When performance chef Akos Szabo is cooking meals for NFL combine athletes, he might be whipping up burritos for breakfast, or, if it’s a running day, something light like oatmeal.
Next up, a snack like jerky and kombucha, and mouth-watering chicken alfredo made with cauliflower, locally made pasta, and mixed veggies for lunch. That’s a day in the stomach of an EXOS athlete training for the NFL combine. And the menu changes daily.
While you may not be training to break records in the 40-yard-dash, you can still eat intentionally. There’s a lot to glean from how these super athletes fuel their bodies — more specifically, from the chefs and dietitians who support them on their journey to the NFL combine. So how can you even begin to replicate this? I asked around, and here’s what I learned.
1. Plan meals based on your activity and goals.
Nutrition isn’t one-size-fits-all. Everyone has different nutrient needs, which is why combine athletes go through a series of evaluations. “We put together their nutrition plan by calculating their energy, nutrient, and hydration needs, and identifying ideal combinations and timing for meals,” says Paige Crawford, an EXOS performance dietitian.
Even their supplement regimens are based on their individual body composition, performance goals, and training load. The nutrition team, coaches, and chefs collaborate and closely monitor each athlete’s nutrition plan to adjust based on how they progress over eight weeks of training. It’s no wonder combine athletes tend to look like members of The Avengers, right?
Without your own personal health squad, you might rightfully feel overwhelmed by the idea of determining your nutrient needs and how to meet them. Shannon Ehrhardt, an EXOS performance dietitian at Onnit, reiterates that bodies and genetics play a role, but says you can follow this rule of thumb when making up your plate:
- If you’re not very active but trying to be less sedentary: 1/2 plate colorful vegetables, 1/4 plate quality protein (chicken, fish, legumes), 1/4 plate quality carbohydrates (sweet potato, brown rice, squash)
- If you’re moderately active or have been increasing exercise intensity: 1/3 plate colorful vegetables, 1/3 plate quality protein, 1/3 plate quality carbohydrates
- If you’re trying to build muscle and stay lean: 1/2 plate quality carbohydrates, 1/4 plate quality protein, 1/4 plate of colorful vegetables
Ehrhardt also suggests pairing a small amount of healthy fat with your carbohydrate source or vegetables like olive oil, avocado, hummus, nuts, or seeds.
Finally, it’s not just what you eat; it’s when you eat it. EXOS dietitians recommend eating post-workout meals and snacks that contain both protein and carbohydrates (such as whole-wheat toast and eggs) and to do so within a two-hour window to get the most benefits.
When you're doing a lot in the gym but not eating enough calories or carbs to meet your energy needs, you may see results opposite of what you're trying to achieve.
2. Think about nutrient density.
You don’t have to swear off packaged foods. Unsalted nuts, for example, come in packages. Dried fruit? Yup, packages. Meanwhile, a bag of Doritos isn’t exactly high-quality fuel. Try to think of your meals in terms of nutrient density. “Anyone at home can take steps to increase the quality of their meals by swapping processed foods for whole foods and a balance of lean protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, colorful fruits and veggies, and healthy fats,” says Crawford.
Let’s focus on fiber for a second. It’s a prebiotic that feeds the healthy bacteria in your body. “It’s an extremely important player,” says Vince Kreipke, a scientific adviser at Onnit, explaining how important gut health is for both mental and physical performance. “Fiber helps with everything from cleaning the gut to regular movements and flushing harmful substances from the body,” he says. But don’t get so caught up in macronutrients that you forget about micronutrients.
A bag of chips doesn’t deliver much in the way of nutrients, while a handful of carrots and red pepper hummus has more vitamins, minerals, and protein. Prioritizing this way of thinking may help you improve your nutrient game. The more you balance your meals, and live by an 80/20 rule, the better. That means making healthy choices 80% of the time and living a little the other 20% of the time. In other words, make Doritos the exception, not the rule.
3. Take carbohydrates off the naughty list.
We’ve been taught to fear carbohydrates. Kreipke explains that people point to the insulin response model for obesity when they talk about carbs, suggesting that wide swings of insulin are the leading cause of obesity. “This isn’t really true,” he says. “The idea is far too simplistic for all the inner workings of human physiology.” And actually, carbohydrates restore glycogen levels after a workout, so athletes need them for energy and recovery. After an intense workout, so do you. Of course, that doesn’t mean eating bread all day is suddenly a good idea. It just means that carbs aren’t evil.
