Eating right challenges athletes

The New Year’s bowl games, combined with the usual flock of healthy resolutions, may have left you feeling a little jealous of hulking football players who seem to eat whatever they want.

But that’s not so, said Jamie Mascari, coordinator with LSU’s sports nutrition department. Her job is to make sure LSU athletes, just like the rest of us, get a balanced stream of calories both in season and out, and even after they graduate and go on to nonsporting lives.

Unlike the rest of us, most of the student-athletes are juggling “ridiculous” schedules, limited dining options and labyrinthine NCAA restrictions on food in addition to burning thousands of calories in workouts, practices, games and meets.

Mascari said regulations prohibit the university from offering foods other than fruit, nuts and plain bagels for 24-hour consumption. Scholarship athletes get a little more, but the rules are still stringent.

With so few options, Mascari had to get creative when thinking of healthful snacks to fuel the Tigers. Enter trail mix, more than 20 varieties, each packaged in handy plastic zip-top bags that can be thrown into a backpack or duffle bag for quick consumption of good, healthy calories. Flavors include Tiger Eye Apple Pie and Les Miles’ Green Grass Grub with pistachios and baby pumpkin seeds.

Aided by student workers, Mascari packs the trail mix three days a week in her office, which is lined with boxes of nuts and bags of brightly colored dried fruit. Each mix is specifically formulated to provide the proper balance of nutrition and energy for the athlete.

“It was a lot of math,” Mascari said.

Keeping athletes well-fed is more than just a little trail mix. Mascari also works with the students to create fully individualized food schedules, including grocery lists and snack ideas. She also works with other athletic staff to help catch eating disorders and other problems the students may be having and to help students transition to a life after sports.

“That’s where education comes in,” she said.

Mascari uses a red-yellow-green system to help educate players on making better food choices. Red means a forbidden or limited item, yellow foods are to be eaten with caution and green foods are fair game. She also looks over menus for restaurants the teams are using on the road and consults with food services on campus to make sure the players are getting what they need.

“I don’t want to ever, ever deprive them of good food,” Mascari said.

With good food close at hand, athletes can perform better both on and off the field, Mascari said.

“It gives me chills every time an athlete comes in and says it makes them feel better,” she said.

As is common with athletes, superstition sometimes comes into play.

Mascari said there was a baseball player who had to eat three powdered doughnuts between innings. And that was fine with her. “I don’t deal with superstition,” she said.

She did make a change to allow the football players the same sort of access to midgame energy. The players were getting a meal four hours before game time and then nothing until after it was over.

Now, when the players go into the locker room for halftime, they find a table laden with goodies waiting for them — Rice Krispy treats, NutraGrain bars and Fig Newtons are among the most popular.

“It’s like trick-or-treating,” Mascari said. “They take off their helmets and fill it up.”

For those of us at home, and not running down fly balls or wide receivers every day, Mascari says keeping good food close at hand is key.

“If you have good food available, you’re going to eat good food,” she said. “Make it a habit to keep your fresh fruit, your fresh whole grains available. It’s going to be so much easier to eat healthy.”

When in the grocery store, stick to a list, she said. “Save yourself calories and money.”

Tracking what you eat in a food journal or on a smartphone app will also help you realize how much you’re eating and drinking, she said.

“That’s really the big thing,” she said, “Focusing on what you’re doing and realizing what you’re doing.”

Barbara Cerniauskas, a registered dietitian at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, said moderation and finding what works for you are the keys to sticking to a resolution to eat healthier.

“Everybody has to find the program that works for them,” she said. “There’s a lot of different ways to eat healthy. There’s a way to do it, and there’s no one way that works for everybody.”

But there are things that are somewhat universal. She encourages everyone to eat breakfast every day, “even if it’s a little something like a smoothie.”

She also said having a support network helps and that eating more fruits and vegetables are something most of us need to do. “In Louisiana, we have so many eating seasons,” she said. “Remember to practice good habits ... and find ways to make it fit into your life.”