The National Football League has a weight problem. We’re talking about the size of the behemoths that play the sport. By most calculations, many players are truly obese.
While health experts have usually opined that using body mass index (BMI) as an estimation of body fat for adults and children is a legitimate tool for estimating health risk, it’s not typically used for athletes and other muscular people. It stands to reason that a muscular person would have a higher BMI. After all, muscle weighs more than fat because it’s denser tissue.
But for football players, it gets more complicated. Just prior to last year’s Super Bowl, Smithsonian online showed that all players, from quarterbacks to linebackers, are about 100 pounds heavier, and they’re not more muscular than the gridiron heroes of yore.
Players carry more visceral fat, the dangerous stuff that gathers around vital organs. A study of 510 retired NFL players showed that 60% of linebackers had metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
The scary truth is that the heaviest NFL players are more likely to die young. In comparison to the 2,403 Major League Baseball players who have died in the last century, football players are more than twice as likely to die before age 50. Only 10% of deceased players born from 1905 through 1914 were obese while active.
Today, 56% of all players on NFL rosters are categorized as obese.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook NEW Fifth Edition, is an expert in sports nutrition.
“A slab of beef fills the stomach but does not fuel the muscles,” she says. “Players need potato, bread, veggies, and other carb-based foods to round out the meal. You build muscle with exercise and dietary protein is needed to maintain and repair muscles pre-and post-game but what’s important to remember is that the body can only utilize about 30 grams at one dose. That's about four ounces of beef: more than that and the excess protein means the calories will be stored as fat.”
There may be an awakening in college football.
In the new order of things, nutrition now takes first place over gluttony. The New York Times recently featured a piece about the so-called Beef Bowl, an event prior to the historic college Rose Bowl. Traditionally, athletes sat down to chow down at a local prime rib joint – practicing competitive eating with each team racking up points for pounds of meat consumed. The record for individual performance cited: 8 pounds in one sitting!
Eight pounds (128 ounces) of cooked prime rib equates to 751 grams of protein and 14,635 calories. It’s enough to choke a – steer! The estimated number of calories needed to gain or lose a pound of fat is about 3,500. You do the math.
Some teams are taking the advice of sports nutrition experts and are limiting the players to 16 ounces of meat. Sure, it’s still high by nutrition standards, but as Richard R. Frank, the president and chief executive of Lawry’s, cautioned both teams during their visits, the Beef Bowl was no longer a competition.
Julie Schwartz, Atlanta-based registered dietitian with certifications in sports nutrition and personal training, says, “For some players, bowl games are the highlight of their career and for some, it's the last game of their career. Players want to be at their peak performance. Training, skill, and practice are important, but nutrition and rest are often the catalyst to the win.”
The recommendation for protein intake for the average American adult is approximately 0.8 grams per kilogram – and science shows that up to 1.27 grams per kilo won’t hurt you, either. Although eating more protein makes your kidneys work harder, higher protein diets won’t damage your kidneys – if your kidneys are in good shape to begin with. Athletic coaches generally recommend eating your target weight in grams of protein daily.
So, if you’re a lean 200-pound placekicker, aim for 200 grams daily. But if you’re a 300-pound apple-shaped couch potato, and your target weight is 200 pounds, aim for 200 grams of protein.
Okay, so you may never set foot on a football field. But odds are you’re trying to score a healthier weight. If that’s the case, there’s no place for gluttony in your life.
Susan Burke March is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, who as chief nutritionist for eDiets, where she promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.
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