Broccoli. Asparagus. Spinach. Kale. Cauliflower. LeGarrette Blount won't eat any of them. That makes life difficult for Tampa Bay Buccaneers team nutritionist Kevin Luhrs. It's his job to counsel the players on proper diet and guide their eating habits in the right direction so they can get the most out of their bodies on the field.
But it's hard to overcome taste buds.
"You can tell a guy to eat healthy and show him how to eat healthy and educate him on why it is important to eat healthy," Luhrs says, "but if he cannot stand the taste, that's a barrier that’s hard to bust down."
Case in point: Blount, the NFL's only 1,000-yard rookie rusher last year, and his dislike for all things plant.
"I'm not a fan of vegetables in general, no matter what kind they are," says the sudden fantasy star. "I know they're good for you, but I think they’re disgusting."
Whenever Blount would thumb his nose growing up, his parents offered to cook him something else. Now, Luhrs is trying to break that pattern and get him to try one new vegetable per day, an admittedly tough task.
But Luhrs is up to the challenge. He's a registered dietician and licensed medical nutrition therapist, on top of being a certified strength and conditioning specialist. When he arrived in Tampa before the 2010 season he had his work cut out for him. The Bucs were coming off a 3-13 season, and Luhrs immediately identified an area where the players could improve.
"The guys that I have worked with initially had no idea how much of an impact good nutrition and paying attention to what they put in their bodies could have on their energy levels, recovery, and overall well-being," says Luhrs, who walked on to play football for the University of Nebraska for 4 years. "Some have made it to this point in their football career by relying on their talent and hard work on the field and in the weight room instead of their diet."
In Luhrs' first year with the team, the Bucs won seven more games, finishing with a 10-6 record last season. Did diet help? Just ask the players.
"He takes the time to go over things personally with everyone," says running back Earnest Graham.
"In 2007 when I came, we didn't have this," says wide receiver Michael Spurlock. "We had a lot of veteran guys [in 2007], and now we got a lot of young guys. When you’re young, McDonald’s is easy. You don’t have a wife or people at home to cook for you. So that fast food ends up playing a huge part in some guys' lives, and Kevin is trying to give everyone more to work with than that."
Luhrs says most of the veterans have good eating habits already in place, but there are some young guys, like Blount, who he needs to keep an eye on. Second-year wide receiver Mike Williams is one of them. He likes to skip out on the first meal of the day.
"I'm just not a breakfast fan," Williams says. "I try to stay in shape and keep my body fat low, so I kind of like to skip breakfast and wait until lunch."
That's a big no-no -- one that Luhrs is trying to correct -- but he makes it clear he is not the 'food police.' He makes suggestions on portion sizes for those who need to gain or lose weight, but he doesn't force any particular food or diet on anyone.
"These guys are professionals and grown men," Luhrs says. "I will never make a player include or exclude anything."
His main concern is that each of the guys knows how many calories they’re burning and that they’re replacing them accordingly. That means calculating not just their energy expenditure, but factoring in their metabolic rate as well. Some of the bigger guys may need to consume 6,000
calories per day, while others may only need 4,000. The only way to get all those calories properly is three meals a day and a snack between each.
"We have different themes everyday -- Mexican, Asian, Italian, home-cooked, Soul, etc. You ideally try to please everybody," Luhrs says. "Our chefs do a great job in making every food item taste great while still being healthy."
Luhrs should know: He eats alongside the players. And if you think his version of ultra-healthy and wide variety is brown rice, think again.
"I'm a guy that's a quinoa fan," Graham says. "I noticed they’ve added that a couple times, which is great."
That's right, quinoa. Luhrs has the South American super pseudo-grain (pronounced Keen-Wah) on the buffet. And it's clearly catching on. The overall message to his players is that proper nutrition is not a substitute for strength and conditioning, but it can help maximize an athlete's potential, just as poor nutrition can harm it.
"With high amounts of sugar, salt, and fat, our taste buds adapt and desensitize so that we need more sugar, salt, and fat," Luhrs says.
He stresses the importance of whole fruits and vegetables, driving home his point about the myriad nutrients you can't get from pills, potions or powders. Still, he's waging an uphill battle with Blount and many of his teammates.
"I would say overall, vegetables are the least liked among our team," Luhrs says. "I totally understand that as a former college athlete. It takes some time to develop a taste for this food group."
Who knows how many games the Bucs could win this season -- or how many yards Blount could gain -- if the Bucs just ate their veggies.