ANN ARBOR — What do Wolverines eat?
Last year alone, 12,458 pounds of chicken, 39,452 bananas, 9,257 pounds of spinach, and 9,210 gallons of milk, for starters.
And when it comes to the football team, eggs — lots of eggs.
“When I came here coach (Jim) Harbaugh was like, ‘How do you feel about a mandatory breakfast? Most important meal of the day!'” said team dietitian Abigail O’Connor, adding the football team itself now consumes an average of 80 pounds of eggs at breakfast.
Michigan has a staff of dietitians who help make sure the school’s nearly 1,000 varsity athletes are fueling to compete at the highest level.
“You’re not changing bodies, if you’re not eating right,” Michigan head strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson says.
At Michigan, that wasn’t always the case.
For years, the NCAA put heavy limits on how much schools could feed players through the athletic program. Aside from one meal a day at training table, athletes were allowed free access to fruits, nuts, and bagels — but nothing else — to help replace the calories and carbohydrates lost during training. (Known as “The Bagel Rule,” the NCAA outlawed cream cheese and other spreads for the bagels.)
“Someone made a joke that maybe they were afraid we would call a filet mignon a spread,” says Caroline Mandel, Michigan’s director of performance nutrition for the past 19 years.
The NCAA eventually approved spreads and, in 2014, opened the entire refrigerator.
“It changed the landscape at every school in terms of how nutrition is thought about and how the dietitians function,” Mandel says.
At Michigan, that currently means five full-time dietitians employed by the athletic department. (And they are dietitians, as opposed to nutritionists. The former must get a degree in the field, complete an internship, pass a board exam, and maintain their credentials. In many states, most anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.)
The Michigan football team has its own dietitian, while Mandel and her staff of three oversee the school’s other 28 teams. “We collaborate with the coach, the trainer, and the strength and conditioning coach to use nutrition to help athletes adapt to training, recover from training, and perform in competition.”
Their work falls into two main categories: education and feeding, or what she calls fueling.
Food is catered to an individual’s needs and schedule — personalization and periodization. Mandel provides one-on-one consultations with athletes. Some simply want to perform better on the field. Others wonder if their diet is adversely affecting their sleep. A handful of athletes have diabetes or Celiac disease or high cholesterol.
And Mandel probably knows who these athletes are without looking it up, having studied mgoblue.com headshots to first match a face with a name, then setting out to learn more in person. During an interview at the South Campus multi-sport athletic facility, Mandel acknowledges nearly every athlete who passes. Asked about one, she rattles off her name, the sport she plays, her mother’s name, and her sister’s name.
Regardless of the individual, food intake changes whether the athlete is in season or not. Mandel notes that while most young people recruited to play at a high-level Division I athletic program like Michigan’s are physically mature, some are still growing. An athlete trying to put on weight is called a “hard gainer.”
“He has a real hard time putting on that mass because metabolically he’s still burning calories at a rate of that last post-adolescent growth spurt,” Mandel says. “Around junior or senior year it gets easier — almost too easy. We’ve got to be careful.”
Wolverines are taught the importance of hydration — a pie chart that appears on a screen at a fueling station in the South Athletics Campus notes that just 34 percent of Division I athletes are properly hydrated before practice — and might start carrying a water bottle around campus.
Mandel counters misinformation spread through social media, such as the myth that all carbs are bad. “Carbohydrate is still the fuel of choice of choice for high-intensity exercise,” she says. “Without enough carb, you’re going to fatigue.”
The supplement industry is not only loud but largely unregulated. NCAA eligibility is at stake, and many supplements have a banned substance that does not appear on the label. Michigan promotes a “food-first” approach. Athletes who want to take a supplement are encouraged to choose one that has been given a thorough test by an independent agency.
Lauren Link, communications director for the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association and the director of sports nutrition at Purdue, notes that fish oil, for example, helps with inflammation. Additional research hints at other benefits as well. And yet fish oil is banned by the NCAA. “We’d maybe like to provide it,” Link says, “but we’re limited.”
There is plenty schools can provide, and Michigan takes advantage. Using the massive French company Sodexo as its vendor, Michigan provides a grab-and-go breakfast in the Yost Ice Arena concourse Monday through Friday. All athletes are welcome, except the football players, who are offered a sit-down breakfast at their building. Athletes can fill up a bag with a hot breakfast sandwich, yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, fruit, and toast, among other items.
