Footballers’ Food: Why Steak’s Been Mashed By A Knowledge Of Nutrition

As the palm of the media continues to close around top-level football, more and more barriers fall and the behind-the-scenes picture becomes ever more clearer, writes GARETH ROBERTS.

Already we have seen clubs commit to – and release – warts-and-all documentaries of what goes on in the every-day life of top-level footballers and management.

From Being: Liverpool, All Or Nothing: Manchester City to current Netflix offering Sunderland Til I Die, the story of the inner-workings of clubs is becoming ever more familiar.

Yet some aspects remain behind the veil, perhaps not deemed interesting enough, too mundane or simply not considered worthy of investigation from drama-seeking documentary makers.

One is food. Think about it. We all eat it. We all talk about it. And deep down, many of us are desperate to know what our favourite centre half tucks into when he opens his fridge.

It’s obvious from social media that many a modern footballer enjoys a “cheeky Nandos”. And when Mo Salah was spotted in a chippy in Liverpool tongues were soon wagging about whether one of the Premier League’s deadliest strikers should be gorging on batter and grease (turns out he was only filming an advert…).

It’s nothing new though.

For decades, winding back to the days of popular football magazines like Match and Shoot, what football players tuck into from day to day has been a fascination of the masses.

Back then the stock answer to “favourite food” from big-haired superstars seemed to always be steak and chips. Then came the era of continental stars and Britain moved on to a period of pasta.

And now?

Well clearly the times when footballers gorged on pub snacks or followed the mantra “win or lose we’re on the booze” have largely passed. The athletic nature of the modern game at the top level dictates that that must be the case.

Further, if a piece in The New York Times focusing on Liverpool’s nutrition guru Mona Nemmer was anything to go by, those favourite food questions would no longer return straight answers. And those answers are less likely to include the words steak or chips.

Like sports science, data analysis and even now throw-in coaches, nutrition falls under the banner of marginal gains. It can never directly impact on skill or mindset, but if it means a star player is stronger or can potentially run faster, further or harder, then why wouldn’t you invest time and money into it?

The New York Times piece revealed Nemmer – part of the full-time staff at Melwood, Liverpool’s training ground – produced “individualized, scientifically planned diets” with food sourced as locally and organically as possible.

Plans for each player came from the results of various tests, considering body fat composition and metabolic rates, but also evaluating nationality and position on the pitch, too.

It echoed some of the information gleaned in an interview I conducted with Dr Julien Louis, a senior lecturer in Applied Sport Nutrition at Liverpool John Moores University but also someone who has worked with Liverpool FC under Brendan Rodgers and Lille among others.

In a podcast with The Anfield Wrap, he said: “Nutrition decisions can help to avoid injury and maintain performance levels. It can’t be a substitute for skill, or training, but it can be the third most important thing for a footballer.

“Players are eating three or four times a day so there is big opportunity to have an influence and clubs are paying more and more attention to nutrition, and how they can optimize this and hydration, for example, to get the most from players.”

Back in 2017, Tottenham Hotspur and England striker Harry Kane credited his improved goal-scoring form to working harder on diet and recovery and employing a personal chef – an expert in sport nutrition – who comes to his house six days a week to prepare healthy food.

Kane said then: “I had a guy come round and he explained what you could do, eating the right food at the right times. It blew me away a bit. I’d never looked too much into it, but he explained what the body does and how he could help me recover.”

Julien Louis added on The Anfield Wrap: “There are more and more games so it becomes really hard to optimize all aspects of performance to get the players fit and playing well in all games.

“A recovery strategy is very important when there are congested games.

“We personalise strategies according to the specifics of players – they are all very different with very different physical profiles, needs and positions; there is no one size fits all in football.

“For example a striker might run between nine and 12km a game, whereas a player at the back may run only five to six km. Then there is the goalkeeper.

“The energy expenditure is completely different and the nutritional requirement is completely different. We really have to personalise our strategy for each player.”

It’s a far cry from some of the nutritional nuggets that continue to be a staple of many football teams – particularly lower down the leagues.

One semi-professional club I covered as a reporter dished out Jaffa Cakes at half-time and pizzas on the final whistle. And there is of course still a place in the game for the old-fashioned half an orange.

On the half-time nutritional conundrum, Julien added: “What we need to do at half-time is to provide energy for the second half, so where can we find it?

“Energy is mainly in carbohydrates – so different sources of sugar. There is a lot of sugar in Jaffa Cakes! But there is some fat too, which is not good because it is difficult to digest and that could affect performance because of bad digestion.

“A better alternative would be more carbs from liquids because they are easy to digest – like sports drinks, or fresh fruits or gels.”

Anyone who has read a famous ex-footballer’s autobiography from the 70s or 80s will know this is just another example of the revolution football has undertaken in recent decades.

No longer is it endless bags of crisps, a stop off at the chippy post match or a run around the training pitch complete with a bin bag to sweat off the previous night’s alcoholic excesses – all of which are detailed in scores of said books.

Instead, for the majority of those cutting it week in, week out at the top of the sport, it’s an appliance of science to every aspect of their life to ensure they are the best they can possibly be. And nutrition is a huge part of that in 2019.

– Listen to the interview with Dr Julien Louis in full on The Anfield Wrap

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