No Days Off: NFL Nutritionist Bob Calvin on Working With Jadeveon Clowney and America’s Biggest Food Myths

You can run all the sprints you want, lift all the weights, run all the routes and shoot all the jumpers you want, but not much of it will matter if you aren’t eating right and taking care of your body. Every athlete should be watching what they eat, from the high school kids all the way up to the professional ranks. Or better yet, they could learn a thing or two from Bob Calvin, a performance nutritionist who has worked with NFL stars during EXOS‘ Combine class.

Whether he’s talking to No. 1 picks in the NFL Draft like Jadeveon Clowney or Sam Bradford, or with other star talents like Robert Griffin III, Brandon Boykin, and Brian Orakpo, Calvin’s whole goal is updating what they already have. Rebuilding someone’s entire diet can be difficult, but upgrading it can be the difference between a six-year career and a nine-year one.

In this week’s No Days Off, I caught up with Calvin to talk about working with the NFL Draft’s No. 1 pick, Jadeveon Clowney, the myths of nutrition, and which foods all athletes should be avoiding.

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People look at Clowney and he’s already an incredible athlete with all of these physical skills. What nutritional information did you talk with him about?
Bob Calvin: Some of them have a lot of changes that they need to make in terms of their body, whether that be from a body composition standpoint or strength and power. Jadeveon really wasn’t that way. He’s already pretty put together. His body composition. His weight really didn’t need to go up a lot or down a lot from when he came to us, a little bit but nothing drastic.

For him, his focus, it was more of getting him to think of food in a different way, like food is the means to fuel my body. I got that great talent that I’ve worked hard for and been blessed with. In order to get the most out of it, to get that little extra edge, it’s the simple things. Starting to associate different foods with what they help our body do. We call our protein builders and our carbohydrate choices fuelers. Fats are protectors. We are starting to get all of the guys to think of food in that way and involving them in the process. Taking the plan that we put together for them and then, in a controlled way, execute it so they are practicing these habits we’re talking about.

Recovery is another big thing, and [Jadeveon] be really consistent with his recovery strategies. Taking off with, we call it a shooter, prior to their training. A little small snack prior to training. And then hydrating during the training and then post-workout rebuilding, refueling, and rehydrating with a protein, carbohydrate, a fluid, and a shake. That all would be encompassing his recovery to maximize the adaptation and the gains that he gets from training, and then being ready to go again.

It’s also about thinking about these concepts. We’re working together during Combine prep time but they carry over to when you’re at practice. They carry over to when you’re on your own. They carry over to game time.

If Clowney were to follow exactly what you’re preaching, how big of a difference would it make for someone like him?
BC: It’s hard to measure in percentages or stats. It’s really more about durability, longevity, even though he’s had some bumps and bruises along the way this year. The ability to come back from those stressers and live up to his potential. It’s also to maximize his endurance, strength, and power in either the Combine drills or on the field. It can make a world of difference, but for guys like that you have to look at a track athlete. He’s a fine-tuned guy where small changes can make great impacts because you’re helping to fine-tune. You’re not overhauling. You’re helping to fine-tune small habits here and there that can pay big dividends.

It’s hard to quantify in terms of percentage. Anytime you make an upgrade, that’s going to pay dividends. It’s also the mindset of equating your food to a means of fueling your body and recovering. It’ll pay dividends in your career and even for the rest of your life because even if you’re a superstar, the NFL doesn’t last that long. We all have to eat and we all want to live a long life, and food plays a role in that.

I always tell guys that food is not the only factor in maximizing your performance but it’s one member of the team. Your nutrition is a member of that performance team that collectively works together with all of those other members of the team like your strength and your power, your lean body mass, your endurance and durability, it combines together to create a really powerful unit. Nutrition is not a sole member but it is one member. If we can upgrade it, even if it’s in small ways, it can pay off.

Do a lot of the guys coming out of college have bad eating habits?
BC: They’re college kids. When you think about when you and I were in college — and I’m a dietitian now — I didn’t have the best habits. But I will say this: They have room to make some upgrades, just like we all do. More and more it’s a testament to the profession. More and more universities have nutrition staffs and full-time dietitians.

Just since the time I started at EXOS, over the years I’ve seen a gradual increase in the aptitude of the guys coming in and their habits across the board. These guys from major colleges have good resources and they have some good habits. They have a good knowledge base, and we build upon that. They’re in a new setting now in terms of the Combine and we help build upon their existing knowledge.

