Food for Thought: A Conversation with Orioles Team Nutritionist Sue James

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Without knowing the context, when the New York Times quoted Yankees general manager Brian Cashman saying, “We’re trying to build a more perfect beast,” it’s unlikely the average person would know he was talking about nutrition.

Yet the Yankees are not the first team in Major League Baseball to bring a nutritionist onto the roster. For several years now, team owners and managers have been buying into the idea that carefully selected eating plans can help players avoid injury or otherwise recover more quickly from strains and surgeries.

So is it possible to take the same approach in the workplace? Sure there are a few athletes among us leading a double life behind their office desks.  But for the rank and file, who are sedentary from 9 to 5, are there nutritional strategies for getting office workers to the top of their game?

As Major League Baseball players are gearing up at their training camps for their teams’ Opening Day, I had the opportunity to catch up with Sue James, the team nutritionist for the Baltimore Orioles. While the Orioles’ coaches and trainers are focused on getting the players fit and ready to enter the season in top-notch physical form, Sue is focused on ensuring the players are fueling their bodies and minds with optimal nutrition. I asked Sue if there are principles that can be applied to office work from the world of professional sports. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Walker: In the sports world, nutritionists talk about fueling athletes’ bodies. Can you talk about the philosophy of thinking about food as fuel?

Sue James: Thousands of years ago food was a fuel force. Food wasn’t as plentiful then, and as we were hunting and gathering, we were thinking, “How do I fuel my body so I can live the next day?” Athletes look at using food to fuel their bodies because we know now that many nutrients affect sports performance. Our goal is to work with the athletes and the Orioles chefs to fuel the athletes’ bodies so they perform well, recover well, and are primed each day to prevent fatigue, whether mental or muscle, with nutrients and hydration.

CW: There’s widespread media reporting on smart foods for professional athletes, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, and avocados. Are there smart foods for office workers?

SJ: When we think Omega-3 smart foods we’re focusing on such brain foods as nuts, fish, and avocados. And there is some important research about dark pigment foods, such as blueberries, preventing memory loss and improving cognitive function. These are the anthocyanin pigments in red, purple, and blue fruits. When you’re in the office and you know you need to be sharp and focused on making important decisions, you should see fish and berries on your plate. On the side could be whole grains – either whole grain bread or rice or quinoa – because whole grain is your energy food feeding glucose through the brain. The idea is to keep fuel moving through the body through the brain throughout the day.

CW: Runners like to eat a pasta dinner the night before a race. Are there foods that are good for you the night before an important presentation or meeting?

SJ: Choose a quality lean protein such as fish, chicken, turkey, or lean red meat, or if you’re a vegetarian there are a variety of available pea proteins. You want to match your protein with a whole grain to have a good balance of nutrition especially to prevent hunger, which can cause you to lose your focus. If it’s an early meeting, you can balance a quality lean protein with fruits and vegetables and whole grains. These are the primary nutrient sources we use to strengthen power athletes by circulating carbohydrates to fuel muscles.

CW: What about the morning of a big presentation? Some people get nervous before speaking in front of a large audience. Are there foods that can help you focus yet calm you down?

SJ: If you have a nervous stomach, whether on game day or on the morning of an important meeting or presentation, you want something easy to digest and you don’t want to overfill the stomach. Think peaches, graham crackers, toast and egg whites. Or Cream of Wheat. You don’t want too much fiber and you want to hydrate. Make sure you have time to go to the restroom 10 minutes before your presentation. You’ve got to plan it out. Sometimes that’s the biggest challenge.

If you tend to get nervous, stay away from anything that can affect your heart rate such as caffeine. If you’re in a situation where the office is serving donuts or other pastries or baked goods, you want to have a protein with the carbohydrate. Protein primes your muscles for a better recovery when you come down from the spike in blood sugar. But it needs to be a quality protein (e.g., bacon is not a quality protein). One idea is to keep string cheese on hand. Whether you are an athlete or an officer worker, you want to find the right balance of carbohydrates and protein, which stabilizes blood sugar and pretty much everything else, helping you throughout the day.

CW: We know we’re supposed to stay hydrated, but drinking a lot of water can send us to the restroom at inconvenient times. Are there foods that can provide our bodies with water without the inconvenience?

SJ: Office workers need to hydrate. We know even a small percentage of being dehydrated will affect focus and concentration. For our players, we develop an individualized hydration plan every day.

If going to the restroom is an issue, look for fruits, such as peach cups or pear cups in their own juice, or watermelon and oranges. That said, water is the first choice for hydration. Milk and juice are also easily and quickly absorbed.

If you’re at your desk in the afternoon and you feel yourself losing concentration, hydration could be an issue. Everyone should have their own hydration plan. Finding a balance that keeps you hydrated helps brain function as well as body function.

This is particularly important for people who travel. Hydration is the first thing they should focus on because it will help with everything. Muscle fibers and tissues, including those in our brains, sit in a fluid base.

In airplanes you should have about 8 to 12 ounces of water per 1 hour of flight time. Depending on your weight, your need could be up to 16 ounces per 1 hour.

CW: Food brings people together in the office, but is there a better time of day to have sweets at work? Are some sweets better than others?

SJ: Afternoon is better because hopefully you’ve already put something to balance the sugar in your stomach. Fruit obviously is a natural sugar but that’s often not what people want at work or what’s as convenient. Graham crackers are good and so are animal crackers. Not too sweet.

Especially during business travel it’s a good idea to skip alcohol altogether because alcohol is dehydrating. In colleges the most common day for sports injuries is Monday because of Saturday nights. If you are having a small amount of alcohol at an event or business dinner, try rehydrating with lemonade or original Gatorade. Look for tartness or even salt, which can settle the stomach. Saltines work well too. The idea is to rehydrate quickly.

CW: Are there any general tricks of the trade you can share from the Orioles kitchen?

SJ: With the players and with the Orioles chefs we talk a lot about the importance of recovery.

In the business world this could mean returning home from working overseas. I have a friend who was working in China for a few weeks where he said he ate balanced, healthy meals every day. Still when he returned, his stomach was upset. Getting back to old routines, especially when you’ve traveled to a place that does not offer a healthy balance of foods or where it’s hard to hydrate regularly, takes planning.

You need to have your protein course and have it available in your house as soon as you get home. You could plan to stop at the market on your way home from the airport to pick up fresh vegetables and fruit. A second choice would be to keep bags of vegetables and fruit in your freezer.

After traveling, you need to get the body regulated again. Hydration is the most important aspect of this. And you want to get and keep fiber in your diet. During your recovery you want to eat every 4 to 5 hours so the body can get back to functioning at an optimum level.

Depending on your diet when you were traveling you may need to bring some foods in more gradually than others. And you don’t want to overeat.

 

I caught Sue just as she returned to Baltimore from spring training in Florida.  She had spent the day working with the Orioles chefs to keep them focused on sports performance.

“The Orioles chefs are terrific and creative,” Sue told me. “For example, we want to keep the players’ body fat low, and the chefs know how to keep foods low fat but with a lot of flavor.”

I might be putting words in Sue’s mouth but I think she’d agree that it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to hit a baseball or a business idea out of the park. A little nutrition education and planning will go a long way. Be sure you check with your physician before making any changes to your diet that may affect your health.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Carolee Walker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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