When you’re doing a lot in the gym but not eating enough calories or carbs to meet your energy needs, you may see results opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. But before you splurge on garlic bread and everything bagels, take a note from NFL combine athletes and choose the minimally processed, straight-from-the-Earth type carbs first, like potatoes, squash, brown rice, sprouted whole grains, legumes, and other starchy vegetables.
And while we’re being picky, aim for carbohydrates that deliver at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Again, everyone is different, so pay attention to how you feel. “If you’re putting in the work to meet that energy balance, you may be pleasantly surprised at the results and the increased energy you feel,” says Ehrhardt.
4. Don’t underestimate hydration.
It’s easy to tune out this tip since you’ve likely heard it over and over again. Because obviously water is good for you. But that also makes it easy to let it slip through the cracks.
“Hydration is an underrated nutrition upgrade,” says Crawford. You might be so focused on meal planning that you forget to hydrate throughout the day. “Hydration influences so much of how you feel, perform, and recover,” she says. Track your water intake, and if you’ve been upping your workout intensity, consider drinking a water-electrolyte mixture. EXOS athletes drink Onnit’s mineral electrolytes. The reason being: Drinking only water during exercise dilutes the electrolytes you sweat out without replacing them, which can cause imbalance and hinder performance (you can read more about that here).
The general rule of thumb is to drink your body weight in ounces every day and take four to six gulps of water (mixed with electrolytes) about every 20 minutes during exercise. If you want to go a step further, weigh yourself just before and immediately after a workout; you should lose no more than 2% of your body weight (that’s two pounds for every 100 pounds).
Hydration is an underrated nutrition upgrade.
5. Prioritize variety when meal planning.
Variety in your meals is essential. “It helps decrease the potential for nutrient deficiencies and provides more benefits from food,” explains Crawford. Just like people have their strengths and weaknesses, so does food. Tomatoes give you tons of vitamin C and beta carotene, but they aren’t as dense with vitamin E. That’s where avocados come in. Fruits and vegetables are better in numbers. You have to eat a variety to make sure you consume enough micronutrients.
As much as EXOS combine athletes would love to eat a cheeseburger every day, it would be a missed opportunity to get other nutrients in the mix. Szabo keeps the menu interesting by experimenting. He might serve salmon burgers one day and poke bowls filled with grilled pineapple, edamame, and red cabbage the next.
On the macronutrient level, again, it’s important that every meal dabbles in lean protein, fiber, color (aka produce), and healthy fats. If you’re trying to eat a more plant-based diet, it’s especially important to eat protein from a variety of sources (don’t just live off chickpeas), because plant proteins aren’t always complete with all nine essential amino acids. You need more of them to check all nine boxes.
6. Find your own way to love vegetables.
Do what you gotta do to eat your vegetables. “Make sure your plate has three or more different colors,” says Ehrhardt. Szabo recalls an athlete who came to him with an interesting request. “One of the players told us, ‘I literally can't chew vegetables. Is there any way you can liquefy them for me or chop them up really, really small and put teriyaki sauce on them?’” he recalls.
For that athlete, it was a mental thing. So, if you’re struggling with loving your vegetables too, find creative ways to eat them. You may not want to eat a spoonful of vegetable puree like that athlete (and who could blame you?), but you could add a scoop of Onnit’s all-in-one greens mix to a strawberry smoothie.
One of Szabo’s secret weapons is a vegetable patty made from mushrooms, mushroom soy, miso, brown rice, cauliflower, broccoli, spaghetti squash, and lentils. He serves it on a bun with homemade, yogurt-based mayonnaise. It’s a whopping three cups of vegetables in a patty. You can also start simple and add one vegetable to a dish you already love like tacos or a casserole.
7. Consider supplements.
It’s true, you should get your nutrients from food first. But certain supplements can help give you a boost or speed up recovery. You can break them into two categories: pre- and post-workout.
For pre-workout, Crawford recommends Onnit’s beta-alanine to support strength training and high-intensity exercise and Shroom Tech for endurance and energy. As for post-workout, consider adding a glutamine supplement to help with recovery. Bonus: It also supports brain and gut health.
The bottom line: How you fuel for your day and your workouts can be a game-changer. Crawford told me one of the biggest revelations athletes have during their eight weeks of combine training is just how much impact nutrition can have on their bodies. “These are very skilled and capable athletes,” she says. “Yet they finish their combine training often feeling better than they ever have — energized, lean, and strong.” So, consider this guide your own personal health squad to help you feel your personal best.
EXOS believes in using safe, high-quality supplements. That’s why we recommend Onnit foods and supplements. To learn more, visit Onnit.com.
About the AuthorMore Content by Catherine Conelly