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THE NFL TACKLES A NEW DIET

Wall Street Journal Saturday / Sunday
'

See, I'm not crazy the rest of the world catches up to what I've been telling you.

My old pal Larry Christ sent me this.

Pro Football
What's Cooking in the Playoffs:
The NFL Tackles a New Diet

As low-carb fad wanes, teams push 'nutrient timing' -- and cod with coulis

By RUSSELL ADAMS

Heading into the playoffs, there is no shortage of perils facing National Football League teams: serious injuries to stars, overconfidence -- and, yes, Buffalo wings after midnight.

NFL players, like every other corner of America, in recent years bought in to the low-carbohydrate, high-protein fad, which dovetailed nicely with teams' longstanding practice of piling on the red meat. Now, much like other health- and flab-conscious folks, pro teams are looking for the latest word in healthy eating. Low carb has given way to a new concept called nutrient timing, which stresses eating precise portions at exactly the right time of day in relation to exercise.

WHAT'S FOR LUNCH

Going into the playoffs, when the weather is colder, stress is at a high and players' temptation to binge on junk food increases, this approach has team nutritionists scrambling to keep their charges on the right dietary track. The diet-disaster scenario: Players don't get their prescribed meals, take matters into the own hands and pick up the room-service menu.

Compared with the high-protein days, when players could just shovel in the red meat, many new diet approaches like nutrient timing are so complicated that they often need on-the-spot diet advice. One Pittsburgh Steeler begins many meals and snacks by snapping a camera-phone photo of his food and sending it to an online food diary for team nutrition consultant Leslie Bonci's evaluation.

NFL-STYLE NUTRITION FOR THE REST OF US

With the timed approach to eating and exercise now sweeping pro sports, dieticians and fitness professionals are starting to push it for regular people as well.

The diet, which calls for eating more frequent but smaller meals and loading up on nutrients at certain times of the day, recommends that exercisers begin a workout having eaten a snack or supplement within the previous 30 minutes that combines carbohydrates and protein. It also suggests they hydrate during the workout -- with a drink that contains both carbohydrates and protein -- every 15 to 20 minutes, and then down another snack immediately after exercising.

Life Time Fitness, a national health and fitness center, recently incorporated the approach into its new weight-loss program for members. EAS and PowerBar sell carbohydrate-protein supplements, including powders, bars and ready-made drinks, that are increasingly being used by avid exercisers who follow the nutrient-timing approach. (Gatorade offers similar products but only via its Web site.)

Some nutritionists argue that you don't have to be a 240-pound linebacker to reap the benefits. Meal timing is predicated on the notion that if two people exercise the same amount and consume the same number of calories daily but one eats more frequently, the person who eats more frequently will burn more fat and retain more muscle.

Debora Robinett, a registered dietician in Tacoma, Wash., recommends to clients who exercise frequently that they eat every three to five hours during the day and consume a protein-augmented meal or snack immediately after they work out. But, she says, casual exercisers can benefit from about half as much replenishment as serious athletes.

A 12-week study exposed two groups of elderly people (ages 70 to 75) to the same amount of exercise but gave one group a carbohydrate-protein supplement immediately after each workout while the other group didn't get fed until three hours later. The former group showed an increase in muscle mass and strength while the latter showed no improvement.

The diet, of course, has its skeptics. The book "Weight Watchers Weight Loss That Lasts: Break Through the 10 Big Diet Myths" includes, as one of the myths, the idea that you can boost your metabolism by eating at certain times.

The idea behind the diet is that during and immediately after a workout the body is exposed to a "tissue breakdown environment," says John Ivy, the author of "Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition." He believes that you can reverse and take advantage of that condition by taking a supplement that combines carbohydrates and protein, preferably with a carb-to-protein ratio of 2-to-1 to 4-to-1. The carbohydrates, he argues, replenish depleted energy stores while the protein stimulates tissue repair and growth.

---- Russell Adams

The Cincinnati Bengals got a lesson on the merits of baked cod when they filed in for lunch on Wednesday. The red-pepper coulis sauce, according to the menu board prepared by team nutritionist Michele Macedonio, has plenty of beta-carotene for endurance and lots of vitamin C for wound healing and muscle repair. "I wouldn't know what red-pepper coulis is," says Bengals strength-and-conditioning coach Chip Morton, "but it's a power meal."

