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.

One of her latest successes is Charlie Batch, the Steelers’ backup quarterback. Just before last year’s AFC Championships, Batch called Bonci. “His blood cholesterol was a little higher than it’d been in the past and he wanted to lose weight,” she says. The two sat down and worked up a plan for how he could lose weight and lower his cholesterol. Eating out was Batch’s biggest challenge.

Bonci helped Batch navigate restaurant menus. “He’d literally be at a restaurant, texting me lists of the choices,” Bonci says. Batch used to gravitate toward entrees like Fettuccine Alfredo, which can deliver more than 1,000 calories and 53 grams of saturated fat—two and half times the recommended daily limit. “Now, I’ll have the petite steak, with a Caesar salad or the fried calamari,” says Batch. He has also switched from apple martinis (which can pack 300 calories each) to red wine (150 calories per glass, with some heart-healthy antioxidants to boot)—and learned to sip more slowly. By the start of the 2009-2010 season, Batch had dropped 12 pounds and 4 percent body fat and reduced his total cholesterol by 20 percent.

Defensive tackle Casey “Big Snack” Hampton (listed at 6'1" and 325 pounds) has also worked closely with Bonci. “Casey has high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It is a problem, but he’s never going to be tiny,” says Bonci. “He’s incredibly fast for his size.” But in 2008, he reported to training camp much heavier than he should have been and wasn’t able to complete a running exercise. “He wasn’t going to see the field,” Bonci says. Bonci arranged with the training camp’s cafeteria to make Hampton special meals. “I said, ‘This is what you can serve him.’ I was in total control of his eating—for a reason. His weight was a health issue.” This year, Hampton ate with the rest of the team. “There was ‘less’ of Casey reporting to camp this season,” says Bonci, noting that he also reduced his “bad” LDL cholesterol. “‘Down’ is good. Even when you have an existing health condition, anything you are doing in that direction is a step in the right direction.”

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