

Eating well "doesn't make you any less masculine," said Bonci, who also provides nutrition advice to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Pittsburgh Pirates and members of the U.S. Olympic team. "It may benefit you for years to come and enable you to do what you really want to do physically."

For many, the surprise is how good healthy food can taste. The Pirates first added rice and beans to clubhouse menus when Dominican-born players requested them. Their teammates liked them so much that they're now standard fare. That paved the way for vegetable kabobs, stir-fried dishes, steamed vegetables and a salad bar with a wide range of greens.

Fruit salad and melon are also favorites, but whole fruit is not. "If it isn't cut up," Bonci said, "they are not going to eat it." So fresh cherries, melon slices and tempting vegetables are strategically placed at the entrance to the cafeteria, where athletes can grab them first after practice.

Hazards of the road

Eating on the road can be particularly challenging for athletes, especially for players in the minor leagues and on practice squads who have tight budgets. Like most sports fans, they can't do what Butler of the Wizards does: He text-messages his personal chef, Gregory Love, for advice in ordering from room service.

Bonci counsels minor league players to skip the sodas and Pop-Tarts. She encourages them to eat inexpensive, healthful and filling meals of burritos, beans and rice at places like Chipotle rather than eating fried fast food somewhere else.

Haywood's chef has also helped him cut back on processed food, adding more organic chicken, beef, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and fish. One of his favorite dinners is shrimp with saffron rice. Side dishes may include broccoli, peas, green beans, collard and mustard greens or kale. "But he's not going into Brussels sprouts or asparagus," said chef Will Simpkin, who also has added more fish, including orange roughy, to Haywood's training table. "He loves it," Simpkin said.

Despite the trend toward healthier eating, few male athletes seem tempted to give up meat altogether. "Vegetarian?" Butler asked. "No, it never crossed my mind."

He's not alone. At recent congressional hearings on possible steroid use in baseball, members of Congress grilled baseball legend Roger Clemens on his eating habits.

"Have you ever been a vegetarian?" Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, asked Clemens in one of the lighter moments of an otherwise tense hearing.

"I have not," Clemens said.

"Have you ever been a vegan [someone who eats no animal products]?" Braley asked.

"I'm sorry?" Clemens said, sounding puzzled.

"A vegan?" Braley repeated.

Clemens responded: "I don't know what that is."

You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.

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