How to Score a Healthier Heart

By Nicci Micco, January/February 2010

Pittsburgh Steelers nutritionist Leslie Bonci helps players eat to beat the odds of heart disease.

Playing with heart

Most NFL players are in their twenties and thirties, a time when risk of heart attack and related conditions, such as diabetes and stroke, is still very low. But in the last couple of decades, there’s been growing concern over the increasing size of professional football players—particularly linemen, who often weigh in at well over 300 pounds—and how it affects their hearts. In response, the National Football League (NFL) established a committee about five years ago to examine the cardiovascular risk of active and retired players. Robert Vogel, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, co-chairs that committee. In a study published in a May 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Vogel and his colleagues compared the cardiovascular risk factors of 504 NFL players to those of “regular” men the same age. The football players—who were much bigger than the other men—had a higher rate of hypertension but a lower prevalence of impaired fasting glucose (predictive of diabetes, which is associated with heart risk). Cholesterol levels were comparable between the groups. “When you put it all together,” says Vogel, “the risk for these very large athletes is about equivalent to that of much smaller men the same age. The problem is that, when these guys retire, they stay about the same size, so their risk becomes equivalent to someone who is 250 pounds, not someone who is smaller.”

A retired ballplayer has to learn to eat, well, like the rest of us, says Heidi Skolnick, M.S., C.D.N., team nutritionist for the New York Giants: “No longer does an active career demand eating 3,500 calories (for a wide receiver) to 5,000 calories (for a lineman). To not gain weight, a large player may need to cut more than 2,000 calories a day when he stops playing.”

Unfortunately, says Bonci, “the appetite doesn’t automatically switch off.” So she makes sure her players learn the basics of healthy eating while they’re on the job. She also customizes eating plans to make players stronger and faster and help them improve their cholesterol levels and blood pressures.

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