By Dylan Love
Football season is upon us, and your favorite athletes have been prepping in ways beyond their intense physical training. They’ve been eating and eating and eating.
NFL diets used to be pretty casual to say the least. It was common for players to consume between 7,000-8,000 calories a day without a care as to what they were putting in their bodies. Supersized portions of “heavy” foods like grits, eggs, burgers, macaroni and cheese, steak, and fries were all fair game for players trying to maintain a competitive weight.
But according to Dr. Susan M. Kleiner, a nutrition consultant for the Seattle Seahawks and former full-time nutritionist for the Cleveland Browns, things have changed since she first started working with NFL teams in the early ‘90s.
Back then, she explains, the goal was just to gain weight by eating as many calories as possible. Then coaches and players started focusing more on body composition and healthy diets in order to reduce risk of heart disease and injury. This plan was ultimately better for the players’ health and well-being.
We see this mindset taking full form in the NFL today. Meal plans are individualized, based on each player’s’ position, size, and metabolism. Instead of consuming calories full of fats and starches to help gain weight, there’s an emphasis on consuming lean meats and vegetables to build strong muscle.
We did some investigating on how “eating clean” has taken shape in the NFL today, especially in some of your favorite players’ diets.
Rashad Jennings – New York Giants
First up is Rashad Jennings, a running back for the NYG and nutrition all-star. Over the years, Jennings has made a conscious effort to not only eliminate junk food from his diet, but also stop counting calories and focus on being “fuel-efficient.” This means he actively chooses foods that fuel him, rather than foods that require him to unnecessarily use up energy to break them down.
He eats between 3-4 full meals a day, but still enjoys snacking like any normal human. Jennings describes himself as a “whole food eater,” choosing snacks that function as “mini meals” in order to keep him going between full meals. Instead of a bag of chips, he goes for fruit, turkey meatballs, or hummus on toast with avocado and turkey bacon, which ensures that he gets plenty of fiber, protein, and necessary healthy fats.
Steve Weatherford – New York Giants
Here’s another Giants player who shines in the world of nutrition, though he might be lesser-known. Steve Weatherford is a punter, but he’s also said to be the Giants’ strongest player. With just 5.5 percent body fat and the ability to bench press almost 400 pounds, he’s absolutely ripped.
Protein is key to Weatherford’s diet. He eats about 200 grams of protein a day by consuming egg whites, bunless turkey burgers, lean ground beef lasagna, and of course, whey protein. For whatever it’s worth, the FDA’s daily recommendation is 50 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet.
David Carter – Chicago Bears
Carter is a defensive lineman, which means he’s regularly weighed — it’s a position where 250 pounds makes you look puny. But Carter is a whopping 300 pounds and he’s maintaining that weight with a vegan diet.
It started in 2014 when he was struggling to gain weight by eating unhealthy foods, as well as battling tendonitis and several other injuries. But within a month of going vegan, he was running better, lifting heavier, and starting to relieve the pain in his joints.
He eventually made it back up to 300 pounds, but that required lots and lots of eating on his part. Carter was consuming as much as 10,000 calories a day on his vegan diet. Specifically, he was eating five meals a day with four 20-ounce protein shakes between them. His total protein intake is 1.2 grams of protein per pound per day, which typically comes from brown rice and black or cannellini beans.
Matt Kalil – Minnesota Vikings
Kalil is an offensive tackle, so he’s in another position that requires a lot of weight maintenance. His target weight is 315 pounds, so he’s eating anywhere between 5,000-7,000 calories per day, and taking care to ensure he’s building up muscle, and not just fat.
This means Kalil is consuming three meals a day, consisting of lean meat, pasta, and sweet potatoes. Like most of his fellow NFL players, he tries to eat snacks between meals (typically peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). But his prime weight-gain comes from three high-calorie shakes per day, with 60 grams of protein in each.
Tom Brady – New England Patriots
According to Dr. Kleiner, quarterbacks like Tom Brady need a minimum of 4,000 calories a day, but up to 6,000 calories per day depending on training. That being said, Brady’s diet is pretty bizarre in comparison to his NFL counterparts.
It’s incredibly strict. His personal chef notes that Brady cannot have white sugar or flour, caffeine, dairy, coffee, and certain fruits. His chef has also restricted some veggies from his diet, including mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. Brady has also shared that he doesn’t cook with olive oil.
So what can he eat? Apparently, mostly vegetables (in fact, they make up 80 percent of his diet), but also: Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and beans, plus meats like grass-fed organic steak, duck, chicken, and wild salmon.
Of course, these guys are professional athletes whose dietary needs are quite outside the norm. Until you need to pack on another 100-150 pounds of muscle yourself, it’s best to look at the NFL roster’s eating habits as a fun, informative oddity.