Peanut Butter to Parmesan Is Inside Story on World Cup Athletes

Jun 24, 2014 6:01 pm ET

June 25 (Bloomberg) -- You are what you eat when it comes to your feet.

Teams at the World Cup this year are depending on an increasingly professional squad of chefs and nutritionists who treat food as fuel, both for the body and, in the form of dishes from home, for the mind. The Italians brought pasta, parmesan and wine, the Swiss muesli and chocolate, and the Americans bins of peanut butter and jelly.

At the same time, nutritionists such as Danielle LaFata, who works with the U.S. team, are making sure the athletes are able to endure the sweltering heat of Brazil’s soccer stadiums with things like kiwi and bananas, to replace the potassium lost in sweat, and six bottles of water a day. For LaFata, the menu is a constant balancing act that includes the familiar, the healthy and even a taste of Brazil.

“We do our best to kind of incorporate the culture but at the same time keep some familiar flavors,” LaFata said in an interview at the home of the Sao Paulo Futebol Clube, where the U.S. team trains. “The guys love the Brazilian beans so for the most part, every meal now has Brazilian beans and rice.”

Tomorrow’s game in the coastal city of Recife is crucial to whether the U.S. players get to sample more local food before they fly home. Germany is favored to win, according to Ladbrokes, which gives the U.S. team only a 10 percent chance of coming out on top. Both teams need at least a tie in order to guarantee their places in the next round. If that isn’t the case, the winner will advance. The loser may still make it through, depending on the result of a simultaneous match between Portugal and Ghana.

Amazon Heat

Last Friday, before the U.S. flew to Manaus on the edge of the Amazon, where temperatures averaged 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity was 62 percent, lunch after the 90-minute morning practice had an Asian bent. The team can be picky.

“Is this stir-fry?” defender Geoff Cameron asked, standing in front of the buffet spread.

Cameron made a feeble attempt to stick with the heap of rice and beans already on his plate, alongside a pair of buttered French bread rolls. LaFata wouldn’t let him get away with it. The players, who need to eat every two to three hours, were departing within the hour for the airport and were facing a 4 1/2-hour flight with no hot food.

“You need to eat more than just beans and rice so they’re going to make some chicken right now,” LaFata said. Plain chicken, no teriyaki.

“Obrigado,” Cameron replied, signaling his assent by thanking her in Portuguese.

Protein, Carbohydrates

Menus include protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats and rely on herbs and spices with an anti-inflammatory punch instead of salt for seasoning. Avocado is a crowd-pleaser. To fight the heat, players usually eat extra fruit and vegetables, which are 80 percent to 90 percent water.

In Manaus, though, the team decided to avoid fresh produce after what LaFata called “intel” from other teams suggested the host city’s hygiene wasn’t up to par.

This is no low-carb diet. Elite soccer players need four fistfulls of carbs a day, LaFata said, compared with just one for average people.

That’s because of the running so abundantly on display in the U.S. attacks against Portugal. A field player covers 10 kilometers to 13 kilometers (6 miles to 8 miles) in a game, varying from a jog to a gut-busting sprint.

4,000 Calories

In doing that, the players need some 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, depending on their size and how many times they train daily, said Hans Braun, a senior lecturer at the German Sport University Cologne. That’s about twice what’s recommended for less active people.

As soon as the teams got to Brazil, they probably started simulating game days, said Braun, who has advised players from the German Bundesliga’s Bayer Leverkusen and 1. FC Cologne teams.

“What do I eat in the morning for breakfast when I play at 1 p.m.?” Braun said. For the Germans, typical breakfasts would be bread or muesli. “And then they practice at 1 p.m. and see how they feel.”

The German team turned down a request for an interview. Before the World Cup started, team chef Holger Stromberg told German newspapers he serves Teutonic classics like spaetzle, an egg noodle from the southern part of the country, and griessbrei, a pudding usually made for kids that’s like Cream of Wheat.

Seafood Salad

Stromberg told the Schwaebische Zeitung a few of the players’ favorite foods: Manuel Neuer, the baby-faced goalie, loves seafood salad. Team captain Philipp Lahm is partial to Austrian beef broth with dumplings. And 6-foot 6-inch tall center back Per Mertesacker eats any kind of tomato soup.

After the match, Stromberg said he uses water from the shower heads to cook pasta right in the middle of the locker room.

The Germans’ southern cousins, the Swiss, will also rely on spaghetti tonight in their match against Honduras. Four hours before each game, even the midday ones, head chef Emil Bolli will serve bouillon with julienned vegetables, spaghetti with veal Bolognese sauce and apple cake.

“When the going gets tough, people need carbohydrates,” said James Carter, head of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute’s U.K. branch. GSSI has been helping to develop personalized Gatorade formulas for Brazil’s team, part of the PepsiCo Inc. brand’s sponsorship.

Personal Gatorade

Each player’s drink gets a personalized carbohydrate content, electrolyte concentration and flavor in pods that click onto the bottom of a sports bottle.

Hydration is one of the most important things weekend athletes can learn from watching soccer’s pros, nutrition researcher Braun said. That and something most of us already know and conveniently forget: if you aren’t burning the same calories as German striker Thomas Mueller or U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones, you can’t eat like them.

A fan who munches his way through one 200 gram (7 ounce) bag of chips during the game and drinks two pints of beer will ingest about 1,500 calories, Braun pointed out. That’s about what a starting player burns off in that same time period.

“They eat the same amount of calories a player needs, but they don’t move!” Braun said.

--With assistance from Gregory Viscusi in Paris.