Five years ago, defensive back Marlin Jackson was fresh from college, vying for a spot on an NFL team.
Like many people, he didn't know much about eating healthy but he was willing to learn. Learning meant following five principles, said Sarah Snyder, a performance nutritionist who has worked with Jackson through the years:
- Eat "clean": Stick to natural, organic foods that have simple ingredients.
- Eat often: Don't skip meals, and have regular, healthy snacks.
- Hydrate: Drink enough before, during, and after working out.
- Recover: Have a post-workout snack that includes both protein and carbohydrates (for example, chocolate milk and a banana).
- Mindset: Don't think about losing or gaining weight. Think about food as raw fuel and nutrients that your body needs to perform.
"This isn't something he was born knowing. He learned over time," said Snyder, who works for a company called Athlete's Performance. The company also works with college football players each year as part of the NFL's Scouting Combine.
Good Nutrition Helped Jackson Heal
Jackson is far beyond the Combine now. He's been in the NFL for 5 years and he started every game in the 2008 season until a knee injury sidelined him. But his commitment to nutrition came in handy there, too. It helped him through the grueling process of recovery.
"His body was healthy and it had all the nutrients it needed," Snyder said.
It's not always easy to eat healthy. And because he's in the NFL, Jackson has perks that the average student athlete doesn't have. For instance, he's enrolled in a service that provides well-balanced organic lunches and dinners. But even younger athletes can adapt what Jackson does to better their own performance, Snyder said.
Breakfast might be a fruit smoothie and whole-grain cereal. Lunches and dinners are tasty, but also healthful. Entrees include chicken fajitas with vegetables and glazed mahi mahi (a kind of fish).
Kids Can Follow Jackson's Lead
Kids who are interested in eating healthy can invite themselves along the next time a parent goes grocery shopping. Look for whole-grain foods, like brown rice and whole-wheat bread. Also encourage dinners that include lots of fruits and vegetables, plus lean protein like chicken, turkey, and fish.
Younger athletes can also duplicate Jackson's pre-workout routine. About 30 minutes to an hour before working out, Jackson has a snack to ensure he'll have the stamina and focus he needs. Snyder suggests younger athletes pack a snack in their backpacks to eat after school before hitting the field. Try a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread or fruit and a yogurt.
Jackson also always has a post-workout protein shake, she said. Younger athletes can do the same by having chocolate milk and a banana. Having that snack or a meal soon after leaving the field helps with muscle repair and to refuel energy stores, Snyder said.
"Getting in that habit is so important," she said.
Food Q&A With Marlin Jackson
What's your favorite healthy food? Favorite dish?
My favorite healthy food would have to be seasoned, lightly grilled chicken, veggies, and Joy's mashed potatoes. (See the recipe on the next page.)
What is your favorite pre-game meal or snack?
For early games, it would be one blueberry pancake, light syrup, scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, and potatoes.
What's your favorite post-game meal or snack?
Fruit, grapes, strawberries, and pineapples.
What's your favorite junk food and do you limit how much you eat?
I do limit the amount of junk food I eat. I try to eat granola bars and yogurt as snacks, but I do like M&Ms.
Have your eating habits changed since you were a kid or teen athlete?
My eating habits have definitely changed since I was a kid. I would never eat veggies and I would eat a ton of junk food. I make sure I eat veggies now and I cut back on the junk food big time.
Any food advice for kids and teens who are practicing and playing hard?
The advice that I would give would be to make sure to eat three healthy meals a day and to know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you want to perform at a high level, you must eat right and get quality rest.
You founded a football academy for kids. Do you incorporate nutrition into that program?
Yes, I incorporate nutrition into my summer programs by teaming up with the National Dairy Association. We inform kids about the importance of nutrition and how chocolate milk is a good source of recovery after exercise.
Chicken and Mashed Potatoes – Yum!
Jackson loves chicken and mashed potatoes, so his nutritionist provided this chicken dinner recipe. It's low in fat, but high in protein and taste. Serve with a side of broccoli or another vegetable.
Healthy Chicken Dinner
What you need
For the chicken (makes 4 servings):
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 3 Tbs. Montreal Chicken Seasoning
- 2 tsps. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. oregano
- Nonstick cooking spray
For the potatoes (makes 8 servings):
- 3 lbs. baking potatoes
- 1/2 c. 1% milk
- 1 c. fat-free chicken broth
- 3 Tbs. light sour cream
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 pinch pepper
- 1/4 cup butter
Equipment and utensils
- Baking sheet covered with aluminum foil
- Measuring spoons and cups
- Oven/stovetop (ask an adult for help)
- Knife for cutting potatoes (ask an adult for help)
- Spoon for stirring
What to do
- Preheat oven to 425º F. (with help from an adult).
- Spray cooking spray on the foil-covered baking sheet.
- Place chicken on baking sheet and sprinkle with Montreal Chicken Seasoning, garlic powder, and oregano.
- Place chicken in the oven. Cook thoroughly — use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature has reached 165º F (approximately 15 minutes of cooking time).
- Peel potatoes and cut them into small pieces.
- Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water.
- Bring water to a boil, and then simmer until potatoes are tender.
- Drain water in a strainer and return potatoes to the saucepan.
- Add chicken broth and 1% milk.
- Cook briefly until heated through (1 to 2 minutes), stirring constantly (so they'll get "mashed").
- Stir in sour cream and season with salt and pepper (to taste).
- Top with butter.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2009