Pitt dietitian Jen Hatz leads football team on calculated feeding frenzy
If the Pitt football team looks back on training camp in three months and sees it as the launching pad for a successful season, Jen Hatz might credit Cap’N Crunch.
Or, maybe she will say it was the work of leprechauns.
Or, more realistically, it was just Hatz’s beloved carbohydrates doing what they’re supposed to do.
After all, said Hatz, “This is a carbohydrate-driven sport.”
Hatz is the Pitt football dietitian, the woman responsible for almost everything that goes into the players’ bodies, the fuel that runs their arms, legs and minds.
One night earlier this month, Hatz invited the players to a cereal party at the South Side hotel where they stayed before camp ended last week.
“I lined up pretty much every cereal they could imagine,” she said.
From Cap’N Crunch to Lucky Charms.
“Something special to get a few extra calories, a few extra carbohydrates. What Mum used to make,” she said. “They absolutely loved it.”
But that’s only part of the story.
“The best part, for me at least, is after they grabbed their bowl of cereal, they all went out in the lobby and sat together and ate,” she said. “I didn’t plan that, but it was like a team bonding moment.
“They didn’t go up in their room and eat by themselves. They sat together and ate together. I was so touched by that.”
It was a scene only a psychology major with two master’s degrees (one in exercise physiology and sports nutrition and another in human nutrition) could love.
Hatz, who attended Florida State and Bridgeport, is in her first year at Pitt. She said she tries to add a human touch to the team’s meals.
“I want to build relationships with the guys,” she said. “Every day, what they need is going to change, based on where they’re at physically. Marrying the humanity of it with the science of it. I tend to not want to restrict certain foods, rather open up variety and open up enough volume of foods. So I can make sure I’m casting that safety net that everyone is falling within their calorie needs.
“Especially during camp time, you need a little bit of that psychological, emotional de-stress moment that maybe has some sugar. It’s not going to harm you, especially these guys. They’re burning so much.”
Coach Pat Narduzzi noticed there are more desserts this year.
“I don’t get it. I’m trying to stay away from that,” he said, laughing. Yet, he can’t resist the chocolate chip cookies.
“I think there’s a place for everything within the diet if it’s a naturally balanced diet,” Hatz said. “For an athlete, but even for the general population. If they’re getting enough fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, healthy fats throughout the day, having a single serving of dessert is not going to make or break them.
“It helps to prolong a healthy relationship with food and with their body because now you’re not feeling deprived.”
Three meals a day are mandatory for players. Attendance is kept.
Players start arriving for breakfast as early as 6 a.m. By the time breakfast is finished, Hatz has been around with a cart, leaving snacks inside all the meeting rooms where players and coaches congregate to watch video and discuss the upcoming practice.
Practice doesn’t start until 10, so the body has plenty of time to digest food.
After practice, Hatz and her assistants fill a cart with all manner of snacks, including watermelon and orange slices, energy bars, cherry juice and pickles. Even pickle juice.
Pitt players drink gallons of it every day, Hatz said. “I can’t keep enough in stock.”
Linebacker Cam Bright said pickle juice tastes salty, but he doesn’t mind it.
“I heard it’s good for me,” he said, “so I do what they tell me.”
During practice, there is plenty of water, Gatorade and Propel. Hatz walks all over the field, making sure to not miss any position group.
“When they’re on the field, we are trying to hydrate them as much as possible,” she said.
“I stress a little more sodium after practice to try to make sure they’re holding onto that water that they’re drinking. Otherwise, they are just going to pee it out or sweat it out. They are not actually getting the benefits of what they are trying to put back into their bodies.”
Hatz said Pedialyte works, too, though it normally is prescribed for young children and people with hangovers.
Meals consist of plenty of lean proteins, she said: “Lean meats, fresh vegetables and fruits.”
Sometimes, steak is on the menu.
“They eat very well here,” she said.
Food is fresh. Some of it is grown on site — on the roof of the training complex.
Pittsburgh Steelers executive chef Kevin Blinn tends to the gardens where tomatoes and peppers are grown.
“I joked to Kevin that this should be something that the rookies have to do every year where they bring up a new plot to add to it,” Hatz said. “That can be their legacy, to take care of it.”
Hatz’s job will carry over to the night before the game and game day.
At the hotel Friday night before a Saturday game, dinner is buffet style, with plenty of variety and volume.
“If the options and volume are too restrictive,” she said, “there is a higher chance that there are good amount of guys who are not going to eat enough. Because either they’re a picky eater, what is there doesn’t taste good to them that night or maybe it’s nerves kicking in.”
At halftime, she passes out cold apple sauce, something that is easily digested and can lower body temperature.
Post-game includes protein shakes and box lunches with a sandwich, mixed fruit cup, potato salad, pasta salad and baked chips.
“And then I’ll give them a cookie after the game,” she said, “because they probably deserve it.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .