I wondered: Will the football matchup also be one of diet — the lean, veggie-loving veteran against the wunderkind with the iconic haircut who douses his mac and cheese in ketchup? And how do football players eat before, during and after the most important game of the year?
I reached out to the dietitians who oversee nutrition for the two teams heading to this year’s Super Bowl — Leslie Bonci, a sports dietitian with the Chiefs, and Stephanie Kolloff-O’Neill, director of performance nutrition with the Buccaneers — for insight into what Brady, Mahomes and their teammates will be consuming.
Fueling Brady and Mahomes
Over the past 20 years, there has been a huge focus on the importance of nutrition for elite athletes. Hundreds of clinical studies support the importance of food for stamina, endurance and postgame recovery. The National Football League has 27 full-time dietitians who put that research into play by offering customized plans based on an athlete’s individual needs.
Brady’s diet is famously part of his brand. In 2017, he released “The TB12 Method,” a book that details the nutrition and training regimens that he says have helped him stay at the top of his game at an age when many other players have long since retired. He also sells TB12 snacks and supplements.
His diet plan emphasizes hydration, promotes vegetables, fruit, lean meat and fish, and recommends limiting sugar and ultra-processed foods. All good ideas. There are also rules about avoiding gluten, dairy and soy, without much scientific evidence to support these restrictions. And then there’s flat-out incorrect information, such as the notion that certain alkalizing foods help the body maintain balance and harmony — there’s no research to support that.
Kolloff-O’Neill said that although she wasn’t at liberty to discuss Brady’s diet, all Bucs players, from rookies to veterans, are encouraged to enjoy a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and protein, limit saturated fat and increase high-fiber foods.
“An average career is three or four seasons, and a lot of guys are aging out of the league at 27 to 29,” said Kolloff-O’Neill. “We have some veteran players over age 30, and we really want to focus on fighting inflammation. That’s a huge thing for their diets, but that’s something that can benefit first- or second-year NFL athletes as well.”
Intense exercise can cause cell damage and result in an inflammatory response and injury to body tissue, so athletes are taught to choose foods such as antioxidant-rich vegetables and omega-3-rich fish to help battle those effects. The sooner players get on board with this diet focus, Kolloff-O’Neill added, the better it will be for their longevity in the league. “Tom has already been doing these things, and it speaks to how a veteran can maintain his veteran status year after year.”
At age 25, Mahomes is almost 20 years younger than Brady and takes a less-restrictive approach to diet, though the Chiefs quarterback is not eating ketchup all the time.
“It’s nice to see there’s no bashing of food groups and there’s no ‘you can’t eat this’ with Mahomes,” said Bonci. She said he always has plants, carbs and proteins on his plate, but he doesn’t avoid any food groups.
“He doesn’t have a huge repertoire, but what he’s eating certainly does provide what he needs to optimize his performance,” Bonci added. “He’s very much consistent in what he has every day. Maybe in five years he’ll change what he’s doing, but right now what he’s doing is working really well.”
On the menu for game day
Choosing the right foods and beverages for optimal performance starts long before the big game. “On a normal day-to-day basis, I encourage players to start with anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables first, then add whole-grain carbohydrates, and then protein to provide a balanced plate,” said Kolloff-O’Neill.
While in the past players may have been able to fill up at big, bountiful buffets on nongame days, the coronavirus has changed dining protocols. At the Chiefs’ training center, food stations are behind plexiglass, everyone wears masks, and there are no chairs during mealtime so the players cannot eat together, Bonci said. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, have been able to eat their grab-and-go-style meals together outdoors in the Florida sunshine, according to Kolloff-O’Neill.
On game day, the menu changes. Before kickoff, players need to eat foods that are lower in fat and fiber, because these nutrients take longer to digest and consuming them may lead to an upset stomach during a game.
Players switch to leaner protein sources, such as chicken breast. Whole-grain, high-fiber carbs are replaced by white pasta, rice or potatoes. These low-fiber carbs allow for easy digestion and maximize glycogen stores for energy. When the body needs a quick jolt of energy, glycogen breaks down and releases glucose into the bloodstream, where it is used as fuel for the body. That’s perfect for an explosive jump off the line of scrimmage.
But not everyone is eating chicken. “We’ve got a lot more players these days who want to be plant-based, and we do have vegan players on the roster,” Bonci said. They rely on beans, nuts, seeds, plant-based beverages or protein powder, and they opt for plant-based meat alternatives in the shape of burgers, crumbles and nuggets.
During the game
The average game lasts about three hours. Some players will only sip fluids during the game and wouldn’t think of eating solid food. Others like to eat at halftime or on the sideline. For them, Kolloff-O’Neill recommends carbohydrates to keep energy stores high.
Both teams provide fresh fruit and items like energy bars or chews. Bonci said the Chiefs also offer single-serve packets of trail mix, cereal, pita chips or crackers. Everything is individually packaged, following the NFL’s strict coronavirus protocol. These snacks can help players avoid hunger, which can affect the laser-sharp focus they require for every snap, pass or tackle during a game.
Meanwhile, hydration — in the form of water or electrolyte-rich sports drinks, which help replace minerals lost in sweat — can help them avoid cramping, dizziness or nausea.
Do they really drink Gatorade? “Some do, some do not,” Bonci wrote about the Chiefs via email. “Most importantly no sharing, one mouth per bottle and a designated staff member is the fluid enforcer to minimize the touch points.”
The Bucs take similar precautions. “We provide individually labeled hydration bottles for practice and games in compliance with the covid game day protocols this season,” Kolloff-O’Neill said via email. “A unique benefit to this has been strategic tracking of hydration for players, with the goal of reduced soft-tissue injuries through improved hydration status.”
During a game, “Some players drink water only, some players drink both water and Gatorade, and some players use different electrolyte replacement blends, all depending on their individual sweat loss and electrolyte replacement needs,” she added.
“As a professional athlete you’ve got two doors: prepare and repair,” said Bonci. “Players prepare for games and then recover from games so they can do it all over again.”
Bonci encourages starting the postgame recovery process sooner rather than later. The first step is a weigh-in, so players can replenish the correct amount of lost fluids. Recovery nutrition includes protein to help repair and strengthen muscle tissue, and carbs to help replenish postgame glycogen stores.
Diet in the offseason
After the Super Bowl, when all the excitement dies down, diet still matters. In the offseason, some players want to bulk up, slim down or heal from injuries, and nutrition helps in these situations.
“If someone has an injury or is anticipating having surgery in the offseason, the goal is to figure out rehabilitation nutrition to get back to the functioning state quickly,” Bonci said. “We also have a population that is not exempt from underlying nutrition-related medical nutrition issues, and that needs to be addressed as well.”
That means dietitians are helping players with conditions that might include digestive issues, high blood pressure or gout. They also provide guidance on supplements, such as recommending omega-3 fats for players with nagging injuries or vitamin D for players whose blood tests indicate a deficiency.
The basics of sports nutrition — such as carb-loading for glycogen stores, staying hydrated and recovering with protein — are universal and can be adopted by anyone. But keep in mind that NFL players have advantages that the average American lacks, besides money: a food-service team preparing most of their meals, a panel of medical experts evaluating their health, and a dietitian offering a customized plan for the Super Bowl and beyond.