Breakfast of champions Eating for muscle power pays off when they step up to the plate

July 13, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

The magic behind the home runs of such baseball stars as Joe Carter and Ken Griffey Jr. has a lot to do with determination, dedication and dinner, sports nutritionists say. What these athletes choose to eat during the baseball season literally fuels their success.

"It's foolish to train so hard with your body and to not give it proper nutrition," says Tim Bishop, strength and conditioning coach for the Orioles. "If you're going to do the one, then you need to do the other in order to get the most out of your ability."

Over the past 15 years, nutrition knowledge has swung from believing in the quick energy spurts of Baby Ruth bars to the long-lasting muscle power of pasta. Cereal, bagels and pancakes have replaced eggs, bacon and home fries as the breakfast of champions.

The best diet for athletes, according to nutritionists, just happens to be the best diet for everyone: meals high in carbohydrates and low in fats.

"Carbohydrates fuel the muscles," says Nancy Clark, director of nutrition services at Sport Medicine Brookline in Boston and author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guide Book."

"When you get players who are living on Big Macs, they get a higher-fat diet that fills the stomach but doesn't fill the muscles. . . . You take these players who need to be performing 100 percent, and if they aren't, maybe a high-fat diet does make a difference. Can they run as fast? Can they bat as hard? Can they be as powerful? Can they build their muscles as well?"

After serving as a consultant to both the Red Sox and the Celtics, Ms. Clark has concluded that baseball players -- generally speaking, of course -- are less concerned about their diets than basketball players because basketball requires more endurance.

"Baseball is much less of an active sport -- it's more of a skill," she says, "But if players haven't eaten properly before a game, and they become hungry and their blood sugar drops, they're not as sharp and quick. And they can make errors."

During the season, Mr. Bishop's ideal eating plan for the Orioles would have the players arising at 9 or 10 o'clock -- "a reasonable time" after going to bed at 3 a.m. -- and eating a big breakfast of pancakes, cereal, bagels and some fruit.

"For lunch, something smaller: A turkey sandwich or some pasta with a light tomato sauce."

And before the game, he dreams of that perfect world where players snack on fruit and other low-fat carbohydrates.

"The problems arise when the game is over," he says. "Now it's 11 o'clock. This is where some of the guys are going to get into trouble. They've just played for three or four hours and are very hungry."

Mr. Bishop and Ms. Clark agree that baseball players eat far too many calories after their games. A ballplayer's nutrition awareness can vanish at midnight, especially at a lavish post-game spread.

"If you get too hungry and too stressed, you just eat all these wrong things," says Ms. Clark. "You know you should get some pasta, but you're starving and you don't care. So you reach for the nearest thing, which is apt to be a couple of egg rolls. . . . It's within the first two hours after exercise that your muscles are most receptive to replacing the carbohydrates that have been burned out."

In evaluating the diets of professional athletes, Ms. Clark often suggests learning to time meals for optimal performance.

"You want to fuel up during the day and enter an event well-fed so that your blood sugar is in a normal place. If you're a ballplayer who eats breakfast, then skips lunch and picks up a hot dog at the stadium,you are not well-fed. You may perform well on adrenalin, but you could maybe perform better on food."

She points out that overeating at night is often an overreaction to the body's natural clamor for the calories it should have received earlier.

"If a player needs 3,000 calories a day and he only eats a 300-calorie hot dog before the game, he's going to need to eat a heck of a lot afterward. . . . It's the same principle for couch potatoes: People who don't have much to eat during the day get ravenous at night. And activity enhances that hunger."

And just forget any of that business about ballplayers needing to eat like "growing boys."

"We might have one or two guys who have trouble keeping weight on," Mr. Bishop says. "No matter where we go, we have food put in front of us. The second we're on the plane, there's food. In hotel lobbies, there's food. No matter where we go, there's always food."

So every two weeks or so, Mr. Bishop asks the ballplayers to step up to the scales.

"If I see their weight going up a couple pounds each time, then I have to look at what their eating habits are," he says.

Are the ballplayers taking this in?

"The younger ones listen more because they want every possible edge," Ms. Clark observes. "The older ones who have already made it tend to say to themselves, 'I've been successful on a diet of french fries, so why bother changing?' "

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