Nutrient timing is the next big thing on NFL menus. The logic: Strenuous exercise breaks down energy stores and muscle tissue, and the best way to sustain energy and repair and grow that muscle is to continually replenish the body with a combination of carbohydrates and protein before, during and after the workout. People who take a protein-carbohydrate supplement immediately after working out can increase protein synthesis, or muscle growth, fivefold, says John Ivy, chairman of the kinesiology department at the University of Texas and author of "Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition."

The nutrient-timing regimen isn't just for NFL players -- it can benefit anyone who exercises, according to Mr. Ivy. More dieticians are recommending it to their clients, and one national fitness chain, Life Time Fitness, has worked the timing approach into its latest weight-loss program.

At a time when pro sports has seen a widespread crackdown on the use of illegal performance-enhancing substances, teams are placing more importance than ever on understanding how diet and nutrition affects muscle growth and tissue repair. Some teams have had dieticians on staff for decades, but the 1990s explosion of supplements caused more and more teams to turn to nutrition professionals to decipher what was out there. Snacks won't ever trump sacks on teams' list of concerns, of course, but more than ever, teams are devoting energy and resources to grabbing even the tiniest edge over the competition.

"Timing has been the big push," Denver Broncos team nutrition consultant Jacqueline Berning says of the new importance of nutrient timing. "We try to hit them pretty hard once the is over."

A player who's adopted the nutrient-timing approach pretty much can't go anywhere without getting handed something to eat or drink. He'll load up on protein (maybe a peanut-butter sandwich or some yogurt) within 30 minutes before a workout, drink something that contains both carbs and protein every 15-20 minutes during a workout, and throw down a postworkout snack. He shouldn't nap for too long after practice because another meal a couple hours later is crucial, says Ms. Bonci of the Steelers. And if he chooses to play pick-up basketball after dinner, as many Steelers players like to do, he had better not go to bed without eating another protein snack.

Ms. Berning says it took her years to persuade the Broncos to serve breakfast in the meeting and film rooms, which meant many players hit the practice field on an empty stomach. "That really ticked me off," Ms. Berning says. The training staff finally implemented morning feedings before the 1998 season, when the Broncos won their first of two consecutive Super Bowls. Breakfast has been served ever since.

The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, use a computer program that factors in the player's position, body composition and diet to determine the amount -- and type -- of calories each player should consume per day. Bears long-snapper Patrick Mannelly, now a disciple of strength-and-conditioning coordinator Rusty Jones's regimented and individualized nutrition program, says that when he entered the NFL eight years ago he ate whatever was in front of him whenever he wanted and "just tried to exercise out the bad stuff I was putting in."

With the end of a long season in sight, the temptation to put in bad stuff -- like a late-night Buffalo-wing binge -- is great. The playoffs tend to put players in a festive mood, meaning rib joints and room service find their way more easily onto players' agenda, according to Kirk Brumels, a New England Patriots athletic trainer from 1990-2001.

The postseason also brings logistical issues. The Jacksonville Jaguars didn't know until kickoff of their game last Sunday that they'd be traveling to Massachusetts this weekend to play the Patriots, giving team planners just a few days to coordinate meals with hotels. "The way they make pasta in Seattle is different from the way they make it in Jacksonville," says Jaguars head athletic trainer Michael Ryan. The team during the regular season plans its meals at least three months ahead of time.

Nutrition in the NFL has gotten much more individualized. A growing number of teams, including the Bengals, now use a hand-held device called the BodyGem that measures a player's resting metabolic rate to determine how many calories he needs. The team nutritionist, Ms. Macedonio, uses that reading to tweak each player's diet based on other factors like the positions they play.

Of course, NFL players are elite athletes who have had success doing things their own way, so old habits die hard. Oakland Raiders nutritionist Liz Applegate during training camp last summer tried to sneak soy sausages into the team buffet. Someone noticed, and that was the end of the soy-sausage experiment. "They're going to make their own choices," Ms. Applegate says. "Nobody's force-feeding anyone."

But many players still require prodding when it comes to thinking more discriminately about what they eat. The Jaguars' Mr. Ryan says that when a player cramps up during a game or has other performance problems, the training staff brings him in afterward to determine how his problems might stem from what he ate before the game. To jog the player's memory, the staff shows digital photos of different meals varying in size and composition. "It's like a food lineup," Mr. Ryan says. "It works for these guys."