• By Deanna Segrave-Daly
  • In 2018
  • October 3, 2018


As a seasoned veteran in being a sports dietitian for NFL teams, I thought I would share a few observations. The athlete’s food choices and eating habits have changed greatly from the days of heavy on the meats and fried foods to meals focused around plants through stir-fries, composed salads, fruit and vegetable smoothies, and acai bowls. Although most of us are not professional football players, we have our own reasons to feed our body well- more energy, appearance, health issues, physical fitness and/or body composition goals. Most likely we don’t have a chef and food service staff in our kitchen to prepare food, but we can reap the same benefits that the players do from what we choose to consume: eat well, play well, stay well.

So what are the top 5 food fueling strategies for my football players?


Football players sweat ( a lot) and need to replenish the fluid they lose. If you play tennis, walk, run, bike, or hike in the heat you know you need to drink enough. But plain water can be boring. So to take your fluid to the next level, consider infused waters – adding flavor with cut up fruits and herbs such as orange/mint or lemon/ginger or watermelon/basil. Slushees made with crushed ice and sports drink, or crushed ice and a little bit of juice concentrate are refreshing and hydrating. Herbal tea that is chilled and flavored with a little bit of fruit juice is low in calories but high on the taste scale.


Although football players may meet their protein needs, they don’t always do a great job of consuming enough fruits and vegetables. Some say they don’t like vegetables or just haven’t tried them before. Vegetables can be added to meatloaf, meatballs, spaghetti sauce, tacos, stir-fries, smoothies and even sweets ( carrot or zucchini muffins) The spiral is more than the way the football is thrown, it is also spiralized noodles made from zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes and even beets. These were a hit at our training camp pasta station. Soothie smoothies made with beets, rhubarb, spinach and pineapple provide the produce and the anti-inflammatory punch as well a hydration. Freezer pops made with banana, pineapple, mango and coconut water or watermelon, strawberries, and orange juice help to beat the heat, and they are a nutritious portable treat.


Who doesn’t enjoy a snack? For our players, the 4th meal is intended to be a treat, but also provide foods to eat that help them to restore and replete. You can get protein and produce into a snack: think popsicles made with yogurt, milk and frozen fruit, or banana ice cream with dark chocolate peanut butter. For the crunch, how about popcorn with nuts, roasted chickpeas, seeds or freeze-dried fruit? Baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese, or taco topping are quite popular and some guys choose a smoothie to help curb those late night hunger pangs. A well-chosen snack can top off produce, optimize protein intake and maximize fluid intake.

PERSONALIZE TO OPTIMIZE- You may think that all football players are larger than life and truth be told, when they are in pads and uniforms they can look quite formidable, but in reality, they vary greatly in size, height and weight. The offensive linemen are much larger than the wide receivers so quantity is not one size fits all. You need to strategize about your portion size, not too little, not too much but find the way to get it right. Quality is important for every player. We have vegan players, players with food allergies, food intolerances and health concerns such as diabetes. Yet everyone who walks into the dining area can find what he needs to meet his body needs. So in planning your own training table think about your food likes, the time you want to put into preparation, and how much you want to spend as most of us don’t have the food budget that an NFL team does.


Players who are in pain cannot give 100% on the field. If we overextend at Cross Fit, or spend several hours doing yard work, our body may not be happy. Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into the diet can be helpful. We offer fatty fish such as salmon and tuna several times a week. Greens are available at every meal, foods are cooked in olive oil, nuts, nuts butters and seeds are in the dining hall as well as to go containers. Berries are on the salad bar, yogurt bar and smoothie bar. Stir fries, grilled vegetables, cut up fruit, and salad as well as whole grains are standard items on our line. Make some or all of these foods part of your daily playbook to minimize pain and maximize health and fitness gains.

Create your own performance eating destination through activation- have foods available, implementation- set a schedule, and continuation to make these habits a routine. If you resist, you may never reach your full potential, if you insist you will optimize your health and fitness, and if you persist you will realize long-term benefits in body composition, decreased injury and performance.

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, CSSD, LDN is the sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs. She was the sports dietitian for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 24 years and also worked with the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Redskins.