If you’ve ever wondered how much your average Goliath-sized professional football player eats on a given day, here is your answer: about 3,500–7,000 calories per day—considerably more than the 2,600–3,000 recommended by the USDA for active men in their early adult years.
That estimate comes from Jamie Meeks, director of sports nutrition for the New Orleans Saints, who oversees the protein- and carb-heavy diets of the team’s ninety players. Of those ninety, fifty-three suit up for the regular season. The athletes’ dietary regimens depend on a lot of factors—body type, metabolism, position, practice, and workout schedule—but the reason they eat so much, Meeks says, whether it’s a post-weight room recovery shake or a steaming bowl of shrimp gumbo after practice, is pretty simple. Professional athletes move around a lot more than most mortals.
“They eat more calories and eat more frequently throughout the day because they are active constantly,” Meeks says. “The timing of the meals is important, too. It has to be on point with when they practice—making sure they get enough good energy before practice and enough protein post-practice.”
So what exactly do the Saints eat? In short, just about everything. For protein, there’s lean meat and fish: chicken, beef, salmon, pork loin, steak, jerky, and even the occasional lobster. For carbs, there are big cafeteria-style breakfasts with grits and potatoes and pretzels, popcorn, granola bars, and other snacks throughout the day. Add to that a healthy balance of fruits and vegetables, along with pistachios, walnuts, juices, smoothies, and recovery shakes, and you start to get a sense of why three meals a day falls short for guys like Drew Brees.
For some players, Meeks says, the key to maintaining optimal physical condition is to reduce body fat while building lean muscle mass. Often, though, helping players gain weight is a more difficult challenge. “There are guys who have a tough time gaining weight,” she says. “In addition to being so active, their metabolisms are so high. They say, ‘Jamie, I’m eating so much, but I can’t gain weight.’ So, I work with them on an individual basis to incorporate creative ways to modify their diet and add quality calories throughout their day.”
“There are guys who have a tough time gaining weight. In addition to being so active, their metabolisms are so high. . . . So, I work with them on an individual basis to incorporate creative ways to modify their diet.”
Meeks’s role is not exactly new, but it’s newish. She is one of fourteen full-time sports dietitians among the National Football League’s thirty-two teams; many of the remaining eighteen work with consultants. For an owner or head coach, she says, there are several benefits to having a sports dietitian on staff: improving players’ overall health and well-being, working with strength trainers to align dietary and weight lifting goals, helping players streamline their personal diet to reduce risk of injury, and creating recovery plans to help injured players back to the field. All of these factors, she says, play into a team’s success.
Many of these professional goals were first articulated by the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), a nonprofit that represents the vast majority of registered dietitians in the United States who work full-time with athletes in colleges, professional sports, and Olympic training centers. As a member of the organization, Meeks embraces CPSDA’s goals to help enhance athletes’ performance; to aid in recovery after exercise; to direct food and dietary supplement cost-containment programs; and to play an active role in the recruiting process. She credits CPSDA’s advocacy for the NCAA’s decision in April 2014 to lift feeding restrictions on Division I college athletes. “They modified the rules and restrictions to make our jobs easier and allow us to do our jobs better,” she says. “This deregulation has increased the amount of nutrition education at the collegiate level and has transferred into the NFL as rookies enter the league.”
“Before they turn to any supplements, pills, or powders, we make sure their diets are sound, they’re eating the right foods, and the timing is correct.”
According to a CPSDA news release, limitations were first placed on meals and dietary supplements by the NCAA in 1991 in an attempt to ensure a competitive balance between schools. Since the NCAA lifted food restrictions in 2014, major college athletic programs ramped up their spending for meals, snacks, and dietary supplements from about $534,000 to more than $1.3 million. These spending increases are in line with the CPSDA board of directors’ recommendation for a new standard feeding protocol to “fuel athletes throughout the day with healthy whole foods to ensure adequate energy availability, speed recovery, restore energy, and repair muscle damage after exercise.”
The decision, Meeks says, also points to the growing recognition among college athletic departments and professional teams that sports dietitians play a vital role in player health and performance.
Although sports nutrition has been a slow-growth proposition dating back to the 1980s when the University of Nebraska’s football team was among the first to work with a dietitian, Meeks has proven herself to be a trailblazer. As a high school student preparing for a cheerleading tryout at Louisiana State University, she visited a sports dietitian to prepare a nutrition plan. It was a winning strategy. She earned a spot on the team and was captain three out of her four years. Later, in graduate school at LSU, she recognized that her alma mater did not have a full-time sports dietitian available to the athletes, and she put together a business plan outlining the reasons why they should. The athletic department liked the plan enough to hire her as the school’s first full-time sports dietitian in 2011.
One of the things they were taken by was her explanation of the dietitian’s role as an educator, who could encourage a food-first approach while cautioning athletes against the risks of steroids, stimulants, and other performance-enhancing supplements. The Saints, Meeks says, were also eager to adopt such an approach when they hired her in 2015.
According to Bleacher Report, current NFL players project that 10–40 percent of the league is using human growth hormone, a banned substance that increases strength, decreases body fat, and facilitates rapid healing. That’s something that Meeks says she and other sports dietitians can help deter through regular interaction with players. “Before they turn to any supplements, pills, or powders, we make sure their diets are sound, they’re eating the right foods, and the timing is correct,” she says.
Saints players do use supplements, but she only recommends those that scientific research has shown to be safe and effective, such as whey protein isolate, fish oil, and multivitamins for muscle strength and recovery and turmeric and ginger for inflammation and pain. “All practices end with a turmeric and ginger shot,” she says.
Meeks isn’t ready to chalk up all of the Saints’ on-field success to good nutrition, but she’s not afraid to say it helps. “We’re working our way to another Super Bowl, for sure,” she says. “I’m excited about the new season and a fresh start. We’ll get there.”