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Ravens Go All In With Player Nutrition


The Ravens rookie class strolled into the cafeteria Wednesday morning and crowded around the island stocked with fresh fruit. They grabbed blenders to stuff with kale, spinach, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon and bananas.

Even for the 300-plus pound offensive linemen, many of them opted for a fresh smoothie instead of a plate piled high with bacon, eggs and waffles. 

That's part of life in today's NFL. Nutrition has become an ever-increasing consideration for teams and players, and the Ravens are working to ensure they stay ahead of the curve.

"It's changing for everybody," Ravens Nutritionist Sue James said.

Education is an important piece of getting players to eat healthy, and that's why James led a recent rookie workshop as part of their daily seminars to help transition into the NFL. Director of Player Development Harry Swayne puts together the rookie transition program, and for the past few years, he's spent a day focused specifically on nutrition.

In her presentation, James detailed daily habits for players to follow to get the most out of their bodies. She shared what foods and drinks to have before workouts, and then the best foods to help promote recovery.

To make life easy, the Ravens made a significant investment in their nutrition program to provide players with everything they need. The organization introduced a new area of the cafeteria this year stocked with items designed to fuel players during their workouts and to help them recover. That refrigerator has products like beet root juice, coconut water, fresh-pressed fruit juices, high-protein smoothies, lean jerky and hummus.

"Coach Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome really support this," James said. "Having the support of the entire building really helps."

The team has also made significant changes to the type of food served and how it is prepared.

It wasn't that long ago that Fridays were pizza days at the Under Armour Performance Center. There were also weekly grill days with cheeseburgers and French fries. Chicken wings were commonplace.

All of that is gone.

The Ravens don't serve any fried food anymore. Wings still find their way on the menu, occasionally, but now they're baked. Black bean burgers have replaced beef patties. Pizza days are a distant memory. Cookies are gone.

"They've eliminated so many bad choices," Swayne said.

Swayne, 51, came into the league in 1987 and had a 15-year playing career in the NFL with five teams.  He remembers when teams used to serve beer on Fridays along with the pizza. There was no large-scale emphasis on nutrition, and players basically ate whatever they wanted.

"I think the team nutritionists were the cafeteria workers at the University of Tampa where we had training camp," Swayne said. "I still ate in training camp like I ate as a kid."

The culture has changed dramatically in the NFL over the last 20 years, and that has started to trickle down to the college game. Some of the big-time college programs like Notre Dame have multiple nutritionists on staff, and rookies from those schools enter the NFL understanding the importance of solid nutrition.

But not every rookie has that luxury. As James talked with players after her workshop, several shared that their college diet consisted of whatever they grabbed off the school meal plan. Like most college students, that included plenty of pizza and cheap pasta. 

Old habits are tough to break, and there can be several barriers in getting players to completely buy into the team's nutrition program. If a rookie has spent his entire life fueling up on soda and chips between practices, that lifestyle takes time to change. 

"I think the education part is huge," Swayne said. "But if in your whole environment there has been one particular kind of food – the kind that is high in fat, high in sugar, high in carbohydrates – then education is going to have a much more difficult time getting you to change. So if you don't talk about both sides of the coin, you're really not helping guys who have been culturally inclined to eat a particular food."

The ultimate selling point for many of the young players is that eating healthy is just part of the job description in the NFL. Players who last in the NFL look for any edge they can find, and the team's veterans have bought into the nutrition plan.  

Swayne made sure to emphasize that the players will get out of their bodies what they put into it, and that can be the difference in cracking the lineup or even making the team.

"The real cost is in December and January, when you're not as healthy as another kid that is making good choices in his food throughout the whole course of the year," Swayne said. "If that leads to one or two missed games, I know a lot of teams that would love to have access to a healthy player for one or two more games. That's why we spend the money on their food."

Several members of the Ravens rookie draft class posed for a photoshoot just days after being drafted by Baltimore.

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