There are 18 fueling stations at the various athletic buildings around campus that offer snacks — smoothies, Gatorade, squeezable apple sauce pouches, bananas — throughout the day.
“Before deregulation, it was crazy to me the things we could provide our athletes,” Link says. “They get all kinds of perks — gear, free medical care, stuff they should get — but we couldn’t feed them. And we’re asking them to burn thousands of calories a day. The fueling stations have been a big approach and a good one.”
Four or five nights a week, athletes are provided a training table dinner. The football, basketball, and hockey teams each eat separately, but the other sports meet at Yost, where tables and approximately 120 chairs are set up. (Plans are in the works for an athlete dining hall in the next several years, Mandel says.)
A recent menu offered grilled pork chops, coconut-lime breaded chicken, dijon salmon, roasted carrots, zuchinni, and rice pilaf one night; beef and chicken fajitas, steak pasta, spicy corn, and roasted asparagus the next; and a pasta station plus teriyaki chicken, panko crusted cod, and broccoli cauliflower the night after that.
“I think without a doubt one of the best things we’ve ever done is make sure these kids are adequately fed all year, not just the day of a game,” says Carol Hutchins, Michigan’s softball coach for the past 35 years.
“What’s noticeable to me is my teams have been fitter than ever in the last few years.”
There are 29 varsity teams and about 1,000 student-athletes at Michigan. One can occasionally fall through the cracks. Tyree Kinnel, a safety on the football team, said he didn’t eat nearly enough in the day leading up to a night game earlier this season. As a result, he suffered leg cramps and had to leave the game.
“The food was there,” Kinnel said. “I just didn’t really have the appetite.”
Michigan tries to incorporate local vendors (Barry’s Bagels, for example) and farmers. “This generation of athletes is quite (interested) when it comes to sustainability and recycling and farm to table, so we’re really getting into that,” Mandel says.
“Overnight oats” has been the biggest hit of the year, according to Mandel. The meal involves oatmeal and milk mixed together and left in the fridge overnight. In the morning, one can add some combination of, say, banana, blueberries, almonds, chia seeds, and honey, and eat it on the go. “We set up a build-your-own every couple of weeks and I’ll get texts all night about how to make it.”
Efficiency is important for anyone, but especially a college student and even more so a college athlete. Overnight oats save time. So does cooking four chicken breasts at a time so as to provide four meals for the week.
Incorporating meals after practice were a game-changer according to Hutchins. “It accomplishes great nutrition, but to streamline their day is huge. They’re in class all day and then they go to practice and they’ve only got a few hours to study before we want them to go to bed.”
Mandel can compute a calorie range for a particular athlete in a particular time of year, which may be anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 per day. The latter may seem daunting, but Mandel has tricks. Calories can be consumed through a glass: 100 percent fruit juice, milk, smoothies. Liquids leave the body faster than solids and therefore allow for more consumption. A triple-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich can reach 1,000 calories. Three meals and three snacks make it possible to eclipse a five-digit calorie goal.
Abigail O’Connor is the Michigan football team dietitian. There are 143 players on the team, it is a high-profile sport with many demands, and head coach Jim Harbaugh and his first-year strength coach Ben Herbert wanted a dietitian. So O’Connor was hired in February from Minnesota, where she also worked with the football team.
Carlo Kemp, a junior on the football team, put on about 25 pounds this past offseason to better handle playing a new position on the defensive line. “It wasn’t really that hard to do,” he said. “We were eating right, we were working hard, and everybody was getting stronger.” He spoke about drinking more water than he had previously. “And no pizza marathons,” he said.
If the average person eats with the 80/20 rule in mind — meaning 80 percent of food choices are healthy and 20 not so much — an athlete should probably be closer to 90/10, Mandel says. “I’m not a good food-bad food person. I know there are good, balanced eating plans. But there’s no one food we’re going to demonize ever. That sets people up for guilt and stress. If you want to have a cookie, have a cookie. I just don’t want you to fill up on cookies.”
Michigan gives its athletes guided tours of grocery stores — the store’s perimeter is where shoppers should find the majority of items on their list — and offers cooking classes. The school wants the students to make smart choices even when preparing meals on their own.
“I’m proud we can help smooth the transition from high school to college,” Mandel says. “If you’ve got a kid who’s homesick, sometimes food can be that familiar thing. We’re helping them navigate their nutrition so they’ve got good physical and mental energy.”