Let’s say they come in with solid habits and education and we’re just helping to expand upon that and add to it and help them along the way. At the same time, they’re still college kids. It’s another chapter in their life. Moving from an amateur in the sport to becoming a professional. From a Combine standpoint, they’re in that transition. A lot of times the guys that may not have bought in [before], now stuff is starting to hit the fan. They’re starting to pay attention to a few more of those things.

Robert Griffin III

For a high school or young athlete, what’s a simple change they can make to help their diet and help their performance?
BC: Great question. We talk about making upgrades, not changing but upgrading your existing habits. I always start with hydration. It’s taking a step back, taking a look and asking, “Do I have the fluid tank full?” Your hydration is based off your size, how big you are. We challenge them to drink about a half an ounce to an ounce per pound per day. That’s initially how I break it out. But a great way to upgrade that in real terms is about six times a day. If you’re sitting down and having a snack or a meal six times a day, you drink a bottle of water with that. That’s going to hit a lot of people in terms of their size.

Another simple upgrade is add one extra bottle of water per day. That’s a great upgrade.

The next place I’ll typically go is their recovery. Before training, never go in on an empty stomach, so make sure you top that tank off and have a small snack. I always use the PB&Js as an example, especially for a kid because most of them like it. Top off before training, and then post-training rebuild with a source of protein, refuel with a source of carbohydrate, and rehydrate with a source of fluid. It’s something as simple as a big glass of chocolate milk. That hits all three of those things.

If they’re hydrating, they’re adding an extra bottle of water into their day. They’re topping the tank off before they train. They’re rebuilding, refueling, rehydrating after training. Those are three really simple things they can do and with consistency they’ll pay dividends.

What are some foods that all athletes should stay away from? How about some foods that they all should be eating?
BC: You are probably not going to like my answer for which foods to stay away from but we always tell our guys that there’s room for all foods. We’ll teach the 80/20 approach. Eighty percent of the time we teach our guys to fuel. Making cleaner food choices. And then 20 percent of the time we teach them to just eat, so they’re picking foods that may not be as clean. One thing I would say on that, I’m a big believer that alcohol doesn’t help anybody. If I had to pick one thing to stay away from, it’s alcohol. From a performance standpoint it doesn’t help. I know that’s not as pertinent for high school kids as it is for older kids but I would say alcohol is definitely something to stay away from. It will not help you from a performance standpoint.

For something every athlete should include, my first go-to is…I always call it color. More color on their plate. We’re talking predominately about vegetables and fruits. I challenge them to get at least three different colors on their plate because different-colored fruits and veggies are going to provide and act different. I call them the support staff, like a team. These vitamins, minerals, micro nutrients are behind the scenes and we often neglect them. They really help to enhance some of the bigger foods that we eat.

I could give you a list of a thousand different things that you’d want but those would be my top ones.

Is there anything about nutrition out there that’s still misguided or wrong?
BC: There’s a couple of things out there that come to mind. The first two go hand-in-hand. In our culture, in the media and everything, we hear a lot about carbohydrates. Breads. Pastas. Cereals. Many people have become sort of carbohydrate-phobic, if you will. A lot of that stems from much of our population is not super-active anymore. However an athlete is different. Some of them think “I’ll get fat if I eat a carbohydrate” or “I’ll get fat if I eat bread, cereal, or pasta.” I try to get them to think that those are our prime fuels. They fuel our body. The more active I am, the more I need to include those. But if I’m less active then I can start to include those a little bit less. When I do include them, a simple way to look at it is to look at the least processed. We say, “come back to Earth.” The other thing I tell them to look for is at least three grams of fiber whenever I’m eating those foods. They have a place in an athlete’s diet because they’re active. They need to refuel the body.

In addition to that, a lot of people are still confused on the term “fat.” We hear “fat” and many of us still have negative connotations. We think if we eat fat, we’re going to get fat and fat is bad. We’re really trying to get them to think fats are necessary, just like all of our other nutrients. They are protectors of the body. Certain fats aren’t created equal. Certain fats give more back to us. We need to focus on more priority fats. I tell the players we’re searching mainly for fats that come from plants. Things like beats, avocado, olive and olive oil. Try to include some more of those. Those can help to manage inflammation, help to provide more long-term energy.

People are getting more and more knowledgeable but as we get more and more information on all this stuff, sometimes it becomes a bit confusing. Sometimes the athletes confuse their needs and goals with friends or family, or the guy down the street that works in front of a cubicle all day.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney