SANTA CLARA – Training camp’s first practice was over, so the 49ers hit their refueling station: a fully stocked cafeteria located between their practice fields and Levi’s Stadium.
Over 90 filets of grilled salmon got devoured at dinner. This, however, is not a fish tale, all due respect to salmon, broccoli and brown rice being players’ most popular meal in a routine-oriented world.
There is not much uniformity when it comes to player-specific diets for a roster that starts with 90 men in camp (plus coaches and staff) before whittling to 53 players for the regular season.
“Our goal is to provide the highest quality and as much as we can for them, to take the guesswork out for them when they leave this building,” Jordan Mazur, the 49ers’ director of nutrition, said in an exclusive interview with this news organization.
When Mazur joined the 49ers seven years ago, only a third of the NFL’s teams had a full-time dietician, starting with the New England Patriots. Now, 30 of 32 are on board, with others relying on a consultant.
“In the last five to 10 years, it’s grown a ton,” Mazur said. “Nutrition isn’t anything new. We all eat. But the nutritional sciences emerged and we’re understanding the importance.”
To help explain the dietary restrictions and demands of a 49ers’ player, Mazur mapped out what’s involved in their program, while respecting players’ privacy and not divulging specific meal plans:
TEAMS WITHIN TEAMS
Different body types come with different positions, a team-within-the-team scenario. What a 180-pound wide receiver needs to consume is obviously different than a 315-pound offensive lineman, and their energy needs are different. Receivers and defensive backs must sprint, whereas linemen don’t move relatively much but must be strong.
“We start by looking at their lean body mass, their body composition, how much muscle mass they have, how much body fat they have,” Mazur said. “That can help calculate their needs. Everybody is different.”
Skill-position players (see: wide receivers) typically require 2,500 to 4,000 calories daily to maintain their ideal weight. Some may struggle to gain weight, so more calories are needed.
“Then you have linemen that can have upward of 6,000 calories per day,” Mazur said. “If you think about the volume of food, that becomes part of their job. It becomes difficult. You have to spread it out as much as possible.”
For example a defensive lineman comes in at 6:30 a.m. for his first breakfast, returns not long after for breakfast No. 2, then has a pre-practice snack, a post-practice snack, lunch, dinner, and, “then afterward, you can call it a snack, but in reality, it’s another dinner,” Mazur added.
The 49ers seemingly produce non-stop protein shakes, each designed for a specific player. They have a smoothie station, but also a mobile app where players can build a custom drink.
“I use smoothies as supplements. It’s never really a replacement for food,” Mazur cautioned. “I want them to eat whole, real foods as much as possible. If a guy is getting 6,000 calories a day, the volume of food is hard to get that much. We have to supplement with liquid calories.”
A “PB Gainz” shake comes packed with 950 calories, not to mention protein and clean ingredients. Some players drink two a day.
One way to help pump up that calorie count might surprise you: Olive oil, which Mazur recommends for its healthy fats, calories, and anti-inflammatories. “It’s adding a ton of good calories these guys need without adding a ton of sugar or ingredients they may not need.
Multi-millionaires can afford personal chefs, but not very many 49ers take that route, especially when the 49ers offer breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks at their Santa Clara headquarters.
“Our goal is to provide the highest quality and as much as we can for them, to take the guessing work out for them when they leave this building,” Mazur said. “I’m not naïve to think that guys aren’t eating what they want to or leaving here and getting what they want. But I’m not going to provide it for them.”
Even if he draws up a meal plan for them, players might not strictly comply with it if that means they have to grocery shop or meal prep on their own.
Professional athletes cheat … on their diets. Ice cream and chicken wings are their most popular comfort food.
“There’s a time and place for that. Food is meant to be enjoyed,” Mazur said. “These guys think of food as their job. Imagine having a direct impact on your work. This is their livelihood. Their health is their biggest wealth. They can control what they can put in their body in terms of food.”
A no-carb diet sounds like a no-no for football players. Almost 50 percent of their diet should come from carbohydrates, such as fresh fruits, grains, rice, beans, and breads.
“Carbs are their best friend,” Mazur said. “Football is an explosive sport, and carbohydrates are going to help fuel them the most for that type of sport, with explosive movements followed by periods of rest.
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“Protein is really important and takes up another 25 to 30 percent of their diet, depending on their needs,” Mazur added. “You fill the rest with healthy fats. Fat gets a bad rap. But there is healthy fat: avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds.”
Meal plans vary per player because of more than caloric demands. Also factor in appetite, metabolism, taste preferences and allergies, of which nut and milk allergies are the most common. Don’t forget about shellfish for some, too.
NFL policy constantly reminds players they are in charge of what goes into their body, a line that surfaces whenever someone is penalized for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. Often, players will blame third-party dietary supplements.
“It’s a source of danger for these guys, so I try to guide them as much as I can and be an open door for them to make an educated decision when it comes to supplements,” Mazur said.
He’ll want to know why they’re taking that supplement, if it’s independently tested for banned substances, and the source of it, perhaps through an endorsement deal or “a buddy.”
WHO GETS IT
While proper nutrition is in vogue, rookies typically are the most challenged. Some come from big universities with a nutrition foundation. Others hail from small schools and must be taught the basics of what’s a carbohydrate, what’s a protein, what’s a fat and what do they do for your body. Cue: Veterans, who advocate on Mazur’s behalf.
“Once you get the buy-in and convince guys and educate guys to adopt it as a habit,” Mazur said, “maybe they’ll have better energy at practice, better hydrated so cramping might not be not an issue. Maybe they gain lean body mass and all of a sudden they pay attention to what they need, maybe they cut out fast foods, sugars and candies.”
Add it up and it all can yield the sweetest taste of all: victory, and maybe even the 49ers’ first Lombardi Trophy in 29 years.