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.

Architect of the café

When Leslie Bonci reported to her first Steelers training camp in 1992, she was shocked by what she saw in the cafeteria: “Creamy soups, hush puppies, French fries, fried chicken, cheesecake,” recalls Bonci. “I’m thinking, they’re going to have heart attacks—and who can perform with this stuff? But I couldn’t just say, ‘Let’s have tofu.’ That just doesn’t work.” Immediately she started working on healthier menus—ones the players would actually eat. “The taste thing is critical,” says Bonci.

While fried foods—and other long-time favorites, such as pizza—remain on the menu even today, they’re far outnumbered by healthier options, which the players seem to prefer. “These days, bison burgers are a big hit,” Bonci says. “And chicken—blackened or Cajun. Fish goes over really well. They love meaty fish, like halibut and salmon.”

The Steelers’ training cafeteria is set up in a way that helps players get what they need after a workout. A table stocked with beverages and ingredients for smoothies—fruit, juices and protein powder—is the first thing players see when they come in after practice. At the next turn is a giant salad bar with colorful fruits and vegetables—many sourced locally—and lean proteins, such as chicken and beans. The grill line is across from the salad bar. Desserts are crowded onto a small table in the back, near the kitchen. The pizza is all the way on the other side of the cafeteria, behind the seating areas.

From that corner, a voice bellows: “Hey, Leslie. Look who’s at the pizza bar.” Bonci tells me that the “whistleblower” with the buzz cut and broad shoulders is Craig Wolfley, who was an offensive lineman for the Steelers in the 1980s and now is a journalist covering training camp. The guy he’s ratting out is Tunch Ilkin, his radio sidekick. Ilkin was an offensive tackle for the Steelers during Bonci’s first year as team nutritionist. Now a “civilian,” he seems to have adjusted his intake accordingly. “I’m just having one slice,” Ilkin yells back. “You told me that if I love a food, I should have it—just not too much.”

“Oh, I’ve taught them well,” Bonci says, laughing.

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