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Emptying Wallets to Fill Their Bellies

This story was published via The Medill News Service on May 13, 2008. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

Commercials for sports drinks, apparel and supplements celebrate the price athletes pay to achieve superior fitness levels. But as meat and dairy costs escalate, what’s the price athletes pay… for food?

Joel Belding, a Northwestern University football player, spends about $5,400 on food per year; the United States Department of Agriculture reported the average American spent $3,760 on food in 2007. A senior offensive lineman, Belding eats a carefully balanced diet that is guided by the team nutritionist.

“When I go to the store I always try to find the cheapest stuff,” he said. “But even in the last two years… I’ve noticed that things like lunch meat have gone up quite a bit in price. It seems a little out of control.”

College and professional athletes represent a small segment of the population, but one that’s hit much harder by rising food prices.

The U.S. Consumer Price Index released Wednesday showed that food prices in April were almost 1 percent higher than in March, and more than 5 percent higher than in April 2007.

The products that have seen the biggest increase in cost are fats and oils – up 12 percent from a year ago. The cost of fruits, vegetables and dairy products have also increased dramatically.

Athletes take in more calories per day than the typical American, and they consume products that tend to be costlier, like proteins, extra calcium and fresh produce.

“On the Chicago Blackhawks training table, we have 100 percent grass-fed beef. Whenever we can, we feed them the premium proteins, because protein is so very important to the athletes’ diet. But it also tends to be very expensive,” said Julie Burns, M.S. R.D. C.C.N., owner of Eat Like the Pros LLC, a Chicagoland meal delivery and nutrition consulting service.

Burns is the team nutritionist for the Chicago Blackhawks, the Chicago White Sox and several Olympic athletes. She has previously consulted with the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Bulls and varsity athletes from Northwestern University.

“The ideal diet would be a really clean diet, none of the added hormones, pesticides, chemicals,” she said. “It really helps them do their job better.”

Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D. L.D., is the owner of Chicago-based Living Well Communications, a nutrition consulting practice. She estimated that if the typical grocery bill for one person is $80, similar to the USDA’s figures, an athlete would pay about $140, or not quite double.

“If you’re looking for organic produce and grass-fed cattle, you have to go to specialty stores to get many of those types of foods, so you may look at higher costs,” she said.

Because protein helps build muscles, nutritionists and dietitians recommend it, particularly in its premium-priced, organic form. Some also highlight the importance of textured vegetable protein or soy products, such as Boca® Burgers.

None of which is cheap.

The Chicago Blackhawks’ 22 players travel for some of their games. Eating on the road can be pricey – the team spends a minimum of $3,916 on food during two days of traveling.

That means 22 athletes are spending in two days what the average American spends in one year for food.

The athletes are hungry for wins, but they may also be just hungry. The typical American is advised to eat about 2,000 calories a day. Burns said some Blackhawks players are advised to eat 3,000 calories, while others down 5,000 or more per day. Retelny estimated that pro athletes’ diets can go as high as 6,000 calories per day.

An athlete’s recommended intake ranges by sport, position, gender and training needs. Males generally consume more calories than females because they have more muscle mass.

Level of activity is also a factor – a goalie usually burns fewer calories than a speedy forward. Rookies and college athletes are advised to pack on the pounds because they tend to be smaller and lighter than the older, pro competitors.

“Typically a college athlete is going to take in between 3,000 and 5,000 calories per day,” Retelny said.

And what is double the average person’s intake is peanuts to athletes.

“Lance Armstrong used to take in 10,000 calories a day,” Retelny said, referring to the legendary Tour de France regimens for super-elite cyclists.

Wrestlers often have a different relationship to food than other athletes because they have to make weight. But even lightweight wrestlers consume at least a third more calories per day than the typical American.

“I would say if they’re in the middle of their season and practicing, they need at least 3,000 calories a day,” said Leo Kocher, head wrestling coach and associate professor of physical education and athletics at the University of Chicago. “When I say 3,000 calories I’m thinking the minimum for a small guy, and when you’re talking heavyweights, I imagine you’re at 4,500 to 5,000 calories,” Kocher added.

Vitamins, supplements and sports drinks also rack up costs. “It’s hard to predict, but… [athletes spend] probably $35 or $40 a week just on drinks, because they require more fluid than the average person,” Retelny said.

So how can an athlete cut costs?

“If you’re shopping locally and going to your local farmer and trying to look at your local butcher and possibly befriending some of these people, you can get better prices. There is such a thing as bargaining for your food,” Retelny said.

Emptying your wallet to fill your belly is a problem not likely to be solved for athletes or the world’s population. Increasing food prices make it harder to eat quality proteins and fresh produce. Are strict, high-maintenance eating plans really necessary?

“I think there’s more variance in human bodies and what works best for people than even the nutritionists and dietitians and exercise physiologists realize,” Kocher said.

And that’s something to chew on.

Grocery Bag

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