NIU alumnae Meagan O’Connor was featured in an article in the Sept. 6 Chicago Tribune.
‘No more late-night Taco Bell:’ Cubs and White Sox nutritionists have own recipes for success
Cubs team nutrition consultant Dawn Jackson Blatner remembers a few spring trainings ago when she was trying to get players to drink “shots” of matcha green tea and not having much luck.
“We started playing this song, ‘Shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots’ and doing a little dance,” Blatner said, referring to the 2009 club-banger by LMFAO and Lil Jon. “And everyone was wondering what’s going on? It started catching on because it was really fun.”
That doesn’t mean they liked the taste, however.
“That kind of got to be the joke — it’s horrible, so it must be working,” she said.
Blatner, who won a weight loss reality TV competition and recently released her second book “The Superfood Swap,” does a lot of joking to coax players into trying healthier food like matcha, an antioxidant that helps with energy and focus, but she’s serious about the competitive advantages it can provide.
Her mission is simple: Getting better results at home plate starts when they sit in front of their dinner plate.
Across town, the mission is the same.
“The White Sox were doing a pretty great job even before I was here with trying to adequately fuel the (players),” Meagan O’Connor, a sports dietitian with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, which has partnered with the Sox to help them create a nutrition program this season, said. “I talked to the chef and the company that runs all the food that the Sox get and I just told the different food options that I would like to see every day.”
GSSI began coordinating Bulls’ nutrition two seasons ago and ownership asked the Barrington-based lab to take on its other team, the Sox.
O’Connor, who started her career with the Cubs, reviewed the Sox’s menu and tweaked it to make sure the players were getting enough “fuel” to help them perform on the field, heal quicker and stay hydrated. Her meal plan focuses on carbohydrates (rice, quinoa, whole grain bread) for energy, lean proteins (chicken, pork loin, beef, turkey) to rebuild the body and muscles, and antioxidants and healthy fats (avocado and other vegetables, fruit, certain cooking oils, salmon, tuna, mackerel) for inflammation.
“A lot of the athletes will ask me what is the benefit of this food,” said O’Connor, a 27-year-old Streamwood native. “Why are we eating this? Why is this here? And I’ll kind of explain that. … They’ll ask me about random fad diets and I’ll give them some education on those.”
Probaby no one outside of team doctors can pinpoint what factors contributed to Kyle Schwarber‘s miraculous comeback in the World Series after tearing knee ligaments early last season, but Blatner “absolutely” believes a nutrition regimen designed specifically for his recovery played a role.
“Part of the reason why nutrition is part of the whole culture there (at Wrigley Field) is for both injury prevention and, once an injury happens, the healing of it, the rapid healing,” she said, adding that drinking water and getting sleep were important parts of his routine too. “It’s still a very infant science. It’s not cut and dry like you eat this many carrots and this exact thing will happen to your eyes.”
Schwarber since has invested in his new diet.
“No more eating late-night McDonald’s. No more late-night Taco Bell,” he said last year.
There are signs the rest of the clubhouse has been following suit.
Anthony Rizzo credits Blatner for educating players about what they’re eating without being too pushy.
“She allows us — and she knows that we’re all different — to succeed as far as she has everything available for us whether we want it or not,” he said.
“She understands that we’re all different and that we’re going to go out and we’re going to have fun, eat this and eat that,” said Rizzo, whose “cheat foods” are Italian and Taco Bell. “But she tries to give us the alternate and the smarter ideas, the smarter options to do, and we like having her around.”
In her first interview with the Cubs, she told team officials she knew little about sports nutrition and even less about baseball.
“I said, ‘Well, to be honest, I really just looked up how many innings are in a baseball game,'” she recalled.
But Blatner was a registered dietician. After the Cubs hired her, she crammed to get her board certification as a sports dietician.
Step one of the menu makeover started with the frat-house refrigerator.
“When I looked in the kitchen, I thought was being punked because I couldn’t believe it. It was nacho cheese pumps, a whole wall of soda fountain choices, a freezer full of Blue Bunny (ice cream) novelties, a refrigerator with, like, Totino’s Pizza Rolls,” Blatner said. “It was very much like eating as you would if you were a college kid. It was easy to understand immediately what I needed to do was just clear things out and start putting in healthier choices.”
Three years ago Blatner requested a fuel station and started mixing smoothies and shots, and not the kind of shots you make with a Red Bull. Try ginger and turmeric or cherry juice, both of which reduce inflammation.
Side note: They’re not all winners. She tried hard to “market” watermelon juice and sea salt push-up popsicles to help hydrate players on hot days, “and I couldn’t sell ’em, man.”
Eventually the Cubs expanded her staff, and she now directs five dieticians assigned to the minor-league teams, a top-to-bottom system that’s not common in Major League Baseball.
Blatner got a bigger kitchen out of the Wrigley Field remodeling and last year she traveled with the team periodically and help players find food on the road.
This season, Blatner’s eighth, she opened a new “hydration station,” added new shots and snacks to the menu and plans all the food the Cubs eat on the road.
“There’s a refrigerator with all sorts of new goodies,” Blatner said, but didn’t want to elaborate to preserve some of her trade secrets. “Because the Cubs are so invested in making sure that the players eat right, and because players are into trying new things and keeping an open mind, the sky’s the limit for me.”
O’Connor says teams across sports are making over their food programs: “The future in sports nutrition is just going to keep growing as teams and athletes start realize just how important it is to their performance.”