Diana Nguyen, director of sports nutrition for NC State Athletics

Down, Set, Eat

In Eat, September 2019by Lauren Kruchten

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Catering to the tastes of the NC State football team.

College football players are foodies by default—the average NC State player eats anywhere from five to eight times a day. But players certainly aren’t eating whatever they want all the time. Instead, they follow a nutritious diet that Diana Nguyen, the director of sports nutrition for NC State Athletics, prescribes for each individual player as well as for the athletes that make up all 23 other NC State sports teams. 

For the football team, Nguyen, who received her sports nutrition degree from Virginia Tech, customizes nutrition plans for each player following a one-on-one meeting in her office where she discerns what their dietary needs are. She considers the players’ schedules, their weight histories and body compositions, their goals and their activity levels and uses that information to recommend appropriate levels of carbohydrates, protein and fat intake. Nguyen also takes players’ on-field positions into account before making recommendations. For wide receivers, running backs and safeties, for instance, Nguyen prescribes a higher carbohydrate diet to give them the energy they need to run more routes than the defensive or offensive linemen.

Nguyen says getting to know the athletes on a personal level is important, too, and she tries to catch up with players while they’re having a meal in the dining hall. “Having a conversation with them while they’re actually eating helps to build my relationship with them and understand what they do and don’t like,” Nguyen says.

While dietary needs vary from player to player, Nguyen says general guidelines are pretty straightforward. She advises athletes to reduce their fast food intake, especially fried foods, incorporate more fresh fruits and veggies and to drink plenty of water to prevent heat illnesses. “The ultimate goal with nutrition and performance is to keep them on the field — to keep them productive, to keep them out of injury,” Nguyen says. 

On an ideal day, players start with a hydration drink and a snack before they train. Afterwards, they get a recovery drink and breakfast at Wendell Murphy Football Center. Players eat lunch on their own time between classes and Nguyen recommends they eat one or two snacks in the afternoon, as well as one after dinner—preferably a snack with some protein to complement their training. Players eat dinner at NC State’s Case Dining Hall, which is reserved for those on the student athlete meal plan.

Nguyen has collaborated with Matt Hodges, the NC State athletics program’s head chef, to curate menus at both Murphy and Case that are tailored for the athletes. One or two fresh vegetables are always available at breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with lean proteins, high-quality, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats so athletes can create well-rounded meals. 

Breakfast may involve the standard eggs, bacon, oatmeal or breakfast sandwich with a rotation of French toast, waffles or pancakes. At lunch, the same combination of colorful fruits and veggies, proteins and carbohydrates are incorporated with pastas, rice dishes, sandwiches and wraps. Dinner at Case includes options catered to athletes with all kinds of taste preferences and dietary restrictions. Hodges, who takes health needs as well as socioeconomic histories and allergens into account when creating dishes for individual players, provides a mixed menu of comfort food and a broad variety of fresh vegetables, pastas (a team favorite) and lean proteins. Though the team’s diet consists mostly of the standard “meat and potatoes,” Hodges says he tries to introduce diverse options. But “safe” items—pasta, burgers, grilled chicken—are generally always available. 

“We try to keep it appealing to them, keep it exciting, but familiar most of the way,” Nguyen says. 

NC State football head coach Dave Doeren
NC State football head coach Dave Doeren

And, while football players are certainly tempted by a Howling Cow milkshake every once in a while, Nguyen says they’re pretty good about sticking to her nutrition plans overall, and when they do have a milkshake, they’re honest with her about it. “It’s about finding a healthy balance and just showing them that it’s okay to be human and it’s okay to have that stuff,” Nguyen says. “But the majority of the time they do follow the recommendations that I give them because they are motivated.” 

So is it the tasty shrimp scampi, soy glazed chicken drumsticks or baked chicken parmesan dishes at the team’s disposal that clinches Wolfpack wins? They’re certainly a factor.

“Nutrition plays a huge role in our preparation and performance and is integral in our ability to develop players,” says NC State football head coach Dave Doeren. “Diana and her staff do a great job educating our players on proper nutrition and making sure our training table provides meals that are enjoyable, but also beneficial.”

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