Through the weight room and down a flight of stairs, a cohort of hungry football players trudged into the Redskins Park cafeteria on a Tuesday in late August to the sound of clinking pots and sizzling pans.
Fresh off a morning walk-through, and just 19 days before their season opener in Arizona, they entered the room filled with 15 large roundtables and 10 wall-mounted televisions. To their left was one of their favorites: a smoothie bar stocked with single-serving bags of frozen fruits, milk options and kale. To the right was a toppings-filled salad bar, next to rows of six different lunch entree options and trays of pizza with thin Greek yogurt crusts.
Jake Sankal, an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Washington Redskins who doubles as the team’s director of sports nutrition, an increasingly prevalent position in the NFL, works with chef Connor McGuire to pick out menu options for the week. It’s just one of Sankal’s tasks when it comes to completing his main objective: feeding an entire NFL team while keeping the players in top shape before and throughout the season.
“What we try to do more than just being the food police is provide them healthy options,” Sankal said. “We focus a ton on quality food here. That’s really the biggest thing we do. And then we try to educate them.”
Sankal’s job consists of constantly thinking about hydration levels, snacks, proteins, carbohydrates, body composition and meal prep - all of which are part of the dietitian revolution sweeping college and professional football.
In 2007, 13 NCAA institutions and one NFL team - the New England Patriots - had a full-time sports dietitian, said Chelsea Burkart, president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association. Now 84 colleges and 20 NFL teams, including the Redskins, have one.
Sankal has seen an increased interest in nutrition from players since he started talking about it as a strength and conditioning intern in the Cleveland Indians’ minor league system in 2010. He talks with players about nutrition strategies and diets they see on Twitter, Instagram or Netflix documentaries, and uses the conversation as an access point to talk about best practices outside nutrition that can help them.
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“There’s a certain level of proprietary stuff that they do, but the majority of it is all fundamental good nutrition,” Sankal said. “I think you’ll see more similarities than not between teams.”
Like other NFL teams, the Redskins create specialized meal plans for players based on their body composition, and align them with the team’s practice schedule.
The average food intake for an NFL player varies based on the size and position of each, but the average player on the Redskins this season consumes about 4,000 calories per day. Some players consume as many as 6,000 calories, while others go as low as 3,000 calories.
Redskins running back Rob Kelley, who had the nickname “Fat Rob” earlier in his career due to a relatively thick physique, has transformed his body since the end of last season. Under Sankal’s nutrition plan, which focused on cutting out sugary drinks and adjusting food choices based on the time of day, Kelley lost 10 pounds and dropped 4 percent of his body fat. He eats 3,800 calories on a training day that includes practice, weight training and other activities. His calorie count drops to 3,000 on non-training days.
A typical meal for a Redskins player will include 50 grams of protein, plus a cup or more of cooked vegetables and grains or a starch. For breakfast, this can mean a combination of whole eggs and egg whites, plus turkey sausages, cereal or Greek yogurt. At lunch, players will eat six to eight ounces of meat or fish, plus grains and veggies and a healthy fat, like half of an avocado. Dinner is similar to lunch, dependent on the players’ plan. Some, like Kelley’s, call for no carbohydrates at dinner and more at lunch.
Hydration is also key because it complements nutrition in recovery, which is a 24-hour process. Before training camp each season, the team tests players’ sweat for sodium concentration to determine which water bottles they need to use during practice. Water bottles with black tape contain a high concentration of tasteless, invisible electrolytes (about 1,500 milligrams per liter), and bottles with white tape have a moderate concentration (about 1,000). Players can lose anywhere from two to five pounds during one practice, Sankal said.
With a rigorous meal plan, the team goes through an enormous amount of food. During one week at training camp in Richmond, Virginia, which included about 90 people, the Redskins ate 875 pounds of fish, 420 pounds of chicken, 110 pounds of pasta, 54 dozen eggs and 50 watermelons.
The man behind the cooking, McGuire, came to the Redskins from the high-end steakhouse BLT Steak, having worked at French restaurants earlier in his career. The first meal he made was risotto with asparagus tips, and he said the player feedback was instant: “What is this? What are you doing?” So, McGuire switched up his approach to more family-style dishes, but grappled with how to make healthy food in a way that players would like.
“If they don’t like something, they’ll let you know,” McGuire said.
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He made quinoa his project last season. This year, it’s lentils. Still, the team has its favorites. Players love chicken Parmesan with orzo, along with “Fajita Fridays,” which became a weekly tradition after the meal coincided with a win-streak.
This season, the kitchen has variety of stations players can choose from: main entrees, stir-fry, pasta, pizza and salads. Sankal also encourages players to eat a crucial “fourth meal” outside of the cafeteria around 9 or 10 p.m. Some players opt to eat the same meals each day - like guard Brandon Scherff, who has requested three eggs over easy for breakfast the last four seasons - while others like to change it up.
In his nutrition planning, Sankal classifies players into one of three different body types: “Big guys” (linemen), “skill guys” (wide receivers, running backs) and “combo” (linebackers, defensive ends, some quarterbacks). For achy-jointed big guys, he recommends fish. Skill guys get generally leaner diets because their body compositions can change quickly.
Snacks and drink options are also important, and in Sankal’s office in the weight room of Redskins Park, he has boxes of nutrition bars in addition to a new kombucha and nitro cold brew coffee machine. Players also have access to a portable cart filled with nutrition bars, yogurt cups, protein shakes, chocolate milk and fruit, and a dispenser in the cafeteria of dark chocolate or yogurt-covered almonds has been a favorite during the preseason. Sankal also delivers various drinks - like smoothies - to players’ lockers before practice, all individualized based on player needs.
The nutrition check-ins between Sankal and the players is a daily task. From stretching players out on the field, to serving them an extra scoop of quinoa in the kitchen, to running across the practice field to give players their specific water bottle, Sankal is constantly keeping up with players and their gains - or losses. When asked if he ever worried athletes might negate the meticulously manicured diet plan with a night of partying, Sankal grinned.
“We hope they don’t do it very much,” he said, “but the reality of it is that there is some of that. That’s always gonna happen . . . really at any level of athletes. So, you just do your best . . . to try to make sure they’re always prepared every day.”